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September 14, 2010

The priests who were imprisoned at Dachau

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, movies — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 12:36 pm

The history of Dachau has changed since I first visited the Memorial site in 1997. Especially, the history of the priests at Dachau.  You can read some of the revised history of the priests at Dachau here.

These quotes are from the web site cited above:

“Many people do not know that Dachau was the concentration camp that Hitler designed just for priests.  Several hundred thousand priests were tortured and murdered there.”


“In April 1945, as the war was ending, the Nazis, in order to destroy any evidence or witnesses to their crimes, decided to liquidate all the priests left at he death camp in Dachau.  One of the priests encouraged the other prisoners to pray to the Holy Family of Kalisz.  The camp was miraculously liberated several hours before the Nazis could begin their planned executions.  Ever since, the priests from Dachau have made an annual thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Icon of the Holy Family in Kalisz.”

A movie entitled The Ninth Day has been in the news a lot lately.  It is about Father Jean Bernard, a Catholic priest from Luxembourg, who was a prisoner in the Dachau concentration camp from May 19, 1941 to August 1942. Father Bernard wrote a book entitled Pfarrerblock 25487 which was translated into English in 2007 under the title Priestblock 25487. The movie The Ninth Day by Volker Schlöndorff was based on a 9 day furlough that Father Bernard was given to go home when his mother died.

Ronald J. Rychlak wrote the following in his review of Father Bernard’s book:

There was so little food that Fr. Bernard tells of risking the ultimate punishment in order to steal and eat a dandelion from the yard. The prisoners would secretly raid the compost pile, one time relishing discarded bones that had been chewed by the dogs of Nazi officers. Another time the Nazi guards, knowing what the priests intended, urinated on the pile. For some priests, this was not enough to overcome their hunger.

Here is another quote from Ronald J. Rychlak about what he read in Father Bernard’s book, Priestblock 25487:

Priests at Dachau were not marked for death by being shot or gassed as a group, but over two thousand of them died there from disease, starvation, and general brutality. One year, the Nazis “celebrated” Good Friday by torturing 60 priests. They tied the priests’ hands behind their backs, put chains around their wrists, and hoisted them up by the chains. The weight of the priests’ bodies twisted and pulled their joints apart. Several of the priests died, and many others were left permanently disabled. The Nazis, of course, threatened to repeat the event if their orders were not carried out.

I haven’t read Father Bernard’s book and I don’t plan to read it any time soon because I have to watch my blood pressure and I don’t want to have another stroke from reading such a sensational account of the treatment of the priests at Dachau.

In 1940, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler designated Dachau as the camp for clergymen because it was the mildest of all the camps in the Nazi system; 2,720 clergymen were sent there, including 2,579 Catholic Priests. The priests at Dachau were separated from the other prisoners and housed together in several barrack buildings in the rear of the camp.

There were 1,780 Polish priests and 447 German priests at Dachau. Of the 1,034 priests who died in the camp, 868 were Polish and 94 were German. This information comes from the book, What was it like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau?, by Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler.

The clergymen at Dachau included 109 Protestant ministers, 22 Greek Orthodox, 2 Muslims and 8 men who were classified as “Old Catholic and Mariaists.” A few of the priests, who were sent to Dachau, had been arrested for child molestation or for a violation of Paragraph 175, the German law against homosexuality.

The most famous priest at Dachau was Leonard Roth, who had to wear a black triangle because he had been arrested as a pedophile.  A street that borders the Dachau Memorial site has been named for him.

Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, an auxiliary Bishop from Munich, was one of  8 clergymen at Dachau who had a private cell in the bunker, the camp prison building. He was free to leave his cell and walk around the camp. He could also receive visitors from outside the camp. The worst thing that happened to Dr. Neuhäusler at Dachau, according to his book, was that he was once punished by being confined indoors in the bunker for a week. He was punished for secretly hearing the confession of a former Italian minister who had just arrived at the bunker the day before. Dr. Neuhäusler wrote in his book entitled What was it like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau? that he had been betrayed by a Bible inquirer (Jehovah’s Witness) who worked as the Hausl (housekeeper) in the bunker.

Dr. Neuhäusler did not mention any ill treatment at Dachau but he did write about how he was beaten when he was initially sent to the Sachsenhausen camp, before he was transferred to Dachau.

The first clergymen to arrive at Dachau were Polish priests who were sent there in 1939. The Polish priests were arrested for helping the Polish Resistance after Poland had been conquered in only 28 days.

The German bishops and the Pope had persuaded  Himmler to concentrate all the priests imprisoned in the various Nazi concentration camps into one camp, and to house them all together in separate blocks with a chapel where they could say Mass.

In early December 1940, the priests already in Dachau were put into Barracks Block 26 near the end of the camp street. Within two weeks, they were joined by around 800 to 900 priests from Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz and other camps, who were put into Blocks 28 and 30. Block 30 was later converted into an infirmary barrack.

At first, the priests at Dachau were given special privileges such as a ration of wine, a loaf of bread for four men, and individual bunk beds. The priests were not required to work and they were allowed to celebrate Mass.

In October 1941, these privileges were taken away. Only the German priests were now allowed to say Mass. All non-German clergymen, including Poles, Dutchmen, Luxembourgers and Belgians, were removed from Block 26 and sent to Block 28. A wire fence was placed around Block 28 and a sentry stood guard. The non-German priests were now forced to work, just like the rest of the prisoners. Allegedly, this change happened because the Pope had made a speech on the radio in which he condemned the Nazis, and the German bishops had made a public protest about the treatment of the priests.

During the time that the Polish priests were not allowed to say Mass, they asked the priest from Block 26, who was in charge of the chapel, to give them hosts and wine so they could celebrate Mass in secret, according to Dr. Neuhäusler. The Polish priests who worked on the plantation (farm) at Dachau would kneel on the ground and pretend to be weeding. They had a small portable altar which one of the priests would press into the ground. The priests would knell down and receive Communion from their own hands.

One of the German Catholic priests who survived Dachau was Father Hermann Scheipers who was still alive in October 2009 at the age of 96. In an interview with Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News, Father Scheipers said, regarding Dachau:

“So this is what I saw in front of my eyes, that people were gassed in the gas chambers.”

After an interview with Father Scheipers in October 2009, Greg Hayes of the Sun Gazette wrote the following:

Scheipers described the horrors of working and living among the sickness, torture, horrific experiments and death that inundated Dachau.

The priest delivered the story of how his life was saved by his sister Anna and how her courage not only rescued Scheipers but about 500 other priests who were lined up to go, or would have later been sent, to the gas chambers.

Scheipers said his “death certificate” was signed when he was feeling faint during a role (sic) call session one morning in 1942, because he had become “completely exhausted from all the work” in the camp, not because he was sick.

When Anna got word by making illegal contact with other imprisoned priests from the outside that her brother was sentenced to die, she and her father entered the SS security main office (RSHA in Berlin), and Scheipers’ sister insisted the officer guarantee her brother’s safety.

It was then that orders were made to spare the lives of the priests.

Paul Berben was a Dachau prisoner who wrote the Official History of Dachau.   He wrote the following about how the priests were treated differently than the other prisoners:

On 15th March 1941 the clergy were withdrawn from work Kommandos on orders from Berlin, and their conditions improved. They were supplied with bedding of the kind issued to the S.S., and Russian and Polish prisoners were assigned to look after their quarters. They could get up an hour later than the other prisoners and rest on their beds for two hours in the morning and afternoon. Free from work, they could give themselves to study and to meditation. They were given newspapers and allowed to use the library. Their food was adequate; they sometimes received up to a third of a loaf of bread a day; there was even a period when they were given half a litre of cocoa in the morning and a third of a bottle of wine daily.

Father Bernard arrived at Dachau on March 19, 1941, just in time to benefit from the changes made on March 15, 1941. Yet Dr. Neuhäusler wrote this about Father Bernard who first published his dairy in 1945:

In his memoirs he writes: “My first day at the transport commando “Präzifix”: It is March 19, 1941, the feast of St. Joseph – As we push the wagon through the door, I pray to him.

Präzifix was the name of a screw factory just outside the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate at Dachau. According to the diary that he kept at Dachau, Father Bernard was doing heavy work outside the camp on his first day there.

Regarding the priests’ ration of “a third of a bottle of wine daily,” Father Bernard wrote that the priests were forced, under threats of a beating, to uncork the wine and pour a third of the bottle into a cup, then consume the wine all in one gulp. He mentions an occasion in which one priest, who hesitated, had the cup slammed into his face, cutting through his lips and cheeks to the bone.

The regular prisoners in the camp had to drink ersatz coffee, and they were never allowed to drink wine.

Why did Ilse Koch (the human lampshade lady) hang herself in prison?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, movies — Tags: , , , , — furtherglory @ 8:45 am

Ilse Koch, the wife of the Commandant at the Buchenwald concentration camp, was accused of ordering lampshades to be made from the skin of tattooed  prisoners.  If you believe that, I have another story to tell you:  After 20 years in prison, Frau Koch hanged herself in her prison cell, just after her son had started coming to visit her.  She was expecting his next visit the following day when she killed herself the night before.

Does this sound like a movie plot?  That’s because the same thing happened in the 2008 movie, The Reader, in which the character “Hanna Schmitz,” played by Kate Winslet, unexpectedly killed herself after serving 20 years in prison.

Ilse had become pregnant while she was in prison at Dachau, awaiting trial for allegedly ordering lamp shades to be made from human skin. At the age of 19, Ilse’s son, who had been born while she was in prison, found out that Ilse Koch was his mother, and he began visiting her regularly at the Aichach prison near Dachau. They got along well and Ilse wrote poetry for her son, according to Joseph Halow, the court reporter at the Dachau trials, who wrote a book entitled Innocent at Dachau.

On one of his scheduled visits, Ilse’s son was stunned to learn that his mother had killed herself the night before. Frau Koch never revealed the name of the man who impregnated her, except perhaps to her son, but if he knew, he never mentioned his father’s name. Today the body of the “Bitch of Buchenwald” lies in an unmarked and untended grave in the cemetery at Aichach. According to Joseph Halow, author of  Innocent at Dachau, her son disappeared after learning of his mother’s suicide.

Did Ilse Koch really kill herself, just when she had established a relationship with her son?  Why did her son disappear after learning of her alleged suicide?

Ilse Koch’s mug shot after she was arrested

The display table at Buchenwald after the camp was liberated

After the Buchenwald camp was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945, a display table was set up and German civilians were marched at gunpoint to the camp to see the exhibits of atrocities committed at Buchenwald.  The photo above shows two shrunken heads and pieces of tattooed human skin removed from prisoners at Buchenwald, along with a lamp shade that is supposed to look like it was made from human skin.  The alleged lampshades made from human skin were either stolen by the American liberators, or they were never found.

Ilse Koch walks into the courtroom at the start of her trial, April 1947

Ilse Koch faces the judge to hear her sentence, August 1947

Notice that Ilse appears very arrogant as she walks into courtroom on April 11, 1947, wearing a nice dress with matching jacket.  She appears to be of normal weight and a little on the heavy side.  Contrast that with her appearance in the second photo, taken a month before her baby, conceived while she was in prison, was born in September 1947.  She appears to have lost weight, as well as her self esteem.

How did Ilse Koch become pregnant while being held as a prisoner at Dachau, awaiting her trial?  No one except the American military men who were involved in the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal had access to her prison cell.

I have been re-reading the book Justice at Dachau, written by Joshua M. Greene and published in 2003.  The following quote is from the book:

One of Ilse’s former lovers, an officer from Buchenwald, worked in the prisoner’s kitchen at Dachau. They met in the kitchen by chance, and Ilse told him where she was being held. The officer dug a hole to her barracks, and when she finally walked up to the witness chair in the Buchenwald trial, she was visibly pregnant. The press had a field day.

In his book, Greene did not identify the father, nor did he give a source for this information about how Ilse had become pregnant.

According to Dachau court reporter, Joseph Halow, in his book Innocent at Dachau, there were unverified rumors that Frau Koch had engaged in numerous affairs with SS officers, and even with some of the inmates, at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Halow also mentions that he was shocked to learn that Ilse Koch may have turned to other men because her husband was a “homosexual.” According to the Buchenwald Report, her husband had also suffered from syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease.

Frau Koch was 41 years old at the time she became pregnant, and she was being kept in isolation at Dachau, with no contact with any men except the American interrogators. According to Halow, there was speculation among the court reporters that the father was Josef Kirschbaum, a Jewish interrogator who was one of the few men who had access to her prison cell.

Halow wrote: “At Dachau many of them (the Jews) scarcely concealed their hatred for the Germans. Their feelings may have been understandable, but it was unconscionable for American authorities to put men such as Harry Thon, Josef Kirschbaum, and Lt. William Perl in positions where they had their enemies at their mercy.”

Frau Koch had been previously investigated for 8 months by Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS officer who had been assigned in 1943 to look into accusations of corruption and murder in the Buchenwald camp. She had already been put on trial in December 1943 in a special Nazi Court where Konrad Morgan was the judge. The rumor, circulated by the inmates at Buchenwald, that lamp shades had been made out of human skin, was thoroughly investigated, but no evidence was found and this charge against Frau Koch had been dismissed by Morgen.

Even though Ilse Koch had been acquitted in Morgen’s court, the former inmates at Buchenwald were convinced that she had ordered prisoners to be killed, so that their tattooed skin could be made into lamp shades. When the American liberators arrived, the prisoners told them about the gory accessories in Frau Koch’s home. A display table was set up to show a lamp shade, allegedly made from human skin, and a film, directed by Billy Wilder, was made to document the atrocities in the camp.

On August 14, 1947, Ilse Koch was found guilty of participating in a “common plan” to violate the Laws and Usages of War under the Geneva Convention of 1929 and the Hague Convention of 1907, by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau and sentenced to life in prison on August 19, 1947.

Ilse Koch was convicted by a panel of 8 American military judges on the charge of participating in a “common plan” to violate the Laws and Usages of War, but the specific accusation of ordering human lamp shades to be made from the skin of tattooed prisoners had not been proved in court.

In October 1948, General Lucius D. Clay, Commander in Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe and Military Governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany, commuted Ilse Koch’s sentence to four years, or time already served. This caused an international uproar.  There were rumors that General Clay was the father of Ilse’s baby and that is why he was so lenient in her case.

According to Jean Edward Smith, who wrote his biography, Lucius D. Clay, an American Life, the general maintained that the leather lamp shades were really made out of goat skin. The book quotes a statement made by General Clay years later:

There was absolutely no evidence in the trial transcript, other than she was a rather loathsome creature, that would support the death sentence. I suppose I received more abuse for that than for anything else I did in Germany. Some reporter had called her the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” had written that she had lamp shades made of human skin in her house. And that was introduced in court, where it was absolutely proven that the lamp shades were made out of goat skin.

Ilse Koch was tried again in a German court in 1951 and found guilty, but not guilty of ordering human lampshades to be made.

After serving over 20 years in prison for her second conviction, Ilse was founded dead in her cell at Aichach on September 1, 1967. Her death, by hanging, was ruled a suicide.