By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published October 6, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
Few people today remember the magnitude of the so-called “mercy killing” by the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, which created about 15,000 concentration, labor, and death camps in Europe from 1933-1945.
Their target was human “life unworthy of life.”
Camp occupants included Jews, gypsies, the handicapped, political prisoners, trade union supporters, the mentally ill, criminals, pacifists, the homeless, prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, street vendors, homosexuals, Polish and Soviet civilians, and Christian clergy, seminarians, monks, and nuns.
Approximately 17 million people, including as many as 5.7 million Jews, were murdered in those camps and in organized anti-Semitic massacres, such as the Night of Broken Glass attacks by paramilitary units throughout Nazi Germany in November 1938.
Concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel said, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims… They were doomed not because of something they had done or proclaimed or acquired but because of who they were.”
The Nazi attempt to systematically exterminate Judaism is often called the Holocaust (Greek for a totally burnt offering to God) or the Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe). That atrocity is seared on the pages of history and the hearts of many.
Two out of three European Jews died in those days. As did about 6 million (22 percent) of Poland’s general population and about 10 million people of nearby Ukraine. Both nations suffered under Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but nearly all of the Polish victims were non-combatants.
In various parts of Poland, 31 to 80 percent of Catholic clergy were deported to Nazi concentration camps in 1939 alone. Nuns and monks were also; 60 convents and monasteries would be closed in the Silesia area. In the Cieszyn region, all Protestant clergy were sent to death camps.
That year, Cardinal Augustine Hlond, Catholic archbishop of Gniezno-Poznan in Poland, wrote: “The cathedral has been turned into a garage at Pelplin; the bishop’s palace into a restaurant; the chapel into a ballroom. Hundreds of churches have been closed. The whole patrimony of the Church has been confiscated, and the most eminent Catholics executed.”
In such harsh circumstances, Hlond secretly fled his flock without warning. He was the only Catholic bishop in Poland who abandoned his post during the Nazi persecution, and he met with an initially chilly reception at the Vatican when he later surfaced in Rome. Strengthened in resolve, he turned back towards Poland and was arrested. Offered freedom if he’d urge cooperation with the Nazis, he refused.
Yet Christian convents, monasteries, and houses of ministry and worship were not only grabbed in Poland, Austria, and other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Germany also would see it. Its clergy too would go to the camps.
On July 13, 1941, the outraged bishop of Münster, Germany, let out the first of several of his most famous roars. That Sunday he preached of the deportation of priests and cloistered nuns, the seizure of their houses, and other acts of the secret police, the Gestapo.
“None of us is safe,” Count Clemens von Galen said, “not even whether he be in conscience the most honest citizen, safe from not being one day taken from his own house, stripped of his freedom, imprisoned in the concentration camps of the State’s secret police.”
He concluded with a demand for justice, and a witness reported, “The men and the women rose to their feet, voices lifted in agreement and also in terror and indignation, something that is generally unimaginable here amongst us, in church. I saw people burst into tears.” (Positio, op.cit. Vol. 1 Summarium, p. 418)
His words spread everywhere. The following Sunday the church would be packed, and not just with locals. Some came from far off. Again he spoke plainly against the Gestapo, who had continued their work that past week.
He then urged: “Harden yourselves, do not yield; stand firm like the anvil beneath the strokes of the hammer. It may be that obedience to God and conscience will cost us our lives, our freedom, and our homes. But let us die rather than sin. May God's grace, without which we are powerless, give us and preserve in us this unshakable firmness.”
He ended by asking for prayers for relatives, “all those who suffer unjustly,” and many others. When he finished, the congregation spontaneously shouted back in response: “And for our bishop!”
Wisely said. For the Gestapo persisted in confiscating local monasteries and convents, and exiling nuns and priests in the weeks to come.