End of a chapter – Dachau’s last priest prisoner dies

At the age of 102 Father Hermann Scheipers passed away last night. He was the last surviving priest of Dachau concentration camp.

Seligsprechung des sorbischen Kaplans Alojs Andritzki

Fr. Hermann Scheipers in 2011, photographed in Dresden on the occasion of the beatification of Alojs Andritzki, who was killed in Dachau in 1943. Fr. Scheipers and Blessed Alojs were both in the camp’s sickbay with typhoid fever for some time.

Domradio has an obituary, written by Andreas Otto, which I share in English below:

As prisoner ‘number 24255’ Hermann Scheipers survived hell in Dachau concentration camp. Nevertheless, the priest and enemy of the Nazis survived, to die now at the age of 102.

Hermann Scheipers had a mission. He had to tell young people of that time: how he, as a young priest in 1940, was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Dachau concentration camp, how he survived the war and how he was once again oppressed, this time by the communist dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic. How he survived that time, too, he continuously impressed upon his listeners. On Thursday night Scheipers died in Ochtrup, aged 102. He was the last surviving German clergyman to have been imprisoned in Dachau.

In the Nazi eye

Scheipers hails from Ochtrup in Münsterland. As there were too many priests there in the 1930s, he decided to go to Bautzen in the middle German diaspora. There Scheipers, born on 24 July 1913, was ordained to the priesthood, and began working in the rural parish of Hubertusburg. Apparentry with some success. His self-assured Catholic work among the youth drew the attention of the Nazis. Because he was sympathetic with Polish forced labourers, celebrated Mass with them and heard their confessions, he was arrested on October of 1940 and brought to Dachau concentration camp five months later. His file, which he came across by chance,  states the true reason for his arrest: “Scheipers is a fanatical proponent of the Catholic Church and thus likely to cause unrest among the population.”

‘Number 24255’

The priest is – especially denigrating – taken to Dachau together with criminals. During the transport one of them wonders, “Well, did you sing out of tune from the pulpit?” Scheipers survived hell as prisoner ‘number 24255’. “You are without honour, without help and without rights. Here, you can either work or perish,” the camp commander welcomes the new inmates. Like many of the priests in Dachau, Scheipers slaves away as a field worker, receiving mostly watery soup to eat. Persons who aren’t fast enough are whipped, hung by the arms or drenched with icy water. Many die. “The only thing one could do was escape or pray,” Scheipers recalled.

Escaping the gas chamber

In 1942 an attack of weakness brings him close to his own murder. His twin sister Anna travels to Berlin, to the Reich security offices and bluffs to the head of the priest department: Everywhere in Münsterland people are saying that her brother is to be gassed. And if it comes to that, the Catholics there will not accept it… This civil courage has effect: he escapes the gas chamber.

Amid all the danger, Scheipers is aware of God’s help, even at that time. “I noticed this closeness frequently.” He can not forget how a fellow priest gave him his ration of bread before he was transported towards his death. “Everytime when I celebrate Mass and break the bread, I think of that.” In April of 1945, Scheipers finally manages to escape from a death march towards Bad Tölz.

15 Spies in the DDR

After the war he returns to his former place of work. As a priest in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen he resists those in power in the unjust GDR state. When Scheipers sees his Stasi file after the fall of communism, he has a big scare. 15 Spies were set on his case.  The papers show that a trial against him for distributing subversive propaganda was to be convened. “I was in Dachau for the exact same reasons,” Scheipers commented.

After his retirement Scheipers lives in Münsterland again, from where he travels again and again, despite the discomforts of age, to speak about his experience as a contemporary witness.

Of this his multiple-edition book ‘Gratwanderungen – Priester unter zwei Diktaturen’ [Balancing act – Priest under two dictatorships] – also speaks. This too is a  witness of his unshakeable faith, which he sees expressed in a word from Romano Guardini: “Security in what comes last gives serenity in what comes before.”

Dachau housed virtually all of the clerical prisoners of the Nazi regime: 2,720 clergy were imprisoned there, with the vast majority, 95%, being Catholic. As Fr. Scheipers’ story shows,the Nazis needed little excuse to arrest priests. The Church was a serious opponent to the National Socialist rulers who accepted loyalty to the party and Adolf Hitler alone. Many of the Catholic clergy prisoners have since been beatified, among them Blesseds Titus Brandsma, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Karl Leisner and the aforementioned Alojs Andritzki.

Fr. Hermann Scheipers’ death is a bookend to a formative period in recent history, not only of Europe, but certainly also of the Catholic Church and its relationship to state and government.

Witness of life – remember Blessed Karl Leisner

leisnerA unique remembrance in Munich today, of the only priestly ordination that took place in a Nazi concentration camp, today exactly 70 years ago. Karl Leisner, a deacon arrested in 1939, was ordained in Dachau by the bishop of Clermont, who also happened to be imprisoned there. From the website of the Archdiocese of München und Freising comes this bio:

“Karl Leisner, born on 28 February 1915 in Rees am Niederrhein, was already a deacon when he was arrested in 1939 for critical comments against the National Socialists, and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1940, and later to Dachau. In 1942, because of the hardships in the camp, Leisner’s pulmonary disease arose again and in 1944 he was seriously ill. Josefa Mack, a 20-year-old nurse in training and postulant with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, visited the archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, on 7 december 1944 and received from him the holy oils and other items required for the ordination. Via an imprisoned priest who had to sell produce from his herb garden in a concentration camp store, Mack brought the objects into the camp. Other detainees had made the staff, ring and mitre for Bishop Piguet in the workshops where they were made to work.

In the chapel in Block 26, Leisner was ordained in secret on 17 December 1944 and on 26 December 1944 he celebrated his first and only Holy Mass. After the liberation of Dachau in 1945, Leisner was brought to the sanatorium of the Sisters of Mercy near Planegg, where he died on 12 August 1945. Pope John Paul II beatified him on 23 June 1996.”

The bishop who ordained Blessed Karl Leisner was the bishop of Clermont, France; Msgr. Gabriel Piguet, who would survive Dachau and is now honoured as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. He saved Jewish families by issuing false Baptism certificates. He died in 1952.

Karl Leisner was beatified together with Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg, also a victim of the Nazis, who died en route to Dachau in 1943. In his homily for the beatification, Pope St. John Paul II said:

“Christ is life: that was the conviction that Karl Leisner lived and ultimately died for. His entire life he had sought the closeness of Christ in prayer, in daily Scripture readings and in meditation. And he ultimately found this closeness in a special way in the Eucharistic encounter with the Lord, the Eucharistic sacrifice, which Karl Leisner was able to celebrate as a priest after his ordination in the Dachau concentration camp, which was for him not only an encounter with the Lord and source of strength for his life. Karl Leisner also knew: he who lives with Christ, enters into the community of fate with the Lord. Karl Leisner and Bernhard Lichtenberg are not witnesses of death, but witnesses of life: a life that transcends death. They are witnesses for Christ, who is life and who came so that we may have life and have it to the full (cf. John 10:10). In a culture of death both gave testimony of life.”

Today’s memorial service brings together the archbishop of München und Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx with the current archbishop of Clermont, Msgr. Hippolyte Simon and the bishop of Münster, Msgr. Felix Genn, who is the protector of the Internationalen Karl-Leisner-Kreises and whose predecessor, Blessed Bishop Clemens von Galen, ordained Blessed Karl to the diaconate.