University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


America at Dachau

Chaplain at Dachau

First impressions of the Dachau Concentration Camp and a personal dedication to the challenging work ahead of me must necessarily be followed by work; and there was plenty to do. Early the second morning my office was in the process of being settled and arranged, when the first delegation arrived. They were members of the French Vatican Mission who desired to open a hospital or offer their services to the Americans. It was indeed a privilege to meet them, and our paths crossed often during our six weeks stay. One of their Priests conducted Mass for our hospital unit services each Sunday and on special occasions.

My first official duty was that of attending a Special Mass conducted by the Polish Priests in their Chapel for the American soldiers who had died in liberating the Camp. It was indeed a soul-stirring service to hear the line choir of Polish priests sing and participate in the service. I quote the message memorized and delivered by one of the Priests.

"In the name of the Polish Officers, Military Chaplains, and all Polish soldiers I welcome you from the bottom of our hearts and all members of the glorious and victorious American Army".

"Our hearts are full of appreciation for the brave American Soldiers, who have brought all the nations and us liberty".

"You can be sure, that we never forget what you have done for us"

"In our prayers we will think today and forever of the American soldiers, who have found their death in order to make us free".

It was indeed a very humble feeling which I had as I realized how fervent was their zeal and earnest their prayers of thanksgiving. There were at that Mass three Americans representing America at Dachau two Protestant and one Jewish Chaplain. This was only indicative of that which was yet to come; for as days went on I found myself laboring side by side with these earnest Priests of God.

I had some idea before going to that service that there would be prisoners there who did not have some of the items so close to the heart of the Roman Catholic, and so I took with me some two dozen prayers books, a like number of rosaries, and a few medals. Never have I seen so much enthusiasm and desire for such things, and they, the recipients, were indeed most grateful.

Now I began moving among the patients at our hospital and found it a wonderful experience. Imagine if you can, trying to talk to a patient whom language you did not know, and yet one who wanted to say something. On one occasion, and this was quite typical of many of my talks with the patients, I spoke to an Hungarian woman who could understand my limited French, and who in turn translated it into German to an Italian who translated what the Hungarian said in German into Polish! I found these people very responsive, but it was not long before I was to realize the task was too great for myself alone, and since these people did need a spiritual ministry it occurred to me that we could use some of the priests in the hospital who were serving us. Two were appointed, also a Jewish reader, and soon I found my staff had grown to five. It was to them I gave my instructions and through whom I worked a great deal. They could speak all of the European languages, and two could speak English. So it was possible to get along nicely with all.

The appointment of these priests and pastors was also essential because our hospital found that others, under the guise of priests or pastors were smuggling extra ill-cooked or contaminated food into certain patients who were their friends. The appointment of these "Chaplains" thus solved that difficulty. Now it was natural for me to drop in to see these priests in their quarters, and I was truly gratified when I entered to find that with the new liberty that was theirs they had built a small altar and partitioned off a small space for their own Chapel. It was neatly arranged with simple furnishings which had been gathered from many sources on the post. When a thing was required I was always sure that my men would "organize" and it would not be long in coming. The little Chapel was the Scene of constant worship and prayer.

The Chapel was not enough, for there were patients who would soon be ambulatory and who could go to Church. So a new place was found, and soon they were at work on a new and larger chapel. It is needles to say, that we dedicated that Chapel together, kneeling to prayer in communion with our Heavenly Father. Each day thereafter and on Sundays services were held by Roman Catholics, and prayer services and Sunday services by the Protestants. And attendance grew constantly as more and more patients grew stronger.

The work and calls of the priests and pastors can be summed up for a period of six weeks in a series of statistics as follows: Calls 2890; Confessions 276; Communions (bedside) 292; Extreme Unctions 147. In addition they held 147 Masses in the large Chapel with an average attendance of 50. In this same period I called on some 2538 patients; and held 169 interviews and periods personal counseling; these last were all over ten minutes in length and often lasted for half an hour.

The following materials were distributed both by myself and assistants: 800 New Testaments (50 in German); 17 Bibles; 350 Rosaries, 225 Roman Catholic Prayer books; 270 Jewish Prayer books and a large supply of miscellaneous material.

Complete lists of all the priests and pastors at the Concentration Camp were made and given to the 7th Army Chaplain, Col. Clarence S. Donnelly, and also lists of those who were sick in the various hospitals.

The second day Lt. Col. Joyce had asked if I would be ready to hold a Mass burial service for the many dead, and I replied I would whenever he desired. Then it was that day after day there were from ten to fifteen wagon loads of bodies drawn from the camp to be buried. Each wagon held thirty bodies. The procession continued for a number of days. By that time all the bodes had been buried, and on Sunday, May 13th, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services were held for approximately 10,000 dead. At this service Chaplain M. A. Braude (Jewish), Fr. Edmand Lewandowski (Polish internee who had been born in Connecticut) and Chaplains Robert O. Beck and myself (Protestant) participated. There were representatives of all nations present, and Dr. Ali Kuci layed a small wreath of flowers on the grave.

A few days later I was summoned by General Adams to take him to the cemetery and later commissioned by him to ascertain all facts possible concerning the Mass burials. After making many inquiries I found the man I needed was a Bohemian named Opocensky. For hours I searched for him and that evening at supper time managed to locate him. He was leaving for home the next morning, but would co-operate with me and give me whatever information was necessary if it took all night. It nearly did! It was he whom the Germans delegated to see to the burials when the supply of coal ran out in the camp and cremations could no loner be continued. The following summary is self-explanatory.