The following story appears in the April 2015 print edition of the Catholic East Texas.
On April 29, 1945, American troops of the 7th Army’s 45th Infantry Division liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. They found murder and torture on an incredible scale. Thousands of prisoners lay dead in the camp, thousands more were dying of starvation and infection. The scene was so horrific that battle-hardened American troops wept and struggled to maintain discipline. An unnamed American soldier there is quoted saying, “We were engaged in war, not against soldiers and officers, but against criminals.”
32,000 prisoners were freed on that day, but hundreds of thousands had been killed inside the walls of Dachau during 12 years of terror. Many of the inmates were Jews, arrested under Hitler’s race laws, but among the groups of “undesirables” detained in Dachau were also Catholic priests from all over Europe. One priest who emerged barely alive from Dachau was Father John Przydacz, who became a priest of the Diocese of Tyler.
In 1940 Father Przydacz was a 32 year-old pastor at Lichen, Poland. Lichen was a destination for Polish pilgrims who came to venerate a miraculous image connected with apparitions of the Blessed Virgin. In August, 11 months after the invasion of Poland began, Father Pryzdacz was arrested by the Gestapo at the parish and sent to the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. He was one of 2,579 priests, religious brothers, and seminarians from 24 nations imprisoned by the Nazis at Dachau. 1,780 priests at Dachau were from Poland. By the end of the war, 868 of the Polish priests in Dachau were dead.
Conditions in Dachau were brutal, to say the least. In a 1988 interview with the Tyler Courier-Times, Father Przydacz described the camp: “It was terror day and night. Most of the elderly priests died quickly.”
The life of the priests in Dachau was recorded in detail in the book Christ in Dachau, written by a survivor, Father John Lenz. Father Lenz describes the treatment of Polish priests in the camp, “In the Winter of 1941, 530 of them were forced to work outside in the snow with no coats or caps, in their bare feet.”
Survivors also describe drownings, constant brutal beatings, electrocutions, and many other forms of mental and physical torture.
Because the Nazis believed that the Polish people, like the Jews, constituted an inferior race of humanity, Polish priests at Dachau were subject to worse treatment than other European clergy. In 1942, 20 young Polish priests were subjected to medical experiments which killed 12 of them. During Holy Week, 1942, the Polish priests at Dachau were forced to stand naked outdoors in freezing rain, then work 12 hours at labor, followed by exercise detail. Eight died before Easter.
Father Przydacz said, “The guards would yell at us that we were no longer priests and our freedom was through the chimney.” The chimney was the smoke stack of the crematorium oven in which the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Dachau prisoners were burned. “Everyone had to work, and if you didn’t work, you had to die.”
Like the other prisoners, the priests in Dachau were starved. Father Lenz recounts, “Many of our comrades, especially among the Poles, died of starvation. We would ask ourselves when our own time would come, when we saw our friends dragging themselves around, already living corpses. We were driven in desperation to eat mice, earthworms, weeds, grass, anything we could lay our hands on. Between June and September of 1942, hundreds of Polish priests died of hunger.”
Nazi hatred for Catholicism was intense, and inside Dachau this made life even harder. The priests used a room in their barracks as a chapel. Father Przydacz explained, “Sometimes the chapel was allowed, sometimes it was forbidden.” When allowed, the priests could only say Mass before dawn, before the work detail began. “But even then the Nazis would interfere with the Mass. They would come in shouting profanities and ordering priests to go to work.” The priests struggled to celebrate Mass often, Father said, “because for some of us it was the last day to be alive.”
The priests were allowed virtually no contact with other prisoners, but still managed to sneak Holy Communion to many prisoners and hear thousands of confessions. Rosaries were forbidden and being caught saying a rosary was an offense sure to bring harsh punishment. Nevertheless, rosaries were made out of all sorts of items in the camp. Father Lenz recounts, “Prisoners working in the ‘Messerschmitt commando’ (a Nazi airplane factory staffed by Dachau prisoners) used to make us Rosary rings ‘on the side’, metal rings with 10 little cog-like points. We were well aware of the danger involved and we met with many obstacles, but nothing could deter us for proving our devotion to Mary.” Amazingly, despite all of the persecution of Catholicism, the priests of Dachau managed to stage an ordination inside the camp in secret. Blessed Karl Leisner had been a transitional deacon awaiting ordination to the priesthood when he was arrested for speaking against Nazism in 1939. In 1944, after years of mistreatment in Dachau, he was dying of tuberculosis, and his fondest wish was to be ordained a priest. Permission for the ordination was obtained in secret from his diocese in Munich, and he was ordained a priest by an imprisoned Bishop on December 17. The prisoners had fashioned albs, a mitre, a crozier and a pectoral cross from items found within the camp. Nine days later, Father Leisner celebrated his first and only Mass. He died shortly after the camp was liberated.
Conditions in the camp deteriorated at the end of the war. Food became non-existent and thousands of prisoners became sick with typhus. Knowing the end was near, the camp doctors and nurses fled their posts. Despite being only weeks away from the inevitable and expected Allied liberation of Dachau, many of the priests assumed the duty of caring for the dying in the typhus ward, giving their own lives in the process.
After liberation, Father Przydacz was evacuated to Sweden. He ministered to Polish refugees there while watching the situation in Poland deteriorate further under Soviet communism. Despairing of ever returning to his home country, Father Przydacz corresponded with a priest in Dallas who had been a fellow seminarian in Poland, and petitioned the Diocese of Dallas for sponsorship as an immigrant.
Father Przydacz came to the United States in 1953, and was a priest of the Diocese of Dallas. He served in many parishes, including Immaculate Conception in Tyler from 1955-59. He became chaplain of Mother Fances Hospital in Tyler in 1975, and became a priest of Tyler upon the formation of the Diocese in 1987. He died in September of 1997 at the age of 89, and his funeral Mass was celebrated by then Bishop of Tyler Edmund Carmody. Bishop Carmody described Father Przydacz:”He was a very gentle, kind and loving priest, and always compassionate to the patients in the hospital. Because of his experiences, he knew what suffering was. He knew what loss was, and he knew what death was. He was an ideal chaplain, a blessing to the hospital and to everyone here in Northeast Texas.”
After the funeral, Bishop Carmody took possession of Father John’s humble personal effects. In them, the Bishop discovered one of the secret Dachau rosary rings, made for the priests by the other prisoners. Near the end of his life, Father Przydacz described his life in terms of the rosary, “I compare my first seven years as a priest in Poland to the joyful mysteries of the rosary; the years in concentration camp to the sorrowful mysteries, and the years following the liberation, which have been the longest, to the Glorious mysteries.”