By Larry Peterson
The first concentration camp to be opened by the Nazis was known as Dachau. It opened in 1933 under the direction of Hitler’s primary henchman, Heinrich Himmler. The initial idea was for Dachau to house political prisoners, but it quickly evolved into a death camp primarily for Jews.
Dachau also became known as the ‘priest’s barracks.” It earned that label because over 2720 clergy were imprisoned there, 95% of them being Catholic. The rest included Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and a few others. Among the Catholic priests was the man who came to be known as the “Angel of Dachau.” His name was Father Engelmar Unzeitig.
Father Engelmar was born on March 1, 1911, in Austria-Hungary and was named Hubert by his parents. Not much is known of his parents, but he did have a younger sister. When Hubert was 18, he was accepted into the novitiate of the Marianhill Missionaries in Reimlingen. He had intended to be a part of the missions but became a student studying theology and philosophy. He made his final profession of vows in 1938 and was given the name of Engelmar.
Engelmar was ordained to the priesthood on August 6, 1939, and offered his first Mass on the Feast of the Assumption. From there, he was assigned as a parish priest to a church in Glokelberg, Austria. Father Engelmar had no problem defending the victims of Nazi persecution.
His sermons often defended the Jews, and he quickly became a bright blip on the radar of the Gestapo. Two years after he was ordained, he was arrested for preaching against the Third Reich and their treatment of the Jews. Without trial or fanfare of any kind whatsoever, he was sent to Dachau, a place that, besides being called the “priest’s barracks,” became sarcastically known as the “largest monastery in the world.”
Father Engelmar was 30 years old when he was arrested on April 21, 1941. When he arrived at Dachau he immediately set out to do his best to give all the help he could to his fellow prisoners. Many of them were older than Engelmar and were frequently in poor physical condition, unable to do what was demanded of them by their captors.
The conditions in the camp were inhumane and, for many incarcerated there, unbearable. Suicide was frequent, starvation was rampant, and sickness and death were everywhere. Father Engelmar, kept smiling and kept trying to cheer the despairing. Since there were so many Eastern European prisoners in the camp he secretly learned how to speak Russian so he could tend to the Russian prisoners.
Engelmar would try to move among his fellow inmates in such a way as not to be noticed. It was always a daunting challenge, and often he was punished for helping others. However, no matter what happened to him, he also had no intention of stopping his pastoral work, regardless of the consequences. He worked tirelessly day after day, night after night, tending to and comforting his fellow prisoners. The began referring to the young man as the “Angel of Dachau.”
Conditions in Dachau were so filthy it was a perfect environment for disease to develop. Body lice, chiggers, and fleas, spread disease and these were running uncontrolled at Dachau. It was not long before Typhus became part of the conditions as it erupted in the camp, spreading like wildfire through the camp.
Father Engelmar, without hesitation, volunteered to work with the typhoid patients. The Nazi guards had tried to separate those infected from the others to keep the disease in check. It was an effort in futility. Father Engelamar was placed with the Typhus population towards the end of summer, 1944.
He immediately went to work to comfort and assist the infected the best he could. The disease found its way into the priest, probably during February of 1945. It was during the beginning of February when he noticed a nagging headache developing and a slight rash visible on his right arm and on his side. Typhus attacked the kindly priest and Father Engelmar Unzeitig died on March 2, 1945. Ironically, April 29, 1945, Dachau was liberated. For many thousands, including Father Engelmar, it was too late.
On September 5,1988, during the reign of Pope St. John Paul II, Father Engelmar was declared a Servant of God Pope Benedict XVI declared the priest Venerable on July 3, 2009. On January 21, 2016, Pope Francis declared that Father Engelmar Unzeitig had died “in odium fidei” and was a martyr. The priest who gave his life at Dachau was beatified on Septemeber 24, 2016.
Blessed Engelmar Unzeitig, please pray for us.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2019