Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Gentile Holocaust

by Thomas J. Craughwell


Excellent article on Catholic and Christian persecution by the Nazis.

Larger Work

Sursum Corda!


28-30, 47-49

Publisher & Date

Foundation for Catholic Reform, Summer 1998

Remembering the Millions of Gentiles Murdered by the Nazis

There is no disputing the simple fact that the Jews were the principal victims of the Third Reich. It was an essential tenet of the Nazi creed that the New Europe could not be born until every Jew on the continent had been exterminated. And the Nazis went about their task with inhuman efficiency.

Yet Nazi hatred was expansive, even ambitious. It embraced Slavs and Gypsies; pacifists and Communists; Soviet POWs; Catholic priests, monks, nuns, lay brothers and seminarians; Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestant pastors; and anyone with a physical or mental impairment. Nazi hatred knew no limits, and by 1945 at least five million gentiles had fallen victim to it.

Nazism's Natural Law

The Nazis' first victims were the weakest members of society: disabled children. Officially, they were known as "life unworthy of life"; a cruder term was Ausschusskinder—"garbage children." Physicians administered overdoses of sedatives which "put them to sleep," as one physician who participated in the euthanasia of children put it.

When the Nazis turned to adults, they found overdose by morphine derivatives unreliable and developed a carbon monoxide gas chamber. The chamber could be stationary, with the carbon monoxide pumped in; or it could be mobile, with the gas channeled into the airtight rear compartment rather than released into the atmosphere. It is impossible to say how often a sealed van drove unobtrusively along the streets of German towns and cities while its unseen passengers were asphyxiated.

Nazi theorists such as Konrad Lorenz argued that in order to preserve the strength of the Aryan race, weak and feeble members had to be eliminated. Compassion, Lorenz asserted, was unnatural. In nature, he said, weak members of a species simply died. Encouraging the strong to care for the feeble and the infirm, therefore, was a perversion of nature's law. The Third Reich policy of weeding out its disabled members was a welcome restoration of the natural order, which would create a stronger Aryan society.

The Nazis' early euthanasia policy extended to anyone who was physically or mentally impaired. By the time of the war, the elderly, epileptics, and people with cancer, tuberculosis and even arteriosclerosis were being exterminated, most of them at the Gross-Rosen death camp.

A war of annihilation in Poland

The Nazis held that the Slavs, like the Jews, were subhuman. "All Poles," Hitler swore, "will disappear from the world." On August 22, 1939, one week before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Hitler gave the Wehrmacht their instructions: "Kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language.... Be merciless. Be brutal. It is necessary to proceed with maximum severity. The war is to be a war of annihilation."

And in many respects it was precisely that. Approximately 6,028,000 Poles—22 percent of the country's population—perished during World War II. Of these victims, 5,384,000 died in prison, death camps, raids, executions, the obliteration of ghettoes, epidemics, starvation, overwork or ill treatment. The extermination of Polish Jews remained the first priority. In the meantime, those Polish Christians who were not herded into the death camps could be used as slave labor. Once the Third Reich's victory was complete, the Poles themselves would be eliminated.

The accounts of those first days of the invasion of Poland make chilling reading. In the western provinces, 531 villages and towns were burned and 16,376 civilians, most of them Christians, were murdered.

The first victims in the town of Bydgoszcz were a group of Boy Scouts, aged 12 to 16. They were lined up against a wall in the market square and shot. When a priest rushed forward to give them last rites, he was shot, too.

Another hundred boys were rounded up on the streets of Bydgoszcz and massacred before the town's Jesuit church. The Jesuits were herded into a stable with the town's Jews, where they were all beaten and humiliated by the Nazis.

At Leczyca, the Jesuits were expelled from their residence and forced to watch as their church was looted of sacred vessels, vestments, reliquaries and works of art. The priests were not even allowed into the church to save the Blessed Sacrament.

Although much of the violence in Poland during the last months of 1939 was erratic, there was a well-orchestrated campaign against the country's political, military, cultural and intellectual elite. Heinrich Himmler told his SS officers, "You should hear this but also forget it again—shoot thousands of leading Poles." Teachers, physicians, priests, military officers, businessmen, landowners and writers fell into this category. So did any Pole who possessed a high-school education.

In November 1939, nearly 200 professors from Cracow's ancient Jagiellonian University and the Polytechnic were arrested and shipped to Sachsenhausen, where most of them died. Perhaps because some of the professors survived, Hans Frank, administrator of the General Government (the Nazi designation for a Polish ethnic enclave in Central Poland), issued an order that all Polish intellectuals be dealt with "on the spot and we shall do so in the simplest way possible."

To that end, Frank's office developed a program known as A-B, Ausserordentliche-Befreidungsaktion (Extraordinary Pacification Action). Under this program, 6,000 Poles were shot where they stood; thousands more were shipped to Auschwitz and murdered. Among the dead were Jan Poholski, deputy mayor of Warsaw; Jan Belcikowski, a distinguished writer; Maria Witkowska, a renowned artist; and Janusz Kusocinski, an Olympic champion.

Through the Nazis' grim efficiency, Poland lost 57 percent of its attorneys, 45 percent of its physicians and dentists, 40 percent of its university professors, 30 percent of its technicians, 18 percent of its clergy and 15 percent of its schoolteachers. All scientific, cultural and literary institutions were shut down. Universities and secondary schools were closed, and their libraries and laboratories pillaged. Even grammar schools were closed if instruction was carried out in the Polish language. In Warsaw, the number of functioning elementary schools dropped from 350 in 1938 to 175 in 1941.

Food rations in Nazi-occupied Warsaw were allotted by race: 2,613 calories per day for a German, 699 for a Pole and 184 for a Jew. Only a flourishing black market kept the Poles alive.

Yet amidst the chaos, the Nazis kept an eye out for Polish children who possessed Aryan racial characteristics. Promising children were separated from their parents and sent to Lodz for further examination. If they passed the battery of racial, physical and psychological tests, they were sent on to Germany for "Germanization." If they were rejected, they were shipped to Auschwitz where they were killed, most often by intercardiac injections.

The Polish Martyrology

The Catholic Church in Poland was especially hard hit by the Nazis. In 1939, 80 percent of the Catholic clergy and five of the bishops of the Warthegau region had been deported to concentration camps. In Wroclaw, 49.2 percent of the clergy were dead; in Chelmno, 47.8 percent; in Lodz, 36.8 percent; in Poznan, 31.1. In the Warsaw diocese, 212 priests were killed; 92 were murdered in Wilno, 81 in Lwow, 30 in Cracow, thirteen in Kielce. Seminarians who were not killed were shipped off to Germany as forced labor.

Of 690 priests in the Polish province of West Prussia, at least 460 were arrested. The remaining priests of the region fled their parishes. Of the arrested priests, 214 were executed, including the entire cathedral chapter of Pelplin. The rest were deported to the newly created General Government district in Central Poland. By 1940, only 20 priests were still serving their parishes in West Prussia.

Of the city of Poznan's 30 churches and 47 chapels, the Nazis left two open to serve some 200,000 souls. Thirteen churches were simply locked and abandoned; six became warehouses; four, including the cathedral, were used as furniture storage centers. In Lodz, only four churches were allowed to remain open to serve 700,000 Catholics.

Cardinal Augustine Hlond, Archbishop of Gniezno-Poznan, wrote to the Holy See on December 10, 1939: "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."

Throughout the country, monasteries, convents, seminaries, schools and other religious institutions were shut down.

Many nuns shared the same fate as priests. Some 400 nuns were imprisoned at Bojanowo concentration camp. Many were later sent to Germany as slave labor.

Without warning, on July 31, 1943, the Nazis entered the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth at Nowogrodek. They arrested the superior, Sr. Maria Stella, and ten other nuns. The next day the sisters were loaded into a van, driven outside the town and shot. Their bodies were thrown into a mass grave. In Silesia, Bishop Stanislaw Adamski ordered his clergy and laity to declare themselves Volkdeutsch (German nationals), hoping that this ruse would keep his people, priests and religious from harm and his churches open. The effort was futile. Sixty convents and monasteries in Silesia were closed; 43 priests died in concentration camps and thirteen priests were deported, including Bishop Adamski. To his credit, the Bishop never tried to save his own life by declaring himself Volkdeutsch.

No exception was made for Poland's higher clergy. Bishop Michael Kozal of Wladislava died in Dachau; Bishop Nowowiejski of Plock and his suffragan Bishop Wetmanski both died in prison in Poland; Bishop Fulman of Lublin and his suffragan Bishop Goral were sent to a concentration camp in Germany.

Nor were the small Evangelical churches of Poland spared. All the Protestant clergy of the Cieszyn region of Silesia were arrested and sent to the death camps at Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Oranienburg.

Among the Protestant martyrs were Karol Kulisz, director of the Evangelical Church's largest charitable organization, who died in Buchenwald in November 1939; Professor Edmund Bursche, a member of the Evangelical Faculty of Theology at the University of Warsaw, who died in the stone quarries of Mauthausen; and the 79-year-old Bishop of the Evangelical Church, Juliusz Bursche, who died in solitary confinement in Berlin.

In this dark time, one archbishop deserted his flock. Cardinal Hlond, whose Gniezno-Poznan archdiocese lay in the afflicted Warthegau region, simply disappeared. When he showed up in Rome, Pope Pius XII manifested his displeasure by refusing to grant the Cardinal an immediate audience.

After his humiliating visit to Rome, Cardinal Hlond went to France to join Poland's government-in-exile. When France fell to the Nazis, the Cardinal was stranded. In 1943, as he was trying to return to Poland, the Nazis arrested and interned him. They offered Cardinal Hlond his freedom if he would send a message to Polish Catholics urging them to join the Germans in the fight against the invading Soviet army, but he refused.

A Polish Martyrology for 1939-45 lists six bishops, 2,030 priests, 127 seminarians, 173 lay brothers and 243 nuns murdered by the Nazis.

The Drive to the East

The Third Reich's Drang nach Osten, the Drive to the East, did not stop in Poland. In Hitler's vision of the New Europe, the Ukraine, too, would be re-populated by the Aryan superman. To clear the land, the Nazis burned, shot, starved and worked to death three million Ukrainian Christians. Another 2.4 million Ukrainians were shipped off to Germany as forced labor.

Hitler sent one of his closest henchmen, Erich Koch, to administer the Ukraine. At his inauguration in September 1941, Koch told his men: "I am known as a brutal dog. Because of this I was appointed as Reichkommisar of the Ukraine. Our task is to suck from the Ukraine all the goods we can get hold of, without consideration of the feelings or the property of the Ukrainians.... I am expecting from you the utmost severity towards the population."

Under Koch's direction, hundreds of villages throughout the Ukraine and Belorus were obliterated from the map, and tens of thousands of innocents annihilated. Especially horrible was the fate of 8,000 Ukrainian children who were murdered in the Ianiv death camp.

With Christ in Dachau

Dachau is a paradox among the Nazi concentration camps. It was the Calvary of at least 2,600 Catholic priests from 24 nations. Yet it was also the only concentration camp to have a Catholic chapel where Mass was celebrated regularly and where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved.

In December 1940, Berlin ordered the commandants of all the concentration camps to send their priest prisoners to Dachau in Bavaria. The priests were assigned to a barracks separate from the camp's other prisoners. Inexplicably, the priests were to have a chapel in Dachau where Mass could be celebrated every day. To this day, no one can say for certain what prompted the Nazis to make this extraordinary concession to their priest prisoners.

The first Mass in Dachau was offered on January 22, 1941. Father Paul Prabutzky of Poland was the celebrant for the nearly 1,000 priests in attendance. (Father Prabutzky died a year later of starvation.) When the Mass concluded, the priests sang the hymn which became their anthem in Dachau, Christus vincit!

A complete account of the sufferings of the Catholic priests in Dachau would fill volumes. A few stories will have to suffice.

Camp guards saw Fr. Johann Schroffner greet a Polish priest, Fr. Schulcz, with a blessing on Easter morning 1940. They were both brutally beaten and then left in Dachau's punishment bunker without food. Several days later, a meal was brought to Fr. Schulcz in his cell. The poor man wolfed down the food. It was poisoned.

Father Schulcz died within minutes. Not long afterward, the camp doctor killed Fr. Schroffner with a lethal injection.

Monsignor Karl Lampert, Pro-Vicar of Innsbruck, was arrested for publishing an announcement of Fr. Otto Neururer's death in Buchenwald. The Gestapo interpreted the obituary as "inciting the people." Monsignor Lampert was incarcerated in Dachau before being executed in Torgau on November 13,1944.

On October 29, 1941, about 530 Polish priests, most of them elderly, arrived in Dachau. Although the weather was already bitterly cold, the priests were given no coats or hats. They worked outdoors in light summer clothing with open wooden clogs as their only footwear. Only eight of the 530 survived that winter.

On November 10, 1942, Heinrich Himmler visited Dachau. He selected 20 young, relatively fit Polish priests for medical experiments. Another 120 were selected later for experiments in which they were deliberately infected with malaria. One of these victims was Fr. Leo Miechalowski. He survived and testified at the Nuremberg Trials in December 1946. As part of the malaria experiment, he was given injections of a drug called perifer. "All of a sudden my heart felt like it was going to be torn out," Fr. Miechalowski said. "I became insane. I completely lost my language—my ability to speak."

A small sample of other Catholic priests martyred in Dachau:

* Dom Ernst Vykoukal, Czech, Abbot of Emmaus Monastery in Prague, starved to death

* Msgr. Heinrich Feuerstein, German, writer and art historian, starved to death

* Agnello von der Bosch, OFM, Belgian, founder and director of the Belgian association for the blind, died of ill treatment

* Giuseppe Girotti, OP, Italian, biblical scholar, died of ill treatment

* Henrik Zwaans, SJ, Dutch, schoolteacher and chaplain in the Dutch Army, died of dysentery

* Joseph Regout, SJ, Dutch, professor of international law, starved to death

* Stanislaw Bednarski, SJ, Pole, editor of Cracow's The Sacred Heart Messenger, tortured to death

* Jacques Magnee, SJ, Belgian, teacher, died of ill treatment.

The Society of Jesus was the religious order with the largest number of prisoners in Dachau. There were 26 Jesuit priests in the camp, not counting Jesuit lay brothers and seminarians. Because they were so numerous, the Jesuits formed their own community and elected a superior, Fr. Leo DeConinck, SJ, of Belgium. After the war, Fr. DeConinck described his jailers and tormentors: "Never before Dachau had I seen real hatred: eyes aflame with wickedness, mouths twisted in anger at the mere sight of a priest. "

Elie Wiesel, who was a child when he was sent to Auschwitz, has said: "Not all victims [of the Nazis] 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." This statement is equally true of the Slavs and the Gypsies whom the Nazis had also marked for extermination. In time, if the Third Reich had triumphed, it might have become true for all Christians, since Hitler saw the Church as an implacable enemy.

If we must rank the Nazis' victims, it is only right to place the Jews first. They were the primary target of the Nazis. For as long as the Third Reich endured, they bore the full brunt of Nazi hatred. And when the Third Reich collapsed, six million Jews were dead, over one million of them children. The slaughter inflicted on the Slavs, the Gypsies and the other designated victims of the Third Reich was haphazard compared to the systematic annihilation of the Jews. Even the Nazis, those twentieth-century paragons of ruthless efficiency, could not fight a global war, administer occupied territory that covered almost the entire continent of Europe, operate a campaign of genocide against the Jews and cleanse Europe of the tens of millions of other "undesirables."

It diminishes the Jewish Holocaust not at all, however, to remember the millions of others who were also victims of the Nazis. On the contrary, it reminds us of the staggering power of evil in the world.

Additional Reading

A. Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis, edited by Michael Berenbaum, New York University Press, 1990.

The Jesuits and the Third Reich, by Vincent A. Lapomarda, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1944, by Richard C. Lukas, Hippocrene Books, 1997.

Consult your library for a copy of the out-of-print Christ in Dachau by John M. Lenz, an Austrian Jesuit priest who was imprisoned there between 1939 and 1945. It remains the most detailed account of the persecution of Catholic priests in one of the Nazis' most notorious concentration camps.

Thomas J. Craughwell consults for Book of the Month Club and is the author of the forthcoming book. The Wisdom of the Popes.

© Sursum Corda!, 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Ft. Collins, CO 80524.


Catholic martyrs whose case for canonization is under examination

The Eleven Nuns of Nowogrodek: Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, they were seized at random by a Nazi death squad and shot on August 1, 1943.

Rosa Stein (1883-1942): Blessed Edith Stein's sister, fellow convert, and fellow Carmelite. The Stein sisters perished together at Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.

The Loeb family: The children of a Dutch Catholic mother and Jewish father, Lina, Louisa and Theodora were ail Trappist nuns; Ernest and George were Trappist priests; Robert was a Trappist brother. All were murdered in Auschwitz the same day as Blessed Edith Stein.

George Kaszyra and Anthony Leszczewicz were among 1,500 victims burned alive by the Nazis in Roscia, Belorus on February 17-18, 1943.

Wladyslaw Deszca (1915-1941) was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He returned to Poland and became a priest of the Diocese of Tarnow. The Nazis learned that Fr. Deszca was rescuing Jews by supplying them with false birth certificates. He was murdered in Bieogonice on August 21, 1941.

The Martyrs of the Apostolate: These 46 Frenchmen—nine priests, three seminarians, twenty adult men and fourteen Catholic Scouts—were all affiliated with the Young Christian Workers Organization. They were murdered by the Nazis in various death camps on various dates.

Victor Dillard, a Jesuit priest, condemned the Nazi persecution of the Jews. He died in Dachau on January 12, 1945.


Saint Maximilian Kolbe's (1894-1941) story, although well known, bears repeating. He was a Franciscan, a seminary professor and a publisher of religious materials. When the Nazis invaded Poland, he sheltered 1,500 Jewish refugees in Niepokatanow, a community he had established twelve years before. Early in 1941, Fr. Kolbe was arrested and sent to Auschwitz.

To deter potential escapees, whenever a prisoner escaped the camp commandant would select ten prisoners at random and sentence them to death. Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a wife and children, was one of ten prisoners so condemned. Father Kolbe volunteered to take Gajowniczek's place. Kolbe endured two weeks in a punishment cell without food or water until he was killed by lethal injection on August 14, 1941. Gajowniczek survived Auschwitz and lived to attend Fr. Kolbe's canonization in Rome in 1982.

Blessed Otto Neururer (1882-1940) served the village of Gotzens in Austria. When a woman in his congregation came to him to arrange her marriage to a notorious Nazi, Fr. Neururer dissuaded her. He was arrested for the crime of "obstructing a German marriage" and sent to Buchenwald. There, an informer presented himself to the priest as a potential convert, and then betrayed Fr. Neururer to the camp authorities. For the crime of giving religious instruction, Fr. Neururer was sent to Buchenwald's punishment bunker, where he was hung upside down until he died 36 hours later.

Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942), a Dutch Carmelite priest and rector of the Catholic University in Nijmegen, was arrested by the Gestapo for urging Dutch newspapers to refuse to print Nazi propaganda. He was tortured and sent to Dachau, where he was subjected to medical experiments. A month after his arrival in Dachau, Fr. Brandsma was killed by lethal injection.

Blessed Edith Stein (1891-1942) was the youngest of eleven children in a Jewish family in Poland. She held a doctorate in philosophy when she converted to Catholicism in 1916. In 1933, she entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne and took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938, the Order, concerned about her safety, sent her to their convent in Echt, Holland. She was arrested there with her sister, Rosa Stein, also a Carmelite nun, on August 2, 1942, in retaliation for a letter published by the Catholic bishops of Holland condemning the Nazis' persecution of Dutch Jews. One week later, the Stein sisters and some 300 other Catholics of Jewish descent were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Blessed Jakob Gapp (1897-1943), an Austrian Marianist priest, preached that Catholicism and Nazism were completely incompatible. Gestapo harassment forced Fr. Gapp to flee, first to France, then to neutral Spain. He was abducted by Nazi agents and returned to Germany where he was tried for treason, condemned and beheaded.

Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg (1875-1943), a monsignor at St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin, was a vocal opponent of the Nazis and a defender of the persecuted Jews. Harassment and imprisonment did not silence him. In 1943, Msgr. Lichtenberg was handed over to the Gestapo for "re-education." Once they were finished with him, the Gestapo sent Msgr. Lichtenberg on to Dachau. But the abuse he had suffered in Berlin was too much. He died before he reached the camp.

Blessed Michael Kozal (1893-1943), Bishop of Wloclawek in Poland, was seized by the Nazis as part of their campaign against the Church in Poland. He was brutally mistreated by the Gestapo and arrived at Dachau a physical wreck. To the more than 2,000 priests at the camp he said, "I am only a number here, too, and I am determined to carry my cross along with the rest of you." Bishop Kozal contracted typhus and was killed by lethal injection.

Blessed Karl Leisner (1915-1945), a German deacon, was seized by the Nazis for making a few unguarded remarks about the Third Reich. He was sent to Dachau, where he contracted tuberculosis. On December 17, 1944, Deacon Leisner was the recipient of a remarkable privilege: his fellow prisoner, Bishop Gabriel Piguet of Clermont-Ferrand, ordained him a priest in a clandestine ceremony in Dachau's Catholic chapel. Nine days later, Fr. Leisner celebrated his first and only Mass. He survived until the Americans liberated Dachau, when he was taken to the convent hospital in Planegg outside Munich. He died there in the summer of 1945. The last words in his diary read, "O God, bless my enemies!"

Blessed Marcel Callo (1921-1945) was an active member of France's Young Christian Workers apostolate. A few days after his sister was killed in an air raid, Marcel was ordered to report for forced tabor in Germany. He left behind his parents, his seven surviving brothers and sisters and his fiancee. At a factory in Zella-Mehlis, Germany, he organized a chapter of Young Christian Workers and arranged for Mass to be said for them. He was arrested by the Gestapo for instigating unlawful religious activities. Marcel was sent to Mauthausen, where he died three months later of starvation, bronchitis and dysentery.

Blessed Rupert Mayer (1876-1945) was a Jesuit priest who served in Munich. For his fearless attacks on Nazism, he was arrested and sent to the Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen concentration camp. When his health failed, the Nazis took the singular step of sending Fr. Mayer to the Benedictine Abbey of Ettal, where he was kept under house arrest for the duration of the war. Although he was liberated by an American army in May 1945 and able to return to his people in Munich, Fr. Mayer never recovered from his mistreatment in the camp. White preaching on All Saints' Day 1945, he suffered a massive stroke and died.


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