Once upon a time, if you had asked an American about “concentration camps,” you would have heard the name “Dachau.” Situated on the outskirts of Munich, Germany, Dachau readily came to Americans’ minds. They might have heard of Auschwitz and of the extermination of European Jewry for which that camp has become the symbol worldwide (even though it started life as a destination for Polish Christian political prisoners and was the place of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom). But — especially in the first decades after the war — “Dachau” epitomized “concentration camp.”
One reason for such an association of this place with unmitigated evil might be that Americans — the Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division — liberated Dachau, whereas Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. American newsreels quickly broadcast pictures of the heinous atrocities Germans had perpetrated there. Already in early April 1945, Americans had freed Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower himself visited that camp and called on journalists to document everything so future generations could not deny its reality.
April 29 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. And it has a page in U.S. Catholic history.
One of the infamous aspects of Dachau was its Pfarrerblock. More than 2,500 priests were imprisoned in Dachau over the 12 years of its existence.
One should not forget that the Nazis were enemies of the Catholic Church. Hitler created his own ersatz “Christianity” — a Christianity amputated from the Old Testament, a strange blend of banal cafeteria Christianity with Nordic pagan mythology. Catholic priests were the enemies. Catholic priests from Poland were especially enemies.
That’s where the story gets personal.
When Auschwitz was liberated, a number of Polish Capuchin friars who had fled the Nazis decided to remain in the West, rather than return to a Poland under Russian occupation and rule. Those friars eventually found their way to Oklahoma. The bishop of Tulsa needed priests for a parish in Broken Arrow; the priests needed a home.
Eventually 10 priests, nine of whom spent time in Dachau, came to the United States. The Polish Capuchins were responsible for the parish in Broken Arrow until the 1990s. But, early on, those friars also felt the tug of their ethnicity, and there weren’t too many Poles in the Sooner State. Starting in the early 1950s, they began making their way to the metropolitan New York area, where they could serve in Polish-American parishes, particularly in New Jersey.
Working in Polish-American parishes in the Garden State, however, made them seem a lot like diocesan priests; the Capuchin charism attached importance to community life, which dispersal among parishes seemed to undermine. The friars sought to square the circle by establishing their own house in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, which the Capuchin minister general canonically erected in 1973 as St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Friary.
The property, about 40 miles west of Manhattan, sits atop 5 acres. The grand house once was the winter home of Alfred T. Ringling (of Ringling Brothers’ fame). The famous owner, whose circus was on the touring circuit from spring to fall, retired to New Jersey for the winter. He built the house in 1916, two years after World War I began (and a year before America got into the war). His desire to build a “war-proof” bunker is attested to by the building’s 18-inch thick stone walls and the fact that Jefferson Township used it for its civil emergency preparedness headquarters for decades.
Ringling died in Oak Ridge in 1919, and the family sold the site. An association of Polish priests, the “Spes Foundation,” bought the property in 1955 from Ringling Manor Inc., to conduct anti-communist publishing there. The Capuchins began living there in late 1958 and bought it from Spes in 1967.
The monastery, which still officially exists, has assembled an impressive collection of Polish books and memorabilia in their rural retreat on the border of Morris and Sussex counties.
The last of the Dachau Capuchins died in 2010. The Warsaw Province of the Polish Capuchins sent Deacon Jerzy Krzyśków to assist those last priests and to administer the friary.
The Capuchins made adaptations to the property in the 1960s and ’70s, but upkeep of the facility never kept pace. Brother Krzyśków, cultivating the Polish Capuchin heritage of Oak Ridge, would ideally like to keep the property in Polish, or at least in Catholic, hands.
I personally benefited from the priests of Dachau. One of them, Capuchin Father Alexis Lechański, was a longtime priest in residence at my boyhood parish, St. Stephen’s, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. As a child, I never knew his history as prisoner 22639, who spent over four years as a slave laborer in Dachau. With a degree in canon law, Father Alexis taught in the clandestine seminary that operated in the bunkers of Dachau. All I knew was that he was the kind confessor always in the “box” every Saturday afternoon.
Another personal connection to the priests of Dachau was Jesuit Father Josef Mitros. I understood he was a seminarian while in Dachau: the joke used to be that, given their extended years of formation, priesthood was a reward to Jesuits for a lifetime well spent. Again, I knew him as a quiet presence in the theology department who taught Church history and who eventually became a reader for my dissertation because nobody else in the department could read my Polish footnotes.
As the world marks the diamond jubilee of the liberation of Dachau, let’s not forget that some of the priests of Dachau helped build the Church in the United States — in New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma.
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Anybody interested in preserving the future of what they built at Oak Ridge, Brother Jerzy would love to hear from you.
He can be reached at email@example.com or (973) 697-7757 or (908) 922-6396.