My brother Karl Leisner: A Priest in Dachau
My brother, Karl, was born in Germany on February 28, 1915. There were two boys and three girls in our family and we were brought up quietly, as a united and happy Catholic family. We explored the neighboring countryside on foot or on our bicycles. In the evening, we enjoyed singing together. Our family, like many others in the years before television, would sing, read and play games together.
At the age of 13, Karl joined the Catholic Youth Movement. He liked the friends he made and their outdoor adventures. But what he enjoyed most of all was the opportunity to learn a great deal about God. Karl's heart and mind were opened to God helping him to accept the amazing adventure which became his life . . . a life that included living in Dachau, a concentration camp where innocent people, including priests, suffered and died at the hands of Adolph Hitler's Nazi Party. The Nazi Party took over Germany, started World War II and planned on taking over the world including the place you live in.
The first signs of the political troubles which lay ahead for Karl came on July 3, 1933, when he and his fellow classmates were told by the principal of their high school that they must sign a document in support of Hitler and the Nazi party. It said, "The undersigned students agree that they will not work against the power or activities of the Nazi Party."
But by this time, Karl had already decided he wanted to become a priest and in 1934 was sent to study for the priesthood in the city of Munster, in Germany. Almost immediately, the bishop of Munster recognized Karl's remarkable talents and told him that eventually he would be needed to look after the young people of the diocese.
Fortunately, Karl kept a record of the day-to-day events in his life. This journal tells us about his personal thoughts, hopes, joys and fears. Our family remained enormously important for him, and at the age of 22 he wrote in his journal, "I feel so at peace at home with my family-----and how we pray for one another!" For a time Karl was tom by the question: did he have a genuine vocation to be a priest or was he really called to be a married man, bringing up a family of children just as our parents had done?
He put his problems to Our Lady, "If I am to be a priest, let me know it and grant me the grace of overcoming myself-----but if I am to become a bad priest, let me die first." Eventually the conflict became resolved, and he accepted wholeheartedly both his vocation to the priesthood and the responsibilities for youth which were to be put upon him by his bishop. "My Lord," he wrote in his journal, "with Your blessing I will accept the heavy duty of leadership of the young; I dedicate all my energy to You, make me Your instrument."
My brother's fruitful work was indeed to lead young men and women, boys and girls around the world. But it was to be done through prayer, accomplished in loneliness and with much suffering.
The fact that Karl had accepted responsibility for the diocesan young people had not gone unnoticed by the Gestapo, Hitler's secret police. In 1936, suspicious of his activities, they opened a secret file on Karl. They noted such facts as on New Year's Eve, 1937, he had spoken to some of his young people, telling them, "We love Christ and will die for Christ." Instead, the Gestapo wanted young Germans to want to die for Hitler and the Nazi Party! The Gestapo were constantly watching Karl, checking his movements, reading his mail.
Then on September 29, 1937, the Gestapo arrived at his house at 7:15 in the morning, made a thorough search of his rooms and confiscated his journals.
Greatly agitated, he took his bicycle and rode directly to Our Lady's Shrine at Kevelaer, knelt down in front of her statue and prayed to her Son. Thy will be done."
There followed a period of apparent calm and he continued his studies for the priesthood. After a meditation on January 24, 1938, he wrote, "O Christ, if You did not exist I should not want to be. You are. You live. Take me, for I am at Your service." By this time, Karl had a distinct sense of foreboding, of danger close at hand.
In 1939, Karl was due to be Ordained a priest, but suddenly he came down with tuberculosis in both lungs. The Ordination was postponed because he was taken to a hospital in the Black Forest.
Within six months his health had begun to improve dramatically. But on November 8, 1939 came the news that there had been a bombing attempt to kill Hitler. The following morning, discussing the event with a fellow patient in his room in he hospital, Karl remarked that it was a pity Hitler hadn't been present at the time of the attack. For this remark, Karl was denounced to the authorities.
The patient claimed that Karl was totally against Hitler, that he was not in the slightest way impressed by any of Hitler's views and that he saw, quite clearly, that the survival of the Church in Germany would only be possible if the terrible enemy of Nazism were to be overthrown.
Within hours, Karl was arrested. Two days later, my brother wrote secretly in his Breviary, "O my God, I thank You for the days of bondage and imprisonment. There is sense in everything: You Only wish the very best for me."
Karl was overjoyed when he was allowed a visit from our mother. They both accepted his imprisonment as God's will, and because it was God's will, they were able to cope with the situation with complete inner peace and charity. Externally, however, the situation soon deteriorated sharply. Karl was taken to the infamous Sachsenhausen prison near Berlin. Then Himmler, the leader of the SS which included the secret police and storm troopers, ordered all priests to be confined in the same concentration camp, Dachau. Karl, as a sub-deacon, was also moved to KZ Dachau.
In Dachau, as in all the KZ concentration camps, the main objective was to isolate, and ultimately to exterminate, all opposition to Hitler's Nazi Party. My brother, like all other prisoners in Dachau, ceased to be known by name and was given a mere number. Barracks Numbers 26 to 30 were crowded with priests from twenty-five European countries. A chapel was opened in Barrack No. 26 and here Karl found the Church in Chains.
Mass was said each morning at 5:00 am, just before dawn roll-call. Holy Communion was distributed and the Divine Office was read. Religion study groups were organized. Jesus Christ Himself was in Dachau, and an intense community spiritual life was lived in the camp.
Although he experienced hours of deep depression, I was told that Karl gave no outward sign of the terrible inner trial he was undergoing, and his fellow prisoners remembered him for his cheerful disposition. He continued to long for his Ordination to the priesthood, an event which in the circumstances of the time must have seemed to him highly improbable. Then in September 1944 the situation changed. A new face appeared in Barrack Room 26. It was that of Bishop Gabriel Picquet of the diocese of Clermont- Ferraud in France. Secret messages were soon smuggled from Dachau to Karl's German superiors-----Bishop von Galen of Munster and Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich-----and their official authorization was obtained for Karl's Ordination by the French Bishop.
On December 17, 1944, weak and suffering from increasing illness, Karl was secretly Ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. It was the only Ordination of a priest to take place in a concentration camp of the Third Reich. "It is not possible for me to express in words," he wrote less than two weeks later, "my thanks for the manner in which God has granted me this unique favor, in answer to the prayers of His Blessed Mother. For the past 14 days I have been deeply affected."
Weak and frail Fr. Karl said his first Mass on the Feast of St. Stephen, uniting himself with Christ in all the misery, all the humiliation, and all the suffering of Dachau. This first Mass of "a priest in chains" was one of the happiest moments in the life of the appalling concentration camp. But for Karl, by now physically broken, his first Mass was also to be his last Mass.
On April 29, 1945 Dachau was liberated by the Americans. Karl, too ill to get up, covered his face and wept. A local Catholic priest, Father Otto Pies, was allowed to enter the compound and five days later, on the Feast of Saint Monica, with the special permission of the authorities and with the help of a somewhat unorthodox passport, Father Pies was able to bring Father Karl out of the camp, carrying with him the Holy Eucharist.
From Dachau, Karl was taken immediately to a hospital in a forest near Munich, where he was received with great gentleness by the resident nuns and doctors. The hospital really seemed like paradise. "Alone! In one's own room. What bliss!" he wrote in the diary. "How infinitely good is God; He helps me always when the need is greatest. All He wanted was my total surrender. I received Holy Communion here early this morning and am so happy. Otto came to see me after Mass."
The care of the good sisters began to take effect. "Slowly the buried images of Dachau are beginning to loose their hold on me. I am a free man, hallelujah! I feel reborn! My human dignity is restored. Flowers on the table. The crucifix on the wall. A sister brings in a copy of Stephan Lochner's painting of Our Lady in Cologne Cathedral. I commend everything to her, my beloved Holy Mother! I pray to her, often, with tears in my eyes."
Father Otto Pies was able to observe my brother as he lay in the hospital. "During the quiet days of his illness, Karl's inner spiritual growth-----for which his long years of suffering had prepared him -----proceeded apace, and I believe he developed an increasing understanding of the mystery of atonement.
"In Dachau, Karl had already offered his life to God as a sacrifice for the sake of young people. In spite of his increasing illness, his countenance and speech expressed quite clearly this newly-founded maturity and spiritual depth. He seldom thought about himself and rarely spoke about his own recent past. But everything that concerned the Church was of the utmost interest to him."
On June 29, 1945, Karl had the enormous joy of being reunited with our dear parents, with whom he had completely lost touch for six long years. "Mother and father are at my bedside, kissing and greeting me! Deeply moving. We are together again. Deo gratias!" But it was clear that the days in the concentration camp had taken their toll and that Karl was weakening. The last entry that he was able to make in his diary was on July 25, 1945. Mass had just been said by his bedside. "Good night, eternal, holy God. Dear Blessed Mother. Good night all Saints, all the loving living and dead, near and far! Bless my enemies, O Lord!"
On August 9, 1945, my sisters and I were able to join our parents at the hospital. The joy of seeing us all together allowed him to rally for a short time, and he carried on an animated conversation with us all. But then at noon, as we sat by his side, he once more fell back on his pillow and uttered his last words: "I must suffer like the Savior on the Cross." Three days later he died. He was only 30 years old.
Although travel in Germany at that time was extremely difficult, it became possible for us, providentially, to take his body back to our home town. There, at Kleve, the inhabitants received him like a hero. The letters of condolences poured in. I remember that one of them was from Karl's own Bishop who wrote to my parents: "I believe, with confidence, that you have presented a Saint to Heaven." The former chaplain of the Kleve Youth Movement also wrote, declaring that in his view a great son of the Church had just died: "Karl is a model for us all; he is our intercessor." Crowds soon began to visit his simple grave at Kleve, not only as individuals but also in groups, especially youth groups; memorial services and commemorations were held; streets, homes, and a school were named after him.
In 1966, his body was exhumed and transferred to the Crypt of the Martyrs in the local Cathedral. Then in 1973 the Priests' Council of the Diocese of Munster requested that proceedings should be opened for his beatification. Four years later, having examined all the facts, Bishop Tecchuenberg of Munster went to Rome and proposed to the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, that the cause of Father Karl Leisner should be opened, officially. When receiving the request, His Holiness said: "Karl Leisner, being purified by persecution and by personal suffering, being Ordained priest in Dachau concentration camp in the face of death, sets an example worthy of imitation by more and more priests and believers." On March 15, 1980, Pope John Paul II gave the final permission necessary for the opening of official proceedings for Father Karl's beatification. Later, when on his visits to Gennany in 1980 and 1987, His Holiness went out of his way to make specific references to Karl. And again, in October, 1988 when visiting the European Youth Meeting in Strasburg, the Holy Father quoted the priest from Dachau KZ: "Christ is the mystery of European strength," and held him up as a model for young people.
"Poor Europe, return to your Lord Jesus Christ! Dear Lord, I plead with You, work through me as Your instrument." These words were written by Karl in June 1945, eight weeks before his death. Today, I know, more and more people are looking to my very dear brother as an intercessor for all young people, and as a powerful intercessor for Christian families throughout the world.
Further Readings: Karl Leisner: Priest in Dachau, by Archbishop Couve de Murville of Birmingham. Also Three Sermons in Dark Times, by Clemens Cardinal van Galen. Both titles can be ordered through the Catholic Truth Society, 38/40 Eccleston Square, LONDON, SW1V 1PD, England.
For additional information about Father Karl, you may write to Internationaler Karl-Leisner-Kreis, c/o Pfarrer Kleinen, Am Hagelkreuz 10, D-4l78, KEVELAER, Germany; or to his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Haas, Leitgraben 26, D-190 KLEVE, Germany. Please enclose $6.00 (US) to cover costs, and request English language material.