In 1945, during the final stages of World War II, the lifeless body of Josef Mayr-Nusser, an Italian Catholic layman, was pulled from a cattle car at a train station in Erlangen, Germany. The train, packed with forty prisoners, had been bound for Dachau, the infamous concentration camp, where Mayr-Nusser had been condemned. But Nazi maltreatment of him had been so severe, up until then, that he died en route from pneumonia. When his corpse was discovered, it was found with a Bible and rosary.
Until recently, the events leading up to Josef Mayr-Nusser’s tragic death have remained largely unknown. But now, thanks to Pope Francis, his dramatic story has been rescued from the shadows of history. Last month, after consulting with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Pontiff approved Mayr-Nusser’s beatification, citing his martyrdom and heroic Christian virtues.
Born in 1910 in Bolzano, in the South Tyrol region of Italy, Josef was raised on a farm, with his elder brother Jakob, by parents who instilled in them a love for Christ, and a passion to serve him faithfully. Jakob entered the seminary and became a priest, while Josef became a model Catholic layman, moved by the life of Frederic Ozanam. Ozanam was a leading nineteenth-century French Catholic, advocate for the oppressed, and founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. Wanting to dedicate his life to Christianity and the poor, as Ozanam had, Josef joined the Society’s Bolzano division when he was just twenty-two. Five years later, he became its president.
A typical day for Josef began with prayer, Mass, and a reading of Holy Scripture. His vocation was twofold: to bring comfort and goods to the poor; and to spread the Gospel. In a letter to the Society in 1938, he wrote:
When we visit a poor family, we should organize our time so we can spend at least fifteen minutes with each person we visit. And in our attitude, there should be no trace of condescension, as this would only hurt. … We should not express our compassion to the poor with empty words, for what we say must come from the heart, and only in that case will we reach hearts.
Earlier, in 1936, he had said, presciently, “Today, more than at any other time, our Catholicism must be lived. We have to show to the masses that the only leader who has the right to a full, unlimited authority, and to be our leader, is Jesus Christ.”
News of his robust defense of Catholic teaching, and frequent visits to the poor, spread throughout the country, and earned the admiration of the Holy See. Pope Pius XI personally asked him to expand his activities, and Mayr-Nusser, accepting the pontiff’s invitation, became the head of Catholic Action in the Diocese of Trent. When war broke out in 1939, he immediately joined the Andreas Hofer Bund, a South Tyrolean resistance group named after a local freedom fighter who had fought Napoleon. From then on, Mayr-Nusser opposed every effort to co-opt his movements for the fascist-Nazi cause. Even as the political situation became grim, and soon catastrophic, Josef’s defense of Christian principles never flagged; if anything, they became more profound, and sharper. He studied the writings of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Thomas More to prepare himself for the showdown, between his faith and totalitarianism, that he knew would come.
When civil war broke out in Italy, following the 1943 ouster of Mussolini, the moment of truth arrived. By that time, Josef had married his true love, Hildegard, and was the father of a newborn son, Albert. Although he was known to abhor the Third Reich, the Nazis forcibly conscripted him into one of their units, in 1944, after seizing control of his homeland. He was sent to Prussia for military training, and torn away from his heartbroken family. But when it came time to swear allegiance to Hitler, Mayr-Nusser showed what he was made of.
During an ordinary roll call, according to eyewitnesses, each new member of the unit was asked by a Nazi General to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and everyone proceeded to do so—even if they secretly detested him, in order to protect themselves from reprisals. But when the Nazi Commandant came to Josef, he confounded expectations, and declared—in a clear, strong voice—“I cannot take an oath to Hitler in the name of God. I cannot do it because my faith and conscience do not allow it.”
Stunned and fearful for what might happen next, Josef’s friends pleaded with him to retract and take the oath. One can well imagine their reasoning: It was just a perfunctory pledge; no one really took it seriously; and besides, everyone already knew of Josef’s outstanding record against Nazism. No one would hold it against him for taking a meaningless oath that everyone would soon forget.
But for Josef, it was anything but “meaningless.” It was his defining moment as a Christian. He told his fellow soldiers, “If no one has the courage to say no to Hitler, National Socialism will never end.” He refused to associate his Catholic faith and conscience with the racist and murderous creed of Nazism. For good reason, Josef Mayr-Nusser is still known as “the Martyr of the First Commandment.”
Josef was immediately jailed, and he awaited his show trial with peace and fortitude. In 1945, he was found guilty, and sentenced to death by firing squad at Dachau. During his time in prison, he prayed incessantly, and, though deprived of basic necessities, spent whatever little time his captors gave him writing a series of letters to his wife. At one point, he wrote movingly: “You would not be my wife if you expected something different from me.” Nothing more needed to be said. They loved each other deeply and loved Christ even more.
Almost as soon as Josef died, people spoke about him as a saint and martyr. However, his story is not nearly as well-known as the very similar one of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter—the Austrian Catholic conscientious objector who is the subject of a forthcoming film by Terrence Malick.
It took sixty years before formal approval of Josef’s cause began, but once it did, it advanced rapidly and his beatification will take place on March 18, in his hometown of Bolzano.
It would have been so easy for Josef to compromise and save his life, as so many other terrified soldiers did, but he believed in the first Commandment—“I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange Gods before me”—unreservedly.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.