In 2012, while visiting the German city of Trier, I stumbled upon the birthplace of Karl Marx. This Baroque townhouse at Brückenstrasse 10 is now a museum, a kind of shrine to its most famous former resident. Not many steps away is the beautiful old seminary church for the Diocese of Trier. As I walked by the seminary gate, I noticed seven small brass plaques among the cobblestones on the sidewalk. One of them read: Johannes Schulz, date of death August 19, 1942. Place of death? Dachau.
I later learned that these plaques honored the priest martyrs of Trier—seven Catholic clergymen who stood up to the Nazis and died in camps between 1942 and 1945. These stolpersteine—or “stumble stones”—are the work of Gunter Demnig, an artist who has devoted himself to commemorating numerous Jewish and Gentile victims of National Socialism. As of this past winter, Demnig has laid down some 75,000 stolpersteine in over twenty countries.
I thought of the stumble stones recently when I learned just as unexpectedly about some other priest martyrs of the World War II era. A neighbor was getting rid of some books. Before discarding one slim old paperback, he checked to see if I might want it.
I was grateful for the book. Titled The Martyrdom of Silesian Priests, 1945–46, it was published in 1950 by the Kirkliche Hilfsstelle of Munich. Remembering the plaques in Trier, I assumed it was about more priests killed by Nazis. But then I realized: The scores of clergymen whose stories appeared inside were victims of Communist Russia’s Red Army as it marched into Germany toward the end of the war.
I’d like to share three of the many stories from this book, copies of which are available in only a few libraries and which are hard to come by otherwise.
Seventy-five years ago the region of Silesia, which today straddles parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany, was suffering the aftershocks of an evacuation order put out by the Red Army as it moved through from the east. At this time Silesia was home to about five million people, roughly half of them Catholics. In the dead of winter the many thousands who obeyed the order headed into the Beskid Mountains. About 18,000 froze to death along the way.
But many stayed put in Silesia, ignoring the evacuation order. The Red Army used this as an excuse to brutalize them. As was regularly the case where the Red Army marched, Russian soldiers raped countless women, including nuns. Some also hunted for priests.
One targeted priest, Father Christoph Arnold, served a small parish in Godzieszów. Fifty-one at the start of 1945, he had been a priest for more than half his life. Late in the morning on February 20, he saw his church hit by Russian artillery. He took shelter in the cellar of his rectory. His sister Margarethe was with him along with a friend, who later wrote down what happened next.
“We said the rosary and had received Holy Communion for the last time,” this friend recorded. Soldiers arrived throughout the day, “taking wine, food, and the priest’s watch, and ransacking the presbytery in search of valuables.” Although by nightfall it seemed that the worst had passed, more soldiers came the next day. They “behaved very wildly, often pointing their pistol at Father Arnold’s breast, firing shots in the house.” Eventually, two attempted to rape Margarethe in front of her brother.
He tried to save his sister, but the soldiers “dragged the priest down into the cellar and shot him” in the head while Margarethe was held upstairs. By the time she reached her brother, he was dead. She closed his eyelids and folded his hands in a praying posture. She realized that that day, February 21, 1945, was the thirtieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
Within a few days Margarethe and other Godzieszów villagers were also killed in cold blood.
Six months later, in August 1945, thirty-four-year-old Father Franz Goerlich of the parish of Gross Bochbern in Breslau-Lohbrueck was assaulted by Red Army soldiers inside his rectory. He was eating dinner with his housekeeper Gulde when several soldiers forcibly entered the house. They struck the priest and the woman, knocking them to the ground and beating them. Goerlich lost consciousness. When he regained it, he found himself gagged and tied up with rope at the ankles and wrists. Gulde was dead.
Somehow the priest was able to free his wrists, remove the gag, and drag himself to the convent next door. The nuns sheltered him, but the Red Army soldiers came there, too. They beat up Goerlich several more times. They also gang-raped a nun in front of him.
A friend later wrote, “Those brutal tortures endangered very much [Goerlich’s] state of health which was pretty weak before. Some of his ribs had been broken and had injured his lungs severely.” Eventually he was hospitalized. He died on March 8, 1946, in the care of hospital nuns.
Sixty-three-year-old Father Hubert Demczak, a parish priest in Ottmuth, was also among the clergymen killed by Red Army soldiers in Silesia. When the soldiers arrived on January 24, 1945, they lit his church on fire. Six days later, a high-ranking Russian officer came by the house where the priest and a group of nuns were sheltering and demanded that they supply him with vodka. When Demczak gave him all his wine bottles instead, the officer threw them against a wall, stormed out the door, and threatened to return in a few minutes.
One of the nuns reported on what occurred within the hour:
The priest said . . . [c]ome, let us say the rosary, things will happen as the Lord wills. Hardly had we finished, and were still receiving general absolution, when the street door opened and the same Russian returned together with six other men, all heavily armed. . . . The six men did not enter the house. Only the officer came again. When he saw [Father Demczak], he suddenly fired two shots in order to frighten him. . . . In the next moment he pressed his pistol against the chest of the [priest] and fired. [Father Demczak] pressed his left hand on the bullet wound and his right with the rosary on his heart. Without showing pain on his face, and shouting . . . “My Jesus, mercy!” he fell on his back, and prayed uninterruptedly: “Oh Savior, stay with us, do not leave us, Jesus, Jesus come to me.”
As we moved to help him, the rest of the Russians came and with their rifle-butts drove us out in front of the house and ordered us to line up. . . . They tore the veils off our heads and wanted to drag me into the old schoolhouse. I held on to the door knob and said they could shoot me but I would not go with them. . . .
The [priest] kept praying for nearly another hour, but the words came more and more slowly, and with a rattling sound. When he was almost bled to death, the Russians came and fired two more bullets into his head. . . . Without moving or stirring he died. It was about 18.00 hours in the evening.
The nun who wrote this was almost strangled to death while fending off several soldiers who attempted to rape her. She saw the rest of the sisters in her community get shot like ducks in a row. They cried out to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a soldier let loose with a submachine gun. Somehow she was able to escape. At the end of her report, she writes that initially, it felt “more dreadful to be alive than dead.” In time, though, she understood “why one had to be alive: to be a witness for the truth.” Without her we would not know what Father Demczak or her sisters in religion suffered on January 30, 1945.
On my visit to Trier eight years ago, I noticed a young couple and several other youthful pilgrims paying homage at Marx’s birthplace. I presumed that they were ignorant—as so many are today—of the slaughter of some 100 million people by the ideological offspring of Marx and other patron saints of revolutionary communism. Marx himself had advocated “body against body,” in a fight to the death against a social order based on private property and the worship of the God of the Bible, and the hastening along of the “bloody birth throes of [a] new society” by means of “revolutionary terror.” Communist revolutionaries after him, including Vladimir Lenin and the Cheka’s Yevgeny Tuchkov, called explicitly for the elimination of categories of people, including priests and nuns. The priest martyrs of Silesia, and the nuns who suffered with them, were victims of a broader pattern of terror practiced by the Red Army in many places and by other agents of the radicalized left.
I hope those young people in Trier stumbled across the stolpersteine that day, as I did, and paid their respects not only to Marx but also to some heroic souls who courageously resisted Nazi tyranny to their last breath. If they did not, they have hopefully visited other memorials for the victims of far right totalitarianism, as a growing number of such memorials appropriately exist today.
Alas, there are still too few public reminders—too few memorials, museum exhibits, and lessons by high school teachers and university professors—of the horrific history of far left violence. For this reason, I’m grateful that the never-reprinted, almost-discarded little book about the priest martyrs of Silesia fell into my hands so that I could finally learn about them and tell their stories to others.
Bronwen McShea is writer in residence at the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a visiting assistant professor in history at the Augustine Institute Graduate School.
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