Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter in Dachau concentration camp, 1945


On this Easter Sunday, let us remember those who have longed to celebrate the feast, but been unable to do so due to wars, unrest and disruption of one kind or another.  Perhaps one of the most moving accounts of being able to celebrate the Resurrection, after years of being denied that right, comes from Dachau concentration camp in 1945.  Gleb Rahr, one of the prisoners, left this account.

The news comes in: Hitler has committed suicide, the Russians have taken Berlin, and German troops have surrendered in the South and in the North. But the fighting still rages in Austria and Czechoslovakia ...

Naturally, I was ever cognizant of the fact that these momentous events were unfolding during Holy Week. But how could we mark it, other than through our silent, individual prayers? A fellow-prisoner and chief interpreter of the International Prisoner's Committee, Boris F., paid a visit to my typhus-infested barrack — "Block 27" — to inform me that efforts were underway in conjunction with the Yugoslav and Greek National Prisoner's Committees to arrange an Orthodox service for Easter day, May 6th.

There were Orthodox priests, deacons, and a group of monks from Mount Athos among the prisoners. But there were no vestments, no books whatsoever, no icons, no candles, no prosphoras, no wine ... Efforts to acquire all these items from the Russian church in Munich failed, as the Americans just could not locate anyone from that parish in the devastated city. Nevertheless, some of the problems could be solved. The approximately four hundred Catholic priests detained in Dachau had been allowed to remain together in one barrack and recite mass every morning before going to work. They offered us Orthodox the use of their prayer room in "Block 26," which was just across the road from my own "block."

The chapel was bare, save for a wooden table and a Czenstochowa icon of the Theotokos hanging on the wall above the table—an icon which had originated in Constantinople and was later brought to Belz in Galicia, where it was subsequently taken from the Orthodox by a Polish king. When the Russian Army drove Napoleon's troops from Czenstochowa, however, the abbot of the Czenstochowa Monastery gave a copy of the icon to czar Alexander I, who placed it in the Kazan Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg where it was venerated until the Bolshevik seizure of power. A creative solution to the problem of the vestments was also found. New linen towels were taken from the hospital of our former SS-guards. When sewn together lengthwise, two towels formed an epitrachilion and when sewn together at the ends they became an orarion. Red crosses, originally intended to be worn by the medical personnel of the SS guards, were put on the towel-vestments.

On Easter Sunday, May 6th (April 23rd according to the Church calendar)—which ominously fell that year on Saint George the Victory-Bearer's Day—Serbs, Greeks and Russians gathered at the Catholic priests' barracks. Although Russians comprised about 40 percent of the Dachau inmates, only a few managed to attend the service. By that time "repatriation officers" of the special Smersh units had arrived in Dachau by American military planes, and begun the process of erecting new lines of barbed wire for the purpose of isolating Soviet citizens from the rest of the prisoners, which was the first step in preparing them for their eventual forced repatriation.

In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon wore the make-shift "vestments" over their blue and gray-striped prisoner's uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, and then back again to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras—everything was recited from memory. The Gospel—"In the beginning was the Word"—also from memory.

And finally, the Homily of Saint John Chrysostom—also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live. Saint John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well! Eighteen Orthodox priests and one deacon—most of whom were Serbs—participated in this unforgettable service. Like the sick man who had been lowered through the roof of a house and placed in front of the feet of Christ the Savior, the Greek Archimandrite Meletios was carried on a stretcher into the chapel, where he remained prostrate for the duration of the service.

There's more at the link.

On April 29th, 1995 - the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Dachau - a memorial Orthodox chapel was opened at the site of the concentration camp.  Inside it is this icon of Christ opening the gates of Dachau.  (Click the image for a larger view.)




As we celebrate the feast, let's remember all those who were not able to in the past, or can't do so today for whatever reason.

Peter

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read about the liberation of that place last weekend and what happened after the Assaistant Division Commander of the US 42nd division accepted the German surrender. There was no Christ there that day.

Rev. Paul said...

Happy Easter to you & Wing, Peter - He lives!

ASM826 said...

If Christ was with them that day, it was not the God or the Division Commander that brought him there. It was young American soldiers with M-1 Garands. Pray as you will but keep your powder dry.

Anonymous said...

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dachau_liberation_reprisals

It's amazing so little of the guards were killed by the us soldiers after liberation. 13?

Peter - thanks for the post. It's a great story of the celebration of Easter in a place that had been so wrong.

Quartermaster said...

Happy Resurrection Day!

Old NFO said...

Great story of faith!

Jon said...

Peter, thanks for posting this. Orthodox Pascha (Easter) is still a few weeks for us, nonetheless this is good to be reminded of, not just on Easter but anytime we contemplate true witness (martyria) to Christ.

If anyone is interested, here is a brief biography of Mother Maria (Skoptsoba), Martyr and now a saint of the Orthodox Church. She died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp for the crime of

http://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

deborah harvey said...

many thanks. we are Orthodox. had never heard that story.

deborah harvey said...

jon.
glory to Jesus Christ!
thanks for the info on the saint.