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April 29 Marks Day of Polish Clergy Martyrdom During World War II

The watchtower and barbed wire fence are seen at the memorial site of the former Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. (Photo: CNS/KNA)

WINDSOR TERRACE — April 29 marks the day Polish Catholics solemnly remember when nearly 2,000 of the country’s 10,000 diocesan priests perished during the Nazi German occupation in World War II. The day coincides with the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.

“The number of Polish priests murdered there exceeded all other victims from the clergy of other European countries,” said Jan Żaryn, director of the Institute for the Heritage of National Thought in Poland.

The event’s formal title, Day of Martyrdom of the Polish Clergy, was instituted by Polish bishops in 2002. This year, a Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Grzegorz Suchodolski of Siedlce at St. Joseph’s Church in Kalisz, which is located more than 100 miles west of the country’s capital, Warsaw.

The city of Kalisz had a significant role with the priests who survived the camp. It’s said that the clergy entrusted themselves to St. Joseph and vowed that if they survived, they would make an annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph’s Church in Kalisz. After the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 29, 1945, the surviving priests fulfilled their promise and made the pilgrimage. The last Polish priest who survived Dachau, Father Leon Stępniak, died in 2013.

“Among the priests murdered in Dachau, there was also Blessed Father Edward Detkens,” Żaryn added, “who was connected with the academic ministry in Warsaw.”

The Chairman of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, said that the Dachau concentration camp was a special place of martyrdom of the Polish clergy and that priests were forbidden to celebrate Mass.

The camp in southern Germany operated from 1933 to 1945 and was the main location where Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox clergy were held. 

Of the approximately 3,000 Catholic religious deacons, priests, and bishops imprisoned there, 1,773 were from Poland. More than 860 clerics were martyred in the camp, 868 to be exact. Most of them belong to the dioceses of Poznan, Wloclawek, and Lodz. Of the nearly 600 religious victims, the largest group were from the Jesuit and Salesian orders.