It was one of the most evil places our world has seen. At the site of an old munitions factory about 10 miles outside of Munich, the Dachau concentration camp began operation on March 10, 1933. It was the first of the infamous Nazi confinement facilities and would have the longest tenure, lasting until April 29, 1945, when U.S. forces liberated the surviving inmates.
Over the course of 12 years, the Dachau camp received more than 200,000 prisoners, about 3,000 of whom were Catholic clergy. Dachau was the most popular confinement setting for clergymen (most of them Roman Catholics, though there were smaller numbers of Protestants and Orthodox Catholics) who had voiced opposition to the Nazi regime.
In April 1945, as Allied forces were about to topple a crumbling Nazi empire, the priests and monks at Dachau were almost certain the Nazi guards were going to round them all up and kill them. On April 22, 1945, these clergymen, the majority of whom were ethnic Poles, consecrated themselves to St. Joseph (husband of Mary, father of Jesus) and vowed that, if they escaped death, they would make a yearly pilgrimage to the St. Joseph Shrine in Kalisz, a city of about 100,000 persons in central Poland.
There was good reason to fear a mass execution: In fact, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the second-most powerful Nazi, had ordered the extermination of all Dachau prisoners on the evening of April 29. However, just a few hours before the Nazis were to undertake a mass execution, the first unit of U.S. soldiers came to liberate the prisoners.
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