By Kevin Shannahan
This Easter season, like most before it, will feature egg hunts, new clothes, candy and family. While not entirely frivolous, Easter is more chocolate bunny than a serious observance in modern society. This piece is about an Easter service in a world far removed and almost inconceivable to citizens in a free society, that of a Nazi concentration camp.
Dachau was the first concentration camp built by Nazi Germany as well as the one in operation for the longest time. It was opened by Heinrich Himmler in March of 1933. At its liberation by the United States’ Army on the 29th of April,1945, it had been in operation for almost the entire span of Nazi Germany’s wretched existence. It was not the largest concentration camp, nor was it as deadly as places like Auschwitz or Treblinka. It was the first camp to open. Dachau served as a template for the other camps. Rudolph Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, served at Dachau first. Guards for the whole camp system were trained there. Dachau was started as a camp for German political prisoners, after Kristallnacht in 1938, over 10,000 Jews were interned in the camp. During its existence, prisoners arrived from all of the lands the Nazi’s conquered. Prisoners lived in constant fear of deadly and sadistic punishments.
Seventy four years ago soldiers from the US Army’s 42nd Division and 45th Divisions liberated Dachau. They encountered a scene of suffering that staggers the imagination. The camp was severely overcrowded. As the Nazis were forced further and further back by Allied armies, prisoners were transferred to camps in the German interior. Dachau, near Munich, was one such camp. Overcrowding, cold and lack of sanitation combined with starvation, bred disease. Typhus ran rampant. Many of the newly liberated prisoners were to die before help could be brought to them due to the sheer numbers of people at the camp.
This was the background for one of the most unique Easter services ever held. Dachau held a large population of priests and clergy. The Orthodox calendar is different from that used in the West. The concentration camp was liberated just before Orthodox Easter. In the Orthodox calendar, Easter fell on what would be the 6th of May of 1945. There was a group of Serbian and Greek Orthodox priests and deacons who wanted to celebrate Mass on Easter. Half starved, ridden with lice, owning nothing but their filthy camp uniforms, having survived the Hell of Nazi tyranny, they gathered together to celebrate the risen Christ. They wore vestments fashioned from bedsheets taken from the SS guards’ barracks. The crosses on them were taken from the SS medical orderlies’ armbands. There were no missals. They sang the Orthodox service from memory. In the words of Gleb Alexandrovitch Rahr, one of the prisoners who attended the service:
“…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 adorned the make-shift “vestments” over their blue and gray-striped prisoners 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 Saviour, the Greek Archimandrite Meletios was carried on a stretcher into the chapel, where he remained prostrate for the duration of the service…”
On May 6th, 1945, Adolf Hitler lay dead. Berlin and the rest of Nazi Germany lay in ruins. Germany would unconditionally surrender the next day. In a prison barracks in Dachau a group of men celebrated the risen Lord. It was an Easter to remember.