Carving out a Moment of Hope in Death Camps

By Pilch, John J. | National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1993 | Go to article overview

Carving out a Moment of Hope in Death Camps


Pilch, John J., National Catholic Reporter


For my work-study program in 1960, I was assigned as translator and secretary to Father Henry Malak, who lived in the faculty quarters on the campus of Christ the King College in West Chicago. He had a good story

Henry had spent six of his first seven years in the priesthood, from 1939 to 1945, as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps at Stutthof, Grenzdorf, Sachsenhausen and finally Dachau. Priests were identified in the camps by the 22,000 number (his was 22,466) and a P on a red triangle sewn on their prison uniforms.

Priests and Jews were the two categories the Nazis hated most. The pfaffen und Juden were assigned regularly to the same lowliest tasks and routinely beaten at the same times. Inmates sought escape from the beatings. One day in 1941, Henry found his opportunity.

The Nazis were looking for a woodcarver. Henry wanted to volunteer because he had some talent, but his cellblock secretary would not recommend him.

That night, St. Therese of Lisieux, to whom Henry had a deep devotion, came to his bed. Henry called out her name, but just then someone woke him. It was time to get up.

He was sent that morning to distribute utensils in Cellblock 30.

"Cold today," someone muttered.

"Yes," Henry replied.

"Go to him," an inner voice directed.

Henry objected: "He's not my cellblock secretary. Besides, he's a communist."

"Go to him," the voice insisted.

Henry explained to Kurt, secretary for Cellblock 30, that he wanted to enter the competition for woodcarver.

"Too late," he said. "They've already started the competition." Then, suddenly, he said: "Wait. Tomorrow, fall into my group instead of yours. We'll see what we can do."

At roll call, Henry whispered his plan to Zdzich, a cynical priest and fellow prisoner.

Zdzich replied: "If you get lucky, even I will believe in this dainty saint who pours flowers from heaven."

Henry's response was to pray to the "little flower" - not for himself and his sculpture plan, but for the conversion of his "pagan" friend, if she helped it all to work out.

Kurt helped Henry enter the competition, but Henry already had lost a day. That left him but one more day. Worse, he had to borrow tools from the 12 other competitors. And to top it off, Henry was assigned to the malicious Hein.

Hein gave Henry a book of classic models. Henry, an amateur, had never carved a classic model. St. Therese whispered that he should create something different, something that would immediately engage a viewer. She told him she did not like "ready-made roads to heaven. …

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