Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942).
By John P. Walsh
August 14 is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941). Fr. Kolbe died in a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz) after he traded places with another camp prisoner condemned to die who was a stranger. That camp prisoner, a husband and father, survived the war. He testified to Kolbe’s heroic and charitable action as a martyr during Kolbe’s canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church. Kolbe was pronounced a saint on October 10, 1982 by St. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005).
Another Catholic martyr out of the Nazi camps who is also much worth knowing is Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942). Brandsma died in Dachau concentration camp, the Nazi’s first concentration camp. Opened in 1933 Dachau’s initial purpose was to imprison political opponents of the Third Reich. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan and Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite. In 1985 Fr. Brandsma was declared a Blessed of the Church by St. Pope John Paul II setting him too on the road to sainthood.
Franciscan friar Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. His father was German and his mother was Polish. A journalist by trade he had dedicated his work to the Virgin Mary. Arrested in Poland on February 17, 1941 for sheltering Jews and anti-Nazi publishing, Kolbe was sent to Auschwitz on May 28, 1941. He died on August 14, 1941 after he traded places with another prisoner, a total stranger, who had been condemned to die in a retribution killing by the Nazis. In 1982 Kolbe was made a saint by St. Pope John Paul II.
Blessed Titus Brandsma as a young Carmelite friar. He became an ordained priest.
Both Frs. Kolbe and Brandsma were dedicated journalists. Brandsma was a university founder and teacher as well as a modern art advocate. In 1921 he famously defended the artistic freedom of the leading Symbolist and Expressionist painter in Belgium, Albert Servaes (1883-1966). The artist, a committed Catholic, once said “I have had only two masters. The Gospels and nature.” Yet his new art work for the Stations of the Cross caused an uproar among some Catholics who were offended by the contemporary depictions of Christ’s Passion. Brandsma supported Servaes’ work for the church of the Discalced Carmelites in Luythagen, a suburb of Antwerp (they can be found today in the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven in Tilburg, Netherlands). Brandsma arranged for the new art to be accompanied by Brandsma’s own meditations on them and published together in a newly-founded Catholic cultural review called Opgang, This helped present and clarify the profound religious content of the art work which worked to inspire the Catholic Flemish people as well as placate irate Carmelite superiors in Rome.
Much has been said and written on Titus Brandsma since his death in 1942 in Dachau concentration camp. One major theme about Brandsma from those who crossed paths with him in his lifetime was that he was a man of positive vitality, charity and cheer.
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Catholic bishops named Titus Brandsma as the spokesman for the freedom of Catholic education and the press. Brandsma did his job seriously and effectively. Father Brandsma, who was a prolific writer published in scores of publications, had vociferously and publicly opposed Nazi ideology since 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany. In July 1941 Brandsma authored a Pastoral Letter on behalf of the bishops that was read in all Catholic parishes. The letter officially condemned the Nazis’s anti-Semitic laws and Dutch Catholics were informed that they would be denied the sacraments if they supported the Nazi party.
Brandsma had been vehemently opposed to Nazi ideology from the time Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933. By speaking out and writing against it many times before the Second World War, he was finally arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in their infamous Dachau concentration camp where he died.
The Nazis hated Brandsma’s vehement and active long opposition to them. They finally arrested him and tried and condemned him as an “enemy of the state” in January 1942. Just seven months later, in July 1942, Titus Brandsma was dead. His death was caused by the terrible sufferings inflicted on him by the Nazis. At the very end, Brandsma, like other prisoners, was used as a guinea pig for Nazi “doctors.” To combat malaria affecting German soldiers, the Nazis experimented on prisoners, in this instance, involuntarily infecting them with malaria and then using exotic and dangerous drugs in an attempt at a cure. At that point in his captivity, Brandsma, already worthless to the Nazis since he couldn’t work—and whose convictions they could not beat or dehumanize out of him — became a dead man walking.
There were around 40 million Protestants and 20 million Catholics in Nazi Germany. A vast majority of Germans including Germany’s 20,000 Catholic priests lived under Hitler’s ideology and were not persecuted by the Nazis. The Nazis wanted all culture and thought to bend to their ideology and whoever spoke or acted against that imperative were imprisoned and often murdered. The first clergymen to arrive at Dachau were Polish priests sent there in 1939 for helping the Polish Resistance against the Nazi invasion. Many of these nearly 2,000 Polish priests suffered the same brutal treatment as did Titus Brandsma — a regimen of starvation, beatings, and involuntary medical experimentation. From 1933 to 1945, of the 3,000 clergymen who were inmates at Dachau—whether Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, or Muslim — about 1,100 perished. Nearly one-third of Dachau’s 200,000 prisoners (or 65,000) were Jews, many of them Germans and Austrians.
Titus Brandsma as a young Carmelite friar.
Titus Brandsma as a 30 year old Dutch Carmelite priest. Brandsma was a teacher, journalist, and modern religious art advocate.
Brandsma as a teacher in 1924.
Bradsma was university rector at Nijmegan in 1934. Hitler had rose to power in neighboring Germany the year before which Brandsma vehemently opposed for the rest of his life.
For weeks since his arrival into Dachau concentration camp just outside cheery Munich, Brandsma had been starved and savagely beaten regularly. His body depleted of strength, Brandsma became infected with camp plague. Refusing to go to the camp hospital called by camp prisoners “a hell within hell,” Brandsma was eventually admitted. Its doctors, having no mission to heal and restore their patients often used them, as they did Brandsma, for cruel medical experimentation. In the end, the camp doctor assigned to Brandsma’s case ordered that his patient, now dying of terminal renal failure, be given a lethal injection administered by a camp nurse. The woman, a lapsed Catholic and SS functionary, survived the war and, having at that time returned to her faith, testified to Brandsma’s cause of death that afternoon in the summer of 1942. She remembered his last moments and that he reached into his tattered pocket to give her his only personal possession. It was a crude rosary made and given to Brandsma by another Dutch prisoner who had been executed.
One of the last photographs of Titus Brandsma before his arrest and condemnation by the Nazis as an “enemy of the state.” Brandsma had been appointed by the Catholic Bishops in Holland as their chief spokesman to defend the freedom of Catholic education and the press. After Brandsma authored a Pastoral Letter on behalf of the bishops that was read in all Catholic parishes in July 1941 that officially condemned the Nazis’s anti-Semitic laws and informed Dutch Catholics that they would be denied the sacraments if they supported the Nazi party, the Nazis arrested the Carmelite friar. Brandsma spent most of the winter and spring of 1942 in Nazi jails in Holland and was taken to Dachau concentration camp in June 1942 where he died in July 1942.
A drawing of Titus Brandsma in Amersfoort prison in Holland in spring 1942. It was drawn by a fellow prisoner who was executed by the Nazis on May 6, 1942.
When the Nazis arrested Brandsma in Holland for his exercise of free speech, the journalist-priest marveled at his bad luck: “I’m 60 years old and I’m going to jail.” Confined in assorted jails of worsening condition all that winter and into spring he arrived at Dachau in June 1942. Brandsma worked to keep a positive, indeed charitable, attitude as far as possible within a hideously barbaric situation. When he went so far as to encourage other Catholic camp prisoners to include the Nazi guards in their prayers, the other prisoners violently demurred. Brandsma retorted: “I didn’t say you ought to pray for them all day long!”
Titus Brandsma’s signature with the abbreviation “O.Carm.” after it indicating his being part of the Carmelite Order.
When Brandsma died at, and in, Nazi hands on July 26, 1942, three days later camp staff took his remains and burned them in the camp’s old furnaces. By 1943 Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) had ordered and installed new and bigger furnaces. They were used around the clock to dispose of prisoner remains until April 29, 1945 when Dachau was liberated by a large force of American soldiers. The Nazis scraped Brandsma’s ashes out of the furnace and disposed of them in the camp’s unmarked pit among thousands of other victims at Dachau. Inside this once-mass killing facility set within a leafy, banal German suburb that gives it its name, it is unknown the precise number of actual prisoner deaths that occurred here between 1933 and 1945, although 32,000 deaths are recorded.
Furnaces in the crematorium at Dachau. More than 31,000 prisoners died in Dachau concentration camp from 1933 to its liberation by American soldiers in 1945. The former concentration camp is situated in the middle of a leafy, banal German suburb of the same name.
At the Dachau Memorial Site, a Carmelite convent of contemplative nuns is one of the memorials close by. Built on the site of a gravel pit where prisoners were sent to work when punished for breaking camp rules, the convent’s entrance is through a former Dachau guard tower.
Always the writer, Titus Brandsma kept writing even in prison. These prison writings are a source for amazement and inspiration today. In the depth of his own terrible suffering at the hands of others, Titus Brandsma wrote: “In the depths of our being we come upon the activity of God by which he sustains us and we are led and guided by him. We have to go to its deepest source to rediscover ourselves in God.”
The author at Dachau concentration camp in July 1984. The sculpture memorial to Dachau prisoners from 1933 to 1945 by Yugoslav sculptor Nandor Glid (1924-1997) is just behind me. Glid was a Holocaust survivor who had been a forced laborer and partisan during the war and whose father and most of his family were murdered in Auschwitz.
My photograph of the entrance gate into the camp during a visit in July 1984.
Another of my photographs from Dachau in July 1984 — barbed wire, ditch, and a watch tower. The broad expanse of the prisoner barracks were dismantled leaving only their graveled footprint.
Brief newspaper announcement of the death of Blessed Fr. Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Order. Brandsma’s cause for sainthood continues to go forward today.
Oil painting by Steve Trizna of the stages of life of Blessed Fr. Titus Brandsma, O. Carm. Photograph by author.