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Carving out a moment of hope in death camps.

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."

Henry began to carve a huculka, the figure of a woman from the Carpathian mountain region of Poland. When he was in the seminary, he carved such a statue. His fellow students loved it; his teacher hated it. When it mysteriously disappeared, Henry was uncertain whether some admirer had stolen it or whether the teacher had burned it.

By 10 in the morning, the model began taking shape. The face on the model was turning into the smiling face of Henry's night vision: St. Therese.

Hein, impressed, assigned Burek, another prisoner, to help Henry.

"Burek ... Burek," Henry repeated in his mind. The name was familiar.

"Are you familiar with Tumska street in Gniezno?" Henry asked Burek.

"Of course I am," he replied. "I am Francis Burek, a master woodcarver, specializing in church carvings. My work appears in practically all the churches in the Gniezno diocese."

Henry's recollection of those lovely altars seemed to guide his fingers. The Carpathian mountain girl took on the features of St. Therese of Lisieux.

Eventually, the SS came to inspect Henry's work. "What's that?" one asked.

Henry explained about the Carpathian mountain people.

"Sounds like our Tyrolean people. Can you carve something like that?"

"I think I can."

The next day, Henry was declared the winner. When they noted his 22,000 number and realized he was a priest, they beat and cursed him. Still, he was given a special pass and assigned to work for Brenner, who headed the workplace. He was warned not to divulge anything to anyone.

"You now belong to me," Hein said. "You will take orders from Brenner and Welger and work in isolation, in the stockroom. You won't understand anything of this at present, but perhaps later you will. Watch out for Brenner, though. He's a devil."

Henry had a measure of peace for a while. He was fed better food and wasn't beaten. The SS men and others came there to talk. Henry overheard and remembered almost everything. He impressed it indelibly on his mind and recorded it later in his memoirs.

Eventually, Henry learned he was sculpting for Hermann Goering. His winning model was placed in Goering's hunting lodge in the Alps. After that? Henry never knew.

Henry was liberated from Dachau by the Americans who stumbled upon it on April 29, 1945. In 1950, he came to America and joined the Franciscan order.

He died in 1987. He was 75.

John J. Pilch of Catonsville, Md., translated and adapted this reflection from Henry Malak's two-volume memoirs, Despised Clergy in the Death Campss.
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Title Annotation:Henry Malak's Dachau camp narrative
Author:Pilch, John J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 7, 1993
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