A new short film reveals the little-known story of how Catholic priests in a Nazi concentration camp placed their lives in the hands of St. Joseph.
“Here they are, prisoners facing almost certain death, vulnerable, weak — just as Christ the little child was weak in the arms of Mary, needing a protector,” David Naglieri, who directs the film by the Knights of Columbus, told Our Sunday Visitor. “For the priest prisoners of Dachau, I think, who else could they choose in turning to somebody who could offer them protection?”
The anticipated film, “Our Liberator: St. Joseph and the Priests of Dachau,” hits theaters for two days beginning on May 1, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. The 30-minute film will precede the movie “A Father’s Heart: The Miracles of St. Joseph Today,” which features the testimonies of people who have witnessed miracles through St. Joseph’s intercession.
The short documentary tells the story of how Catholic priests in the Nazi-run Dachau concentration camp in Germany prayed to St. Joseph ahead of the Allied victory in World War II. Thinking that the Nazis would never allow them to be rescued alive, they began a novena to the saint in April 1945.
That same day, Heinrich Himmler, the Reich leader of the Nazi Party’s SS (protection squads) signed an execution order for all Dachau prisoners. The Allied troops arrived just hours before the order went into effect, on April 29.
In particular, the priest prisoners prayed to St. Joseph of Kalisz, a special Polish title for Jesus’ earthly father. Many of the priests, Naglieri said, came from the region in Poland where the Shrine of St. Joseph in Kalisz stands.
Healed by a painting
According to “The Priest Barracks: Dachau 1938-1945” by Guillaume Zeller, 2,720 clergymen — including 2,579 Catholics — were imprisoned in Dachau. The book reveals that 65% of the priests imprisoned at Dachau and 84% of those who died at the camp were Polish.
“Poland obviously is a great Catholic nation with a rich Catholic heritage and also a very strong devotion to St. Joseph that goes back centuries,” Naglieri said. “And one of the principal locations, central locations for their devotion to St. Joseph is St. Joseph of Kalisz, where there had been a miraculous involvement of St. Joseph in the life of the people there.”
The shrine, visited by St. Pope John Paul II in 1997, houses a painting of the Holy Family. The artwork was commissioned by a sick, local man in the 17th century under the direction of St. Joseph, who appeared to him in a dream. The documentary reveals that, when this man saw the completed painting, he was healed.
Naglieri hoped that viewers would come away from the film with the realization that “we have a very powerful intercessor” in St. Joseph.
“We may not face circumstances quite like the priest prisoners of Dachau,” he stressed, “but all of us have need for an intercessor, all of us have challenges in our everyday lives.”
“I hope this inspires people to want to also turn to St. Joseph and have St. Joseph be somebody who they see as a protector for their own trials, for their own moments when they’re scared and when they feel they need somebody to protect them from the circumstances in their lives,” he added.
Naglieri said he first learned about the topic from his friend and Knights of Columbus colleague, Szymon Czyszek. Czyszek, the grandson of a Dachau survivor, serves as the Knights of Columbus’ director of international growth in Europe and appears in the film.
A few years ago, the two produced a three to four-minute documentary on St. Joseph that briefly featured the story. After receiving a positive response, they expanded the short video into the documentary coming to theaters in May.
They realized, Naglieri said, that the story was not known widely outside of Poland, including in the United States. They wanted to tell it more fully.
He revealed what it was like to direct the film.
“It’s all quite spine-tingling, to be honest,” he said of the story. “For me, it was also a thrill to be able to document that story and hopefully kind of expand what we know of St. Joseph and lead more people to have a devotion to him.”
Moviegoers can find out where to watch and get tickets for “Our Liberator” and “A Father’s Heart” at Fathom Events. Viewers can watch the film in English on May 1 and in Spanish on May 2.
Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.