The words (or some of them) of Pastor Martin Niemöller have been quoted in various forms as sectarian tensions rose in Belfast over the flags issue. In World War I, he served as a German naval officer on board submarines. He was a Protestant theologian and his attitude to the Jews has been the subject of debate. In this quotation, he was referring to the inactivity of German intellectuals during the Nazis’ rise to power:
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Having signed a petition by Protestant churchmen that was critical of Nazi policies, he was put on trial for activities against the state. During the second world war, he was interned in the concentration camps of Dachau near Munich and Sachsenhausen.
Another clergyman to have been imprisoned at Sachsenhausen was a Catholic priest, Blessed Rupert Mayer SJ, known as the Apostle of Munich. A member of the Jesuit order, he was a powerful preacher, who spoke out against the evils of Hitler and Nazism. He too served in the first world war as a military chaplain. He is buried at St Michael’s church in Munich. He was arrested by the Gestapo in November 1939 shortly after the outbreak of the second world war and was deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he remained for several months. He was then sent to the monastery at Ettal near Garmisch in Bavaria and placed under house arrest. Released in May 1945 he returned to Munich but died in November that year while saying Mass. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
Another story of courage by a Catholic priest in a concentration camp is that of Saint Maximilian Kolbe OFM, a Franiscan. He was arrested by the Gestapo at a friary near Warsaw in 1941 and taken to Auschwitz. He celebrated Mass each day in his prison cell, which I saw five years ago when I visited the former camp. A memorial there says up to 1.5 million men, women and children mainly Jews were murdered there by the Nazis.
Fr Kolbe offered himself in place of a married man when the deputy commander of the camp ordered ten men to be starved to death, following the escape of three prisoners. A remarkable story of self-sacrifice which was recognised by the Catholic church when he was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1982. This evening at 7:30pm in the Queen’s Hall at Newtownards, the annual Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration in Northern Ireland will take place, organised by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the past eleven years. It honours those communities destroyed in the Holocaust under Nazi Persecution. But the commemoration has also been extended to remember modern day victims of genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, as well as the atrocities in Armenia.