Karl Leisner


"A Model for the Young People of Europe" (Pope John Paul II)

Karl's Story

Karl was born on February 28 in 1915, first-born of a family of five. In his parents he saw the example of a real Christian faith lived out in the everyday world. When he began grammar school in Kleve, North Germany, he joined the Catholic Youth Movement where he enjoyed the companionship of friends with whom he could share the adventure of long mountain hikes as well as learning more about he Holy Scriptures and gaining a deep love of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. From an early age Karl kept a dairy and from this we can see how, in spite of difficulties, he tried to make his daily life pleasing to God. On leaving school in 1934, Karl had decided to study for the priesthood at the seminary in Munster.

Throughout Germany the Nazi ideology was taking hold and the Hitler Youth Movement was having a great influence on young Germans. The Bishop of Munster decided that the role of leader of the Catholic Boys Movement was becoming too dangerous for a layman and from the seminarians he chose Karl to run the youth movement. Karl took this work very seriously and in addition to his studies he undertook long journeys by motorbike through the countryside to encourage and lead the Catholic Boys groups entrusted to him, helping them to remain faithful to God in an increasingly Godless and threatening society. The state authorities resented the work of the Catholic Youth movement and the Gestapo began to watch Karl's movements.

Sent to study in Freiburg for two terms, Karl met Elisabeth, eldest daughter of his landlady. Sharing his ideals he found in Elisabeth a friend with whom he would have liked to spend the rest of his life. For months he struggled to make up his mind where his vocation lay. Was God calling him to be a priest or to marry Elisabeth? Finally in March 1939 he wrote in his diary, "It was a fight to the death, but I am called to be a priest - and for this call I am going to sacrifice everything." Elisabeth understood and supported him in his decision.

Karl was ordained a deacon on 25th March 1939 and was to be ordained a priest in a few months time. During the spring Karl was found to be suffering from tuberculosis and was sent by his doctor to recover at a nursing home in the Black Forest. It was there that he was arrested by the Gestapo because of a comment he made when he was told by a fellow-patient that there had been an attempt to assassinate Hitler. Karl was immediately imprisoned in Freiburg then taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp from which he was transferred to Dachau in December 1940.

Allotted a new name, "Prisoner 223562", the young deacon was sent to barrack number 28. Over 2,600 Catholic priests, many of whom were deported from Poland, as well as a large number of seminarians and Protestant ministers were to be kept in terrible conditions. Overcrowding, starvation, forced labour and disease took their toll. Karl's tuberculosis deteriorated; he was sent to the camp "infirmary" where up to 150 of the sick were left to die. For many of these fellow-sufferers Karl was a sign of hope in a world of despair. His kindness and patience were striking. In letters to his family he remembered birthdays, recalled happy events of the past and tried to spare his parents the pain of knowing his true state of health. This was not difficult as letters were censored and prisoners were forbidden to give bad news. Faithful to the Rosary and the Divine Office, Karl's love for God grew stronger in spite of his circumstances. Mass was celebrated each day in the camp by the priest prisoners and Karl was able secretly to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the infirmary so that the dying might receive Holy Communion.

Still a deacon, Karl longed to be a priest. In September 1944 an unexpected event occurred: Bishop Piguet of Clermont-Ferrand in France was brought to Dachau, arrested in May for assisting people to escape from the Germans. Suddenly Karl's hope became a possibility. Thanks to the help of a young postulant from a nearby convent who acted as messenger, the necessary permission was obtained from Karl's own Bishop and preparations were made for Karl's Ordination to the priesthood by Bishop Piguet. Although the Ordination was to be kept secret it was fitting that the ceremony should be honoured with the greatest possible dignity. Fellow prisoners made an Episcopal ring and crosier and Karl was ordained a priest on Gaudete Sunday 17th December 1944 in the chapel in Dachau concentration camp. A number of Protestant ministers who had heard of the plan for Karl's Ordination had saved biscuits and coffee sent by relations to give him a secret reception after the Ordination Mass. The new priest, however, was now gravely ill, able to stand only with difficulty, and it was not until the Feast of Saint Stephen, 26th December that he could offer his first and only Mass.

Karl's state of health worsened in subsequent weeks. He was dying. The Liberation of Dachau by the Americans took place on 29th April 1945 and Karl was taken, with the help of the brave local parish priest to a nursing home at Planegg in a forest ten kilometres south-west of Munich. Here, at last was peace for Karl. The dreadful images of the concentration camp began to fade. Filled with gratitude for the kindness of the nursing nuns who cared for him, Karl wrote in his diary, "I am a free man! Alleluia! ... My human dignity has been given back. Flowers on the table. The Crucifix on the wall." He entrusted everything to Our Lady. Looking out at the forest Karl's heart rejoiced, "Here the body and soul can be restored. I can pray well again. In the silence God speaks even though I am exhausted."

These days of peace continued and the medical care was excellent but Karl's tuberculosis was now far advanced and his condition worsened. At last, having made the difficult journey, his families were able to visit him after his long imprisonment. They found him so weak that his mother had to help him eat. And yet he was happy. The last words written in his diary were, "Bless also, oh, Most Holy One, my enemies!"

His strength was leaving him but in his periods of consciousness Karl showed great interest in the people around him. To his mother he confided the truth, "I must tell you something, but don't be sad. I know that I am going to die soon, but I am happy". Conscious and in pain Karl received the Last Rites on 12th August. On that day he passed into eternity.

Karl Leisner is to be Beatified on Sunday 23rd June 1996 in Berlin by Pope John Paul II.