About The Sower of Black Field

For those who would like a deeper understanding of this historical fiction novel beyond the summary on the book, this post is for you!

Note to the reader: this article presents the historical backbone of the novel. Every word, name, and fact mentioned here is backed by archival research. See a summary of the historical fiction novel here »

The Sower of Black Field is based on the true story of my relative, Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P. He is my great granduncle (my father’s father’s uncle) and the firstborn son of Nikolaus and Viktoria Elser Koch, the first members of my family to immigrate from Germany to American shores in the 1850s. Born on May 26, 1873, in Sharon, Pennsylvania—a town with a large German immigrant community—he grew up bilingual, speaking fluent Hochdeutsch with a round and soft American accent.

When he was 16 years old, three missionaries from the Passionist congregation visited his home parish. The sermon they delivered must have been stirring, because the young Fr. Viktor joined the order just weeks after their visit. In the 1920s, when the Passionists of America began launching missions to other countries, Fr. Viktor felt a marrow-deep compulsion to establish a new branch of the Order in his ancestral homeland of Germany. He was accompanied by another Passionist who had originally proposed the mission—Fr. Valentin Lenherd, C.P.

The two co-founders arrived in Germany in 1922. Their mission faced wave after pounding wave of setbacks: a fragile economy in the wake of WWI, crushed under the weight of war reparations; the devastating impact of the Great Depression in 1929; the rise of National Socialism and a government that was hostile to the Catholic Church; a cynical Superior back home in Pittsburgh who expected his mission to end in failure. Despite these obstacles, Fr. Viktor succeeded in doing what many thought impossible. He opened three monasteries—one in Munich, Germany, another in Maria Schutz, Austria, and a third in the Bavarian farm town of Schwarzenfeld (the setting of The Sower of Black Field.)

The circumstances of Fr. Viktor’s arrival and presence in Schwarzenfeld are unique in the extreme. Given the history that unfolds here, some might even choose the word “miraculous.” Bottom line: in 1933, when Fr. Viktor selected the sleepy farm town of Schwarzenfeld as a site for his third monastery and hired its citizens to construct the building, he changed this place forever—and this is the heart of the novel.

Miesbergkirche (church) and Miesbergkloster (monastery) in Schwarzenfeld, Germany

Aerial view of the Miesbergkirche (church) and Miesbergkloster (monastery) that changed everything for the town of Schwarzenfeld, Germany. The church is a pilgrimage shrine built in 1720 in honor of the Holy Trinity. The monastery is the H-shaped building adjoined to the church. Photo courtesy of the town of Schwarzenfeld.

Where the Novel Begins

The Sower begins in April 1941, just weeks after Fr. Valentin, Fr. Viktor’s steadfast friend and co-founder, dies of cancer. Their first monastery in Munich has been shut down by the Nazis. The second monastery in Maria Schutz, Austria, is still open and operational, but severely depleted of novices and priests who have been called up to serve in the German Army. The third monastery in Schwarzenfeld is also open, but this spacious building with lavish modern features has been targeted for confiscation by Kreisamtsleiter Seiz, leader of the local NSV (this is the Nazi version of Welfare here in the States.) The NSV leader has been charged with the task of finding a building to accommodate 100 children who have been evacuated from cities threatened by air raids and open a boarding school for their protection.

The monastery becomes the focal point of a tug-of-war between the NSV and the Passionists, but predictably, the Nazis win out. Fr. Viktor and his brethren are evicted, and the support they expected from the German Catholic Church completely crumbles beneath them. Yet, the intrepid American priest is not alone. The Catholics of Schwarzenfeld rise to assist him. When Fr. Viktor and fellow Passionist Fr. Paul Böhminghaus, C.P. entrench themselves in a minuscule sacristy as an act of peaceful protest, Schwarzenfelders voluntarily cook and deliver meals to the priests (most notably Frau Paula Dirrigl and her maid Anna Thanner). Norbert and Maria Gindele invite them to their home (also one of the town bakeries) to take baths. The Reich forbids foreign clergy from ministering to their citizens, but Fr. Viktor finds a convenient loophole that helps him obtain German citizenship. Thus, he is able to legally remain in this backwater town, setting the moral compasses of German civilians with American ideals and Passionist concepts (which is unprecedented.) He has the perspective of being an American living in Nazi Germany, witnessing the indoctrination, steely oppression, and wartime hardships of the enemy at the same time he prays for Allied victory.

Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P., and Fr. Paul Böhminghaus, C.P., in the renovated flower sacristy in Schwarzenfeld, Germany.

Frs. Viktor Koch (seated) and Paul Böhminghaus (standing) in the renovated flower sacristy where they took up residence after the Miesbergkloster monastery was confiscated by the NSV. Fr. Viktor stayed in the lower part of the sacristy while Fr. Paul lived in the room above. Photo courtesy of the German Passionist Foundation.

The Atrocity and Ultimatum

The climax of the novel occurs in 1945. A chain reaction of fateful events occurs on April 17, when British forces carpet-bomb the neighboring town of Schwandorf. On the morning of April 19, a train rolls into the depot of Schwarzenfeld and grinds to a halt. The conductor is told that he cannot proceed further south because Schwandorf—the next major station on the track—has been annihilated. American low-fliers spot the train and open fire, assuming that it must be carrying troops and supplies to German front lines, but to their horror, the 750 occupants thrashing out of the boxcars are not German soldiers. They are Jews from the labor camp of Flossenbürg, a town about 50 miles north of Schwarzenfeld. SS guards evacuated them from the camp to prevent advancing American forces from liberating the prisoners. During the attack, the locomotive’s engine is destroyed, and several of the prisoners are either killed or injured. The SS execute men who are incapable of walking, and then proceed to death-march the rest through Schwarzenfeld. The spontaneous reactions of the townspeople demonstrate the highly unique influences at work in this backwater village. The deathmarch finally ends days later at Neunberg vorm Wald, when elements of the U.S. Third Army liberate survivors and arrest their SS guards.

American forces arrive in Schwarzenfeld on April 22, 1945, just days after the train station attack. They discover a pit of horror on the town’s outskirts—140 victims lay in a hasty shallow grave. This is their first encounter with the Holocaust, and they are incensed. Assuming the town is to blame, the commander issues a devastating order: all German men between ages 16-60 (essentially fighting age) will be shot in retaliation for the murder of these men.

Fr. Viktor confronts his countrymen and insists that the town is innocent. The commander agrees to spare Schwarzenfeld on one condition: its citizens (mostly women, children, and fragile old men) must dig up the bodies, wash them, clothe them in donated clothing, construct coffins (despite a severe shortage of wood and nails), dig a grave trench, and hold a proper Christian funeral so these victims are buried with dignity. And, the task must be done in 24 hours—otherwise he will carry out the order to execute Schwarzenfeld’s men. Fr. Viktor musters the town for this monumental task, and succeeds in getting an extension to 48 hours. In the end, the town is saved without a bullet fired.

Funeral ceremony for atrocity victims in Schwarzenfeld, Germany, April 25, 1945. Source: NARA Signal Corps Photos, 111-SC-265456

Funeral ceremony, April 25, 1945. Approximately 500 citizens of Schwarzenfeld gather for a service conducted by Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P., and parish priest Dean Josef Spangler. Source: NARA Signal Corps Photos, 111-SC-265456.

In Summary

The Sower of Black Field covers these fateful events between 1941-1945. While the novel ends with an incident of “forced confrontation” with the Holocaust (an apt phrase coined by researcher and historian Dr. Christopher Mauriello of Salem State University), The Sower is best described as a faith story that explores good, evil, and the human condition through the prism of Passionist theology. There is a mixture of real names and fictional characters who represent people who lived through this unique episode in history. Fiction is used to fill in details long forgotten by eyewitnesses, and to heighten dramatic tension in certain scenes. The book ends with an epilogue titled “Author in the Confessional,” which highlights the seams between fact and fiction, and reveals the author’s journey in researching and writing the novel—a process that took twenty years. Readers will find triumph, tragedy, and an intimate look at the power of faith, and come away with an expanded understanding of not only World War II history, but of universal humanity as well.

For an annotated, scholarly version of this history, read my peer-reviewed paper, “An American Priest in Nazi Germany: The Story of Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P.,” published in the Fall 2014 issue of Gathered Fragments, the journal of the Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. You may also enjoy a visit to the project website, www.viktorkoch.com »