What Makes Schwarzenfeld Unique?

Why would an American—my great granduncle—defend Germans from countrymen who had fought and bled to liberate a continent from the evil of Nazism?

My initial reaction to Fr. Viktor’s story was not what you might imagine. Upon hearing that a relative of mine defended a German town from Americans, my first thought was that we had discovered a dark period in our family history. Why would an American—my great granduncle—defend Germans from countrymen who had fought and bled to liberate a continent from the evil of Nazism?

The incident with the SS atrocity and mass grave only made the prospect of writing a book even more murky. I judged this to be a Holocaust story. When I think of concentration camps and atrocities in the mind-numbing extreme, a marrow-deep sorrow falls over me like a shroud. Without a connection to this time period (or even a degree to support it—I’m a computer scientist, not a history professor), how could I possibly pen a novel about that? The idea felt like being invited to walk upon holy ground, a place where I had no right to tread.

Fortunately, my father wanted to know more from the get-go, and his curiosity was infectious. Research trips turned into family vacations that took us from the Passionist Archives in Union City, NJ, to the National Archives in Washington, DC, and finally to Schwarzenfeld itself, where I had the chance to meet surviving members of Fr. Viktor’s flock. In the process I discovered that this wasn’t a dark period in my family history at all. Nor was it a Holocaust story. It was something entirely different and unexpected. Three extraordinary things happened in this little Bavarian town that could not—and did not—happen anywhere else in the Third Reich. This, I discovered, was the real heart of the story.

Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P. and Fr. Valentin Lenherd, C.P. at Lourdes, 1922

Passionist fathers Viktor Koch, C.P. (left) and Valentin Lenherd, C.P. (right) visit the Marian grotto at Lourdes in 1922 after arriving on European shores. Photo courtesy of the Passionist Historical Archives.

A Little Historical Background

During World War I, missionaries around the world had been called back to Europe to serve as chaplains or combatants. After the conflict ended, Pope Benedict XV called for a revival of mission work. The Passionists were one of many orders that rose to the occasion, sending bands of missionaries from the USA to other countries. Fr. Viktor and his fellow American Passionist Fr. Valentin Lenherd pushed to establish a new branch of the Passionist Order in Germany, their ancestral homeland. Since the Passionists are a monastic congregation, this meant that the co-founders were obligated to open and operate monasteries in the country. The moment they arrived in Weimar Germany in 1922, it became immediately obvious that the funding for this effort would have to come from the USA. The country was reeling both from the aftermath of war and from the crushing burden of war reparations. Just as the economy showed tenuous signs of recovery, the Great Depression in 1929 completely decimated progress. The German Mark was so worthless, even a bucketful of money couldn’t buy a loaf of bread.

By 1933, despite a string of hardships, Fr. Viktor had succeeded in opening two monasteries—one in Munich, Germany, and the other in Maria Schutz, Austria (an important point for later). Hitler’s rise to power and campaign to pull Austria into the Reich created new obstacles too complex to discuss here. But bottom line, Fr. Viktor needed to open a third Passionist monastery in Germany. This brought him to Schwarzenfeld.

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Miesbergkirche in Schwarzenfeld, 1933

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Miesbergkloster construction project in Schwarzenfeld, Germany, May 21, 1934. I love this photo because you can almost feel the anticipation in the air. These people know that their lives are about to change dramatically for the better. Photo courtesy of the Passionist German Foundation.

Here’s Where Things Get Interesting

When Fr. Viktor arrives, he finds a population that, like most Germans, struggles in the unrelenting grip of poverty. There are no jobs. No means to put basic staples like milk and bread and meat on the table. Their children are complaining of empty bellies. In a backwater village like this, the opportunities for employment are few and far between. A new monastery must be built here from the ground up, and Fr. Viktor has $200,000 USD at his disposal. Consider this for context: adjusting for inflation, $200,000 in 1933 is worth over $4,800,000 USD at the time of this writing (January 2024). And that’s even before we factor in the exchange rate between the US dollar and the 1933 German Mark—somewhere around 3 Marks per dollar. [1] The amount of money in his 1933 bank account—about 600,000 Marks—must have sounded absolutely jaw-dropping to the Germans. (In today’s context, it’s like we’re talking about 4.8M x 3, which would have sounded like 14.4 million Marks to them!)

Fr. Viktor announces to the town that he’s ready to hire every able-bodied citizen to get this job done—and he even welcomes weary itinerants roaming the roads in search of work. The unemployment rate in the whole region plunges to 0. This is actually knee-slapping funny when you realize that local officials—all loyal Nazis—are probably being commended for fulfilling Hitler’s decree to put Germans back to work, at the same time they’re given orders to prevent the Catholic church from opening new institutions (you know, like monasteries). The Nazis were intentionally kept in the dark on what was happening, but by the time they got wise, I’ll bet there were lots of conversations in government offices that ended with, “I won’t tell if you won’t!” That gives you a sense of what Viktor was like. He knew how to trap the Reich in its own red tape!

Just take a moment to consider human nature. If you dump a massive bucket of money on desperate people, it tends to make you a popular figure. Suddenly, this devout Catholic village finds itself catapulted from poverty into plenty, and these people didn’t have Hitler to thank for a single pfennig. They were very much aware that the person dramatically changing their fortunes was an American priest.

There is plenty of historical evidence that this created a bond of loyalty between Fr. Viktor and the Catholics of Schwarzenfeld. You’ll have to read the novel for that. But I’ll mention this tiny telling detail. Fervent National Socialists would refer to Hitler as ‘our Führer.’ The Schwarzenfelders had a term for Fr. Viktor too. They called him the ‘Provinsche,’ derived from his official title, Pater Provincial. (For Americans in the audience, that’s pronounced Pro-VIN-shee.) And he wasn’t just the Provinsche. When I interviewed Schwarzenfelders in 2005 who actually knew him, I noticed that they called him our Provinsche with solemn veneration.

Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P. puts the town of Schwarzenfeld to work.

Fr. Viktor Koch, C.P., puts the town of Schwarzenfeld, Germany to work on constructing the Miesbergkloster. Photo courtesy of the German Passionist Foundation.

The Second Factor

The second factor affecting this town is entirely unprecedented. As the Nazis gained control of the government, they sought to shake the influence of the Catholic Church over its people. Thus began a systematic persecution of the Church and clergy operating within the Reich. A new rule went into effect: foreign clergymen were barred from performing pastoral duties for German citizens. The Nazis were dead set against foreigners planting ideas in the minds of German parishioners that ran counter to National Socialist ideology. The Gestapo began hunting down foreign priests—including American Passionists who transferred to Germany to help the fledgling mission. At this point you’d expect Fr. Viktor to be included in the fleet of foreigners being driven from European shores, but suddenly on his paperwork, the ‘A’ on his citizenship papers (indicating American citizenship) turns into a ‘D’ for ‘Deutsch.’ And, it was perfectly legal.

Now, how on earth did this magic trick happen? Like I said, this guy is a wizard when it comes to trapping the Reich in its own red tape. In 1938, Hitler finally succeeded in forcing Austria to join the Third Reich (an event known as the Anschluss.) At this point, Austrian citizens were granted German citizenship. Remember how I mentioned that Fr. Viktor opened a monastery in Maria Schutz, Austria? Refusing to leave, and contemplating the last, fraying thread of his dwindling options, he discovered that he’d lived in Austria just barely long enough to satisfy the conditions of Austrian citizenship, which in turn made him legally a citizen of the Third Reich. He filled out the paperwork, and guess what? An American priest had the legal means to continue his ministry on German soil—and the opportunity to do what the Nazis feared most: subtly plant foreign concepts in the minds of German parishioners.

What historical evidence do we have that the people of Schwarzenfeld absorbed American principles? You’ll have to read the novel when it comes out, and decide for yourself.
Poesiealbum of Liebharda Gindele

Poesiealbum of Liebharda Gindele, daughter of Norbert and Maria Gindele. A poesiealbum is a journal in which German children collect poems, pictures, adages — any nugget of life that they wish to carry with them until they’re old and gray. Aside from the owner, only cherished friends are permitted to write in them. The albums of Schwarzenfeld’s elderly Catholics contain Bible verses in Fr. Viktor’s bold, wiry handwriting, always followed by the motto of the Passionist order in German: Das Leiden unseres Herrn Jesu Christi sei stets in unserem Herzen! (May the sufferings of our lord Jesus Christ remain ever in our hearts!)

The Third Factor

This is a nice segue into the third and final factor that makes Schwarzenfeld a remarkable place in the Reich. By 1937, the Nazis had succeeded in shutting down Fr. Viktor’s first monastery in Munich. The monastery in Austria remained in their possession, but the community was drastically depleted. In 1941, the Nazis shut down the monastery in Schwarzenfeld. Refusing to concede defeat in his mission to found a branch of the Passionist Order in Germany, Fr. Viktor entrenched himself in Schwarzenfeld (where he enjoyed a massively loyal following) and continued preaching at the pulpit every Sunday. This makes Schwarzenfeld the only place in the Third Reich to consistently get doses of Passionist ideology.

That might sound only mildly interesting—until you get a sense of what the Passionists are all about. Members of this religious order take the standard vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but there’s a fourth one as well: a solemn vow to devote all their time, energy, and effort to spreading the memory of Christ’s Passion in the world. In Schwarzenfeld during the war years, parishioners certainly heard the Nazis say that they were the master race, but within the pews they absorbed the message that Christ was present in all who suffer—not just Germans, not just Catholics—everyone. The Passionists answer a higher calling to see beyond common social and cultural divisions, and implore their followers to do the same. As they say on their own website, they “stand with every living being today who is experiencing their own crucifixion,” including Mother Earth as she suffers through climate change. These are far-sighted people with a vision that transcends even religion itself. Given the context of Nazi Germany, I can’t think of any message the Schwarzenfelders needed to hear more. And, they were getting it from the priest they considered their hero and personal savior.

What tells me that the Catholics of Schwarzenfeld took Fr. Viktor’s word as gospel? You know my answer by now—you’ll have to read the novel!

Circling back to April 1945, when American forces discovered an SS atrocity on Schwarzenfeld’s borders and swiftly passed judgment on the townspeople, it’s easy to see why Fr. Viktor rushed to their defense. He knew that his countrymen had sorely misjudged them, just as I had at the beginning. Yes, they lived in a land permeated by the predatory ideology of National Socialism, but they had also been exposed to influences not found anywhere else in the Reich. They were no longer average Germans. They were something else. Something unexpected.

That’s a story that hasn’t been told before. And it’s not a Holocaust story. It’s a faith story.

That’s a story worth telling.

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 »
[1] The date of monetary conversion from the US dollar to the German Mark happened in the period 1933-1934. In January 1933, Fr. Viktor would have received 4.2 Marks for every $1 USD; in January 1934, he would have received 2.61 Marks for $1 USD. See R.L. Bidwell, Currency Conversion Tables: A Hundred Years of Change (London: Rex Collings, 1970), 22-24. The exact date when the Passionists converted $200,000 USD to German Marks is unknown, but I’m going with 3 for the purposes of this example.