‘Long Live Freedom’ exhibit showcases nun who resisted Nazis

By Kallie Cox, Staff Reporter

Josefa Mack, also known as Sister Mary Imma Mack, was just 20 years old and a candidate of the School Sisters of Notre Dame when she began resisting the Nazi regime by sneaking food and medicine into Dachau, a concentration camp in World War II Germany famous for imprisoning Catholic priests.

Mack’s story was told by Sister Carol Marie Wildt, an archivist for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, at Morris Library in conjunction with the Long Live Freedom exhibit, April, an exhibit which showcases youth resistance to national socialism.

Wildt said the motto for the Nazi National Socialist Party was “You are nothing, the folk the race, is everything.” She said this was in direct opposition to the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s educational values and Christian educational values.

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Wildt said when the Adolf Hitler mandated all teachers go through a “re-education process” and be educated in state schools, many sisters were displaced or fired from teaching and replaced by these state-trained teachers.

“In December 1936, the education department of Bavaria sent out a notice and all of the religious teachers in a certain area were to be replaced by lay teachers,” Wildt said. “300 sisters were displaced; that also meant that 35 convents were closed.”

With a loss of teaching positions and school jobs, Wildt said the sisters had to seek other ministries.

“Many of them served in military and civilian hospitals, they were in parishes, they were secretaries, they were housekeepers, they worked in munition factories, they worked in farms they tutored, etc.,” Wildt said, “So even though they were prevented from teaching in the school itself, they still attempted to serve the people of Bavaria.”

Wildt said during the war, 14 active sisters of the congregation lost their lives. She said 11 were killed due to bombings, two were shot in Vienna during a terrorist attack and one died as a result of her treatment in a Polish prison. Other sisters were raped or tortured.

Wildt said when she was displaced, Sister Mack began to deliver food to Dachau in 1944. She would visit this camp weekly for 11 months.

While there, Mack met Ferdinand Schonwalder, a priest who organized with Mack to smuggle food, medicine and religious materials into the camp, as well as sneaking letters from the prisoners outside.

Schonwalder asked Mack to bring wine and host to the camp so the priests could celebrate Mass and Eucharist and she did so on multiple occasions.

“She met the prisoners in the shop, she was told stories of their treatment, Father Schonwalder always gave her oral requests, nothing ever written for food, medicine and he asked her to mail letters at the post office,” Wildt said. “For any of these things, if she would have gotten caught that would have been the end of her.”

Wildt said as word got out Mack was smuggling supplies into Dachau, neighboring towns provided her with large amounts of food.

“So much so that she couldn’t bring all of them at one time into the concentration camp so Father Schonwalder made contact and agreement with Mr. Beer,” Wildt said.

This agreement provided Beer’s daughter would bring some of the food into the camp disguised in laundry. The girl would place the laundry basket in a specific location in the laundry room for the prisoners.

This only lasted a short time before Beer became afraid and dropped out of the plan. His daughter was replaced by 10-year-old Crystal, who began to bring the food into the prison.

“What guard is going to stop a 10-year-old girl if she comes in?” Wildt said. “She would bring food in and she might pick up a flower or something to take back out. They just kind of overlooked her.”

After the train Mack took to Dachau was bombed, she began riding to Dachau by bicycle. In the winter when this was no longer possible, she walked and pulled her supplies on a sled. Wildt said this was roughly 21 miles each way.

In Mack’s personal writings, she highlights a particularly challenging task. In 1944, a young deacon named Karl Leisner was in Dachau and was terminally ill. The priests in the camp wanted to ordain him before he died.

At this time, Wildt said Bishop Gabriel Piguet had been imprisoned at Dachau after being found by the Gestapo for hiding Jewish children. He had the qualifications to ordain Leisner.

To make this happen, Wildt said Mack snuck in an official letter, the holy isles, the ritual books and a stole.

Wildt said in the winter of 1945, a typhoid epidemic occurred in the camp and medicine was desperately requested.

Community members and other nuns helped to obtain the medicine and gave it to Mack to distribute among the prisoners.

Mack had been seen so frequently at Dachau her parents worried she had been captured. After alerting the prisoners she was going to take a short break to visit home and assure them all was well, Wildt said the prisoners gave her azaleas to bring to her family to express their gratitude.

This touched Mack so much she would later title her 1991 book “Why I Love Azaleas.”

The camp was liberated on April 29, 1945. After the war, Mack made her vows and went on to teach needlework, according to Wildt. Mack died in 2006. 

Staff reporter Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox.

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