Unseen History: Friar Victor
The photo above was taken 60 years ago, in April 1945, in the German town of Schwarzenfeld. It’s one of a series of Holocaust photos my dad discovered under a drawer in an Army Surplus filing cabinet. The bodies in the caskets are those of Jews, some of the over 6 million killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The people attending the funeral are Germans who had been ordered there by American officers.
The Americans discovered that many hundreds of helpless persons, including Allied prisoners-of-war and Polish Jewish slave laborers, had been shot in cold blood by Nazi SS troops, and their bodies thrown into a mass grave. The executions took place one day before the American forces captured the town. After making official record of the circumstances, U.S. Military Government officers ordered local German civilians to exhume the bodies and provide coffins and a civilized burial for the victims.
Aside from the soldiers, the only other American in the photo above is a priest, Friar Victor Koch, who appears in the far right hand side of the picture. He had been sent to Schwarzenfeld to found a monastery in 1932. His presence was the only thing that saved the town from destruction after American forces discovered the mass grave on its outskirts.
Sources indicate that Father Viktor argued with the American commander for no less than three hours. Eventually, he succeeded in convincing him that Schwarzenfeld?s citizens were innocent of this atrocity. He agreed to spare the town under one condition. He ordered Schwarzenfeld’s citizens to exhume corpses buried on the town’s outskirts, wash them, clothe them in donated garments, construct caskets, and give each victim a proper burial, all in 48 hours. If the townspeople failed to achieve this task, he intended to re-issue orders for Schwarzenfeld’s destruction. To complicate matters, wood and nails–the construction materials needed to construct caskets–were scarce. However, the people of Schwarzenfeld were resourceful. The children knew of a local barn where old horseshoes were in plentiful supply, and they quickly proceeded to gather as many as they could find. Later, the nails were hammered back into shape, and then used to construct the coffins. Every man, woman, and child in the town participated in this effort, and with Father Viktor’s help, they succeeded in completing this monumental task.
I recieved an email or two from relatives of Fr. Victor after the original post went up. Last I heard they were attempting to write up a news/magazine article on Fr. Victor and his history. My guess is that the story eventually turned into this website. There are a number of other photos of Fr. Victor and Schwarzenfeld, including some I hadn’t seen before dealing with the atrocity and subsequent re-burial.