The nun Imma Mack was born 100 years ago

With bike and sledge: how a nun helped concentration camp prisoners

Berlin - A very young aspiring nun discovers the catastrophic conditions in a concentration camp – and takes action. She is later honoured many times as a humble heroine who defied deep snow and the threat of the death penalty and never forgot her Christian values.

Published  on 10.02.2024 at 09:55  – by Clara Engelien (KNA)

Josefa Mack, later Sister Maria Imma, was just 20 years old when she travelled to Dachau concentration camp for the first time in 1944. Her mission: to buy flowers for the convent of the Order of the Poor School Sisters in Munich-Freising from the sales outlet of a camp nursery run by concentration camp prisoners. Little did she know that this first journey would take her on a task that she could not even have imagined, as she would write a good 40 years later: "I was allowed to bring a little comfort and help to many prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp, of which I had hardly any idea until then, under great difficulties and dangers." This is how Sister Maria Imma recalled her experiences in the late 1980s in her memoirs "Why I love azaleas". She wrote down her experiences, which she made little fuss about until her death in 2006, at the request of Munich Cardinal Friedrich Wetter. Prisoners on the plantation had given her azaleas as a gift for her mother before she went home on holiday.

The future nun of the Congregation of the Poor School Sisters was born on 10 February 1924 in a Bavarian village between Eichstätt and Ingolstadt. Her father was a carpenter and her mother a housewife. Nine-year-old Josefa celebrates her First Communion in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. In a black-and-white picture, she can be seen in an elegant white lace dress, with a white wreath of flowers around her head and a large decorated candle in her hand; she looks into the camera with a smile and an alert gaze. As a third-grader, Mack has to listen to a Hitler speech on the radio with her school class. Having to listen to the "shouting, overlapping voice" was a nightmare for her. And an encounter with a Jewish person - the friendly owner of the Eichstätt department stores' Guttentag - is why she was so affected by "the cruel suffering that befell the Jews during the Hitler era".

At the time of her first visit to Dachau concentration camp, Mack was working as a helper in the order's children's home in Freising and was already living in St Clare's convent. One day, a well-known well digger in the convent came to visit and told her about the prisoners he was working with and that the nuns had been giving them bread for some time. A superior of the convent asked her to travel with him to the concentration camp to fetch vegetables and flowers for the convent. Mack still remembers the May day of her first visit in detail decades later. Their journey continues along a bumpy footpath past the prisoners' barracks on the "Street of the SS" with villas of the SS leaders, richly decorated with flowers from the plantation. The young woman's first shock comes when she sees a huge pile of old shoes and a "terrible stench" in her nostrils. The second shock came shortly afterwards when she passed hundreds of shaven-headed men in zebra-striped camp uniforms at roll call. "Everyone stared at us as if we were beings from another world" - a sight she will never forget.

The nun and the priest

In a small office, the point of sale for the flowers and crops planted by the prisoners, the young girl meets a young priest inmate. Initially suspicious and unfriendly, Ferdinand Schönwälder gains her trust when he recognises her good intentions. He tells her about the hunger, the punishments and the general hardship in the camp and asks her to come back and bring wafers and mass wine so that fellow Polish priests can celebrate mass in secret. He calls her "Mädi" - a code name for her own protection.

Mack later writes that she was "like a dreamwalker" during the next few days, carried away by her impressions. The sisters in the convent shared her shock and grief and encouraged her to continue her secret relief work. Over the course of the next year - until the liberation of the concentration camp by the US army at the end of April 1945 - the prospective convent sister travelled to the concentration camp most weeks. After her train journey was interrupted once due to a bomb alert, she decided to cycle most of the way from then on. During this time, she provided imprisoned priests with church supplies and food. When typhus breaks out in the camp, the sisters of the convent swarm out at "Mädi's" behest to buy medicine. From this day onwards, she also regularly smuggled them into the concentration camp.

Bild: ©il_ras/Fotolia.com

More than 30,000 people died in the Dachau concentration camp near Munich between 1933 and 1945.

At the beginning of 1945, when there was heavy snow in the particularly icy winter months and Josefa Mack was unable to get around on her bike, she travelled from the train to the concentration camp on a sledge. Over the course of the winter, she also helps two prisoners to be ordained as priests in secret by organising the necessary church forms and liturgical equipment. Her role as a messenger of letters from the prisoners is also important - even though she is aware that transporting them out of the camp and into it is punishable by death.

What motivates a young woman to take such action - despite the risk to her own life? As a child, she devoured martyr legends from the early Christian centuries and was particularly impressed by the mutual help of these Christians, who "knew no consideration for themselves". But her parents' home also contributed to her political views. As a ten-year-old, she listened wide awake to her parents' worried and critical conversations in the evenings after her father had read the newspaper.

Small gifts for the nun

The memoirs of the nun, published in 1988, not only show great compassion for the suffering of the concentration camp inmates. They paint the picture of a courageous and at the same time sensitive girl who - unlike the majority of the German population - felt directly addressed when she learnt of the oppression and murder of her fellow human beings. Their sympathy and compassion for the prisoners is mutual. They express this through small gifts, such as a "lovingly tied Advent wreath".

In 1986, Sister Maria Imma Mack was awarded the Bavarian Order of Merit. In 2004, the nun was knighted in the French Legion of Honour "for her courage and commitment to peace and reconciliation between Germany and France". Many of the prisoners she had helped were from France. This was followed by the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class and the Cross of Honour Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice. No reason for the sister to become arrogant. On the website of the Poor School Sisters, they write: "But those who were able to get to know her experienced a simple, kind and cheerful nun who had an open heart and open ears for people throughout her life." She died on 21 June 2006 in the convent in Munich after a long illness.

by Clara Engelien (KNA)