Tuesday, 8 May 2018

An icon in Listowel
recalls the horrors of
Belsen and the Holocaust

The icon in Saint Mary’s Church, Listowel, Co Kerry, was presented to Father Michael Morrison in Bergen-Belsen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

A discreetly placed icon in Saint Mary’s Church, Listowel, Co Kerry, recalls the Holocaust and the role of a Listowel-born Jesuit priest, Father Michael Morrison was the chaplain with the British and Canadian troops who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

The wooden icon of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child is said to have been carved by a concentration camp prisoner during World War II. It was presented to Saint Mary’s Church by the Donal Walsh Live Life Foundation on World Holocaust Day this year [28 January 2018].

The Revd Lieutenant Michael Morrison, SJ (1908-1973), was the liberating chaplain at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, and was the great-uncle of Donal Walsh from Blennerville, who before his death from cancer at the age of 16, had campaigned to help young people struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Father Michael Morrison was born in Listowel in October 1908. He was educated in Limerick by the Christian Brothers at Sexton Street, and from the age of 14 by the Jesuits at Mungret College. At Mungret, he was an excellent student and sportsman, winning the O’Mara cup with his hurling team.

At 18, he decided to become a Jesuit and he entered the novitiate in 1925. As part of his training, he was sent to the Jesuit-run school, Belvedere College, in Dublin to teach Math and Religious Knowledge and to live in the Jesuit Community.

When he was ordained in 1939, he continued to teach in Belvedere College. He was teaching there in 1941 when the British army called on Irish priests to serve as chaplains in World War II. Morrison answered the call, and in 1941 he joined the 2/5th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment.

His first posting was in the Middle East, where he worked with soldiers no matter what their religious affiliation was. In 1943 Morrison was sent to the No13 General Hospital of the Middle Eastern Forces, and in 1944 he was transferred to to the 2/8th Lancashire Fusiliers, Derry Regiment.

In the closing days of the war, British and Canadian troops entered Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945. It was the first concentration camp liberated on the Western Front, and the soldiers had little idea of what they would face as they entered.

When Morrison arrived at Belsen, he was confronted with the sight of ‘between 10,000 and 15,000 corpses lying about unburied.’ In his first letter home, he writes about the total desperation of the situation: ‘The CO expects 5,000 to die in the next two weeks. After that he expects the death rate to go down.’ But he admitted later on that this estimate was much smaller than the number who actually died.

Unlike Auschwitz and other camps, Belsen had no gas chambers. It was originally used as a prisoner-of-war camp for French and Belgian captives. From 1943, Jews with foreign passports were kept there to be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned abroad, but very few exchanges were made. About 200 Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine and about 1,500 Hungarian Jews were allowed to emigrate to Switzerland.

In time, Belsen became a holding camp for the Jewish prisoners. It was divided into eight sections, including a detention camp, two women’s camps, a special camp, a neutrals camps, a ‘star’ camp for mainly Dutch prisoners who wore a Star of David on their clothing instead of the camp uniform, a Hungarian camp and a tent camp.

Bergen-Belsen was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, but by the time Morrison arrived with the British and Canadian troops at the end of the war, there were more than 60,000 prisoners, including large numbers who had been moved there from Auschwitz and other camps to the East.

Tens of thousands of prisoners from other camps came to Bergen-Belsen after agonising death marches, and the main causes of death were malnutrition and typhus. More than 50,000 people died at the camp between 1941 and 1945, including Anne Frank, the young Jewish diarist, who died just three weeks before the camp was liberated.

Morrison spent his first 10 days there anointing about 300 dying people a day, stopping only for two short meal breaks a day. In letters home, he describes how ‘what we saw within the first few days is utterly beyond description,’ and describes ‘people crawling on their hands and knees because they have not got the strength to walk.’

Morrison was placed in Camp No 1, ‘Horror Camp,’ where the number of dead was so great that the army had to use bulldozers to push the mounds of dead bodies into large pits that became mass graves. Morrison would stand over these pits, staring at the rotting corpses and praying for the dead. They included Poles, Hungarians, Russians, French, Belgians and Dutch. Photographs show Morrison and a British army Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Leslie Hardman (1913-2008), conducting a joint service over Mass Grave number 2 at Belsen before it was filled in on 25 April 1945.

Morrison found seven fellow Jesuits who had been held in Belsen because of their ethnic origins or political views. Five of these Jesuits died in the first few weeks.

Near the end of 1945, the remaining 11,000 Jews where moved out of ‘Horror Camp’ to better conditions and on a day which Morrison describes as ‘White Monday,’ the camp was burned to the ground.

After World War II, Morrison moved to Australia, where he taught at Riverview College and served as parish priest at Saint Ignatius Church.

He later returned to Dublin to teach maths at Belvedere College. But he spoke little of what he had seen in Belsen. His health was failing, and he collapsed while walking up the steps in Belvedere House. He died in Jervis Street Hospital soon after on 7 April 1973. Father Michael Morrison was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

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