‘They can burn bodies, but they cannot burn the idea’: Fr Augustine Schubert OSA 1902-42

We have been so taken up with the pandemic that other significant events in 2020 have been pushed to one side. This year marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, reminding us of the horrors of that time, especially the Holocaust and the Bomb. A witness to that period was a Czech Augustinian, Fr Augustine Schubert, OSA, who died in Dachau concentration camp in 1942.

The Augustinians are trying to promote his cause for beatification. In 2008, a well-researched account of his life was written by František Futera and published by the Augustinians in Prague in Czech. Since then, progress towards his cause has slowed down. However, an English translation of Futera’s life will be published soon, in an attempt to reignite the cause and tell his story to a wider audience.

Born in Prague in 1902, Schubert was of mixed ethnicity. His father was of German-speaking stock from Sudetenland and his mother a Czech. At his father’s insistence, he went to German schools and to the German University in Prague, graduating with a doctorate in philosophy. His professor wanted him to join the faculty, but Schubert had other plans. So had his father, who wanted his son to get a secure job on the railways like himself.

As a member of a Catholic student movement, he and his friends got to know the Augustinians at the baroque church of St Thomas in Prague, where some of their meetings used to take place. During a camping trip, a group of them decided to join the Augustinians, including the fun-loving and guitar-playing Schubert. Their dream was to carry out the renewal of the Church and the people in Bohemia. After studies in Germany, he was ordained a priest in Prague on 20 January 1929.

He quickly established a reputation as a compelling preacher and became a spiritual director to a Catholic athletics movement called Orel, ‘eagle’ in English. Such movements were popular in Europe in the 1930s, not least among the various fascist governments. But Czechoslovakia was a fledgling democracy, and youth organizations like Orel were a vehicle for national identity, and in Orel’s case the evangelization of youth. In their magazine in 1938, in the light of Nazi aggression, he wrote: ‘We must remind the nation of the inalienable rights of God that he has for us, rights denied but not eradicated: the rule of law, the dignity of the family, education, the integrity of the nation.’

In October 1938, the Nazis invaded Sudetenland in northern Czechoslovakia and annexed it to Germany. The rest of the country was to follow. In the meantime, Schubert began to use his pulpit both to call people back to God and to speak of the injustice of the German invasion. Though he was ethnically half-German and bi-lingual, he was a proud Czech. Just before the Nazi jackboots were to pound the pavements in Prague, he preached a moving sermon in a darkened St Vitus’ Cathedral, a call to prayer: ‘By praying we do not weaken the nation. A part of it must have its fists clenched, another part its hands folded in prayer…’

After the invasion of the whole country in March 1939, Schubert quickly became a thorn in the side of the Nazi authorities. An opportunity for his arrest came when he was overhead making a derogatory remark about the German army as it marched past the Augustinian church of St Thomas and on up the hill to Prague Castle. He was eventually arrested on 30 August 1940, when the Gestapo burst into the monastery next to the church.

Schubert’s Prior, Fr Czerny, asked the arresting officer the reason for his arrest. ‘Be assured’ said the officer, ‘we have so much material against him that you do not have to count on his return. He agitates in the pulpit, corrupts the youth and subverts the idea of the Reich’. Never out of his black religious robes, he was ordered to put on his deceased father’s suit and marched off for interrogation. He would never wear the Augustinian habit again.

After intense questioning at Gestapo headquarters, he spent time in two prisons in Prague before being transferred to a jail in Terezin, 60km north, on 11 December 1940 - later to become famous as Theresienstadt, where the Nazis converted the local garrison town into a ghetto for Jews in Czechoslovakia. At this stage, Schubert knew his fate, one of the concentration camps, yet his faith remained firm, signing off a letter to his prior with the words: ‘All things are possible in HIM, who comforts us’, from one of St Paul’s prison letters.

Schubert was transported to Sachsenhausen camp on 4 April 1941, on the north German plain, where the barracks were wooden huts open to the intensely cold winters and no protection from the scorching sun in summer. Clergy were especially ill-treated. Schubert was given a number, 34930, and had to wear a red triangle to denote his status as a political prisoner. One of the Nazi policies in Czechoslovakia was to eliminate its intelligentsia, including clergy.

Then on 5 September 1941, he arrived in Dachau, about 16km northwest of Munich, a camp containing many Catholic priests. The overcrowding was appalling, with men having to sleep several to a pallet, on the floor between beds, and even in the lavatory. In the meantime, Schubert’s weight went from 105kg to 55kg. In spite of the collective suffering, he was always quick with words of encouragement and hope for his fellow prisoners.

Schubert and the other priests secretly said Mass and kept the Blessed Sacrament with them, the discovery of which meant twenty-five lashes and forty-two days in a concrete bunker. Eventually he developed a serious hernia due to the hard labour. When he got to the camp hospital after being turned away several times, beaten, and told he was a ‘malingerer’, his legs had become as thick as tree stumps and an X-ray found TB in three-quarters of his lungs. He was transferred to a hospital ward for the dying where no treatment was given.

In spite of the best efforts of a sympathetic Czech nurse, also a prisoner, and others, to keep him alive, he died of tuberculosis exacerbated by overall physical weakness on 28 July 1942. He was forty years of age. As he said to one of the priest-prisoners in Sachsenhausen, ‘They can burn bodies, but they cannot burn the idea’. The idea of God and freedom.