The year 1942 was the worst year in the concentration camp at Dachau. Terrific hunger, hard work and an outbreak of typhoid fever caused the prisoners to die like flies in the fall. Prisoner 22104 weighed about 78 pounds and was too weak to lift a shovel or push a wheelbarrow. Yet he was on the construction site, building a road for the Third Reich. When he collapsed in the mud he prayed for death.
The guard, with his dog and machine gun, marched up and stood over him. “I could kill you now, you are of no use,” he said. “But you will be dead today anyway.”
He moved on.
The prisoner gradually became aware of some noise behind the fence near where he lay. There by a farmhouse he could see a little German girl 10 or 11 years old picking up apples that had fallen from the trees. He could tell that she was frightened by the guard, but after he moved away, she threw some apples toward him. He reached through the fence and picked one up.
Then she said in a low voice, “We have no bread at home, but I will be going soon to the bakery and will bring you some.”
An hour later when the child returned, he still lay by the fence. She looked left and right and when she saw that the guard was not watching her, she threw a piece of bread. It was close enough that he could pick it up. It was still warm.
“This was the moment,” says Monsignor Joseph Gluszek, “that I was not praying for death anymore, but for life. I realized there were still people who care, that even in Germany there were still human beings that were good.”
Gluszek grew up in a small village in what is now southern Poland. His family had a few acres of land, two cows, some chicken and a few pigs. After the first World War, his father came home broken in health, suffering from malaria.
These parents sent their promising son to the town of Wadowice to attend school when he was eleven, but only four years later, his father died.
After the funeral, he lingered beside his father’s grave. An older gentleman visiting the cemetery that day noticed the young man. He talked to him and learned that, with the death of his father, the lad’s education was over. He asked questions, and listened carefully to the answers. Finally he said, “I want to talk to your mother.”
“This good Christian man who had no children of his own, wanted to do something for another,” say Gluszek. “Thanks to the gentleman, I was able to finish college and go to the University of Krakow. He took care of all my expenses until I was ordained a priest.”
Gluszek was ordained in Krakow in 1935 and was assigned to a village in the beautiful high mountains of southern Poland. His peaceful life there ended abruptly September 1, 1939. Germany invaded Poland, and the first day of the war, the Nazis arrested the young priest and took him in chains from Poland to Czechoslovakia and then to Germany to the concentration camp at Dachau.
Jews, Gypsies and Priests,” he says. “There were the three categories destined to die in the concentration camp. They got rid of the Jews and the Gypsies. About 400 priests survived out of 1300 who were taken there from Poland.”
Two-and-a-half years after the apple incident, the prisoners at Dachau learned of an order for their extermination. Himmler, the head of the dreaded Gestapo, determined that the Americans would find no live prisoners when they came. At nine o’clock the evening of April 29, 1945, the S.S. division stationed by the camp were to machine gun every prisoner, burn the camp and move into the Alps.
“But we didn’t know that God had different plans for us,” says Gluszek. “That very Sunday at 4:00 in the afternoon, good General Patton came and liberated the camp.”
Other than a period of labor at the stone quarries in 1940, Gluszek spent the entire war, nearly six years, in the camp. “lt wasn’t easy being at Dachau,” he understates.
The end of the war did not bring peace to Europe. Gluszek watched from the displaced persons’ camp where he had been assigned as the Soviet Union increased the pressure, finally cutting off all rail, water and highway routes through East Germany to West Berlin. He did not want to go back to a Poland that was under the control of this oppressive government.
To come to America, a priest had to have acceptance from an American Bishop, and it wasn’t easy to find a bishop to take a survivor of the concentration camp.
However, an American priest from Chicago visited the displaced person’s camp in Germany. He asked if Gluszek was going back to Poland. “I’m going to stay here as long as I can,” he replied. “And then maybe go to South America.”
When the man found out that Gluszek had been priest in the village from which his mother immigrated to America, and knew her family, he said. “No sir, I won’t let you go to South America. My mother wouldn’t let me do that.”
He went on to Rome, and it happened that William J. Condon, Bishop of the Great Falls diocese, was there. “I am sure Montana could take a few priests,” the man said to Bishop Condon, and he told him about Gluszek.
“Bishop Condon, thank the Lord, may God be with his soul, signed the application without even meeting me,” says Gluszek. “So in the year 1950, after nine days in a small army boat, I arrived in New York. For the first time I could see the Statue of Liberty. Everyone on the boat had good tears in their eyes.”
It wasn’t easy at first. He could speak German, Polish, very good Bohemian and some Spanish, but he couldn’t speak English. People were kind, and he learned. He served first in Red Lodge with Monsignor Zadick, then in Billings. After only two years he was assigned his own parish, Moore and Hobson. He later ministered at Geyser, Stanford and Raynesford and finally Big Timber area.
Eleven years ago, when he turned 70, Monsignor Guszek retired to the Holy Family parish in Great Falls. Since then he’s taken care of nursing homes in the area.
“I’m just so happy I am serving these precious people,” he says. “I don’t do anything special. I’m just an ordinary priest. I offer what I can although I know it isn’t enough to meet their many needs.”
Although a priest in the diocese of Great Falls, Gluszek remains listed in Krakow where he was ordained. He’s considered their priest taking care of spiritual needs in the United States. He kept in communication with Bishop Wojtyla of Krakow who came into the office in 1957. In 1971, it was he who asked Pope Paul VI to make Gluszek a Monsignor.
In 1976, Wojtyla, now a Cardinal, came to a Eucharistic Celebration in Philadelphia. Before he returned to Poland, he wanted to come to Montana to visit the priest under him whom he’d corresponded with for many years, and whom he’d met once in Canada. The people in Philadelphia told him, “Don’t go. There’s nothing in Montana but Indians and wild animals.” “But I have my priest there and I want to see him.”
“But I have my priest there and I want to see him.” the Cardinal answered, and came. He spent a night with Gluszek in Geyser, and said mass at Stanford for his parishioners. After giving his blessing, he left for Cincinnati and back home.
“We didn’t know that he was the one God had in mind to be the Pope,” Monsignor Gluszek says. Two years later, he traveled to Rome to attend the coronation of Pope John Paul II.
Gluszek’s been to Rome over half a dozen times since then to see the Pope who grew up in the same village he did in Poland. Two years ago he left about 200 letters that he’s received from his friend since 1957 in a depository at the Vatican, believing they may have historical significance to those who want to know about Pope John Paul II in the future. “I have been privileged to be invited to be with him, to celebrate mass with him, to share food with him,” Gluszek says.
“What kind of person is Pope John Paul? Very human. More human than a human being can be,” he says, with a smile that makes deep creases in his smooth face. “He’s also very educated.”
Along with a framed copy of the Black Madonna of Poland and a picture of the beautiful church where he served in his native land, Gluszek’s home is filled with photographs of this man whom he admires, respects and loves.
As he looks back over his life, Gluszek understands how important are the seemingly small moments in one’s life. A kind stranger in a cemetery, a child whose name he never heard, a famous General, a priest visiting a displaced person’s camp, and a caring Cardinal destined for the highest office in his church, profoundly changed his life.
It is therefore no wonder he feels great satisfaction in caring for the spiritual needs of the often forgotten but always precious residents in the nursing homes-saying masses for them, giving them the sacraments, preparing them to meet their maker. “I was the first Polish priest in the concentration camps. Hundreds came after me and they’re long time dead,” he says, “and I’m still here. The Divine Providence has something for me to do.”