It was late evening. A dull light burned in the hospital ward in Herrsching where the dead were laid out, one beside the other. Young men washed the faces, still youthful but stiff, smeared, bloody. They brushed back the hair from the brows, lifted the corpses into the simple coffins, the dead hands folded together, each with a crucifix between the stiff fingers.
Earlier in the evening the village children had brought flowers from the summer meadows, whole armfuls of them. The young men took the flowers and laid them in the coffins till they hid all the wounds. It was past midnight and the dawn was already lighting the sky, as they paid this last service to their brethren. Who were the dead? What had happened?
Berchmanskolleg in Pullach, near Munich, was a house of studies for German Jesuits. After their noviceship scholastics often went there to study philosophy in preparation for the priesthood. Among them were young Jesuits from East Germany.
On 19 June, 1951, twenty-one scholastics of the East German Province and Raymond McGrath from England, made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Andechs by lorry (in the hungry post-war years even a lorry was a luxury). Andechs had a special significance for them, since Saint Hedwig, the patroness of Silesia (in East Germany) was born there. In the pilgrims’ church they attended the Mass of Fr Pies who had accompanied them; and they prayed for the intentions of their oppressed homeland. On this June morning, they celebrated Mass in the open beside a Bavarian lake. The last words of the Gospel were: The bridegroom is here! Go out and meet him. Stay awake because you do not know the day or the hour.
After Mass they swam in the lake, then had their picnic. The amateur cooks among the brethren prepared a lunch which was welcomed with gusto, in spite of the rain which was just settling in. All too early, about 4 p.m., they had to start for home. The mood was happy and companionable. They settled down in the lorry under their tarpaulins, and sang the songs of their homeland. For a stretch the road ran alongside the Herrsching – Seefeld railway line, and then crossed it. There it was that it happened.
The wooded country and low hedges leave only 120 yards of the track visible. The gates were open at the unmanned level crossing. As the lorry trundled over the tracks, Fr Pies, who sat beside the driver, heard a whistle. “A train! Quick!” he cried – but it was too late. The lorry’s wheels slithered and stalled on the wet rails. The train-driver did indeed suddenly notice the lorry before him, and braked. But the heavy electric locomotive smashed at 45 to 50 mph broadside into the back of the lorry, and came to a standstill a full 100 yards beyond the level crossing.
It was all over in a few seconds. The lorry was hurled into the air by the violent collision and crashed into the swampy land 15 metres from the crossing. The passengers were thrown out. One was caught and dragged along by the engine, another fell between the rails. The victims and the wreckage of the lorry were scattered all over the field. In the dreadful stillness someone cried: “Fr Pies! Absolution!” Brother Raab and the driver, who had escaped almost uninjured, pulled the priest out of the ruins of the driver’s cabin. Wounded himself, he pulled himself upright and gave a general absolution, tracing a great sign of the cross with trembling hands.
Then they did what they could to help the injured. “I’m alright. Help the others!” said the first one they reached. The man whom the train had dragged along was dead. Dead too the brother who fell between the rails. The others, who had been thrown head downwards into the ditch, did not stir. Most of them had severe fractures of the skull and neck. Of the 22 students, 13 were dead. The severely injured were brought to the surgical clinic at Seefeld. Karlheinz Seidenschwanz died on the way. Werner Halatsch followed him that same day, and the following morning Gunther Keith succumbed to his grievous injuries. Several survived in terrible shape for minutes or hours after the crash. One local man at the scene said: I have been through the war on two fronts, and seen many men die, but I never saw dying men give themselves to God as these did. A nun at the hospital spoke of her astonishment at their capacity to suffer, and readiness to offer themselves to the Lord.
As night drew on, and the dead bodies of the young students lay in the Herrsching mortuary, the faithful of the village gathered in the church and held nocturnal adoration before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Two days later, sixteen simple coffins lay before the altar as Cardinal Faulhaber presided over a solemn, heart-breaking Requiem Mass.
In this great calling, the Lord of life and death had summoned to himself 16 students, 15 of them from the East German Province of the Society, and Raymond McGrath from the English Province. God had called them once before, one day when they were young, in an hour that was perhaps unexpected, unforeseen. They had answered “Here I am, send me!” In generous, youthful readiness they had put themselves at his disposal, consecrated their lives to the spreading of his kingdom. He would make them his priests, mediating between Him and mankind, bringing his mysteries to men.
But God sees into our future. There was a task for which he had prepared these men from their youth, prepared them with that art of which He alone is master. In their great hours of delight and of devotion, their disappointments and failures, in all the love and suffering that they had given and received, in all the miseries of the time, the bitterness of war and flight, in all this He had been planning for the hour in which he would call them by name.
We, their friends, were left with the task of digging their graves, burying their remains and agonising over the question: Why? These disillusioned veterans of Hitler’s war had set themselves to do something constructive, even heroic, with the rest of their lives. Our professors uttered grave and sententious reflections, and we realised how little words can help in face of such apparent obscenity. We could move our own hearts with Housman’s lines:
They carry back bright to their maker the mintage of man,
The lads who will die in the glory and never be old.
But as we shovelled the heavy clay we were numb, sick, battered by mystery. For me the grief was sharpened by the guilt of survival. In the strange lottery that selected Raymond McGrath to take an empty place in the party, I was spared to survive my friend. It was my first sharp encounter with what is meaningless, and a first sharp experience of the crucifixion as a model for life: how to face the mystery of evil and suffering without losing hope or love.