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- CSV Media NI
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- Fr. Michael Morrison S.J.
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- 26 April 2005
Fr. Michael Morrison S.J.
In October 1908 Michael Morrison was born in Listowel, Co. Kerry. His first school was called C.B.S. Sexton Street. When he was fourteen he enrolled at the local Jesuit secondary school, Mungret College in 1922. While here Morrison showed himself to be an excellent student and an equal sportsman, winning the 0’Mara cup with his Hurling team. At age 18 Morrison decided to become a Jesuit and entered the Novitiate in 1925. As part of his training Morrison was sent to Belvedere College S.J. to teach Maths and Religious Knowledge and to live in a Jesuit Community. He brought his love for the game of hurling with him and soon started to train a few teams within the college. He was finally ordained in 1939 and continued to teach in Belvedere.
When World War 2 broke out across Europe, the British army appealed for any Irish priests to join the army as chaplains. In 1941 Morrison answered this call and joined the 2/5th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment. His first foreign posting was in the Middle-East in October 1942. He performed the duties of any army chaplain, saying mass and giving counseling to the troops of his regiment no matter what religion they were. In 1943 Morrison was sent to the No.13 General Hospital of the Middle Eastern Forces. During his time here Morrison saw many sick and dying men and would regularly have to give the last rights to men who would not survive much longer and to those who had already passed on. This experience would be of help in his later duties. In 1944 Morrison was moved from the Welsh regiment to the 2/8th Lancashire Fusiliers, Derry regiment. His job here reverted back to the normal duties of a chaplain until his regiment was sent to liberate the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
The camp was liberated on the 25th of April 1945. It was the first camp on the Western Front to be liberated and so the British where totally unprepared for what they faced. When Morrison arrived there, he was confronted with a sight of “between 10,000 and 15,000 corpses lying about unburied”. In his first letter home Morrison talks about the total desperation of the situation. He wrote, “The C.O. expects 5,000 to die in the next two weeks. After that he expects the death rate to go down”. Morrison even admits later on that the estimate was a lot smaller than the number that actually died.
Unlike other camps such as Auschwitz, Belsen had no gas chambers to kill the prisoners as it was originally used as a prisoner-of-war camp for French and Belgian captives. This was changed in 1943 when Jews with foreign passports were kept there to be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned abroad, although 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, both took place under the rubric of exchanges for German nationals. The lack of exchanges led Belsen to serve mainly as a holding camp for the Jewish prisoners. The camp was divided into eight sections, a detention camp, two women’s camps, a special camp, neutrals camps, "star" camp (mainly Dutch prisoners who wore a Star of David on their clothing instead of the camp uniform), Hungarian camp and a tent camp.
Bergen-Belsen was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners; however, by the war’s end more than 60,000 prisoners were detained there, due to the large numbers of those evacuated from Auschwitz and other camps to the East. Tens of thousands of prisoners from other camps came to Bergen-Belsen after agonizing death marches. As a result the main causes of death within the camp were malnutrition and typhus.
The first few days of Morrison’s time in Belsen were the worst. He spent his first 10 days anointing about 300 dying people a day, stopping only for two short meal breaks per day. He describes the sights that he had to witness in his letters home: “What we saw within the first few days is utterly beyond description” and “people crawling on their hands and knees because they have not got the strength to walk”.
Morrison was placed in camp No.1, nicknamed “Horror Camp” because it was by far the worst. In this camp the number of dead was so great that the army was forced to use bulldozers to push the mounds of dead bodies into large pits, serving as mass graves. Morrison would have to stand over these pits, staring at the rotting corpses and praying for the dead. While there he found that there were many nationalities within the camp: Poles, Hungarians, Russians, French, Belgians and Dutch had all been brought there as the front line had moved closer to their original camps.
Morrison found seven other Jesuits imprisoned in the camp. They were there because of their race or their political views. Over the first few weeks all but two of these died. However he became very good friends with one of the Jesuits who survived, Fr. Kenopka SJ. Kenopka was the Provincial for Krakow and as soon as he was well enough, he began to help Morrison with his duties around the camp. Morrison began to write regularly to the Provincial of Ireland in order to get Kenopka a posting there. However there was no free position in Ireland and so Kenopka stayed in the camp until 1946, when he left to go to another country.
During his time in Belsen, Morrison witnessed many horrors but he also had times of great joy. After the first few days of total chaos, Morrison began to set himself up properly. When his work of anointing the sick and the dead began to lessen, Morrison decided to hold the first mass to be said in the camp. However on the day he was supposed to hold the mass, it poured rain. The rain was so bad that Morrison thought of canceling the mass as he felt that no one would come. When he walked out on the makeshift altar he was stunned to see hundreds of people of many different religions waiting. He felt this to be one of the greatest moments of his life and so began to say mass every day.
As the first month ended, life began to settle down in the camp. The British army forced the local hospital to take the sick and the sanitary conditions in the camp improved greatly. Near the end of the year the camp was fully organized. The 11,000 Jews still in the camp where moved out of “Horror Camp” to better conditions and on a day which Morrison describes as “White Monday”, the camp wad burned to the ground.
After the war, Morrison was sent to Australia. His first position was at Riverview College and he was later sent to St. Ignatius church and served as a parish priest there. He returned to his first posting, Belvedere College S.J., to work as a maths teacher again and later to retire there too. He was never the same after his experience in Belsen and spoke little of what he had witnessed while serving there. His health was affected by the experience and he would be sick for the rest of his life. He collapsed while walking up the steps in Belvedere House and died in Jervis Street Hospital soon after in April 1973.
Until his death Morrison spoke very little of what he witnessed. In the years that followed the war the world began to fully realize what had happened in the concentration camps. However the many students that Morrison taught had no idea what he had witnessed as a chaplain. He showed extraordinary courage in his duties and paid for it with his health. Fr. Michael Morrison SJ went into Belsen a fit and energetic man but came out of it somewhat broken and suffering gradually failing health.
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