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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Father Jean Bernard's "Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau"

"There is little need to rehearse the conditions of their lives in the camp," says William O'Malley (The Priests of Dachau, "It was a hell before which Dante would stand mute."
A good day was one on which you'd been beaten to your knees only once or twice; one small wad of bread and a cup of watery soup; 12 hours of hard labor, dragging the corpses to the roll call each morning and evening; warehoused at night in tiers, sleeping three to each lice-infested bunk; lugging one's soul from place to place in the fellowship of zombies; the cold, the filth, the endless degrading "hazing", the typhus, the inhuman joy when your best friend was beaten senseless and you were ignored. For some, hell lasted five years of days.

In 1940, it seemed a diplomatic coup that the German bishops and the Vatican had persuaded Heinrich Himmler to concentrate all priests from the network of European camps into one camp, to house them in separate blocks together, with lighter work and a chapel. In early December 1940, priests already interned in Dachau were put into Barracks 26, 28 and 30 at the end of the west side of the long camp street, "Liberty St.". Within two weeks they were joined by 800-900 more from Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Auschwitz and other camps, a Babel of haggard strangers. With the conquest of Western Europe, arrests of priests increased so that, now concentrated into two barracks instead of three, despite the deaths, they were rarely fewer than 1,500 men in beds and toilet facilities built for 360. Hardly any priests remained in the other camps.

Priestblock 25487 contains the collected memoirs of one such priest from Luxembourg, Fr. Jean Bernard, arrested in 1941 for denouncing the Nazis. He was imprisoned from May 1941 to August 1942.

Initially, the clergy were given "special treatment" -- apparently by request of the Pope: a ration of wine (administered under duress, if necessary); a loaf of bread split between four men; separate bunk accomodations. The celebration of Mass is even tolerated. This segregation has a downside, however -- keeping them in moral isolation and fostering resentment among the ranks.

The "good times" come to an abrupt end in October. Breviaries and rosaries are confiscated; religious activity is prohibited and the clergy are made to join the general workforce. "Some people said that the Pope had given a strong speech on the radio, and the German Bishops had issued a public protest" -- a reminder that under the Nazi regime, outspoken resistance had immediate repercussions on those imprisoned.

From there on out, chapter by chapter, Bernard's situation and that of his fellow priests grows progressively worse. The daily routine of the prisoner is described in harrowing detail. Backbreaking work and the performance of inane tasks, punctuated by arbitrary beatings and punishments meted out by sadistic guards. (Never mind the fate of the prisoners, the condition of the camp itself must be kept pristine in adherence to military order).

Hunger is an ongoing battle -- as the supply of food dwindles, the acquisition of a single turnip, a dandelion, a scrap of cabbage or a seedling plucked from the compost heap is received with celebration. Those too weak to work are admitted to the infirmary, an even more hellish fate as the reader discovers.

Throughout, Fr. Bernard encourages the spirits of his comrades, and at times (coverty) fulfills his priestly functions. There are also moments of striking clarity, where the light of Christian faith and divine grace pierces what seems an eternal night. Two accounts struck me in particular: the first is from early on, when Bernard is imprisoned, shortly after his arrest and awaiting his sentence:

My neighbor taps on the wall. "Is it true you are saying Mass? — I'd like to say the responses. Would raise your voice a bit to say the prayers? And please knock three times before the consecration."

As I am performing the sacred rite my cell door opens. Cautiously a guard comes halfway in and looks over at the little altar with an expression that is half sad, half full of longing. "I'm a Catholic," is all he whispers. He stays until he hears footsteps in the corridor.

The second from midway through, Christmas 1941:

"I'm on gate duty today," Cappy whispers to me. We are returning from the assembly square on Christmas morning, and our column is marching alongside the German clergy's column for a brief moment.

When it is time to delivery the pails for midday meal I exchange with a colleague assigned to go to Barrack 26 that day. I suspect that Cappy wants to give me something and am eager to find out what it is.

He is standing at the entrance of the barbed-wire barrier around teh barrack, as announced. We are not allowed to enter, but have to leave the pails in front of the "gate." I set mine down next to Cappy, and as he bends down to pick it up he quickly presses a carefully folded piece of paper into my hand. Very softly he mouths the word, "icthys."

I have difficulty concealing my excitement. Swiftly I hide the precious gift in my glove. And as I hurry back home images from the time of the catacombs come to mind. Back then, as now, the Most Holy had to be preserved from desecration, and so the Greek term for "fish", ichthys, became a code word for the Eucharist, since it is composed of the initial letters of the phrase, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior."

After the midday meal, we Luxembourgers met a few friends inconspicuously in the darkness outside the barrack and divided the precious pieces into as many particles as humanly possible. And then the Christ Child entered our hearts ...

Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau is available from Ignatius Insight has published the first chapter -- definitely worth a read.

* * *

In 2004, The Ninth Day was released -- loosely based on Bernard's memoirs. According to the synopsis:

Abbé Kremer is released from a living hell in the Dachau concentration camp and sent home to Luxembourg. Upon his arrival, he soon learns that this is not a reprieve or a pardon of his crime – voicing opposition to the Nazis’ racial laws – but that he has nine days to convince the bishop of Luxembourg to work with the Nazi occupiers. Gestapo Untersturmführer Gebhardt is under pressure from his superior to have the Abbé succeed in creating a rift between the Luxembourg church and the Vatican – or be transferred to duty in the death camps in the East. Gebhardt, a former Catholic seminarian, uses theological arguments to bring the Abbé around but when they don’t work he resorts to more draconian measures. The Abbé is torn between his conscience and his horror of returning to Dachau...
Some clarification: Bernard's account of his leave in the book is much different than that of the film. This is not to say that Bernard isn't faced with the option of saving himself, fleeing or returning to camp of his own volition (avoiding repercussions to his fellow prisoners); or that he isn't grilled during an obligatory meeting at Gestapo headquarters about the status of his "re-education" (a great propaganda success, were it to be achieved) -- only that he is granted his suprise leave for a different reason, which I'll leave to the reader to discover.


Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau

  • Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau - Publisher's info. The book features an Introduction by Robert Royal, and a Preface by Archbishop O’Malley. Noted translator Deborah Lucas Schneider (From The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality; Germany: A New History) was commissioned by Zaccheus Press to prepare the first English-language translation.

The Ninth Day

  • Review: The Ninth Day, by Steven D. Greydanus (
  • Interview with The Ninth Day's director, Volker Schlondorff:
    The Ninth Day comes right on the heels of another German Nazi-themed film, Downfall, in which Schlöndorff’s star, Ulrich Matthes, plays the diametrically opposite role of Nazi propagandist Joseph Göebbels. Which role did he play first, and what was this like for him?

    "We were shooting more or less simultaneously. [Matthes’s] part [in Downfall] was finished [while we were shooting], but then they were still doing all the war scenes and stuff, what happened on the surface, not what happened in the bunker, but all the streetfighting and stuff. They were still shooting that…

    "So [to play the priest] was to exorcise, to get the Göebbels out of his system. He said it was much harder and more painful to do the Göebbels, and it was a great relief to do the priest after that."

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