During the Second World War, when the Nazis moved into a new area, local religious leaders could present a threat to their authority. It was not unusual for the Nazis to send priests and ministers to concentration camps.
Jean Bernard, translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider
Zaccheus Press (2007)
Reviewed by Ronald J. Rychlak
During the Second World War, when the Nazis moved into a new area, local religious leaders could present a threat to their authority. It was not unusual for the Nazis to send priests and ministers to concentration camps. Ultimately, several thousand clergy (mainly Catholic priests) were crammed into a small section of Dachau known as the priest block. Fr. Jean Bernard of Luxembourg was one of those priests, and this fascinating book is his account of the horrific experiences he suffered in the hands of the Nazis.
Priests at Dachau were not marked for death by being shot or gassed as a group, but over two thousand of them died there from disease, starvation, and general brutality. One year, the Nazis “celebrated” Good Friday by torturing 60 priests. They tied the priests’ hands behind their backs, put chains around their wrists, and hoisted them up by the chains. The weight of the priests’ bodies twisted and pulled their joints apart. Several of the priests died, and many others were left permanently disabled. The Nazis, of course, threatened to repeat the event if their orders were not carried out.
Early in Fr. Bernard’s imprisonment, priests were treated slightly better than other prisoners at Dachau. The Nazis did this in order to create resentment among the prisoners and to keep the priests isolated. Later, as the war went on, especially when Pope Pius XII or the German bishops were critical of Hitler or the Nazis, the treatment got much worse. “That’s fine kettle of fish your Pope got us into,” said one Protestant minister following one round of particular brutality. The worst week of treatment, meriting an entire chapter in the book, followed a Vatican Radio broadcast critical of the Nazi regime.
There was so little food that Fr. Bernard tells of risking the ultimate punishment in order to steal and eat a dandelion from the yard. The prisoners would secretly raid the compost pile, one time relishing discarded bones that had been chewed by the dogs of Nazi officers. Another time the Nazi guards, knowing what the priests intended, urinated on the pile. For some priests, this was not enough to overcome their hunger.
Fr. Bernard received a highly unusual reprieve when, in February 1942, he was given a nine day pass. His mother had died, and it seems that the Nazis thought there was an opportunity for some good publicity. It also seems likely that they did not expect Fr. Bernard to return to Dachau. He, however, recognized their agenda and despite the absolute misery that he knew awaited him, Fr. Bernard went back to the concentration camp. (This episode, just one chapter in the book, inspired the motion picture The Ninth Day.) Later, he declined the Nazis’ offer to release him from Dachau if he would promise to leave the priesthood.
It was said that sores never healed in Dachau, but despite the unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment, priests were usually better off in the priest block than they were in the infirmary. There was an order that priests were to receive no medical treatment in the infirmary. They received so little food that Fr. Bernard once ate his bunkmate’s ration before reporting that the man had died.
For all prisoners, the infirmary was more of a place to die than to receive treatment. When Fr. Bernard was first admitted, he learned that the beds had three bunks. “You have to go up to a top bunk,” explained one attendant. “You can still climb pretty well. When you can’t manage anymore, you’ll get a middle bunk, and then one at the bottom.” Most prisoners who left the infirmary were dead.
One message that comes through loud and clear is the absolute joy that the sacraments brought to these men who were in such dire conditions. Although they could be executed if caught, they secretly said Mass and used what little scraps of bread they could find to provide communion for priests and non-priests alike. Fr. Bernard wrote: “It is a sea of comfort that pours over the gathering. Comfort and hope and strength for new suffering joyfully accepted.”
This is a wonderful book and an easy read. It provides insight into history, human nature, and faith. It also reminds us of an important part of the Holocaust that is too often forgotten.