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Chapter 1 of Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau | Fr. Jean Bernard

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Editor's note: On Wednesday, April 16, at 8:00 p.m. EST, "EWTN Live" will feature Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., leading an in-depth discussion of Priestblock with guest William Doino, who is an expert on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. Mr. Doino has written for Inside the Vatican and First Things, and was a major contributor to the compendium The Pius War: Responses to Critics of Pius XII, edited by Joseph Bottu and Rabbi David Dalin.

Chapter 1

"What is your position on the German occupation of Luxembourg?"

I had known the question was coming. Everything up to this point had been just idle chat.

This time they had brought me up from my cell in the Stadtgrund Prison at an unusual hour, and had been strikingly courteous.

"I've got your case all figured out now," says Superintendent Hardegen. "I was just in Paris, where I had a few words with your pals Stoffels and Wampach. The two of them have confessed everything, and now they're trying to pin all the blame on you."

Then he leans over very close and puts his hand on mine in a fatherly way. His tone becomes intimate and confiding:

"I can see you're a decent fellow. I'm talking now as one human being to another. I'd like to save your skin . . . You're covering for your two buddies in Paris. But they're not worth it, they set you up to be the fall guy. Disgusting. It hurts me to see it. Just help me out a little, tell me what they're up to, and then I'll do what I can for you . . ."

What a pathetic creature, I think to myself. What would you know about friendship and loyalty? And suddenly the man's attempt to ingratiate himself makes me feel sick to my stomach. Fatigue is part of it, and I'm starting to lose my composure. I'm too nervous to go on playing cat and mouse.

"Let's get this over with," I say roughly.

An ugly expression crosses his face.

We both know at once that the game is up. We adjust our chairs. I sense that I have turned pale.

And then comes the question I have been expecting for the past two weeks: "What is your position on the German occupation of Luxembourg?"

"I accept the repeated promises of the Führer to respect the sovereignty of our country."

"That's enough," says Hardegen in a cold and triumphant tone. He has won.

· · ·

"Pack your things!"

I feel almost sad to leave my cell in Stadtgrund. It hasn't taken even three weeks for me to make friends with my neighbors to the right and left and—without the need for many words—with the guards, real Luxembourgers.

In the courtyard, Hardegen's own car is waiting. The superintendent drives me to Trier personally. He is in an expansive mood and talks at me without letup for the entire trip—about the coming victory and ruling the world and how the Church will be destroyed. It is February 1941.

· · ·

"Mr. Origer and Mr. Esch have just left, for Berlin." These were the first words I heard on arriving at the prison in Trier. Instantly I knew I would find friends here.

The door has hardly shut behind me when the "prison telephone" starts working. "Who's the new arrival?" The question is passed from cell to cell, through chinks in the wall and along heating ducts. There is a light tap on my cell wall. My neighbor introduces himself: "Bernard Zénon."

I am very pleased to hear this, for no matter how much his and my ideas and opinions may diverge on some points, I have always associated this name with a person who fought sincerely and fairly for his Communist convictions.

The next day we become acquainted face to face—to say the least, since we meet in the showers.

Then I was shifted to another floor and placed in "strict solitary confinement."

· · ·

"Greetings from Mr. Albert Wehrer!"

The words emerge from an SS uniform pushing its way through the cell door. Simultaneously a package flies through the air and lands on my bed. I open it. It is indeed a substantial greeting from a fellow inmate: a real Luxembourg ham sandwich!

It was not to be the last.

· · ·

After three weeks' probation I receive permission to say Mass in my cell, thanks to the intervention of the prison chaplain.

Only someone who has experienced it himself can know what that means. Now I no longer lack for anything. Breviary, rosary, the Bible, everything is at hand. I may truthfully count the weeks that followed among the happiest of my life. I imagined myself as a monk in a Carthusian monastery . . .

· · ·

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.

· · ·

"New arrivals," reports the prison telephone. They are Father Stoffels and Father Wampach, co-heads of the Luxembourg Mission in Paris.

We encounter each other only once, in the corridor. "Was Hardegen in Paris?" I whisper quickly as we pass.

"Yes, and he tried to make us believe you had spilled the beans."

We exchanged proud smiles. Nothing more needed to be said.

· · ·

The cell door opens.

The guard pushes a prisoner inside who is equipped with various tools. "This is where the window won't close, right?"

I look at him in surprise, but he is already hammering away at the window frame. The guard goes out and shuts the door.

"You almost gave me away! You intellectuals! You aren't worth the trouble we take over you. Now listen: The 'new' fellow across from you is a Gestapo spy. He speaks Luxembourg dialect and is supposed to sound you out."

"Thank you," I say, touched.

"Forget it," the man growls. Then he knocks on the door, and the guard lets him out again.

"The window is fixed," he reports.

· · ·


It's my mother. She looks pale and tired. She has kind things to say about everyone, my brothers and sisters and friends, but not a word about herself.

The guard pretends not to see all the treats she has brought me. Then the time is up. She doesn't cry. She holds her head high.

I was not to see her again in this life.

· · ·

May 5, 1941. I am awakened at four in the morning.

"Get ready at once! You're being moved."

"Where?" I ask.

No answer is forthcoming. But downstairs, in the office where I am signed out, the guard lets his index finger rest, as if accidentally, on the word DACHAU.

It takes thirteen full days to get from Trier to Dachau—going from prison to prison, in the "special cars" of the Reich railway. Someplace different every night, crowded into a cell with between ten and twenty other men, depending on where we happen to end up.

As a "political" prisoner it is unpleasant to spend the night with so many cell mates, not all of whom fall into the category "pure as the driven snow."

But all the same—this happened in Würzburg.

"Hey, it's Sunday. And you're a priest. You can preach to us, if you feel like it . . ."

The group was made up of Catholics and Protestants. They sat on the floor, leaning against the walls. I sat on the wobbly table and preached about what punishment means and about accepting it as atonement and a way to return to the order of things as God intended it.

I have never had such attentive listeners.

Praise for Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau:

"Stunning... Casts light into dark and previously neglected corners of the horror that was the Third Reich." -- Richard John Neuhaus, Editor in Chief First Things

"Father Jean Bernard's portrait of survival in a German concentration camp is simple, forceful and vivid – and therefore impossible to put down or forget. It ranks with the great 20th Century personal testimonies against totalitarian violence. Imprisoned and persecuted as a priest, Bernard clung stubbornly to his faith in Jesus Christ, his own humanity and his ability to forgive. Priestblock 25487 is a diary of Catholic discipleship under extreme conditions that will deeply move all persons of conscience." -- Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver

"Gripping! This crisp story of the 3,000-plus Christian clergy at Dachau in 1941 forces me to turn pages quickly, in horror. During Holy Week some fifty priests have their palms tied together behind them, then bent inwards toward the spine, before being lifted on hooks strung up to the rafters, where they hang for hours in excruciating pain. Humiliation, beatings, and contempt are heaped upon them day after endless day. Large numbers sicken and die. In its understated power, this brief book is unforgettable." -- Michael Novak, author Washington's God (with Jana Novak)

"Deeply moving... The simple honesty of this account of one of the most vivid battles between good and evil in human history is as exhausting as it is inspiring. Evil is only a problem for those who believe in good. The suffering of these priests for the sake of the loving God is one of the modern age's glorious mysteries." -- Father George W. Rutler

"I loved the book and could not put it down. It is dramatic. It is brutally honest. It is a great testimony to so many Catholics and other Christians who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. And finally the book is so important as a witness to what really happened to so many faithful during WW II versus what the anti-Catholic secular media want us to believe." -- Teresa Tomeo, Ave Maria Radio

"Priestblock tells the largely unknown story of priestly resistance to the brutality of German National Socialism... A good book for those who think everything has been said about the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, in its Nazi form." -- George Weigel

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