Chapter One of "Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau" | Fr. Jean Bernard | Ignatius Insight
Chapter 1 of Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau |
Fr. Jean Bernard
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.
"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
"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
"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
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 Fhrer 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 Znon."
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
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
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
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
· · ·
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
"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
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 Wrzburg.
"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
I have never had such
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
"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
"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
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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