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Friday Book Pick: Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau by Jean Bernard
A political party makes a swift rise to power and institutes its policies of totalitarian control and genocide with swift efficiency. We find the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi party he engineered, incomprehensible. Yet, as time reels forward, chapters of the past too easily fade from memory, but the dark mar left on history by the Third Reich should never be forgotten.
Father Jean Bernard was a Catholic priest from Luxembourg, arrested in May of 1941. (My own father was 10 months old at the time—this is not ancient history.) He was sent to the concentration camp at Dachau, to the “priest block.” Did you know there were barracks within the concentration camp used specifically for priests? Over one-third of Germany’s 21,000 priests came into open conflict with the Third Reich. Over 3,000 clergy (of various denominations, but mostly Catholic priests) were detained under the most brutal conditions, and the vast majority did not survive the experience. Fr. Jean Bernard was an exception, and he wrote his memoir in honor of his brother priests who gave their lives.
In his forward in the original edition of these memoirs, Father explains his motivation for documenting his story. He writes “in memory of the priests who died in Dachau—we must never forget what happened there and in many similar places. Forgetting would be cowardice….”
This harrowing story, told in Father’s own straightforward words, brings you inside the demoralizing experience of a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp. Through his plain retelling of events, you see, hear, and feel the gruesome effect of evil full-grown in the heart of man. We shudder to think of the millions of human beings whose lives were deliberately, systematically taken from them in concentration camps in the 1930’s and 40’s. (It is interesting that we do not shudder at the existence of Planned Parenthood in every state of the union—which has similar goals being accomplished in greater numbers.)
In the midst of the dark horror of such an account there are also shining moments of faith and heroic virtue. It is as if the darkness cloaks a hidden light, which no darkness can entirely obscure. The description Fr. Jean Bernard gives of his first Mass in the camp is an example of this light cloaked in Dachau’s darkness. The prisoners, mostly priests, but seminarians and monks as well, are crammed in a room to celebrate Mass. At the moment of consecration, the prisoner standing next to Father Jean pulls on his sleeve, wishing to place his small fraction of host into Father’s hand, knowing that the celebrating priest’s intention will be to consecrate the bread in the hands of all the priests, and this particular prisoner is not a priest. The man places his tiny fragment of host next to the fragment already in Father’s hand, and at the words of consecration, both small pieces become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Savior. “I look at the two bits of Host in my hand, and as the One for Whom we are suffering comes into our midst, as in their hearts hundreds of priests join their offering to that of the Savior, tears roll down my cheeks. It becomes a single offering….”
Even in a concentration camp, Christmas would not be forgotten by the imprisoned priests. A pine bough in a tin can with two candles fashioned from the margarine ration provided the visual symbols, and the melancholy Christmas hymns sung by the Polish priests constituted the worship. But it was not a solemnity without consolation; on Christmas morning the word “ichthus” (Greek for fish) was whispered, and Fr. Jean received from his friend a small fraction of Host concealed in paper. One of their number had managed to stealthfully confect the Eucharist in spite of the circumstances. Father writes of waiting till nightfall, then gathering inconspicuously in the darkness outside the barrack and dividing the Host into as many pieces as was humanly possible, and then “the Christ Child entered our Hearts.”
The first target of the Nazis was the Jewish people as a whole, but Polish people and Roma (or Gypsies) were also targeted indiscriminately. Others, too, were rounded up for elimination, especially those who were deemed dangerous to the ideology of the Third Reich—namely, Catholic priests and nuns, other Christian clergy and vocal members of the German intelligentsia. Our Jewish brothers and sisters have done an important service to humanity in keeping the memory of the Holocaust, or Shoah, in view. But as Robert Royal points out in his introduction, for some inexplicable reason, Catholics and other Christians are in danger of forgetting the legacy of our martyrs. St. John Paul II admonished the faithful of the third millennium to hold before our eyes the witness of the modern martyrs—their offering must not be forgotten. Catholics and other Christians continue to endure persecution and martyrdom throughout the world, and we must be ready for such a self-offering too. If not in blood, then in charity. But the call is the same, to give ourselves without reservation—holding back nothing of ourselves for ourselves. The stories of those who have accomplished this surrender inspire us to remember their courage and to be prepared to imitate.
Remembrance is for prevention, and also for preparation.
Mother Clare, CFR
Liberated camp prisoners
cheering the U.S. Troops