By Karna Swanson
NEW YORK, JULY 31, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Forgive those that persecute you. This is the message of the memoir of a priest who survived imprisonment at the Dachau concentration camp, who learned firsthand that nothing good can come of hate.
Father Jean Bernard (1907-1994), a native of Luxembourg, was the general secretary of the international Catholic Cinema Office in Brussels when the Nazis invaded Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland in 1940. The bureau was shut down soon after, and in 1941, Father Bernard was arrested and taken to Dachau, where he remained until he was freed, in August 1942.
His experience at the camp is the subject of his memoir “Priestblock 25487.” The book was originally published toward the end of World War II as a series of newspaper articles, and then published as a book in German in 1962.
The memoir is now available in English, translated by Zaccheus Press.
In this interview with ZENIT, William Doino, a major contributor to the book “The Pius War,” edited by Joseph Bottum and David Dalin, explains why this memoir offers important insight into the relationship of the Church with Nazi Germany.
Q: Why do you consider “Priestblock” such an important book?
Doino: Because it educates and inspires, and reminds us of the heroic sacrifices so many Christians — in this case, Catholic priests — endured during the Second World War. As we all know, World War II was the central historical event of the 20th century, and its most evil aspect, the Holocaust.
Often forgotten, however, is the enormous number of Christians who suffered and died under the Nazis: To call attention to this fact is not to diminish the unique evil of the Shoah, the Nazi extermination of Jews, but simply remember the War in all its dimensions, and honor its victims.
Max Dimont, the noted Jewish scholar, makes this point in his book “Jews, God and History.” Just as we say “Never Again” about the Holocaust, so too should we say “Never Forget” the Christians who fought and died under the Nazis.
As Father Bernard says in his foreword, his memoir was written “in memory of my fellow priests who died in Dachau — for we must never forget what happened there and in many similar places.”
Q: Could you describe Dachau, as it existed under the Third Reich?
Doino: In March of 1933, a short time after Adolf Hitler became Reich chancellor, the Nazis created a concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, in southern Germany, for political prisoners.
During its 12 years of existence, over 200,000 people from all over Europe were imprisoned there: Tens of thousands died from executions, beatings, starvation, disease and even suicides provoked by the horrifying conditions.
Dachau was a camp notorious for its placement of anti-Nazi clergymen. Almost 3,000 Christian pastors opposed to Hitler’s regime were sent there; most of these were Catholic priests; at least 1,000 of them died. Father Bernard was one of the fortunate to survive.
Q: Several times in the book the priests were given special punishments, and many complained that the Pope or the bishops must have spoken out again against the Nazis. Doesn’t this go against the premise of many critics of the Church that the Pope and the bishops said and did nothing?
Doino: Yes. “Priestblock” not only establishes that the Church “spoke out” against Nazi horrors, but that the Third Reich’s prisoners suffered because of it.
For example, in October 1941, the priest block at Dachau was subject to terrifying reprisals. Father Bernard writes, “None of us was ever able to say why the clergy block experienced this catastrophe, or to what it was due. Some people said that the Pope had given a strong speech on the radio, and that the German bishops issued a public protest.”
Likewise, during Easter in 1942, the clergy again were suddenly and savagely attacked, after which Father Bernard learned that “there was a reason behind it: The Vatican radio station had broadcast a critical report about Dachau and protested the mistreatment of priests.”
This is confirmation of something historians of the Church have long known: The Church did “speak out” against Hitler and Nazism, and often paid a price because of it. Vatican Radio, under the direction of Pope Pius XII, was among the first to break the news of Nazi crimes in Poland, after Hitler invaded the country in late 1939.
As a result, the Nazis made it a crime in Germany and German-occupied territory to listen to Vatican Radio, even as they did everything they could to block its broadcasts. Still, the messages got through, and Catholics caught listening to it were arrested and even executed.
Q: It was mentioned early on that the clergy were separated from the rest of the camp and given special treatment — such as a daily nap and a glass of wine — because they wanted the rest of the camp to resent the clergy. Did this work? Was there a special dislike for Catholic clergy among the Nazis?
Doino: Yes, the Nazis reserved a special hatred for clergymen, especially Catholic priests. They saw orthodox Christianity as a direct rival to their insane drive for world control.
In February 1941, when he was first taken away, Father Bernard relates his experience with the arresting officer, a Nazi collaborator: “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.”
This was part of the Nazi plan to subvert and destroy Christianity, as chronicled by the prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. At Dachau, the guards did indeed try to separate the clergy, and create ill will between them and the other prisoners. But it didn’t work.
The goodness and basic decency of these imprisoned priests, and their extraordinary composure under inhuman conditions, even at the point of death, swept through the camp like a divine light. The other prisoners noticed it, and came to appreciate and respect these men of God.
At one point, Father Bernard even quotes a prisoner, a socialist, who apologizes to the clergymen he meets, after realizing how he had misjudged them while in civilian life: “Let’s forget what happened in the past! I was wrong. It turns out that the ones who hold out and behave best are you padres.”
Q: Father Bernard described with simplicity and honesty the deteriorating situation of the camp from month to month. In the beginning he and the other clergy were allowed to say Mass on Sundays, and then an order came down that no religious practice was allowed. How did the priests maintain their spiritual life in such an atmosphere?
Doino: In only one way, by embracing Christ, and his promises. Throughout his memoir, Father Bernard reveals how he kept Christ front and center during his ordeal. He meditated on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; cherished the Eucharist whenever he could receive it; meditated on the lives of the saints; and prayed to his guardian angel. He lived a full interior Catholic life, even while severe restrictions were placed on his exterior actions. The same was true of the other priests.
But it cannot be denied how much the events around them challenged their emotions. One aspect which sets this memoir apart is Father Bernard’s brutal honesty. He frankly describes the temptations of despair he and his fellow inmates experienced, and yet the witness of Our Lord was ever present to rescue them: During their darkest moments, they remembered his solemn words, and these acted as healing balms on their fractured, tormented bodies. The Gospel was a source of boundless strength, which invigorated them. Even the Nazis could not invade the sanctuary of their souls.
Q: The memoir is the basis of the 2004 movie “The Ninth Day.” Are there any major differences between the true story and the movie? What is known of Father Bernard’s 10-day leave of absence from the camp, or about his release?
Doino: By Hollywood standards, “The Ninth Day,” is an extraordinarily good film. It has a “Catholic” feel to it that is uncanny, perhaps owing to the fact that its director, German luminary Volker Schlöndorff, was educated by Jesuits.
The movie is not based upon Father Bernard’s entire memoir, just a section of it — actually only a few paragraphs — but they concern a central event in the book. In February 1942, after the death of his mother, Father Bernard is suddenly freed from Dachau, and allowed to return home, but there is a catch: He can remain in civilian life only if he agrees to collaborate with the local Nazi authorities.
The film explores this dilemma: Will Father Kremer — the film’s main character, loosely based on Father Bernard — compromise his faith and forge a devil’s bargain, or refuse, on account of his faith, even if that means a return to Dachau and possibly death? The decision he makes is wholly in keeping with his commitment to Christ, and it is on this level that the film moves people.
That said, “The Ninth Day,” for all its virtues, does have a number of flaws. The best review of the film was published by Dimitri Cavalli, who laid out its strengths and weakness in the October 2006 edition of the New Oxford Review.
The film has a number of fictional characters and scenes not in the book, the chronology is not the same, and its view of Pius XII, who never appears on scene but is mentioned, is sympathetic but erroneous: It accepts the idea that he remained “silent” because he was concerned about reprisals.
In fact, the movie has this backwards: The Pope, as we have seen, did speak out, and reprisals occurred — thereafter, he nuanced his words, but even then what he said was understood by the faithful.
As priest-rescuer Father Michel Riquet said: “Throughout those years of horror, when we listened to Radio Vatican and to the Pope’s messages, we felt in communion with the Pope, in helping persecuted Jews and in fighting Nazi violence” (Figaro, Jan. 4, 1964).
Father Riquet, like Father Bernard, was an inmate of Dachau.
Q: What do you think are the most important messages of Father Bernard’s memoir?
Doino: I think there are three. First, that we should value our faith every day, and never take it for granted; second, recognize those who have preserved it for us by undergoing extraordinary sacrifices; and finally, not allow evil to overcome us, no matter what the circumstances.
One of the most powerful passages in “Priestblock” occurs right at the beginning, as a kind of cautionary note to the reader — not to allow what he is about to read to weaken his Christian mindset.
The faithful Christian, “Priestblock” teaches us, is assured of God’s eternal justice; but at the same time, knows that God wants us to forgive and pray for those who persecute us.
Consequently, Father Bernard asks that we read his book in a spirit of love: “Yet we must forgive. We must forgive while remaining conscious of the full horror of what occurred, not only because nothing constructive can be built on a foundation of hatred — neither a new Europe nor a new world — but above all for the sake of him who commands and urges us to forgive, and before whom we, victims and executioners alike, are all poor debtors in need of mercy.”
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On the Net:
“Priestblock 25487”: www.amazon.com/Priestblock-25487-Memoir-Jean-Bernard/dp/0972598170