The Priest Barracks
by Guillaume Zeller, Ignatius, 274pp, £13
Dachau, the first of the infamous Nazi concentration camps, was constructed in 1933 on the outskirts of Munich. Between 1938 and 1945, 2,579 priests, monks and seminarians were imprisoned there, in three specially designated barrack blocks: numbers 26, 28 and 30. At total of 1,034 priests were to die there. This, obviously, is a tiny figure compared with the millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but the story of these men, who now include some Blesseds, is still well worth telling, both for its sorrows and its glories.
The reasons for their imprisonment varied: the ownership of a forbidden book, suspect clippings from newspapers, personal letters critical of the regime or incautious proselytism were some of the reasons for an arbitrary arrest, cruel incarceration and the possibility of death.
For instance, Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite and journalist, the much-loved rector of Nijmegen University as well as being the editor of a Catholic newspaper strongly critical of the Nazis, was taken to Dachau in early 1942 and given a lethal injection on June 19 that same year.
On arrival, priests were divested of their cassocks, Bibles, missals, holy medals and rosaries. They were stripped and shaved and forced to wear old clothes with a red triangle sewn on them, as “political” prisoners. Zeller comments that “Everything was an excuse to put them in a delicate situation with regard to their faith and the priesthood.” They were thus subject to obscenities, blaspheming and humiliations as well as being the main targets for medical experiments and for the death transports for the disabled or elderly.
Kazimierz Majdanski, a young Polish seminarian who later became an archbishop, was subject to appalling medical experiments to find a cure for septicaemia. Pus was deliberately injected into his leg to induce a form of gangrene. He was only saved from death by the heroic secret action of a hospital orderly who risked his own life for him. Majdanski spoke for his fellow priests when he said they could never be indifferent to the constant daily pile of corpses in the camp. They had to learn to live alongside the misery, while “the human heart must fortify itself and not become insensible.”
Although forced to participate in the exhausting daily work routine, the priests did what they could to “fortify” themselves with clandestine lectures. Private discussions and talks were often conducted in the latrines, which had no partitions. Fr Jean Kammerer commented that “We considered our discussions not as a way to flee reality, but as a way to transcend our situation as detainees and to keep standing.”
The spiritual attacks could be ferocious. Fr Leo de Coninck, a Belgian priest, related in his book about his ordeal: “Before Dachau I had never seen hatred: eyes blazing with hatred, mouths contorted with anger.” It was suggestive of satanic possession – indeed, a Czech priest used to say the prayers of exorcism when an SS guard entered the priests’ barracks.
The priests’ spiritual condition improved when, as the result of Vatican pressure on the German authorities, they were allowed to make a chapel in Block 26 at the end of 1940 and were thus able to celebrate Mass.
Altar breads were smuggled in from outside, alongside prayer books, Stations of the Cross and holy pictures. A tabernacle was made secretly in the carpenter’s workshop and the altar and candlesticks were salvaged from camp materials. Lay prisoners were forbidden to attend these Masses, though some managed to at great risk, while Communion Hosts were smuggled into the other barracks for Catholic prisoners at even greater risk.
Zeller records that the activity of the Eucharistic network “sometimes resulted in mystical phenomena”. Bernard Py, a young French layman, received a fragment of a Host. He slid the paper which sheltered it into his breast pocket so as to consume it later in private. Then he tells of feeling a peculiar sensation coming from his chest: “I felt an expansion, a joy, a tenderness which slowly became more precise and grew minute by minute, overflowing, invading my whole person, an experience which was simultaneously physical, burning and moral, which stirred me with a love and an unexpected happiness.”
A little later, Py realised this sensation came from the Host, still in his breast pocket.
Years later, in November 1975, Majdanski gave testimony at the Munich Tribunal, during the trial of Heinrich Schütz, the Nazi hospital doctor at Dachau. Majdanski gave precise details of his experiences, along with names, dates and places, emphasising at the same time that these were not provided for “motives or hatred or vengeance”. He said: “I have forgiven them all, and I expressed my forgiveness in the last will and testimony that I composed with a view to my death, which could occur at any moment.”
He was not the only priest to forgive his torturers. Zeller recounts that “Without departing from the requirements of justice and memory, many priests refused to give in to the temptation of vengeance or hatred.”
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