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October 27, 2010

“Priestblock 25487” by Jean Bernard, Part I

Filed under: Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 1:48 pm

I am reading the new release of the book Priest Block 25487 which was published in English in 2007.  The book was written by Jean Bernard, a Catholic priest, immediately after his release from Dachau in August 1942 and first published serially in 1945 in the weekly supplements of a Catholic newspaper, the Luxemburger Wort.

I first heard about this book from someone who visited my web site and e-mailed me that my original section about the treatment of the priests at Dachau was all wrong.  I updated and revised that section of my web site, which I had written before I was told about Father Bernard’s book.

After reading the book, I am very dubious about some of the incidents which Father Bernard described.  I got most of my information about the treatment of the priests at Dachau from the book entitled What was it like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau? by Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler.  Curiously Dr. Neuhäusler didn’t mention any mistreatment of the priests at Dachau.

In his book, Dr. Neuhäusler wrote this about Jean Bernard:

In his memoirs he writes: “My first day at the transport commando “Präzifix”: It is March 19, 1941, the feast of St. Joseph – As we push the wagon through the door, I pray to him.”

In the new version of Jean Bernard’s book, I learned that he arrived at Dachau on May 19, 1941 and he did not mention being put to work on his first day in the camp.  Obviously, there was an error in either Dr. Neuhäusler’s book or in the memoir of Father Bernard when it was first published in 1945.

I went to Catholic school as a child and we were taught that the most wonderful thing in the world is to be a martyr. We were told that some of the saints wore hair shirts in order to create misery for themselves so that they could become martyrs. We were taught that when something bad happened to us, we should be happy because this would give us the opportunity to “offer it up to God.”

My overall impression of Father Bernard’s book is that he dwells excessively on every tiny bit of his alleged mistreatment at Dachau so that he will be considered a martyr, and potentially be canonized as a saint.

For example, the passage on pages 33 and 34 of the book in which Father Bernard writes about the priests being given a daily ration of  wine which they were forced to drink.

As we take our seats at the tables with our metal cups, as quiet as mice, the “wine detail” has returned and is distributing the bottles. […]

An SS man must always be present for the occasion. […]

Three men to a bottle.  […]

Not everyone is capable of drinking a quarter-liter of wine in one gulp. As soon as our cups are empty we have to hold them upside down above our heads.

Note that he wrote “three men to a bottle” which would be a third of a liter of wine, but then he also wrote “a quarter-liter.” So which was it?  A third of a liter of wine per day or a quarter liter of wine?  Note that he writes that not everyone can drink a quarter-liter in one gulp, implying that they were not punished if they didn’t drink the wine in one gulp.

Then he writes:

One prisoner chokes out of nervousness and falls behind. In a flash the SS man is on him and slams his fist into the bottom of the cup so violently that the metal rim slices a semi-circle through his lips and cheeks, all the way down to the bone.

I don’t believe this story. I think that this was Father Bernard’s way of turning a privilege, that was given only to the priests, into an act of torture. What was the name of this priest?  How about including a photo of this man’s facial scar in the book?

I’ve never seen a cup with a sharp metal rim. The prisoners at Dachau ate from enameled dishes and drank from enameled cups.  Look at  the photo below, which shows Dachau prisoners carrying metal bowls coated with enamel.

Prisoners at Dachau carry enameled bowls for their soup

Bowls and cups used at Mauthausen camp

Look at the photo of a cup used at the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Does it look like the cup has a sharp rim that could cut a man’s face to the bone?

Father Bernard also wrote extensively about how the priests were forced to make up their beds.  He mentioned that the bed covers were blue and white striped.  Look at the photo below which clearly shows that the bed covers had checks, not stripes. Was Father Jean Bernard actually at Dachau?

Bed covers at Dachau had blue-and-white checks

Many of the “tortures” that Jean Bernard describes in his book are still told to tourists at Dachau; for example, his story about an SS man who turns up the water in the shower room so hot that the prisoners think they are being “scalded alive, then suddenly makes it ice cold.”  Is it possible that the SS man was only trying to get the temperature just right by first turning on the hot water and then the cold water?

On the same page, he tells about being given a shirt, jacket, a pair of trousers and also socks. This is news to me.  I didn’t know the prisoners were given socks.  Maybe this was only for the priests.

Then he writes about how the SS photographer has a “spring-mounted spike” on the seat of the chair where the prisoners had to sit for their photo when they were first brought to the camp. No one told SS judge Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen about this when he came to investigate the Dachau camp, and he gave the SS men and the Commandant at Dachau a good report.

Father Bernard didn’t even know the name of the Commandant of Dachau; he mentioned that the Commandant’s name was Hoffman, but there was never a Commandant by that name at Dachau.

An Introduction to the book is provided by Robert Royal who writes excessively about the truthfulness of the book, making me suspicious that he knows that the  book is full of lies.  For example, Royal writes “He takes great pains to be accurate…” and “His strict regard for truth…”  Royal wrote that in 1932 there “were 21 thousand priests in Germany, but by the time Nazism was defeated a decade later, more than eight thousand of these men had either been threatened, beaten, imprisoned, or killed by the regime.”  To me, this sounds like a gross exaggeration.

The Introduction gives a good preview of the disingenuous nature of the book, as for example, this quote:

Priests were sent to every camp the Nazis had created, either because they had expressed dislike for Nazism or because the Nazis disliked them. (Bogus charges of financial misdealing or sexual impropriety were often trumped up, but many priests, like Father Bernard, never knew what, exactly, they had been arrested for.)

Finally Robert Royal writes in the introduction that the priests were sent to Dachau “as a way of keeping them together and thereby preventing them from ‘infecting’ other prison populations with Christianity.”  Does he not know that the German bishops and the Pope persuaded the Nazis to send all the priests to Dachau, the mildest camp of all, so that they could be given special privileges?  Or is he just denying that the priests were treated better than the other prisoners?

For example, Marcel Pasiecznik was a Polish priest who was first sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.  According to Father Pasiecznik’s own account of his stay at Flossenbürg, the prisoners were not expected to live longer than three months; they were forced to work 12 hours a day at hard labor while receiving only 1,000 calories of food per day. In only two months, he lost 50 pounds. He did not hide the fact that he was a priest: he would hear the confessions of his fellow prisoners as they worked side-by-side. Eventually, he was transferred to Dachau which was the designated camp for Catholic priests.

In 1987, Father Pasiecznik wrote the following in the “Homiletic and Pastoral Review” regarding his short stay at Flossenbürg and his later transfer to the Dachau concentration camp:

I should have died at Flossenbürg, but God had other plans. Once again, he intervened at the last moment, and I was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. Strange as it may sound, Dachau saved my life.

Priests were imprisoned under relatively less rigorous conditions at Dachau – this was one of the few concessions which the Holy See had been able to wrest from Nazi Germany. God’s merciful providence sent me on my way with a package from a local pastor, a German Catholic priest. It contained bread, apples and a Latin edition of The Imitation of Christ. After the war I was able to thank him personally, and that’s when I determined that he had arranged my life-saving transfer.

When I arrived in Dachau, my death was further forestalled thanks to the good graces of the other Polish priests there and the American Red Cross, which sent us care packages. I was made a tailor, which meant light work done indoors. There were 800 priests in one barrack, all Poles, and 400 priests from Germany and all over Europe, in the other. There were 28 barracks in Dachau in total. The authorities permitted the German priests to say Mass daily in the chapel in their barracks. They in turn smuggled bread and wine to the Polish priests for them to say Mass as well. I participated every morning in this secret Mass and received Holy Communion. And three times I celebrated Mass for my colleagues before our liberation. I even made visits to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the German priests’ chapel, but you had to tell one of them the watchword. One time I remember it was “Lux de luce,” light from light.

I received a care package from Poland, which contained bread, stockings, a cap and the “Novena to God’s Mercy,” revealed to Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska. This last was a miracle because the package must have passed through Nazi hands. Pope John Paul II has elevated Sister Faustina to “Blessed” in recent years.

You can read Part II here and my impression of the book cover here.


  1. There was a commandant named Hoffman in Dachau. He served as a deputy-commander under Alex Piorkowsi, commandat untill august/september 1942. Because he was ill most of the time en therefore frequently away from the camp he let several of his deputies manage Dachau. Hoffman was one of them, and by far the most cruel one. Hoffman hated pastors of all religions and made it a priority to make live horrible for them. There was a slight difference in treatment of German pastors versus pastors of other nationalities. Germans were treated little better, Polish were treated worst. When Piokowski was officially discharged by Himmler for his defaults he was succeeded bij Weisz. Weisz made a big change in camp-regulations. He ordered better treatment, specially for all pastors. They were from that moment on excused for hard labour and were given the right to recieve foodpackages from family and friends. This phenomenen grew excessively; within weeks the pastor blocks 26, 28 and 30 were the best in the camp, where previously it was the other way around. Pastor inmates, who had lost more then half of their weight, gained weight again and were more healthy then ever. Under Weisz there even were football matches organized! Dachau was indeed the best camp there was in Nazi Germany, for a short period of time… But as soon as Allied Forces entered Europe an were closing in on Germany, circumstances got more worse then they had ever been.

    So, concluding:

    – If Father Pasiecznik arrived after Christmas 1942 (the absolute moment of change under Weisz) he indeed had the best live possible for an inmate.
    – Until mid 1944 hygiene and tidyness was a SS-obsession. Making up your bed was made an art, that had to be according to several absurd and extreme rules imposed by SS-officers. One small mistake and one was flogged or worse for sentence. Tidyness and hygiene were made easy defaults so there was always was an easy reason for punishment. Real SS-men needed to punish and abuse as they needed to breathe.
    – There were different types of patterns in bed covers.
    – Changing extreme hot into ice cold water was done so. Not even for punishment, just for fun. Never however because SS did not know how to use a thermostat. They knew all about it!
    – Dr Konrad Morgen, The Bloodhound Judge, was in Dachau in the summer of 1943, investigating – among other facts – the accusation that Piorkowski had murdered a prisoner without a reason. Now, to estimate this action of Morgen rightfully, one shoud know much more about Morgen’s motivations for being a SS-judge, working for the Hauptambt SS Gericht, he was a typical Don Quichotte, trying to frustrate the SS in any way he could. He could not. He was able to indice Piorkowski, but Piorkowskei never got sentenced by Nazi government. As almost all the indiced SS-criminals Morgen investigated. Morgen always stayed several weeks or months in a concentrationcamp, because his work – ofcourse – needed to be done very very thorough to at least be able to make a proper indicement. He never gave “reports of good behaviour”, SS never needed these reports, and if there were any, they were made bij SS-officers as internal reviews.

    Now, I can make this list of facts as long as anyone wants: A to Z and back again.
    Dachau housed over 200,000 prisoners in 12 years. Those who survived all have their own story to tell. There will be some inaccurate details, twisted memories, forgotten items and more. Every induvidual has his of her (Dachau housed merely men) personal interpretation. One thing however is for sure: never ever question the reality of what you read or what you are told. What happened under Nazi regime, what happened in 1933 – 1945 is a human disgrace, a lesson that must be learned into the next century and further on, and no pastor that was in Dachau will tell a story so he may be a marter, he – the pastor – and all the others faced death in being less then half the person he was before Dachau, and never to become whole again.

    Johan van den Ende

    Comment by Johan — December 16, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

  2. Father Pasiecznik Marcel is a brother of my grandfather I am knowing stories well from Dachau therefore around is being talked in my family jestesmy proud of the Father of Marcel but zmarl he far from the house and never not widzielismy of his grave therefore from not mum sie where zatrzymac zeby zobaczyc and please send picture on we email very prosze

    Comment by ewa — April 19, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

  3. Father Pasiecznik Marcel is a brother of my grandfather I am knowing stories well from Dachau therefore around is being talked in my family we are proud of the Father of Marcel but die he far from the house and never not see of his grave therefore from not mum sie where stay and see and please send picture on we email very please

    Comment by ewa — April 19, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

  4. […] can read part one of my review of the book here. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a […]

    Pingback by Sometimes you have to judge a book by its cover: Priestblock 25487 by Jean Bernard « Scrapbookpages Blog — April 25, 2012 @ 7:07 am

  5. Like bad money driving out good money, fabricated Holocaust reminiscences tend to drive out genuine ones, because the genuine ones can never match up in terms of drama and heroism.

    This one recently caught my attention:

    Apparently there were polish flags flying from municipal buildings in the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s not a big issue I suppose, but you wish people would treat their own history with more respect.

    Comment by littlegreyrabbit — October 27, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

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