As I continue to read the book Priestblock 25487 by Father Jean Bernard, I realize that he, and the other priests who were prisoners, completely misunderstood the purpose of the Dachau concentration camp. Father Bernard describes the treatment of the Dachau prisoners in terms which make it clear that the Dachau camp was a correctional facility, not a “death camp.” According to his description, Dachau was much like an American Marine boot camp. In today’s world, unruly teenagers in America are sometimes sent to a boot camp to learn discipline.
But to Father Bernard, everything that he experienced at Dachau was “torture.”
The priests took a nap every day which meant that they had to make up their beds after their naps. In German culture, an unmade bed is a metaphor for a sloppy, slovenly person who lacks discipline and does not conform to the very important German ideal of ORDER.
Here is Father Bernard’s opinion of bed making:
Then it’s time to make the beds. What a horrible phrase! It sums of the whole brutal idiocy of camp discipline.
On page 10, Father Bernard describes what he saw on his arrival at Dachau:
The broad avenue leading to the second gate has well-tended lawns and plants on either side.
In other words, incoming prisoners were immediately aware that this is a place where beauty and order are important. At the Memorial Site today, visitors see nothing but gravel as they approach the concentration camp which is inside what Father Bernard calls the “SS town.”
Following his description of the lawn and flowers, Father Bernard wrote this:
How much blood and tears go into maintaining the insane degree of cleanliness and tidiness in this part of Dachau….
To Father Bernard, the beauty and cleanliness of Dachau was just another method of torturing the prisoners who had to maintain the grounds.
Father Bernard did not mention the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign which was installed in 1938, three years before he arrived in May 1941. Today, the tour of the Dachau camp begins with the tour guide telling visitors how offended the prisoners were by the sight of this motto because the only way out of Dachau was “through the chimney.”
Father Bernard claims that he received “the obligatory slap in the face from each one” of the “camp officials” immediately upon his arrival. Throughout his book, he mentions being slapped, but he doesn’t explain the reason for slapping. Maybe he didn’t know the reason. The SS men in all the camps were forbidden to punish the prisoners without permission from the head office in Oranienburg. Instead of reporting a prisoner and requesting permission to punish the prisoner by whipping, the SS men would just slap a prisoner with an open hand. Father Bernard didn’t realize that slapping was a way of maintaining discipline by getting around the rules of the concentration camps.
Upon arrival at Dachau, Father Bernard had all his body hair shaved before he took a shower and was then assigned to “the newcomer’s block.” He describes this as though it were some sadistic form of abuse. He didn’t realize that the body hair was shaved to prevent lice and the newcomer’s block was a quarantine block where prisoners had to stay for several weeks until it was determined that they were free from contagious diseases. He mentions going to visit the “newcomers” from Luxembourg, not realizing that he could have spread a contagious disease throughout the camp by doing his.
Father Bernard mentioned that he wore a red triangle at Dachau which means that he was classified as a political prisoner. He was most likely sent to Dachau because he was helping the French Resistance. In his book, Father Bernard claims that he didn’t know why he was arrested.
Father Bernard wrote that the prisoners called the SS man who was in charge of their barrack by the initials B.B. which stood for “blond beast.” This comes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who coined the term “splendid blond beasts.” You can read about more about it here.
On page 54, Father Bernard mentions “gassing” at Dachau. He is describing the scene in “early October 1941” when the priests were ordered out of their barracks and told “Germans and Poles line up separately!”
Here is the gassing quote from the book:
“We are going to be gassed!” screams a Pole next to me who is an ethnic German. He tries to squeeze over to the German ranks.
This scene took place in October 1941 although it was not until June 1942 that the British first broadcast the news that Jews were being gassed in the camps in what is now Poland. I was amazed to learn that there were rumors of prisoners being gassed at Dachau as early as October 1941, even though there was no alleged “gas chamber” until 1943. Today many of the tour guides at the Dachau Memorial Site tell visitors that prisoners were gassed at Dachau, although this was never proved.
At this point in my reading of Father Bernard’s book, I skipped to the back to read more about Father Bernard in the Biographical Note, which I presume was written by Robert Royal who wrote the Introduction.
Here is a quote from the Biographical Note:
In 1929 Bernard became involved in the work of the Church on films and the cinema, and in 1934 he became general secretary of the International Cinema Office, which had its headquarters in Brussels. […] In June 1940 the German Gestapo closed the office and seized its files. […] After the collapse of France, Bernard worked […] to organize the return of many Luxembourg citizens who had fled to France before the advancing German army. This effort […] required Bernard to make eleven trips between Paris and Luxembourg. […] After the operation was completed, Bernard was arrested by the Germans on January 6, 1941. […] he was accused of having “incited” the returning Luxembourg citizens with “separatist propaganda” on various occasions, and to have carried letters and messages on his trips between Luxembourg and France.
With his background in producing films, Father Bernard knew how to use details that would attract attention. One of his work assignments at Dachau was working on the “plantation.” This was a huge farm where Heinrich Himmler, who had a degree in agriculture, was growing medicinal plants. He was using the latest methods in organic gardening, including the use of compost. On page 139, Father Bernard wrote about the “huge compost heap, where sometimes we could find something edible. One day, “a garbage pail of boiled bones was emptied there.”
Then he told a story that was designed to show just how cruel the SS men were and how the priests were humiliated and starved.
The following quote is from page 139 of the book:
At once we threw ourselves on them (the boiled bones). The thought indeed occurred to me the bones probably came from the dog kennels…but what difference did that make? Just because an SS dog found nothing more to gnaw on, that didn’t mean a prisoner would give up yet.
Another time a capo brought a hand basket full of discarded leek seedlings to the compost. When he saw our longing glances, he tossed them out, then spread his legs and urinated on the pile of them. “That’s so you’ll lose your appetites,” he said.
He was mistaken, however. I learned on this occasion that some of my fellows were even hungrier than I was…
You can read Part III here.