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October 28, 2010

“Priestblock 25487” by Jean Bernard, Part II

Filed under: Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 11:49 am

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.

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.

October 26, 2010

Sometimes you have to judge a book by its cover: Priestblock 25487 by Jean Bernard

Filed under: Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 3:41 pm

I finally broke down and ordered the book by Jean Bernard, a priest imprisoned at Dachau, who wrote Priestblock 25487, A Memoir of Dachau.  You may have heard the old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover.”  In this case, I eagerly tore open the wrapper when the book arrived in the mail and immediately judged it by its cover, which is shown in the photo below.

Cover of the book by Jean Bernard

I immediately recognized the cross on the cover.  This is the cross that was erected by the Polish political prisoners soon after the Dachau camp was liberated in 1945.  The large wooden cross was set up in the roll call square in front of the administration building; it is shown in the photo below.  It was obviously not at Dachau when Jean Bernard was a prisoner there in 1941 and 1942.

Catholic Cross at Dachau concentration camp, 1945

Father Jean Bernard was a prisoner at Dachau from May 19, 1941 to August 6, 1942 when he was released.  The book is based on a diary which he kept while he was a prisoner; he didn’t choose this cover for the book which was published in 2007 by Zaccheus Press, but the cover sets the tone of the book which is disingenuous to say the least.

The cover picture, which is evocative of a crucifixion, shows something that could not have happened in this way.  It attempts to portray a story that Father Bernard was told by another prisoner; the story was about 60 priests who were hung by their arms on Good Friday in 1940, more than a year before Father Bernard arrived at Dachau in May 1941.

In his book, Father Bernard mentioned that the Good Friday hanging took place in the large shower room in the administration building; the priests were hung from wooden “rafters” that have since been removed.  His fellow prisoner had told Father Bernard that “the SS found some pretext to punish 60 priests with an hour on ‘the tree.’ ”  Father Bernard then writes that the “tree hanging” punishment “is the mildest camp punishment.”  Actually, “tree hanging” was the most severe punishment, not the mildest camp punishment, and it was used at Buchenwald, not at Dachau.   “Tree hanging” was rarely used, and only for the worst of crimes, such as sabotage in the munitions factories.

The old black and white photo shows one of the beams, on the right hand side, from which prisoners were hung by their arms as punishment.

The color photo immediately above shows the shower room at Dachau the way it looks now; you can see where the beams have been removed.  The hanging punishment was discontinued in 1942 by the order of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler.  The man who devised this punishment was Martin Sommer; I wrote about him in a previous blog post which you can read here.

I’m on page 55 of the book now, and I will write a review of the whole book when I finish it.  The book is pocket sized and has only 177 pages.  On the last page is a photo of Father Bernard from the 1930s when he was a young man.  Not a bad looking fellow.  He doesn’t look like a hateful person, but  his book seems to have been written by a  person who was consumed by hate.

You can read part one of my review of the book here.