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October 29, 2010

“Priestblock 25487” by Jean Bernard, Part III

Filed under: Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 2:49 pm

Visitors to the Dachau Memorial Site might notice that there is a street, that borders the former Dachau concentration camp, which is named Pater-Roth-Strasse, after a Catholic priest who was imprisoned at Dachau because he was arrested as a pedophile.

There is no street, nor anything else, at Dachau that is named after Father Jean Bernard, who wrote the book Priestblock 25487 in which he claimed that he never knew why he was arrested by the German Gestapo in January 1941.  The number in the title of the book is Father Bernard’s prisoner identification number.

The very first sentence in the Forward of Father Bernard’s book is this:

I unburdened myself of the pages that follow immediately after my release.

In other words, his greatest burden, the cross that Father Bernard had to bear at Dachau, was committing to memory the stories of the abuse, about which he was planning to write, the moment that he was released.  Father Bernard was released on August 6, 1942, after a little over 14 months at Dachau. He had previously been given a 10-day furlough to go home to pay his respect to his mother who had just died. The movie The Ninth Day by Volker Schlöndorff is a fictional film, loosely based on the 10-day furlough.

On page 86 of his book, Father Bernard wrote the following about the death of his mother:

I had to go to the cemetery to say good-bye to my mother. Her loyal heart had been forced to endure too much suffering and distress. Some days before people from the Gestapo had made a nasty scene.  It was too much for her. She gave her life to save mine.

Father Bernard does not give any details about the cause of his mother’s death, but he implies that her death was caused by a “nasty scene” perpetrated by the German Gestapo.  On page 85 of his book, Father Bernard reveals that after his furlough, he had to report to the Gestapo in Luxembourg. The Gestapo man asked him about his colleagues at Dachau: “Have they had enough?  Don’t they want to  come home?” He interpreted this to mean that the Gestapo had given him a furlough for the purpose of propaganda and that they might be thinking of the propaganda value of releasing six of the Luxembourg priests at Dachau.

Regarding the possible plans of the Gestapo to release all of the Luxembourg priests, Father Bernard wrote “Was it possible, for a moment, that I held the lives of my friends in my hands?”  All he had to do was to tell the Gestapo man that his friends from Luxembourg had learned their lesson, that they had been “re-educated,” and they would have been released.  But he refused to play along with the Gestapo.  It was this theme that was expanded upon in the film, The Ninth Day.

Pater-Roth-Strasse runs along the border of the Dachau camp

Father Roth never wrote a book, so we don’t know what he suffered as a prisoner at Dachau.  He had to wear a black triangle on his prison uniform because he had been arrested as a pedophile; Father Bernard wore a red triangle to show his classification as a political prisoner.

The reason that Father Roth has a street named after him is because, instead of writing a book about Dachau the moment that he was released, he volunteered to serve as the priest for the SS men who were imprisoned at Dachau, starting in July 1945, in “War Crimes Enclosure No. I,” the prison for 30,000 SS prisoners who were awaiting trial for their alleged crimes.  A Chapel was erected for the Catholic SS men in the former Dachau camp and Father Roth was their pastor.  You can read about War Crimes Enclosure No. 1 here.  When the War Crimes Enclosure was closed, Father Roth stayed on to serve the German expellees from Czechoslovakia who lived in the Dachau barracks as refugees for the next 17 years.

Throughout his book, Father Bernard shows himself to be a selfish, self-centered person who was always out for himself and who rarely thought of helping others.  He certainly never thought of staying at Dachau to administer to the imprisoned SS men or the ethnic German refugees.  He didn’t help to take care of the typhus patients at Dachau, as Father Roth did.

Father Jean Bernard was possibly the first person to attribute guilt to all the German people for the crime of putting people in concentration camps. In the forward of his book, Father Roth wrote:

… for we must never forget what happened there and in many similar places. Forgetting would be cowardice on the part of the people in whose name all these crimes were committed.  It would be a flight from their own consciences and from the indictment of the world, showing an unwillingness to make reparations and to atone. And by not imputing such cowardice to them, we honor the German people.

Father Jean Bernard died at the age of 87 on September 1, 1994.  He lived long enough to see his dream come true: the German people are still paying reparations and atoning for their sin of allowing crimes to be committed at Dachau in their name.

Meanwhile, Father Roth atoned for his sins by serving as a priest for the accused SS men, imprisoned at Dachau. Father Roth has a street named after him, while Father Jean Bernard’s legacy is that his stories of abuse are still being told by the tour guides at Dachau today. The idea that Father Bernard first came up with, that the crimes at Dachau were done in the name of all the German people, is still expressed today by millions of people.

In his book, Father Bernard wrote about his 10-day release from the camp; it is in the chapter entitled “Ten Days Leave and My Return to Dachau.”  Regarding the remarkable 10-day leave, which began on February 15, 1942, he wrote:

Such a thing has never happened before in the whole history of the camp!

Father Bernard reveals many details about the Dachau concentration camp.  For example, he mentions that the prisoners had “winter clothing,” which included gloves. The prisoners were allowed to send and receive letters.  Father Bernard had “Thirty marks,” apparently in real German money, not camp money, on the day that he was released.  He doesn’t say how he happened to have German money in a concentration camp, but apparently the money had been sent to him by relatives or friends.

In his book, Father Bernard revealed that the camp Commandant personally took him to the warehouse where all the prisoners’ clothing was stored and he was given back his suitcase and the cassock and “clerical hat” that he had been wearing when he arrived ten months earlier.

He also reveals a lot about the methods of the Gestapo. For example, how did the Gestapo prevent him from escaping to Switzerland the moment that he was released?

On page 86, he wrote that the Gestapo man in Luxembourg told him that he was scheduled to be released soon and then said, “If you go back, it won’t be for long.”  The Gestapo man didn’t say what would happen if he didn’t go back to Dachau, but Father Bernard wrote:

That was the silken thread with which the Gestapo kept me more firmly bound than a guard posted in front of my family’s house could have done.

The prisoners at Dachau who worked were given more food, so Father Bernard was happy when he was assigned to “Transport Commando Praezifix.”  The work involved 18 men pulling wagons which transported machines and material from the old factory in the town of Dachau to the new factory just outside the concentration camp in the “SS town.”  Father Bernard wrote that the former Praezifix Commando “had been disbanded after complaints from the men in charge of the factory, who announced that in the future they would be willing to work only with priests.”

The following quote is from page 93 of the book:

My first day as a member of the “Transport Commando Praezifix” is March 19, the feast of St. Joseph.

He did not give the year, but this was after he returned to Dachau on Feb. 25, 1942, so it was the year 1942.

Prisoners at Dachau are pulling a wagon

The photo above shows how prisoners at Dachau were used like horses to pull wagons. Father Bernard was part of a work group of 18 men who had to pull a wagon.

The area outside the gate into the Dachau concentration camp where the factories were located

The factories that were formerly outside the Dachau concentration camp have been torn down and the rubble is now covered with grass which visitors can see on either side of the entrance.  The photo below shows one of the factories at Dachau before they were torn down.

Dachau gatehouse and a factory on the right

One thing that young readers might not realize is that civilians in Germany and even in America were living much like the prisoners in Dachau.  For example, Father Bernard spends a lot of time describing the straw mattresses in the camp.  I was a child in America in 1941, but I didn’t have any mattress at all.  My older brother had a mattress filled with corn husks, but I had only  a thick pad on a folding bed.

Father Bernard also wrote about the stove in the camp, which was covered with ceramic tile.  These stoves are not shown at the Memorial Site, but there is one on display at Auschwitz, which is shown in the photo below.

Ceramic stove at the Auschwitz main camp

My home had a covered stove in the “front room,” although it was not covered with ceramic tile, like the one in the photo above. The importance of a covered stove, as opposed to a pot bellied stove, is that you can stand with your back against a covered stove and really get warm.

Father Bernard mentioned that the prisoners got pea soup on Sundays.  I was eating pea soup in the school lunches, and I hated it. The soldiers in the Waffen-SS were fed pea soup and when they were POWs in Eisenhower’s camps, they were given a handful of dried peas from the German Army storage centers and a cup of water.  At least, the prisoners at Dachau were given dried peas that had been cooked into a hot soup; they didn’t have to chew the dried peas, and try to wash them down with a cup of water, as the German prisoners had to do, in Eisenhower’s camps.

He mentions that the priests had to do exercises at Dachau.  I had to do calisthenics in the classroom when I was a child.  Father Bernard was from Luxemboug and maybe he didn’t know that exercise was virtually invented by the Germans and it was compulsory.  Old videos show young German girls doing exercises that look like aerobic exercise done in America today.

He tells about the meal served in the Dachau camp around 9:30 a.m. to the prisoners who worked.  When I was a child, German Americans called this “lunch” and the mid-day meal was called dinner.  The Germans called it “Brotzeit,” (Bread time) but Father Bernard did not mention this.  He did say that he sometimes had bread and liverwurst for his meal at 9:30 a.m.  That was my favorite “lunch.”

I lived in a German American community where the song “Ach du lieber Augustin” was frequently sung.  Father Bernard tells about the German prisoners at Dachau singing this song. (Play the video to the end to hear the English words of the song.)