This story is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is ordinary because Catholic priests and religious were regularly rounded up and sent to concentration camps in large numbers during the nightmare of Nazism in Europe. It is extraordinary, as all such accounts are, because they give us vivid and unforgettable indications of both the depths of depravity and heights of sanctity to which the human race is capable. Father Jean Bernard offers a straightforward picture of how Good and Evil played out around him in his imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He takes great pains to be accurate about the ever shifting conditions as he witnessed them personally. His strict regard for truth, even in such circumstances, is itself an implicit rejection of the violence built on lies that the Third Reich inflicted everywhere it could. If there is any truth missing in this moving story, it is Father Bernard's own quiet heroism and holiness, which he is too humble to include, but which we may intuit in his primary emphasis on the plight of his fellow inmates.
People who have not looked carefully at the position of the Catholic Church under the Third Reich may be particularly surprised by this story. The Nazis did not want to exterminate all Catholics, but they most certainly did want to exterminate all Jews, and they nearly succeeded. So the Shoah cannot and should not be described as if the Nazis did as much harm to Catholics as they did to Jews. Yet it is a fact of history that millions of Catholics were murdered in the Nazi camps, and that is something we must never forget.
During and right after World War II, it was commonly assumed that Christians as well as Jews suffered a great deal under Hitler. Jews were grateful to Catholics and others for such assistance as they were able to provide, and especially esteemed Pope Pius XII, who quite probably saved more Jews from the Nazis than any other single person. That was why Golda Meir, one of the founders and later Prime Minister of the newly created Jewish state of Israel, thanked the pope and honored him among the righteous gentiles: "When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims." Similarly, Moshe Sharett, the second Prime Minister of Israel, remarked after meeting with Pius: "I told him [the Pope] that my first duty was to thank him, and through him the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public for all they had done in the various countries to rescue Jews. We are deeply grateful to the Catholic Church."
But beginning in the 1960s, following a play entitled The Deputy by the Communist-inspired revisionist, Rolf Hochuth, there has been a massive attempt to deny these facts and paint the Church as all but a Nazi accomplice and Pius as "Hitler's pope."
One of the advantages of a memoir like this is its concrete evidence that the anti-Catholic smears are false. Pius was aware not only of the threats to Jews but the widespread persecution of his own priests by the Nazis. Careful study of the records in recent years has even given us some concrete numbers that were not available to the pope at the time. In 1932, for instance, just before the Nazis came to power, there were about twenty-one thousand priests in Germany. 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. In other words, well over one-third of Germany's priests came into open conflict with the Third Reich. We can be morally certain that the number who, seeing the treatment of their fellows, opposed Nazism in more subtle or quiet ways was even higher.
Father Bernard was not a German. He came from Luxembourg and joined the 2,670 priests who have been documented to have passed through Dachau, some 600 to their death, from Albania, Belgium, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and other nations. Priests were sent to every camp that Nazis had created, either because they had expressed dislike for Nazism or because Nazism 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.) For some reason, however, the Gestapo particularly favored Dachau as a destination for priests and Protestant clergy, perhaps as a way of keeping them together and thereby preventing them from "infecting" other prison populations with Christianity.
Because in the end the Nazi hatred of the Church and of what they called "negative" Christianity is a spiritual orientation. Both Hitler and Mussolini shared that spirit, but the Italian convinced the German that a direct attack on the Church had historically always led to failure. The case called for delicacy, tact, indirect and subtle means that would not make anyone a conspicuous Christian martyr, but would eventually result in, as Hitler put it, the chance to "crush the Church like a toad." Anyone who looks over these pages will not encounter Nazi subtlety. Camp administrators preferred the most outrageous brutality. Clever attempts at manipulating public opinion, in Germany and around the world, took place at a much more public level. But what we see here is the brutal and sadistic reality behind the misinformation and propaganda.
We lost a lot of what we knew about this history in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the 1970s Jewish historians were quite energetic and successful in reminding the world about the Shoah, the attempted genocide of Europe's Jews during World War II. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Catholics and other Christians virtually forgot their own heroic witnesses and even had a hard time in keeping before the eyes of world opinion ongoing persecutions and martyrdoms of Christians by the thousands in places like China, Cuba, Vietnam, and the Soviet Bloc. That was why Pope John Paul II made it a part of the program for the Third Millennium, which was celebrated in 2000 in Rome and around the world, to remember the modern Christian martyrs (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant). As he writes in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, "their witness must not be forgotten."
His words continue to hold a lesson for us today. This little book works against one temptation that those of us who have never had a similar experience may never have felt, but which we may become complicit in by a failure of truthfulness on the order of the author's. Anyone who suffers a trauma of this magnitude or who has come upon such horrors will be tempted to turn away. But to do so always has repercussions, not only for our understanding of the past, but for our very lives in the present and the future. As Father Bernard writes, "Wanting to forget would also be a weakness on the part of those who suffered... it would be turning a blind eye to similar events taking place today, in full view, in many other parts of the world... Forgetting would be cowardice on the part of the people against whom all these crimes were committed."
The anti-Christian currents in Nazism and Fascism and Communism did not entirely disappear from our world with the fall of the regimes associated with those ideologies in the twentieth century. They are still among us today in disguised cultural forms that demand our constant vigilance.
This republication of Priestblock 25487 is a valuable reminder of the price of failing to be vigilant both for the Church and for the world, because the persecution of Catholics in the twentieth century is not merely a part of religious history. It is an important but widely neglected part of the secular record of our time as well.