Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Priestblock

1940 was a banner year for the forces of the German Reich.  One by one Nazi forces overran the countries of France, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, imposing Hitler's totalitarian state on millions of Europeans.

Victorious Germans in France

In Belgium, Gestapo control brought the closure of the International Catholic Cinema Office in Brussels.  The office was a thorn in Hitler's side - it was referred to as "the Vatican's headquarters in the fight against German films."  The Cinema Office files were seized and the premises became the headquarters of the German military police.  The office, once a private chapel, was later used as an SS torture chamber.

With the closing of the Cinema Office, its head, Father Jean Bernard, shifted his efforts to assisting Luxembourg refugees who had fled to France ahead of the advancing German army.  In January of 1941, Father Bernard was arrested by the Germans.  In a largely Catholic part of Europe, priests were viewed by the Nazis, with good reason, as centers of resistance, and any excuse would do for their removal.  Father Bernard was never sure of why he was arrested, but after stops in a couple prisons, he was shipped to the Dachau concentration camp. 

Father Bernard survived, and in 1945 he published his memoirs of his time in the camp, first serially in a magazine, then later as a book, Priestblock 25487:  A Memoir of Dachau.  Priestblock was the section to which Catholic priests were sent, 25487 was his identity during his time in that camp of horrors.


The brutality of the concentration camp and those charged with running it cannot be exaggerated.  In fact, it will always be something that most people can't even imagine.  And those prisoners who were a part of any organization that defied the Nazis were particularly vulnerable to the perverse cruelty of their jailors.  In Priestblock, Holy Days were celebrated by the guards with increased brutality to the inmates:  the Good Friday before Father Bernard's arrival was observed by the random selection of priests for the "hanging punishment."  Hands tied behind them, they were hoisted by their bound hands and left to hang in brutal mockery of the crucifixion that Good Friday commemorates, most of the of the Good Friday victims died or were permanently disabled.

Photo of Hanging Punishment at Dachau
Resistance to the Nazis reverberated into the camps:  those too sick and weak to work were simply left naked in the cold to die after one incident of resistance in occupied territory.

Eventually, Father Bernard was freed, and was able to give us a first hand account of both the horror and the indomitable spirit and faith that existed in Dachau.  Although sometime hampered by illness contracted during his imprisonment, he still served for long years after his release, dying in 1994.

Priestblock 25487 is sometimes a painful read, but I highly recommend it.

10 comments:

  1. I visited Dachau in the winter of '81 while traveling Europe as a college student.
    To say that it was a sobering experience is a gross understatement.
    The only way I can describe it is that you feel the force of gravity and atmospheric pressure on every square inch of your being.

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    1. It's one of those places that if the opportunity arose I'd feel obligated to go, but "fun" wouldn't be in the description of the day.

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  2. +1 on Kx... And hair on the back of my neck was literally standing up the whole time...

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    1. The efficiency of the brutality is breathtaking.

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  3. I've never had the privilege of traveling to Europe and walking the beaches, battlefields, and camps there, but I have traveled a couple of US Civil War sites, such as Gettysburg and Andersonville POW camp. Even as a rowdy kid, Andersonville is still a sobering, somber, brooding place...I can't even begin to imagine the weight of sorrow that places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau carry with them.

    I've read several books on POW camps in both the Pacific and the European theaters, and will definitely be adding this one to my Amazon list. Its hard to read those, especially from the PTO.

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    1. I've never been, either. What always amazes me at battlefields is the fact that you are standing where the destruction is unimaginable and now it's a peaceful, birdsong filled piece of countryside.

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  4. Hanging people by their arms tied behind their backs is an old form of torture; it was widely used by the Spanish Inquisition. It is called strappado. In its most extreme form the victim would be hoisted and then dropped partway, stopped with a jerk that would dislocate the shoulders. Wikipedia has an entry on it.

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    1. I got sidetracked one day while researching something about the Middle Ages and I was amazed at the ability of people to figure out varieties of torture. I only remember one - the victim was staked out and holes dug under the long bones of the arms and legs, then those bones were stomped on to break them. I remember thinking "I would never have thought of that."

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  5. That's a primitive version of the torture known as "breaking on the wheel." (see Wikipedia for the horrific details).

    Barnes & Noble used to sell a book titled The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber in their sale books section. It was originally published in the 1920's, and so missed most of the 20th century's catalog of horrors. The look I got from the female clerk when I took that book and a knife magazine to the cash register to pay for it was priceless. She probably still has nightmares about me as a deranged knife maniac.

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