In December, 1941, I was sentenced to six months in prison by the Brussels Regional Court for having given, in clergy retreats, lectures to priests which included an over-all picture of nazism: the reasons why it attracted so many people, the basic incompatibility of its teachings with those of the Gospel and the best ways in which to combat it. In May, 1942, without any additional court action, I was deported into Germany to a concentration camp. The nazi gentry were convinced, they informed me, that I was the soul of resistance on the part of the clergy. It was a most exaggerated judgment, but I refused neither the honor they bestowed upon me nor the results which they felt should follow. I left for Dachau, where I was to spend three years, three years of experiences which for nothing in this world would I have missed.
When I arrived at Dachau on June 18, 1942, I found some 2,500 priests incarcerated there. When I left on May 13, 1945, there remained 1,100. Some 60 Germans had been released during the course of the last weeks; the remaining 1,300 all died at the camp, and did not die from natural causes.
Every nation was represented among these men. Toward the end the French numbered 123, as I recall. The next largest group were some 80 Czechs. There were 33 of us Belgians. But the largest group of all aIways consisted of Poles. I arrived in time to make the acquaintance and to venerate the saintly Auxiliary Bishop of Woztslavek, the Most Reverend Bishop Kozal, who died of exhaustion in December, 1942. These members of the clergy indeed represented all Europe. They emanated from 138 dioceses and, I believe, 25 religious orders. (A priest from Metz kept the records of our cell block with painstaking care. They were deposited in the presbytery of the village of Dachau.) The Society of Jesus contributed a large contingent— almost 100, whereof 63 were still alive when the day of liberation came. They came from 13 different provinces: Holland, the two German provinces, the two Polish provinces and the providence of the Oriental Rite, the Czech and Austrian provinces, the four French provinces, and the Belgian. All of the Church's hierarchy was represented, from a bishop (of Clermont-Ferrand) down to students in preparatory seminaries. And in the camps were members of all the Christian groups: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Old Catholic and Mariavite.
Early in 1941 all priests were being transferred to and concentrated in the Dachau camp, and they were sheltered in three prison blocks, block 26, first reserved for Germans (later all non-Poles were moved to this block), and blocks 28 and 30. This gathering together into a single area was, in accordance with an agreement with the Holy See, accompanied by various “privileges”: opportunities for holding religious services, exemption from heavy labor and employment in war industry, a life in an ecclesiastical community, and various dietary improvements paid for by the German hierarchy. The latter in fact amounted only to an excuse for bullying on the part of the SS. For instance, each of us daily received a glass of wine which must be drunk at the command of the SS and returned—empty or full—at its command! This was really no more than an excuse to elaborate on the calumnies charged against the clergy—those gluttonous and lazy fellows. And what is more, these privileges were very soon reduced to living in common, the use of the chapel, and freedom from transfer to other camps.
The three prison blocks were later cut down to two, and during the last months to a single one. By then we were living under incredibly crowded conditions. My dormitory, which contained about 144 square yards of floor space, housed 350 men. During the interval when churchmen were dispensed from heavy work, they were exploited in every possible way. In winter the frightful task of clearing the camp of snow was imposed upon them. All day long we were outside shoveling, piling snow upon overturned dining tables, upon long wheel barrows, which then had to be taken to the river running along the edge of the camp and there dumped. This work, in itself hard and exhausting, was made worse by the fact that it was supervised by “capos,” those poor degenerate brutes, worse than the SS, and the cause of how many innocent deaths!
Twice a day we had to journey to the kitchens in order to distribute the heavy containers of food throughout the camp. Each container weighed 150 pounds and into it were poured 150 pounds of "soup." Then, two of us to a container, shod in light sandals almost impossible to keep on our feet, had to carry the food to each of the cell blocks in the camp. Hardly ever was the task accomplished without someone's stumbling, amid howls of glee from the onlookers who seemed all to be moved by a sort of animal hatred for the “Pfaffen.” When this happened, our own cell block had to replace the contents of the spilled container with one of the containers intended for our use.
In short order the exemption from work was dropped and the greater part of the priests were assigned to teams which labored on what was called the “plantation.” This consisted in the raising of medicinal herbs and luxury flowers, a business belonging to certain Party bigwigs, who, it was said, through good times and bad made therefrom a net annual profit of 750,000 marks. The number of those who died as a result of these labors was frightening. The majority of the priests who quit this world in the concentration camp sacrificed their lives to this business. Worn out by tramping back and forth from work, half-starved, they had to work at their tasks like slaves, from earliest dawn to evening, and in all weathers. If they came back to their quarters wet and muddy, there was no opportunity afforded them to dry out their flimsy work clothes; next day they had to put them on as wet as they had been the night before. And here again the work, hard enough in itself, was made even more inhuman by the “capos” and “sub-capos” and by the SS guards with their snarling dogs.
Yet in the long run our way of life became less difficult and priests were likewise given less difficult tasks to perform. Thus it happened that about a hundred of them were put in the “Besoldung,” which might be described as the bookkeeping department of the SS, Working there, conditions were more humane because the SS members there employed were, in large measure, what might be called slackers. Almost alI of them had a certain amount of education and seemed to belong to the liberal professions. Their attitude was in strong contrast to the unbelievable vulgarity and cruelty of the ordinary SS species. Some 30 of us priests were also attached to the infirmary, either as charge nurses, in which capacity we actually served as doctors, or as clerks in the pesthouse office.
And thus it came to pass that at the end we alone—or almost alone—constituted the employees of the "Hall of Records." This made it possible for us to officiate at the reception of newcomers, of those frightening columns which arrived during the last months from the various camps evacuated to Dachau. The unhappy victims of these death marches at least were greeted by friendly faces. And it was thus that I myself had the joy of comforting those founders of the Young Christian Workers (JOC), Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet.
It was not toil alone which brought so many priests to their untimely ends. We had also to reckon with the constant ill-treatment visited upon us by the camp's executioners. Before Dachau I had never seen hatred: eyes flaming with ill-will, mouths twisted with anger at the sight of a “Pfaffe.” To strike, to wound, to kill a priest seemed an instinctive need among some of these creatures.