The Priest Barracks

by Guillaume Zeller, Ignatius, 274pp, £13

Dachau, the first of the infamous Nazi concentration camps, was constructed in 1933 on the outskirts of Munich. Between 1938 and 1945, 2,579 priests, monks and seminarians were imprisoned there, in three specially designated barrack blocks: numbers 26, 28 and 30. At total of 1,034 priests were to die there. This, obviously, is a tiny figure compared with the millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but the story of these men, who now include some Blesseds, is still well worth telling, both for its sorrows and its glories.

The reasons for their imprisonment varied: the ownership of a forbidden book, suspect clippings from newspapers, personal letters critical of the regime or incautious proselytism were some of the reasons for an arbitrary arrest, cruel incarceration and the possibility of death.

For instance, Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite and journalist, the much-loved rector of Nijmegen University as well as being the editor of a Catholic newspaper strongly critical of the Nazis, was taken to Dachau in early 1942 and given a lethal injection on June 19 that same year.

On arrival, priests were divested of their cassocks, Bibles, missals, holy medals and rosaries. They were stripped and shaved and forced to wear old clothes with a red triangle sewn on them, as “political” prisoners. Zeller comments that “Everything was an excuse to put them in a delicate situation with regard to their faith and the priesthood.” They were thus subject to obscenities, blaspheming and humiliations as well as being the main targets for medical experiments and for the death transports for the disabled or elderly.

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