Monday, 9 February 2009

The Ninth Day

Opened in 1933, Dachau was Germany’s first concentration camp and was located to the north-west of Munich in the southern German state of Bavaria. It principally held political prisoners. Of the approximately 200,000 prisoners (from more than 30 countries), two-thirds were political ‘dissidents’ and one-third were Jews. 25, 613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps.

Dachau also served as the central camp for Christian religious prisoners and had a special “priest block”. According to records of the Roman Catholic Church, at least 3,000 Catholic priests, lay brothers and seminarians, from 38 nations, 134 dioceses and 29 religious orders and congregations were imprisoned there. In addition, the community included 109 Protestant, 30 Orthodox and two Moslem clergymen.

Since the 1990s German cinema has been dominated by films which explore various aspects of the country’s National Socialist past. Films include the experience of resistance figures, such as Sophie Scholl, member of the White Rose group in Munich, or the internationally renowned film Downfall which sought to depict Hitler’s last days in the bunker in Berlin. Another such film, released in Germany in 2004 treats the story of a catholic priest from Luxembourg who, after being imprisoned in Dachau, is permitted nine days to try and convince the Bishop of Luxembourg to sign a treaty with the National Socialists. The anti-Nazi bishop had become a problem for the occupiers by ringing the cathedral bells at noon every day as a symbol of resistance.

The film is based on the story and diary-entries of Msgr Jean Bernard who was arrested in 1941 by the German occupation forces as a symbol of Luxembourg Catholic resistance to German occupation. He was sent to in May 1941. In the film, Msgr Bernard becomes Fr Henri Kremer. He is taken unexpectedly from Dachau to Luxembourg where he is met and supervised by Gestapo Untersturmführer Gebhardt who attempts to present an argument for accepting Nazi rule. Gebhardt, who incidentally is an ex-seminarian who forsook the priesthood in favour of a career in Nazi administration, argues that while Jesus may have been a Jew, it was his will to overcome his Jewishness that makes Jesus a model for humanity. The arguments and discussions between the two protagonists form the basis of the film and the primary focus is on Msgr Kremer’s decision: either to stay in Luxembourg and collaborate with the Nazis, or to stand his ground which will inevitably mean his return to Dachau.

Whilst the film is primarily concerned with moral decision-making, rhetoric and theological debate, there is also a great deal of action. Several scenes, which occur frequently in the form of flashbacks when Msgr Kremer is in Luxembourg, depict the persecution of those interned in Dachau. In one of the film’s initial scenes, the audience sees one of the priests taken from the block by the camp guards. The guards put a crown of thorns on the priest’s head and he is crucified on a life-size cross which the camp guards have erected outside the block. The next morning, beside the first cross (on which still hangs the body of the murdered priest) another wooden cross has been erected. For the priests, the life-size crosses represent both a threat and a symbol of joy and hope. The film’s audience is afforded just a glimpse of the suffering endured by just one group of the persecuted, but it is enough to terrify and shock – just as the thought of Our Lord’s suffering and death is unbearably painful. And yet that cross, the very instrument of suffering stands as a symbol of hope, for it is only through suffering that everlasting joy is to be found.

The story of those priests interned in Dachau can give us a sense of hope through the torment they suffered. A review of Jean Bernard’s autobiography, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau (translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider) can be found at Roman Catholic Vocations. The author of the post articulates this sense of hope which stories like this can give us. The author writes:

“One message that comes through loud and clear is the absolute joy that the sacraments brought to these men who were in such dire conditions. Although they could be executed if caught, they secretly said Mass and used what little scraps of bread they could find to provide communion for priests and non-priests alike. Fr. Bernard wrote: ‘It is a sea of comfort that pours over the gathering. Comfort and hope and strength for new suffering joyfully accepted’.”

Above all, this piece of historical experience reminds us of the sacrifice we must make as Christians as we take up our cross, but it simultaneously reinforces our knowledge that our sacrifice will not go unrewarded, for in Christ we all shall be made alive.

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