The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dachau Memories & Beatification

There are moments and events in life so intense that one can never forget them. For me one of these events was a visit to Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp near Munich, in December of 1951. I've written about this experience on several other occasions -- on September 27, 2010 and on August 19, 2008 -- but I thought it deserved another visit after reading about the beatification of Fr. Georg Haefner. More on Fr. Haefner later.

My father, an Army officer, was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany and had taken the family on a two-week Christmas vacation to Bavaria that included stays in Munich, Berchtesgaden, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and even a brief visit to Salzburg, Austria. 
American GIs in the remains of Hitler's Eagles Nest
Although I was only seven years old at the time, I can recall vividly many of the places we visited. I remember walking through the shell that remained of Hitler's "Eagles Nest", his alpine retreat overlooking Berchtesgaden, and being struck by the breathtaking view. I also recall my dad commenting that he could not understand how someone could live in such beautiful surroundings and be so filled with hate.

I remember staying three or four days in a charming gasthaus (a country inn) in a small Bavarian village where my brother Jeff and I got to share a room in which the twin beds were equipped with soft, feather mattresses that did all but swallow us. The gasthaus was owned by a couple who so epitomized Bavaria that they were veritable caricatures: he with his sweeping mustache, lederhosen and knee socks and she with her low-cut blouse that revealed much of her ample figure. She apparently took a liking to me because she surprised me several times a day by picking me up and hugging me in a way that more than embarrassed this seven-year-old boy. I tolerated such behavior because she was always giving me sweets behind my mother's back.

We also spent four or five days at a small ski-lodge owned by a family that treated my brother and me like celebrities. Our ski instructor, Horst, a wounded veteran of the war who spent a year in England as a POW, had only one arm but could ski as well as an olympian. He spent every morning with Jeff and me teaching us to negotiate the equivalent of a novice slope. He also accompanied us and our dad on daily hikes along mountain paths and through the surrounding forest. I especially remember the joy I experienced when my parents bought me a pair of leather boots that looked just like the boots Horst wore when we went hiking. I felt very grown-up that day when I put on my new Bergschuhe (or mountain boots).

As our Bavarian vacation neared its end, we spent a few days in Munich, including a visit to the city's famous Hofbräuhaus, where Dad and I joined a thousand Germans singing the beer hall's signature song: In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus... As I recall my more introverted mother and brother were a bit embarrassed by our enthusiasm. Mom was also upset when Dad rewarded my performance with a sip of beer from his large one-liter mug. I've had a distinct preference for German beer ever since. Here's a video on the Hofbräuhaus made by European travel expert, Rick Steves:

Dachau Gas Chamber
But my most distinct memory, and one not nearly so pleasant, is of our last day in Munich. Dad drove to the suburb of Dachau to visit the concentration camp where so many innocents perished. The war had ended only six years before and the camp was largely unchanged. As I recall, at the time, in the early 50s, much of the camp was being used to house some Nazi prisoners as well as refugees, but Dad was able to obtain permission to view certain sections of the camp. I remember the gas chamber as well as the ovens used to dispose of the bodies of those who were murdered or who died of starvation and disease. That experience engendered in me a lifelong prejudice against cremation. We walked through one of the barracks used to house the political prisoners and could imagine the horrible conditions under which they were forced to live. 

These and other Dachau memories are among the most vivid of my childhood. And I relived many of them the other day when I read of the beatification of Father Georg Haefner, a German priest  who died of starvation and disease at Dachau in 1942. Dachau contained a "priest-block" where priests and other ministers were segregated from the rest of the camp's population so they wouldn't pollute them with their religious views. 

Speaking of Fr. Haefner, Pope Benedict said, "In the confusion of National Socialism, Georg Haefner was willing, as a faithful shepherd, to protect his flock and deliver the sacrament and the water of life to many people, until the end of his life. He forgave his tormentors from his heart, for as he wrote to his parents from prison: 'Let us seek to be good with everyone.' Let us entrust ourselves to his intercession, so that we too may hear the voice of Christ, the good shepherd, and so be led to life and joy in abundance."  Blessed Georg's feast day will be celebrated on August 20, the day of his death.

To get a sense of what it was like to be a Catholic priest imprisoned at Dachau, read Fr. Jean Bernard's memoir of his time as a Dachau inmate: Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau. It is a marvelous and moving book. 

I've included a slide show of the day Dachau was liberated by US troops.

1 comment: