This is the PART II of the story from ‘Venite Prandete’ about the life of Père Jacques, the Christ-like French priest of World War II.
At this time, he met with his friend, Lucien Weil, an eminent botanist. Upon seeing a yellow star on his friend’s coat, he bristled with indignation. Passive acceptance of discrimination made one complicit in the Vichy government’s adoption of the Nazi race-based policy of anti-Semitism, a policy that had already excluded Jews from most Government positions, including teaching at State schools. Professor Weil had been removed from his professorship at the Lycee Carnot at Fontainbleau. Pere Jacques immediately invited Professor Weil to teach science at the Petit-College. His friend accepted the invitation and joined the faculty when the school resumed in 1942.
Following occupation by the Germans of the previously autonomous Free Zone held by the Vichy government in November 1942, German hold on the country became more oppressive. He endeavoured to assist all victims of Nazi oppression: He made the school a refuge for young men seeking to avoid conscription for forced labour in Germany and for those fleeing the Nazi regime in the north in order to join the Resistance. He facilitated the hiding and re-homing of Jews fleeing persecution, enabling many to travel through the Catholic networks to Spain, a country which, despite its fascist government and its alliance with Hitler, nevertheless did not refuse entry to any Jews who claimed shelter.
His assistance to the Jewish victims of the Nazi race policy brought him into frequent contact with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion in neighbouring Melun. Mother Maria, the superior of the convent, often sought his help in finding Catholic families with whom escaping Jews might be sheltered secretly.
Just prior to the re-opening of the school in January 1943 Pere Jacques received an urgent request from Mother Maria to allow three desperate Jewish boys to be enrolled clandestinely at the Petit-College. As securing their enrolment brought implications for the other students of the school, Pere Jacques consulted Father Philippe who unreservedly encouraged him in the decision to take the boys. The three students; Hans Helmut Michel, Maurice Schlosser and Jacques-France Halpern arrived at the Petit-College at the beginning of the second term. They received new Christian names – Jean Bonnet, Maurice Sabatier and Jacques Dupre respectively. He also hid a fourth boy, Maurice Bas, as a worker at the school and sheltered Maurice Schlosser’s father with a local Catholic village family.
He concerned himself with the students’ emotional development, yet conscientiously rejected any compromise of their Jewish faith while discretely deflecting attention away from their non-participation in Catholic rites. In this regard, in order to forestall any untoward inquiries or suspicion, he confided the true identity of the newly arrived students to the three upper classes. His confidence in the maturity and trustworthiness of the older students proved to be well-placed. Not one student violated the confidence and all strove to make their classmates as welcome as possible.
The day began normally on 15th January 1944. Classes were in progress. Pere Jacques was teaching his French literature class when a squad of Gestapo raided the school. The headmaster and the Jewish students were singled out for arrest. The Gestapo found enough evidence in Pere Jacques’ desk to link him with a wide involvement in the Resistance. While he was being interrogated the three Jewish students were rounded up. Shortly thereafter the Gestapo led Pere Jacques and the students across the school yard where their schoolmates stood in the cold, watching in helpless shock. As the procession passed the students, first faintly then rousingly, called out, ‘Au revoir Pere,’ (“Goodbye Father”). Pere Jacques turned waved and responded, “Au revoir les enfants,” (Goodbye children).
Over 40 years later that final farewell became the title of a film by the celebrated film maker Louis Malle. As the film poignantly portrays, that was the last time Pere Jacques and the three Jewish students would be seen at the school. In 1988 Louis Malle told a New York Times reporter: ”This was, for me, by far the strongest impression of my childhood, the memory that remains above all the others in vividness”. He said that he remembered how Father Jacques, as he was being led away with his three Jewish students, turned to the watching students and said: ”Au revoir et a bientot”, (Goodbye and see you soon.) Then, he said, “something took place that was very bizarre: Somebody started to applaud and then everybody was applauding, despite the shouts of the Gestapo to keep quiet”.
Lucien Weil, his mother, and his sister were arrested at their house in Fontainebleau the same day. They were deported to Auschwitz, where they, too, perished.
Père Jacques was imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps, but was first interned in the prison of Fontainbleau. The Kommandant of the prison at Fontainbleau was SS Sargeant Wilhelm Korff, a particularly sadistic figure who was later found guilty of war crimes. Korff had headed the Gestapo group who had raided the Petit-College. He tried at length but without success to break Pere Jacques’ spirit. In one protracted interrogation, Korff asked Pere Jacques: ‘What do you think of the laws of the Reich?’ To which the priest replied: ‘ I do not know them; I now only one law, that of the Gospel and of charity’ Even the hard-hearted Korff came to acknowledge the solid character of his Carmelite prisoner, of whom he later said: ‘ He has only one defect; he is not a Nazi.’
He was then initially sent to Neue-Bremm, following which he was transferred to Mauthausan concentration camp, a place of dehumanizing depravity, where the anonymous remains of 200,000 victims lie beneath the soil of the camp. On arrival the prisoners were stripped naked and shaved bald. The following two weeks saw a sadistic form of initiation, with beatings and drowning of prisoners by holding their heads in buckets of water. The sadism of the guards was surpassed by the Kapos recruited from the prisoners themselves.
The one person in this environment who had given hope to the prisoners, a jovial priest called Pere Gruber, had been strangled at precisely three o’clock on Good Friday afternoon, a deliberately significant act by the prison guards. At one stage, Pere Jacques was forced to carry a cross, naked, in a circle for hours, in humiliation of his priestly role.
In prison the foundation of his spiritual life was contemplative prayer. Neither prison bars nor brutal treatment could quell his deep inner communion with the Lord. From that inner communion there radiated an air of inner peace and calm that left an indelible impression on all his fellow prisoners. His extraordinary self-discipline proved indispensible to his survival for the 18 months of his imprisonment.
He found ways of raising the morale of his despairing compatriots. When all the priests at Gusen were moved to the Dachau concentration camp – reputedly less severe than Mauthausen – Pere Jacques veiled his priestly identity to remain as the only priest for the 20,000 prisoners at Gusen. He learned enough Polish to minister to the Polish prisoners, who called him Père Zak. Though he grew progressively weaker, he remained one of the Resistance leaders still active in the camp, gaining the respect of all its inmates, including the communists.
His trust in God’s will was illustrated by his response to his friend, fellow prisoner Michel de Bouard, who confided to him his intention to vow either to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes or to assist at Mass and communion twice a week for the rest of his life if he survived the camp. Pere Jacques reflected and replied: “No. We should not tempt God. The greatest proof of trust we can give Him is to accept from the depth of our heart whatever he wills.”
Father Murphy observed that, “[a]mong his many acts of spiritual leadership certainly the most memorable in the minds of the survivors of Gusen were the Masses that he celebrated clandestinely in the camp on Christmas, new year’s day and Easter during that final winter. The improvised altars, the smuggled wine and host, the intensity of devotion and the courage of the priest in prison garb left an indelible imprint on the memories of those present, while raising their spirits to new levels of lived faith.“
He and the other inmates of the camps were liberated by American troops at Mauthausen in early May 1945. Suffering from tuberculosis, he weighed only 34 kg. At liberation, despite their physical fragility, he and a pathetic parade of survivors were forced by wartime deprivation to embark on a 3 mile trek to Mauthausen. As they passed through the gates of Mauthausen-Gusen, Pere Jacques and another prisoner prayed the Magnificat. His close friend, Roger Heim, described the moment: ‘My last vision of Gusen and of its drill yard where so many had perished is for me inseparable from the memory of the man, the priest, who in this multitude once more overcame every adversity and who in the end brought us the victory-the triumph of the human spirit over a system born of materialism and depravity. In our eyes Pere Jacques was resplendent in victory.’
He died on 2 June 1945, days after being liberated. After his death, the sister of Hans Helmut Michel testified that Father Jacques had not only hidden her brother but had also arranged for meetings between the two siblings during school times. At one meeting she had stated to Pere Jacques her gratitude and said that she did not know how she could repay him for the school tuition. Father Jacques had told her that he expected nothing in return, either then or ever. On the contrary, he would like to see her brother continue his studies until the Baccalaureate. Since the boy had no parents, Pere Jacques said that he would gladly take their place.
On 26 June his coffin was solemnly carried into the discalced Carmelite Chapel at Avon. Following obsequies his body was carried in procession through the school courtyard to the small cemetery behind the school. There he was buried in an unadorned grave marked only by a white cross.
Many dignitaries, both religious and civil, participated in the funeral ceremonies – honoured by all segments of society whose lives he had touched :– students and parents, veterans and deportees, teachers and friends, townspeople and comrades in the Resistance, Catholics and communists, brother Carmelites and family members. Many tributes were paid but one tribute that spoke with understated eloquence was the inscription on one of the floral arrangements. It stated simply: ‘A grateful Jewish family from Avon.’”
(This concludes the short biography of Père Jacques. There will be a third part coming entitled, ‘PÈRE JACQUES – His Spiritual Battle in the Face of Evil’.)