Book Review 1: The Priest Barracks

So this is a new segment I want to make a regular feature, as much as anything can be called a regular feature here… a review of things I’m reading. I like to read, and I read a lot, because it’s a stress-reliever for me. My reading tastes are varied. If we’re dealing with fiction, I do tend towards the fantasy realm (Tolkien, Jordan, Sanderson), but I also like what can generally be classified as “thrillers” – Clancy, Ludlum, and a whole lot of other names that are escaping me right now. I also like to get into the classics, which opens up an argument as to what constitutes “classical literature” – but that might be a post for another time.

Allow a brief rant. Charles Dickens is not classical literature, in my humble but correct opinion. Dickens is just not good. I have never forgiven him for the terrible experience I had with Great Expectations when I was in 9th grade, and I can’t imagine I ever will. So he’s out. Ok, moving on…

Non-fiction wise, I tend to go back and forth between history and theology. This should be unsurprising, I think. Works where the two intersect are a bonus. My guess is that it will be primarily the non-fiction stuff that I feature here, but we’ll see. I like reading fiction, so I’ll try to find a home for it.

My initial goal was to do these as videos and put them on my fledging YouTube channel, but I’m just not there yet. It’s a heck of a lot easier to just bang away at the keyboard and post something than it is to film, edit, and upload. All that being said, welcome to:

The Priest Barracks (Dachau, 1938-1945) by Guillaume Zeller, translated by Michael J Miller, published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2017.

This book was given to me by a parishioner as an Easter gift earlier this year. I must have mentioned by visit to Auschwitz in a homily at some point, because I think that’s where she got the idea. As she warned me, it’s not the happiest topic, but it’s still a good read.

And it is a good read. There are times you need to put the book down and walk away because of the heaviness of the subject matter, but Zeller does a fine job of walking the line between overemphasizing the absolute horror and evil of the concentration camps and overstating the heroic virtues of the priests imprisoned in these camps. This is really everything I basically want in an historical monograph. It doesn’t require a super in-depth knowledge of the historical scene, and it doesn’t require a super in-depth knowledge of the life of priests. It communicates, very effectively, the story of what life was like for a very specific population in a very specific place and time.

It’s an important story to be told, too. For one thing, it’s necessary to understand just how hateful the Nazis were. But it’s important to understand how evil never wins, and there some absolutely beautiful stories that come out of the priest barracks in Dachau that prove that point. The story of Father Karl Leisner is one of them. Father Leisner was ordained a transitional deacon in 1939, so he was just months away from priestly ordination, when he came down with a case of tuberculosis. While he was at the sanitarium for treatment, he was arrested and sent to Dachau. How he survived is itself a miracle, but as the years went on, it seemed like he would never make it to ordination. Until 1944, when a French bishop was arrested and also sent to Dachau. Things starting coming together. The French bishop agreed, as did the bishop of Munster (Father’s home diocese) and the archbishop of Munich (the camp being located within his territory), and so plans were set into motion. All the requisite materials and books were smuggled into the camp, and on December 17, 1944, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, Fr. Leisner was ordained a priest. Because of both his physical condition and the circumstances of the camp, he was unable to say his first Mass until December 26, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. It would be the only Mass he would ever say. Although he survived until the camp’s liberation, he died shortly thereafter. As Bishop Piguet, who ordained him, commented, “Truly, in a place where the priesthood has been utterly humiliated and where it was supposed to be exterminated, divine revenge has been striking: one more priest has been born to the priesthood of Christ.”

That’s just a thumbnail sketch of a moving story, and there are plenty more besides that. But Zeller is also fair in his criticism of the priests; oftentimes, national pride took precedence over fraternal charity, and he rightly points that out. While I think he is correct in being sympathetic to the Poles, I still think he is perhaps too critical of the German priests who were interred at the camps. His bias doesn’t really come in until the very end, but once it does, it makes itself very known.

So, in summary: this is a good book. If you are interested in Catholic history or the history of World War Two, I think you’ll really enjoy it. If you’re looking for an in-depth theological treatise of the priesthood, or a sociological deep-dive into hate crimes, this is not going to satisfy you. I’ll give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, but I won’t insist you go and read it. But if you do read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Not sure what my next review will be. Haven’t started a new book just yet, and I have some relatively recently read reads I can write reviews for…always open to suggestions.

Thanks for reading! God Bless!

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