Arts, Faith and Humanities

The Place Called Skull

Written by Rob Deltete

April 4, 2014

looking upwards at the entrance to the Administration building and colorful fall trees

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William O'Malley, S.J., faculty member in Matteo Ricci College, has written many books, including The Place Called Skull. A Novel . (Dog Ear Publishing, 2012). Following is a review of the book by Philosophy Professor Rob Deltete.  

The title of this book is a reference to the place-often translated as Golgotha or Calvary-just outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and died (see Luke 23: 33-34). In Fr. Willliam O'Malley's telling, it also refers to a place where 2,700 Catholic priests were interned in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau during the Second World War, where they were "crucified," and where half of them died because they would not renounce their faith-even though many of them might have been released if they had.

Fr. Bill has a hugely powerful story to tell in his book. The Place Called Skull  is billed on its cover as a novel, but it's an historical novel in the sense that what he has people doing is true of some real people during the times he describes, even if it's not always true of his "conflated" characters (236). As such, it blurs the line (intentionally) between novel and documentary. The protagonist is a young German named Paul Reiser-tall, athletic, blond-haired, good looking: a quintessential Aryan. Reiser is a German patriot with aristocratic relatives, but he's not a Nazi.  In addition, he's a Catholic-both of which land him into trouble as the Nazis seize power in 1933. The first third of the book traces Paul's work with Catholic youth organizations in Germany and his growing opposition to National Socialism, as he came to see that to make a difference he had to enter the seminary and become a priest (62). In 1939, only months before his ordination, he is diagnosed with tuberculosis and spends time in a sanatorium to recover, where his anti-Nazi sentiments are revealed to the Gestapo by another patient (Prologue, 77, 98). After a perfunctory trial, in which he is sentenced to five years of penal labor (82), Paul is shipped off to a concentration camp in Sachsenhausen.

This is when his trials-physical, mental, emotional, spiritual-really begin, and when, for me, the book really begins. Sachsenhausen was an ugly place. Paul was confined there for several months, along with many other German priests, until early in 1940 when they were all transferred to Dachau. The Nazi plan, apparently, was to collect all German priests, and eventually all European priests, in one location and to isolate them, so that they could not "infect" other inmates by ministering to them and bolstering their faith and courage. As a result, they were left to minister one another, which they did as an expression of their calling and in order to survive.

If Sachsenhausen was an ugly place, Dachau was abominable-an unimaginable, barely describable hell on earth that would have made Dante cringe. Nine hundred German priests, brothers and seminarians were congregated there by 1940, and around 2,700 from throughout Europe by 1942. Fr. Bill describes, in detail, the appalling conditions they had to endure: several thousand men often crammed, at one time, into to barracks built for 300, slaving for vast agricultural and industrial complexes attached to the camp, enduring daily beatings and medical experiments, dragging the corpses of dead comrades to roll call each morning and evening, surviving on thin soup and crusts of bread, sharing one another's bodily warmth at night and their lice. (The lice, which carried typhus, killed many inmates who did not die from hunger, overwork, torture or medical experimentation, especially during the winters of 1942 and 1943.)  This makes for agonizing reading, and Fr. Bill does not pull punches. It's gut-wrenching. He describes what happened to the Catholic religious at Dachau graphically so as to sear that into the heads of readers, like me, who have no understanding-really no understanding-of what went on in Nazi concentration camps. It was gruesome, brutal, inhuman. I found myself tearing up as I read the last two thirds of the book, and often had to put it aside to get a grip on my sanity.

But there are also positive, uplifting aspects to Fr. Bill's story. Many inmates did their best to help the ill and feeble, even when it required trying to negotiate difficult language and cultural barriers. Some were transformed. A nice example is Fr. Bill's account of Monsignor Johann Lutz (not his real name) who was the "chief of staff" (his words, 85) of Clemens August von Galen (his real name), the Bishop of M├╝nster. Lutz does not come off as a caring priest in his time as a monsignor, but rather as an administrator who didn't have much interest in his parishioners or patience for their needs (57-59, 84-87). That changed at Dachau, when he volunteered to minister in the typhus ward, worked to improve his marginal Russian, and said mass for and heard confessions from Russian patients, while abjectly admitting that he had himself sinned in being heartless (198, 204). Priests and seminarians like Lutz had an advantage, since they had all been schooled in Latin, and so could celebrate mass together in a language they all knew and that others at least dimly understood. They also had a gift. For whatever reason, Reichsf├╝hrer Himmler allowed a Catholic chapel at Dachau; and it became the center of worship for the displaced priests and religious of whatever nationality. It served them-not without a lot of bumps and hitches-throughout their five years of confinement, from spring 1940 to summer 1945, when Americans liberated the camp.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Catholic religious at Dachau was the ordination of Paul in December, 1944, as a priest. It was a pretty elaborate affair. Paul had been ordained a deacon before his internment (75, 77, 144), and hoped to be ordained a priest before he died of his worsening tuberculosis: "No matter what, I'll live to be ordained... No matter what. So help me God" (117). That seemed a slim hope in late 1944, but then a miracle. The French bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Gabriel Piguet (his real name), also an inmate, presided at his ordination, in full vestments (made in total secrecy by religious prisoners from confiscated materials in SS warehouses), with a miter, bishop's ring and pectoral cross. Apparently, as must seem incredible, without the SS ever knowing! Paul was so weak that he had to be helped to the altar, and could barely stand for the ceremony (see 220-221 for the preparation, which had a lot of surreptitious outside help; 222-223, for the ordination). He was "liberated" from Dachau, along with the other inmates confined there, in August, 1945.

What to make of all this? I confine myself to a few comments.

Much of Fr. Bill's portrayal of Paul is based on The Victory of Father Karl  (a translation of Stephanus heute : Karl Leisner, Priester und Opfer , originally published in 1957), by Otto Pies, S.J., about the German seminarian Karl Leisner. Karl died of tuberculosis shortly after his release, and I think we may infer that Paul did also (234). Fr. Otto, who was also interned at Dachau, is Paul's best friend in Fr. Bill's novel, but is renamed Otto Pfizer. In Fr. Bill's novel, Otto declares that he will not allow his friend to die in the hell of Dachau (191-192), but will work to get him out. He does and did (234-235)! [Otto arranged to have Paul's name changed to that of a dead Dutch inmate, and had him moved around the TB ward, so that he would not be "selectioned," i.e., executed as incurably useless (185, 191.)] Karl Leisner, who was in fact ordained at Dachau by Bishop Piguet, in a ceremony like the one Fr. Bill has described for Paul, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in1996 for his extraordinary goodness and concern for others when he was himself dying.

I have called what the priests suffered at Dachau a "crucifixion." To my knowledge, only one of them was literally crucified: the Pole Stanislaus Bednarski (179); but they were, day after day, subject to torture that amounted to crucifixion. [Fr. Bednarski (his real name) is a composite figure in Fr. Bill's book, where he also has a barbed-wire "crown" pounded into his head by SS guards with a group of Jewish prisoners forced to hail him as their king (174-175).]  Some survived that torture, but many did not. So I think it fair to say that Dachau was their Golgotha, their Calvary, their meeting with the Place called Skull.

For many of us now, who can't fathom the incomprehensible brutality of the Nazi concentration camps, I think it's comfortable to describe what the religious did at Dachau as a "triumph of the human spirit."  It was; but this needs to be understood in context. To get an idea of the context, look at the cover to Fr. Bill's book, which I think is really wonderful. It's a pair of gnarled, withered hands, with cracked fingernails, protruding from dirty, blood-stained prison garb holding a golden chalice and a host. As Paul is agonizing about his tuberculosis, and his wish to be ordained before he dies, he thinks of a statement from Nietzsche: "He who has a 'why' can endure almost any 'how'" (116). Nietzsche certainly would not have endorsed Paul's "why" (he thought Christians were weak and feeble, due to be eclipsed), but Fr. Bill's cover captures in a single image a lot of why the priests at Dachau didn't say "I submit," even if that might (I say, might) have saved them: they had faith that, through it all, the Lord was with them. Try as they would, the Nazis could not crush that faith.

Fr. Bill's book memorializes a couple of thousand Catholic priests (strictly, Catholic religious, which includes brothers and seminarians). But why focus on them? Why not on the millions of other people who also suffered and died in Nazi concentration camps? The Jews who died there have had voices that decry the horror of the Holocaust-I think of Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel. And rightly so. But who speaks now for the Gypsies, the homosexuals and the physically and mentally "deficient," who were regularly "selectioned?" Or for the Poles? At least six million of them, only half of whom were Jews, died in the Holocaust. Why no attention to them? 

My answer is that Fr. Bill could not have fitted all this misery into a single novel, even if he were able to weave together its many strands. Better that he tells a part of the story, which (as a Catholic priest) he is well-placed to do, than to try to tell the whole story. That will require other authors to step forward to represent their voices.

In his acknowledgments (236), Fr. Bill (perversely, he says) thanks an editor who rejected his manuscript because "Nobody would go to a camp for the Catholic Church. They would have just shut up." Well, they didn't. And that, he adds, is what "kept me from shutting up." Thank you, Fr. Bill, for speaking up to describe the appalling conditions of the priests confined at Dachau and their remarkable courage and faith. The story you tell should be an inspiration to all of your readers-even those who are not Catholic.

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