- Mission in Thuringia in the Time of Nazism by Paul Beschet, S.J.
This memoir by French Jesuit Paul Beschet (b. 1920) is about the experience of French priests and seminarians in caring for the spiritual welfare of about 750,000 French citizens slaving in the labor camps of Germany to help produce the weapons of war. Following the fall of France in 1940, these French citizens, in accord with the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO), were taken to Germany to replace workers sent to fight the Russians during World War II. Beschet shows how the Jocists (members of the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne) as well as some Jesuits spread throughout the region where the war factories were located. In their ministries, these French religious waged an underground war of Resistance against the Nazis in cities such as Chemnitz, Erfurt, Leipzig, Nordhausen, Saalfeld, Sonderhausen, and Wittenberg, as well as in places in the Province of Thuringia where a Catholic church was available.
Beschet, at the time a novice in religious life, was arrested in fall 1943 at Sondershausen and imprisoned first at Zwickau and then at Flossenburg (a concentration camp about equidistant from Buchenwald, Dachau, Leitmeritz, and Mauthausen). A Gestapo dragnet, devised by an inspector named Winckler, was employed against the missionaries’ Resistance activities. Beginning on Pentecost 1944, Beschet and others were taken, interrogated, and sent to prison. Some of their colleagues were “repatriated” or sent back to France, which weakened their underground mission in Germany.
After his liberation by the Americans from the Nazi camp at Tachau, Beschet wrote this memoir, in which he tells what he and his associates had to endure during their imprisonment—beatings, torture, and a death march (p. 210). The latter began on April 14, 1945, with 950 prisoners and ended, on April 23, 1945, with only 350 survivors. The others had died on the way either through physical exhaustion or by execution by the guards in what Beschet has described as a veritable hell.
What is most interesting is Beschet’s emphasis on the mission of these resisters as articulated by Jules Gérard Saliège (1870–1956), archbishop of Toulouse, on their departure from France and as encouraged by the writings of the Jesuit Victor Dillard (pp. 71–76). When Henri Perrin, another Jesuit priest worker, was arrested, these missionaries took risks that led to the imprisonment of their companions. Despite the heightened awareness of the Nazis about the missionaries’ activities, some remained to continue the moral and spiritual Resistance as the D-Day invasion and Allied victories occurred. Taxed by considerable hardship and danger, the missionaries’ personal faith was deepened by their long imprisonment (p. 167). These individuals include seven martyrs listed in chapter 11 (those killed by the Nazis under STO actually numbered at least fifty) and Marcel Callo (1921–45), who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987. Credo is the key word (p. 225) that summarizes Beschet’s experience, which he portrays as a religious one. [End Page 167]
This first English translation of Beschet’s French memoir is done with remarkable clarity by Theodore P. Fraser, an expert on the French Resistance and a professor emeritus of French. In addition to a bibliography and an index, the book has maps (pp. 20, 180, 210) and four appendices (pp. 245–66) with documents related to the Catholic Action of the participants in the Resistance.