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The shop-floor secret mission

by
22 January 2021

Hugh Williamson recalls the wartime ministry that put French priests into Nazi factories — and mortal danger

PA

Foreign workers in an armaments factory in Germany in 1944, a Nazi propaganda photo

Foreign workers in an armaments factory in Germany in 1944, a Nazi propaganda photo

THE four-storey prison block in the central police station in Leipzig is more than a century old. The walkways are narrow, and sounds echo around the enclosed atrium. The small cells, with heavy wooden doors and thick walls, feel claustrophobic.

A larger cell for groups of prisoners is at the end of the first-floor walkway. The entrance area is caged in, to stop inmates attacking the guards. “We use this for drunken football fans,” a police officer tells me.

Seventy-seven years ago, such a cell in this prison was used to hold Henri Perrin, a Roman Catholic priest from France caught by the Gestapo on a secret mission in Nazi Germany. Perrin kept a diary, and the entry on 2 December 1943 described entering the cell: “I stumbled over legs, and voices in the dark asked all kinds of questions — ‘Who are you? What are you here for? Where have you come from?’ The cell was occupied by seven or eight Russians and Poles and three little French lads of eighteen or twenty. . .

“I sat on the ground like the rest, and when in the darkness I explained that I didn’t know the reason for my arrest but ‘perhaps it was my activity as a Catholic’, I felt them all suddenly stop short.”

Perrin, 29 years old at the time, was one of a group of 26 French priests who had volunteered to go on a secret mission: to work in German factories alongside thousands of French compatriots forced to work there, and, through their presence, to give their workmates spiritual support.

Of the 26, only five went undiscovered. The others were captured and punished for their Christian work — jailed, sometimes tortured. Some were deported back to France.

Six paid with their lives in Nazi concentration camps. These, and the millions of others who suffered in these camps, including many priests and Christian activists, will be remembered again this year on 27 January, UN Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Xavier Boniface, professor of religious history at the University of Picardy Jules Verne, in France, sees the secret priests as an important if little known chapter in the history of Christian responses in the Second World War, and in the history of the fledgling worker-priest movement in France.

“For the first time, priests without cassocks or parishes were doing manual labour, with nothing distinguishing them from the workers around them. Some died after comforting their comrades, others were deported.”

 

MY FATHER, the Revd Tony Williamson (Obituary, 22 March 2019), was an Anglican worker priest in a car factory in Oxford for 30 years. He drew inspiration from Perrin and his French comrades, having read Perrin’s diary in the 1950s. He showed me the book before his death, in 2019.

AlamyAn inmate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp

Perrin was one of more than 13 million men, women, and children brought to Germany by the Nazi authorities as forced labourers. About 700,000 came from France, which was the largest group from Western Europe.

One of the camps where forced labourers were held was in Schöneweide, east Berlin. Rows of white, single-storey barracks stretch into the distance. Each housed 200 workers. The camp is a memorial to the Nazi’s use of forced labour. “This is a less well-known aspect of the Nazi regime, but it was integral to the way it operated,” Juliane Haubold-Stolle, an expert at the museum, says.

By late 1942, senior French bishops were concerned over the spiritual well-being of the many French prisoners and labourers in Germany. There were active Christians among them, grouped under a movement known as l’Action catholique, but leadership was needed.

Several priests argued for what became officially known as a “secret mission” by underground priests. The idea won official support in April 1943. The Hitler regime claimed, wrongly, that French citizens under its rule were able to practise their religion freely. The mission sought to show what genuine spiritual support looked like.

Perrin arrived at Leipzig’s main station with 30 other French men and women at midnight on 22 August 1943. Accommodation was in a hotel converted to a large dormitory with bunk beds. Work was as a turner in a workshop belonging to the Junkers engineering company, making engines for fighter planes.

The day after his arrival, Perrin went to a forest near Leipzig to hold a secret meeting with others from l’Action catholique. For the next five months, in evenings and at weekends, he travelled widely in the region, holding services and meetings with labourers in work camps or forests.

Some brave German Christians, laity and priests, supported Perrin and the others. These were exceptions, however. German churches acknowledge that they did too little to oppose Hitler’s regime.


LITTLE remains of the site where Perrin worked. His workshop, shared with 15 other labourers, was in Mockau, northern Leipzig, next to what was then the city’s military airport. On a visit to the area, nowadays an industrial estate, I found two abandoned pre-war buildings: one a squat airport control tower, the other a stately office building.

Physical labour was important to Perrin, a chance to share the lives of the working class and break down barriers. Writing of his work colleagues, he exclaims: “If only we could touch their souls as they touched their machines, we should find them directly responsive to the action of the Holy Ghost.”

Perrin worked 12-hour days, and looked for ways to break the monotony. He had a close colleague, Jacques, who, unlike the other workers, knew of his priestly background.

The two divided up the day, starting with prayer, followed by meditation on the Bible “which lay open on the lathe-bench”, then discussion of issues raised in l’Action catholique meetings. In retrospect, it seems no surprise that Perrin was captured, on 2 December 1943, given how active he was.

Yet, even when he was captured, he pushed his luck. In a dramatic diary passage, Perrin describes how, after being called for questioning at his factory, he is taken by a policeman by tram across the city. Jacques sees Perrin being taken away, follows at a distance, and enters the same crowded tram.

The two manage to talk briefly, at which point Perrin slips the key to his locker — depository of his secret religious equipment, local maps, letters — into Jacques’s pocket. Jacques finds the key, rushes to their dormitory, and manages to clear the locker with only minutes to spare before himself being called for questioning.

Perrin was the first of the secret priests to be arrested. Others were soon to follow. In some cases, the Gestapo humiliated the priests they arrested, forcing them, in front of Nazi officers, to drink beer from a chalice or eat unconsecrated wafers. Much worse was to come.

 

STORIES of concentration camps were spreading. In April 1944, Perrin notes in his diary: “I wrote to my mother. I thought she ought to be prepared for the possibility of a concentration camp.”

Many priests landed in these camps. On 23 September 1944, ten priests and Christian activists were transferred from a Berlin prison to Sachsenhausen, a notorious camp north of the capital.

On the day I visit Sachsenhausen, now a national memorial, the site is largely empty. As I gaze across the vast roll-call area, I think of a French Christian activist Lucien Croci, who was among those brought here on that day in 1944.

Only 24 at the time, he was one of many prisoners who were forced to take part in a sadistic Nazi experiment: as a form of punishment, these prisoners, weak and undernourished like all camp inmates, had to run up to 40km a day carrying 15kg rucksacks, ostensibly to test the soles of boots for German soldiers.

I locate what is left of the test circuit where they ran. Only a few meters of sand, gravel, small stones, and broken tarmac remain. Listening to the audio tour-guide, a German man who was also punished on the test circuit recalls his experiences:

“The pain was terrible. You had to keep moving until it was dark. If you stopped, a SS man would come and hit you on your head, beat you hard, with his truncheon. Each day was dedicated to death.”

Croci never fully recovered from this torture, and died six months later, in March 1945, in a different concentration camp.

 

THE French were unique in dispatching priests to support their forced-labour contingents. While they touched the lives of relatively few of their compatriots, their contribution was profound. They showed that compassion and Christian service were possible even in the darkest times.

And they bridged the gap between working people and a Church that was seen as austere. Professor Boniface says: “We saw in these clandestine priests, quite rightly, the origin of the worker priest.”

Perrin was fortunate, at least for a few years. He was deported to France in April 1944, and survived the war, becoming a worker priest on a large dam project. He died in a road accident in 1954. His memory, and the memory of other brave priests who volunteered to enter Nazi Germany, lives on.

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