Monday, August 21, 2017

A German Priest in World War II: The Shadow of His Wings

The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, OFM
translated by Benedict Leutenegger

This book is written in the words of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, a young man training for the priesthood in German at the start of World War II. Conscripted by the German army, the book shows the treatment Catholics received from the Nazis and the struggles Fr. Gereon had to complete his training and be ordained. Based on a series of talks he gave on a speaking tour in the United States, it did sometimes seem disjointed to me. It's probably reasonable as he is not an accomplished autobiographer but it did make some of the events difficult to follow.

This book is another one of the possibilities for further reading on the Level 4 history program page at Mater Amabilis™ and is one I had seen before in graphic novel form.

Army life and the death of warfare are an integral part of the story of Fr. Goldmann's life, so a parent should be aware of that before sharing this book with a student. For our family, those aspects wouldn't preclude First Son (or a subsequent eighth grader) from reading the book, but it's good to know.

There is a description of a a scene around Christmas time while Goldmann (not yet a priest, but previously in the seminary) in which Himmler offered leave to any and all SS soldiers who would use the time to get a girl pregnant.
All members of the SS are bound in duty to present the Fuhrer with children. Many eager maidens will be waiting for the man who will help them to give the Fuhrer a child.
A leave of absence is herewith granted to all members of the SS for the purpose of carrying out this glorious mission. The state will assume all costs; and, in addition, will pay the SS members who fulfill this mission a reward of 1,000 marks for every child.
Goldmann gave his first sermon in response to a request from the officer to give his opinion, explaining how he quoted Tacitus in Latin, Caesar, examples from the Middle Ages, and finally concluded it was an outrage to German women.

In the war itself, Goldmann often snuck into villages ahead of the troops to warn priests.
I found myself daily thanking God for the SS uniform I wore and growing in my faith and belief that my presence in that hated company was a blessing to those I encountered, as well as to myself.
He earned great respect in the SS troops, along with other seminarians, for endurance and strength, which he claimed was a result of "rigorous days in the Catholic Youth Camps" where they were inured to "long treks and strenuous exercise."  But they were asked to sign a statement in order to earn an SS officer's commission.
I hereby declare that I am leaving the Catholic Church and make the firm resolution never again to enter the Franciscan Order or the Church.
All the seminarians refused and were consequently honored by their commander for their commitment, but they did not get commissions as SS officers. Up to this point in the war, Goldmann had always served in non-combatant positions, but without a commission he requested a transfer to medical corps.

On one of his assignments, he become friends with a member of an Evangelical Church who introduced him to other Protestant Christians.
This acquaintance was one of the decisive experiences of my life, for it reaffirmed my faith in humanity. While my faith in God had never faltered, my recent experiences with my fellow man had left almost everything to be desired. These good people did much to restore it. I spent many blessed hours, almost every day, in a house in Hessen where belief and trust in God's word as found in Sacred Scripture were strong and where an inexpressible stream of blessing flowed....The conversations I had there and the love I was shown by my "dissenting" brothers were truly remarkable, and I count those days among the most treasured of my years as a soldier. When at last I had to leave them, I took with me a deeper knowledge of their creed, their ideals, their goals: things that in a later time, and a far country, were to stand me in good stead in understanding non-Catholics who were nonetheless stalwart and upstanding Christians.
Throughout his life, and particularly displayed during the war years, Goldmann recounts odd coincidences, delays, and mistakes, that allowed him to visit holy places, study with priests (even in captivity), and even meet the pope to request an out-of-the-ordinary ordination.

At one point, he managed to visit Dachau where the head of the Franciscan Order (Goldmann's order) was imprisoned.
I had heard of how they mistreated the prisoners; but I had not heard that they killed them too, mercilessly, laughing at their defenselessness. The particular targets of their baseness were the priests, whom they forced to drill in formation for hours at a time, shooting those who fell down from exhaustion or malnutrition or some other dreadful prison hardship...My hatred of the Nazi regime became more intense, and I resolved to return as soon as I could to see if I might ease somewhat the burdens of these suffering souls.
As I mentioned above, there are many scenes of the horrors of war. These were not atrocities, but just the wartime experience of many soldiers. For example, frantically trying to escape, Gereon's company climbed aboard tanks and rode over the bodies of fallen German soldiers.
It was a terrible ride. I was on the second tank, and I could only pray to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament while the cries of crushed soldiers drowned out the clattering of the chains of the tanks. I will never forget the sound as long as I live--anonymous men who, having survived enemy fire, were now crushed by their own comrades whose plight was so desperate that escape was the only thing left in their minds.
We came through. The commander was given the cross of knighthood for his brilliant plan--but there was much blood on it.
One night, a young and foolish radio operator announced their position on a mountain openly on the radio. Shortly afterward, Goldmann describes a massive bombing from British ships offshore.
This was the most miserable night I ever had to endure. Later on, when I was confronted at my trial with the thought of my own imminent death, I was somewhat afraid--though it seemed too unreal for me to believe it. But this! This was reality--severed limbs, men drowning in their own blood, the cries for help when none could be had! This was evil; this was Darkness incarnate, and I trembled with fear and anguish. My soul cried out for relief from the suffering of these men I could not help. I felt their pain, their tears, their deaths.
In the morning:
There were very few to be buried; little but pieces of human bodies, the dreadful harvest of war.
Goldmann was finally captured and transferred through a variety of prisoner of war camps. In some he was able to study theology with other seminarians and a priest. In others, particularly those run by the French, he and the other inmates suffered terribly. As a priest, he seems to have had some ability to travel but he also suffered more from the hatred of the more extreme Nazi inmates. He was able, over time and with the aid of many who prayed for him over the years (some he learned of much later), to bolster the faith of the few who attended his first Mass in the prison camp and also to convince many others to return to the faith. They even built churches within the camps.

After the war, Father Goldmann eventually fulfilled his dream of being a missionary in Japan. An appendix, The Ragpicker of Tokyo, written by Joseph Seitz, shared his dedication to the Japan flock and their tremendous growth with his prayers, his sacrifices, and his tender devotion. This appendix was actually my favorite part of the book.

This book shows a faithful Catholic German devoted to his countrymen and serving them as well as he could as a medic and chaplain, which could be an excellent complement to books focused only on the atrocities of the Germans in the war. It also provides a balance by showing some of the deprivations and suffering in the prisoner of war camps run by Allies. It's an excellent book for those who might assume priests can't be strong or courageous under fire. Finally, Goldmann writes often how his study of logic and philosophy helped him carefully explain the faith, but he wasn't afraid to admit when he made mistakes out of youthful exuberance, both good virtues for a young man to consider and emulate.

Despite all these points, I decided against asking First Son to read this as his supplemental history reading for World War II. It's a bit on the long side for him and more difficult than other options. First Son will read anything I ask, but sometimes it's a struggle and his history studies for World War II are already on the challenging side.

I also decided we needed something a bit less depressing to counter some of the other readings he would be doing. Kansas Dad convinced me our eighth grader didn't need to wallow in the horrors of World War II as much as he could with all the excellent literature there is on the period. So I'll be reading a few novels to see if any of those would be a better fit for our family.

For those interested, I also read the graphic novel version. At times it seemed even harder to follow the series of events in the abridged version, though that might have been partly due to my inexperience with graphic novels. I think, too, the illustrations were even more graphic at times than an imagination might provide. So while this would be a shorter option, I decided we wouldn't read it either.

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