The Heelers Diaries

the fantasy world of ireland's greatest living poet

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Location: Kilcullen (Phone 087 7790766), County Kildare, Ireland

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

one abyss calls to the other

By Nanda Herbermann
(Arrested for Catholic activities and Detained in a Concentration Camp by the Nazis.)

Putting the word of the Psalmist, "One abyss calls to the other," at the head of this article has its deeper meaning. The concentration camps, the abyss of fiendish wickedness, have become for me and for many of my companions in suffering a blessed pit of divine mercy. In this abyss of wickedness we came to realise the bottomless pit of divine mercy and unbounded grace. We had to bend low under the cross, but we were then permitted to enter wholly into the world of God's love. If Christ called me to this way of the cross as his disciple, he expected something from me. As God's mercy would surely help me not to break under it. And he did this miraculously. In those moments when I had reached the limit of human endurance, God's mercy would support me.
For eight days I was in solitary confinement in a darkened cell. At all hours of the day the supervisor on duty would come, strike me on the head and kick me. My eyes smarted with unwept tears. I heard the sobbing, groaning, the mad screams of demented women being tortured to death, and I thought I could bear it no longer. Then the redeemer, forsaken on the cross, was my hope.
I found strength to carry my cross in Reinshold Schneider's book The Way Of The Cross. Provost Donders of the Cathedral had sent it to me. I kept it hidden in my straw mattress. From there it made its way secretly from inmate to inmate. Surely it brough encouragement to many in their desolation.
At least 70 percent of all German inmates in the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrueck were professional criminals, social outcasts and prostitutes. They no longer knew anything of the cross or the willing cross bearing love which forgets itself, which carries the cross with Christ, and which could still smile even though through tears. But I want to tell here how Christ met those in prison who held fast to him or looked for him, how they experienced again and again his support, his consolation and his love. There was the dear noble Mother Superior from the Sudetenland. She was over 70 years old and delicate. Her refined face bore a saintly glow. She was devoted to all the prisoners and always helpful. Her devout mind was sincerely willing to carry the cross in the imitation of Christ. I see her before me. It was a wet and cold Autumn evening. Barefoot and trembling all over. She asked me: "Pray, pray, that my body will be able to stand it." In consolation I answered that I was willing for three days to offer up all hardships so that she would not break down. She became happy like a child and whispered to me the Magnificat which was her favourite prayer. Often she took one of the weeping prisoners by the hand and tried to comfort her. I venerated her as a saint.
There was Elfriede, the meek little lamb from Cologne, who could be happy and sparkling as is the Rhinelander's way. She worked on the rabbit farm., and she was in her right place with these quiet animals. Her greatest happiness was mediation. In her there were sincere meekness and complete readiness to bear everything. She heroically mastered her way of the cross. But I do not know anything of her fate. She is one of the many untraced ones who had to hold out in the concentration camps until the end of the war.
I remember Angela who was sent to the concentration camp as a hostage for her father whom the Gestapo could not find. She was really like an angel, and deserved her beautiful name well. She spent five years in the camp. Though physically weak, she possessed in her strong soul that faith that moves mountains. Looking at her I was often reminded of the words of the Bible: "God created the weak to put the strong to shame." Often we celebrated our Sunday mass hidden in the furthest corner of the camp in 20 degrees of frost or more. She would put her hands into mine and would rub them first one then the other. Then we sang softly so that the SS guard could not hear us.
When Angela was in the sick bay, Nettchen Alfredine and I went secretly to see her whenever possible, always trying to avoid the SS guard. Nettchen worked in the kitchen. Sometimes she managed to put aside a bit of margarine or some jam for the sick Angela. Then she would have tears in her soft eyes. How homesick she was for her family in Holland. Happily she is reunied with them today.
Here in the concentration camp one found living examples of how to suffer in order to defend the Christian faith, and to die like the great martyrs, nobly and innocently. Among the few Catholic women there were apostles and angels. Conscious of our rock like faith we would recite the Fiat: "If we have to die or be killed here, we shall die praising our lord for choosing us for this sacrifice." In normal life people do not experience so much grace as we did in this hell. Such divine grace and goodness gave us the strength to hold out to the very end. And we knew that in spite of this bitter persecution in Germany, the Catholic church would live.
Often I was inspired by the noble Polish women, who for the most part were deeply religious and trusting in God. On special feast days, in their miserable barracks, they cleverly contrived to hold their communal service after the guard had passed. I once had the opportunity of attending one of their celebrations. Stirred to the depths of my heart I joined them in prayer and song. We all imagined ourselves to be in a church and our Gloria and Credo must surely have reached our lord in heaven. It was bitter for us to have to go without the eucharist. In longing for the Bread of the Angels, our devotion and our love glowed even more brightly.
But those Polish women who were executed! Nowhere else have I seen such composure. This is how martyrs die, I thought. Indeed they were witnesses for their faith, their home, their people. Their suffering and death reminded us to be faithful unto death. "I am going to heaven, Nanda," an elderely Polish woman said to me. She was the mother of four children of whom she had not heard for years. She believed that they had entered heaven long ago. God alone knows what we felt about these shootings. One of these days it might be our turn.
I very much want to tell you about the poor prostitutes and outcasts who were in my care when for more than a year I was their Block Warden. They surely were the poorest of the poor, with no sunshine in their lives. There were young girls and old women. I often thought: "Would it not have been better if you were never born?" They were so difficult to manage, they told lies, were jealous and vindictive. What a miserable lot they were. All one's energy and a great amount of love were required to get along with them. Many of them had contagious diseases, were undisciplined and had grown up in the human underworld, decayed in body and soul, and they bore all the symptoms of their vice. These outcasts displayed an utter indifference and a complete lack of feeling towards themselves and their fellow prisoners. Some behaved without any semblance of decency. The most sensuous experiences were related to the delight of the whole block, and my life was made intolerable by their treacherous and malicious gossip. How well they knew how to steal. Nothing was safe from them. Often they stole my miserable bread ration, even the potatoes from my plate. The camp authorities punished them severely. And sometimes even gave them 25 lashes with the whip. But a few days later they relapsed into their old ways. These should have come into the loving care of understanding people, not to the inferno of the concentration camp. Under the whip, the rubber truncheon, and blood hounds, without faith and without God, they could only become worse.
When I had to take over the exceedingly difficult task of Block Warden in this block, I was horrified. But my requests to the camp authorities to remain in the outdoor labour gang were refused. "You have to take over this job whether you like it or not!" said the supervisor and profoundly unhappy I went to their block. In the evening lying on my bunk, I remembered the words of Saint Paul: "To be everything to everybody." What elasticity, goodness and forbearance, and tolerance of human peculiarities and even of depravity, were necessary here. I was not mature or good enough by far to live according to that principle. A saint was needed such as you were Paul. "With a heart as hard as a diamond but as tender as a mother's," to use the words of the French preacher Lacordaire. I was near to despair when suddenly put into this strange world. But I had no choice except to attempt the task. It was worth it. Many of these lost souls I came to love very much, and they became attached to me with the fullness of their passionate hearts. My proteges were between 17 and 70 years of age. Many of them had celebrated their silver jubilees as prostitutes as they proudly explained to me. And the younger ones? I felt great pity when they told me about their lives and sufferings, their joyless and troubled childhood and youth. They were the children of prostitutes, who had never known their fathers or whose fathers had been living on immoral earnings or had been jailbirds. They had been forced onto the streets when they were only 12 years of age to earn their livings like their mothers. Listening to this, a great love and infinite pity would come over me. Sometimes I could not but wish to draw them to me, these outcasts. I felt the urge to undo some of the wrong that state and society had done to them. I struggled with God for their souls. Many a night I sat by the beds of the sick who writhed and groaned in terrible spasms. I looked into their sorrowful and hardened faces. During their fits I held their hands and comforted them.
There was little Maria. She had lived in the filth of the big cities and her delicate body was worn out though she was only 25 years old. During the day she had to toil out of doors, and nearly every evening she lay on her bunk gripped by severe spasms. I could do no more than give her cold compresses and put my hand on her feverish brow. There were no drugs. When in the evening I used to go to the sick bay to fetch some drugs for at least the worst cases, often enough, I was thrown out with kicks and slaps in my face. "Let them die, those old swine," was the inhuman answer of the SS doctors. Sometimes I was lucky to find the little prisoner nurse Gerda who would give me a sleeping tablet or a tonic on the sly. This Gerda, from Leipzig, did a great deal for the prisoners. But I was talking about Maria. When I was with her during the nights of her attacks, after she had recovered, she would ask me as I sat with my hands folded on her bunk: "Nanda are you praying? Do you think there is still a God who has mercy upon me?" I told her much about God, of his boundless merciful love, told her of Mary Magdalene, of Marguerite of Cortona, whose story had impressed me greatly. I told her of this loving and repenting woman who with purifying penance left sensual love and came to God. Maria listened attentively and after a few weeks she prayed together with me. I taught her many short prayers.
She had to withstand terrible temptations since she had realised how miserable had been her life and what was of real importance in this world. Now she lay dying in the concentration camp, lonely but content and devout, believing firmly in God and her saviour. She died in my arms, lying on the floor, as the doctors and nurses refused to admit her to the hospital. Of this I am sure: She who had repented so sincerely and who had prayed with me so intensely found a merciful judge. I closed her eyes. For the last farewell, before she was fetched to be cremated, I made the sign of the cross on her cold forehead. She lay stretched out on her straw mattress with the sign of deep suffering on her small white face.
There was Lotte, a dark passionate woman of nearly 50 years. More than half her life she had spent in brothels. How often she said to me: "I wish I had your faith." But she learned to believe.
When I came to see her in the sick bay only a few hours before her death - I had to climb through the window - she was hardly able to speak any more. She asked me in a whisper: "Is this really the way to heaven?" I said "Yes," deeply moved, and she shone with happiness and replied: "Thank you." I looked into her face, now quiet and peaceful, but marked by the horrible traces of vice. Sobbing I left the death cell.
I also want to tell you about the fiery Anita. All her life she had lived in fire, earthly fires, that had consumed her heart. It was through the torture in the concentration camp that God's grace had led her to meditation, and shown her the path of heavenly love. One morning she told me with great excitement of a dream which I will try to repeat here literally: "Last night an angel spoke to me. I saw a fire, a very big one. There were many paths through it and there were illuminated signboards To Eternal Love. I jumped into the fire and perished in it." This dream symbolises Anita's life. I thought of it for many weeks, especially when she was deported with a "sick transport," most likely to another concentration camp to be gassed. She had been very unruly and often proved a nuisance to the whole block. Now, purified in the divine fire of God's love, she had become quiet and calm through God's mercy, wrapt in meditation, ready for the last journey. I had to call her at 2 o'clock in the morning for the transport. Surely this meant death, and I was hardly able to speak. It was only now that she realised what was in store for her. She took my hands and said simply: "Don't cry, I am so ready to die now." Yes, sun, moon and stars shone even in Ravensbrueck. But the miracle of God's love came from the ashes of these Magdalenes, stronger and brighter than the lights in the sky.
Finally a few words about poor Else. She had no home in this world, and no friend who cared for her. She never received greetings from home. She had already spent 8 years in the concentration camp. Now she lay ill with an incurable disease in her leg. She would never be able to walk again. I still see her before me lying on her bunk, one leg always lying on top of the other. Prolonged standing - that was one of the penalties here - and marching without shoes or stockings had been fatal for her sick feet. All her joints were badly swollen. In addition she had a serious heart disease. Every evening when the other prisoners were asleep, I went to her stealthily. She had plenty of time, but I had to count the minutes, as the other patients called out for me too. But she was so pleased if I only sat on her bunk for a few minutes. "Tell me about your Christ," she said. "Yesterday you were telling me about his being scourged." So I continued about the crowning with thorns and the way of the cross, his crucifixion and ignominious death. I had to repeat the words of the dying redeemer to the robber on the cross. Then it happened for the first time that I saw tears in her eyes. She too found the way to Christ, seeking and fighting. From now on she bore her cross, her terrible pains, more patiently than anyone. Whenever I renewed her compresses during the day, we would whisper short prayers together. When I was transferred from Block 11, she cried and drew me down to her. I had fight back my tears.
Altogether it was hard for me to leave my prostitutes. I did not like to hand them over to somebody else, because I had tried daily afresh to understand them and help them. I was happy that as God's tool I was permitted to see these people who had been so far away from God, gradually grow into his merciful love. To have fought and suffered together to achieve this is the strongest link in the world.
It was deeply moving when in the depths of the night we would offer up our Te Deum to heaven, in this block of the prostitutes and outcasts. On feast days we would sing at 4 o'clock, before the camp siren broke cruelly into the stillness of the new morning. "Great God we praise thee." We sang not only the first verse, but the second and third too, which I had taught them. In this pitiless misery and horror, we outlaws praised the Lord in his omnipotence and bounty, strong in faith and without faltering. I would not have believed before that people of this kind in their humiliating situation would have been able to perform such an heroic deed. Yes, we joined in the universal Hosannah. Amidst all the horrors of the concentration camp, where all singing, praying and making of the sign of the cross was strictly prohibited.
I am sure that the few prisoners of whom I have told passed straight into God's arms when they died. They would have liked to make a confession to a priest, but this was impossible, as no priest was ever permitted to enter our camp. Surely they, who never had a real home on this earth or real love, entered into their heavenly home. So much good will and such deep contrition will surely have been enough to let these poor erring outcasts find their home in heaven.
Those who had completely despaired were quite beyond consolation. They did not believe in anything any more. They had lost faith in God, fatherland, humanity and home. And many in Block 11 were like that. Their inner state must have been quite heart rending. Man cannot live without hope, especially in such a hell. Thus these pitiable women and girlsoften enough went mad and attempted suicide.
Here everybody bore a heavy cross. The great difference was that some carried it with Christ and others without him. You must possess boundless faith if you do not want to be submerged in despair and bitterness, and sink from one pit to another deeper still. But without this faith something happens to the souls of these hapless wretches which is more cruel more harrowing than all physical maltreatment and material privation.
I can gratefully say that behind barred windows and behind the walls of the camp I met God's limitless grace hourly. These years of imprisonment have for me grown full of life and blessing. For my future life they hold a profound meaning. I hope that for me, and for many others like me, they will be a source of strength for the future. "One abyss calls to the other." The abyss of fiendish wickedness opened up the infinite depths of divine love and mercy.

Taken from Christ In Dachau, published in 1952 by the Newman Bookshop, Oxford, England.


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