Father Krémer, Missionary of the Immaculate Heart

At our request and with the simplicity that is the mark of saints, Fr. Krémer related his life and allowed us to record his account. He himself concluded: «Thus ends the life of a Missionary Spiritan. I yielded to the request of friends who desired that I leave a few memories of my life for my friends from Reunion Island and Metropolitan France. It is thus for them that I accomplished this work. You will see above all how severe but beneficial education was in the past. Only Jesus and Mary counted. My parents wanted us to go to Heaven; I think that they succeeded. I wrote everything out of love for Jesus and Mary, for their greatest glory and for the salvation of souls. The rest is of no importance. »

Because they were his parishioners, Brother Scubilion of the Queen of Heaven and Sister Marie-Gertrude of Jesus the Host have living memories of his apostolate in the parish of La Ressource, St. Marie of Reunion Island. From the treasure of his carefully conserved letters and sermons, they have written the second part of this account, all to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as a homage of gratitude to the Abbé de Nantes, who kept the crystalline soul of Fr. Krémer in faith and hope and showed him the way of the Immaculate Heart of Mary where he found his refuge in our time of diabolical disorientation.



I was born on 2 October 1923, on the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels in Herbitzheim, a small village of Bas-Rhin, located about ten kilometres from Sarreguemines, in this region that is known as “Alsace tordue” because it is fairly Protestant, while neighbouring Lorraine is Catholic. I was baptised on 5 October on the solemnity of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.

My father, Jacques Krémer, a good Christian, was employed at the Solvay factory, which specialised in the fabrication of soda; it provided a living for a great part of the population of the region. He married Marie Schmitt who was born in Herbitzheim on 2 February 1914. Her greatest desire was to become a nun, but she met with the refusal of her mother. The Good God took a fine revenge! They had four children: the first daughter, Marie, was born on 29 November 1914 and died shortly after birth for want of a doctor. My father then left for the war in Russia, where he was wounded by a bullet that passed through his shoulder a few centimetres from his face. Then came Eugénie on 7 July 1918, Lucie on 25 November 1919 and finally myself, their only son. My two sisters became nuns while I consecrated myself to the priestly and missionary life. One day, a neighbour expressed this thought: « You Krémers must surely descend from the tribe of Aaron for all your children belong to the Lord! »

We lived poorly, finding our consolation in an ardent piety, marked with devotion to the Virgin Mary. Pilgrimages in Her honour are not lacking in the region. During winter we recited every evening the Rosary as a family. In summer we unfortunately could not do so, for we had to work in the fields late into the evening. In order to supplement the meagre income that he earned at the factory, my father had acquired two cows and a few chickens that we had to look after in addition to the rest.

Very soon, Our Lord and Our Lady entered into our home with their precious Cross.

I was about five years old when my father was the victim of an accident at the factory. At the time he was assigned to monitor the smelting furnaces that contained the soda. One day he almost fell into it; he was found unconscious from the fumes. He lost his position and was transferred to repairing soda sacks, thus seeing his salary greatly diminished. Poverty increased at home, and in order to meet necessities, Eugénie and Lucie became “domestics” in convents for starvation wages. Life became very harsh and everyone strived to repress his tears. The strong faith of us all made us accept this trial, for we knew that the Good God is with those who suffer. He could not abandon us.


Little Joseph Krémer in his schoolboy smock.

The story of my vocation is appallingly trite! If I left for the Spiritan’s secondary school at Neufgrange in Alsace, it was not because I felt within myself a great desire to save souls but quite simply because I felt that I had to go there. The desire to give myself to God pursued me day and night. At that time, I understood nothing of the “ways of the Lord”. Thus I only had to follow this desire. It seems to me that the Good God always attracted me where He wanted me and I, like a little lamb, followed the call without really knowing were I was headed.

My father was especially fond of me to the point that my mother, who was stricter, criticised him for lacking severity: « You overlook everything; you’ll see, he will become a bandit! » Quite the opposite of him, Mum never missed scolding me when necessary.

One Sunday after vespers, my father called me and showed me a photo printed in a missionary magazine. It was a Spiritan brother:

« Look! he said to me, isn’t it beautiful? It’s a Brother who has five trades and worked in Africa where he built churches, schools and houses. Now he is resting. »

I was very impressed when contemplating this Brother; this photograph fascinated me so much that I kept it in order to show it to my friends. Some time later, I ended up asking my father questions in order to know where the man whom I admired wholeheartedly could be found. Learning that he resided nearby, at Neufgrange, I made the resolution to do as he had done, learn five trades and go to Africa to help the Fathers in their work. Since my father had not taken my decision seriously, we no longer spoke about it at home. In the meanwhile, I did not tire of listening to my father tell stories about missionaries. Among others, the one about Mgr Augouard, the apostle of the Congo, stood out as the most fascinating.

Furthermore, the liturgy and the beauties of the Church began to enthral me. I was dazzled when I saw the parish priest approach the altar adorned like a God; I spent my time contemplating him. Ah! he is beautiful, I said to myself unceasingly. Moreover, it is for the Good God that he is dressed in this manner.

Then, the desire to become a priest took the first place in my heart, to such an extent that one day I opened my heart to my mother:

« Mum, what is better: to be a priest or a brother with five trades?

– It is better to be a priest, the Church says, for when one is a brother, one cannot say Mass.

– And between a priest and a missionary priest, which is better?

– A missionary priest, of course! But why are you asking me all these questions; that is not for you; we are too poor.

– At any rate, tell me what one has to set about doing to become one!

– One has to do advanced studies; you are too stupid for that; you know nothing, not even a word of French; this is not for you. »

Despite my mother’s advice, my decision was made; I would be a missionary priest.

Joseph Krémer, on the day of his solemn communion, surrounded by his parents and his sisters, Eugénie on his right, and Lucie.

Years went by. I was still living under the charm of the liturgical beauties of the Church when at around eleven years of age, a strange event took place in my heart. Even today I do not know how to explain it. Night and day I was harassed by a fixed idea, which even prevented me from sleeping. A little voice said to me: « You must go to Neufgrange, become a missionary Father, go to Africa and eventually let yourself be eaten there. » Inwardly I was ready for anything but I did not dare open my heart to my parents. For, my eldest sister, Eugénie, had entered the boarding school of the Sisters of Providence of Saint-Jean de Bassel when she was only twelve years old, with the desire of becoming a nun and a teacher in this Order. Alas! Eugénie often had to stay in the infirmary, since she could not bear the harsh winter (the house was not sufficiently heated). She was sent home after only a few months’ stay. This was a painful trial for her and all the family. Thus, it was thus not the moment to start it all over again…

I suffered from all this. I tried to contain my enthusiasm, but one day, no longer able to keep silent, I admitted everything to my mother, who was astounded. The reply came fast and scathing, before which I could only yield: « There is no question of that! You will not go to Neufgrange! »

This did not solve my problems! I was constantly assailed by this little voice: « You must go to the high school seminary. » Each evening I summoned up my courage and knocked on the door of my parent’s bedroom in order to beg them to agree. Invariably I heard the reply: « No, go to bed! » One evening, however, my mother replied to me differently: « Go to bed, we’ll see tomorrow! »

Thus there was hope!

The following day, as soon as I got up, I hurried towards my mother in order to ask her what this “we’ll see tomorrow” meant. Calmly she advised me to go speak about it with the parish priest.

Timidly, I begged my mother to accompany me, but she refused outright.

Having a hard head like many Alsatians, I summoned up my courage and, the following Sunday, I went alone to the rectory in order to ask my parish priest counsel concerning my vocation as a missionary priest.

Providence willed that the superior of the Spiritans of Neufgrange stop the following Thursday, in the village. On the first Thursday of the month, following the custom, people venerated St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, to whom the oratory was dedicated. It was thus agreed that I would come to set out my plans at that time. Quite happy, I returned home and hastened to relate everything to my dear mother, who could not believe my courage.

I kept the appointment, but the conversation was brief, for the superior mainly wanted to know the feelings of my parents.

A while later, as it had been decided, my mother and I went to visit him.

Turning towards my mother, he asked her:

« What can we do? Does he really want to become a priest?

– He says so, but it is not I who talks him into it!

– Do not worry, Madam! We are going to have a meeting of the council of the Spiritans during which we will make a decision. »

My mother’s smile had come back, so sure was she that this affair would not go further: « They will not accept you! »

Unfortunately for her, some time later, my sheet of admission to the high school seminary of Neufgrange arrived by the mail as well as the list of school supplies. It was unexpected! I was to present myself at the start of the school year in September, for it was then the end of summer holidays. I was going to turn twelve in October.


Joseph in high school seminary attire.

Having arrived in Neufgrange in September, 1935, accompanied by my mother, I found myself in the midst of eighty children, all joyful and speaking French, while I could not understand a word!

The beginnings were painful. Having returned home for Christmas, I really wondered if I would go back, even though I had learned to speak French in three months… by dint of punishment! Nevertheless, the studies for attaining to the priesthood seemed too difficult to me. This is when I remembered my first desire: “To be a missionary brother!” But Heaven had decided otherwise.

Once again, I was shaken night and day by a little, well-known voice that whispered to me: « You will return to Neufgrange! »

The first day of school at the beginning of January 1936, my father accompanied me to Neufgrange. It was decided that when I was fourteen, I would enter into the noviciate of the Brothers. When all my professors had been informed, they no longer troubled me.

The school year ended calmly, and in September 1936 I repeated my first year. Soon I was at the head of the class, peace and joy came back into my heart and the director no longer brought up the possibility of expulsion. Thus passed four years filled with study.

Summoned by my director, as each student is when this time arrived, I received the authorisation to enter into community to become a Brother, as had been decided upon my entry into the high school seminary. The only inconvenience was that I was no longer of the same opinion.

« Look at my report card, Father! I am second! No, now I want to become a Priest and to continue my studies to this end! »

My superior was forced to accept.


On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland.

Our village, Herbitzheim, situated only ten kilometres from the Franco-German border, had to be evacuated. The departure of my family was hasty. With my mother and my sisters, we hurriedly loaded a few belongings into the pram that had served for us when we were babies, before throwing ourselves onto the roads of exile with all the other villagers. Our parish priest accompanied us. He took the necessary steps so that I could join the other high school seminarians in Drôme. With a heavy heart, I had to leave my mother and sisters.


From October, 1939, to the spring of 1940, nothing took place on the front. At the high school seminary, I lived without receiving any news from my family. This was a big sacrifice: what had become of my father? And my mother, and my sisters? So many uncertainties, so many fears gripped my sensitive heart, but I abandoned myself to the will of the Good God. I lived through this first part of the war, the “Phoney War”, with my friends somewhat unconcerned about the danger that threatened France. As for studies, they were not very serious…

Finally, our superiors, foreseeing that the war would be long, decided to repatriate their little brood to Saverne in order for each one to be able to find his family before our certain and imminent enlistment in the army. Upon crossing the demarcation line, a shiver ran down our backs when we saw the flags with swastikas flying everywhere. We no longer had the impression of being in France. Yet we were welcomed with big smiles at Saverne.

I had the consolation of finding many friends. As for continuing our coursework, it was chaos. The Fathers no longer had the right to teach. It was the professors of the government school who took our instruction upon themselves, and they gave their courses in German to classes of fifty to seventy seminarians! Furthermore, only profane subjects were taught to us: mathematics, biology, etc. The seminarians did not take their studies seriously because they expected to be drafted quickly into the German army. I as well was preparing myself for this for some time.

I was thus forced, as was everyone, to present myself before the Council which reckoned that I was fit for war. Since I was registered at Saverne, I was enlisted into the group attached to this city.

Giving as a pretext that to stop my studies in the middle of the year was harmful to me, I obtained a six-month deferment. Thus, I was hoping that, during this lapse of time, the war would be over…

On 10 July 1941, I made a pilgrimage to the Blessed Virgin in Her well frequented sanctuary of Marienthal in Alsace. There I put myself under the protection of our good Heavenly Mother by receiving the five scapulars: that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, of the Holy Trinity, of the Immaculate Conception, of the Seven Sorrows and finally of the Passion.

I then resumed my studies at the German high school of Saverne. The winter of 1941-1942 was harsh. The Germans gave us great freedom, for we seminarians were members of the Hitler Youth. We had to march chanting military slogans and to listen to lectures that dealt exclusively with Hitler’s Germany. We applied ourselves in order that the school might keep its doors opened. We were able to attend Mass every day under the surveillance of a German professor. This freedom that we exercised in order to pursue our training somehow did not exist elsewhere. In this way, the Fathers thought that they would keep us faithful to France, by which we felt somewhat abandoned, and would be able to keep their school running throughout the time that the war lasted.

For my part, I was forced to leave it in October 1942 in order to do my compulsory service: the “Arbeitsdienst”. I no longer had a pretext to put forward!


One day in October 1942, one by one we got on the train that was to take us to an island situated about ten kilometres from Denmark: Sylt Island. There we were to fulfil our work service.

During the trip, I discovered the sea! It was the North Sea, grey and very rough. I was immediately fascinated by it, and this love of the sea has never left me.

At the Denmark border, the camp on Sylt Island, where was stationed the unit of which Joseph Krémer was a member. Sand dunes can be seen in the background.

Upon our arrival, we were settled into a camp. All would have been bearable if the officers had not been Nazis full of hatred. On the first day, we had to present ourselves before a committee that questioned us on our civil status and our future. My turn came:

« Who are you?

– Joseph Krémer, student!

– Why are you studing?

– That is precisely the question that I am studying!

– What do you want to do?

– I want to become a missionary! »

He almost hit the ceiling

« We do not need “Missionars” here!

Then he called the following person. But when we found ourselves all together, in rank, the leader shouted in a loud voice:

« The Missionar! The Missionar! where is the Missionar? »

– It is perhaps I, I replied timidly.

– Yes, fall out!... Here is a boy who wants to become a Missionar; we do not need Missionars! We are going to train him! »

From that hour I became the whipping boy of the camp, suffering insults and vexations. All the chores were reserved for me, especially the more humiliating ones. They ironically called me: “the Missionar”…

But the Good God did not abandon his servant persecuted for religion. I soon distinguished myself by extraordinary skill in all things.

Furthermore, we were given instruction mainly concerning Hitler’s Germany. Now, I knew this subject by heart since my stay at Saverne. I was unbeatable and consequently the only one capable of satisfying the questions of the professors.

Little by little, the leaders changed their attitude concerning me. They left me in peace, even though they had no sympathy for me because of my Catholic Faith. Everyone respected me, and the persecution was less brutal.

What I was seeking above all was a church in order to visit Jesus the Host and, if possible, attend Mass in order to take strength there for the week. Well! one day I met an old priest who invited me to his Mass. Joy! Little by little, I succeeded in taking along a few friends.


Daniel in the lions’ den: Joseph Krémer dressed in the uniform of the German army.

On 15 January 1943, I reported for duty in Augsburg in Bavaria, where the “main barracks” of the unit in which I had been placed was located. This time I was well and truly enlisted into the German army. Seventy-thousand Alsatians were thus mobilised by force into the “Wehrmacht”, of whom fifteen thousand never came back from the Eastern front.

My unit was mainly formed of very benevolent Bavarians, and around four hundred Alsatians. The officers were most likeable, undoubtedly because they did not share Hitler’s fanaticism.

After three weeks, we were sent to Russia for our military training. We were not used to such low temperatures and no one dreamt of deserting… I was part of a detail of fifteen soldiers, and we were placed on guard at a bridge. We were never attacked, unlike other groups.

But, the trial that pained me the most was to be unable to receive the sacraments. We did not have a chaplain, and it was unthinkable to ask for permission to go out to look for a church.


It was in the middle of the month of July that I was sent with my unit to the Russian front. At that moment, the German forces were making a frantic retreat on the Southern front. We debarked at Dniepropetrovsk under bombardment by Russian MiGs from the VIth army, which was back from Stalingrad. Our mission was to stop the Russians, who were armed to the teeth thanks to American machine guns and tanks; while each of us only possessed a gun and a few grenades! We spread out along the Dnieper and on the neighbouring islands. The SS were there decimating the population by throwing grenades into houses. There were only howls inside, and then came the silence of death, while we watched, powerless, waiting for orders that did not come. The Russians forced us to retreat a good kilometre each time. Gathering ourselves at the base of a hill, we counter-attacked and regained our terrain each evening with our guns and our grenades in hand because the Russians were not courageous! I make it clear that I never voluntarily shot a man; I was totally incapable of this… It was during one of these counter-attacks that I was caught in a trap with my heavy machine gun.

It was in the middle of the night, and the wind froze us. I had never felt such cold! It affects all the limbs of the body and paralyses them with pain… We had just received the order to retreat without fighting! Sent to scout around with one of my friends, I descended along a railway line and entered under a bridge in complete safety, at least I thought so. Now, scarcely had we arrived under the bridge when the fire of a heavy machine gun coming from behind, thus from the Germans, hit us directly. I was literally riddled with bullets. I felt them going through my coat that was all torn by them, but only my leg was touched.

The infirmary was situated two kilometres from the front; I was transported there. Because of the seriousness of the wound, they had to operate on me. The following day I was taken to a hospital in Warsaw and then to Schmalkalden in Saxony. I was treated very well. In January 1944, I could return again to fight on the front.

After a two-week holiday with my family, I was sent to a barracks in Upper Silesia; then I joined my unit on the front, which was then localised in the Carpathians. It is very beautiful country, but the Red Army did not leave us the pleasure of admiring it. Artillery bombardments were continual, night marches interminable, and we always had to retreat, retreat, retreat…

It is during this incredible rout that a story took place that is worth relating! We were pathetic in the face of the Russians, who shot at us continually. Bullets whistled passed everywhere. In order to find shelter at a moment when things were really hot, I caught sight of a group of houses that resembled a convent. Approaching, I noticed a kind of cellar. Intrigued, I entered into the enclosure and took the stairs that led to a door. I opened it, and imagine my surprise when I found myself face to face with a small number of visibly terrorised nuns! They must have thought that their last hour had come. Staggered myself, I closed the door and left. Then, a German asked me what was in the cellar. Adopting a very assured expression, I replied that it was empty. No one went to verify! I feared for these poor sisters. I will be content to see them again at the Last Judgement!

At that time, it seems to me, I attended for the first time an unusual ecumenical meeting! The Germans, who were somewhat concerned about religion, wanted to organise a worship ceremony by grouping together Catholics and Protestants. They had us recite the Pater, sing songs acceptable to all and announced a Catholic Mass that we were free to attend or not. Well, I saw Protestants follow our Mass! It was true ecumenism!

Furthermore, the war was starting to become long and our morale was declining.

I kept my courage thanks to my Faith. The Good God was with me! I prayed much, I prayed all day. During my duty hours, I recited my Rosary endlessly. I was in great inner peace and joyful for being united unceasingly to Jesus and Mary.


It was then that I was wounded for the second time. We were close to Krosno at the beginning of September, 1944. We had a few days of tranquillity there. I saw 8 September approaching, the feast of the Nativity of the Most Blessed Virgin, and I thought that the Russians were surely preparing something for that day. Why? Because the Russians like to attack on great feast days. I spent the entire night from 7 to 8 September in prayer, with the presentiment that something was going to happen to me the following day, perhaps my death… I knew that this day would be decisive for me.

Indeed, at daybreak the next morning, a dreadful artillery barrage fell on us. After three hours of hell, lifting our heads, we then saw tanks and thousands of Russians advancing imperturbably towards our positions. We ran until we encountered other soldiers. Machine guns rattled out when, suddenly, we saw about ten planes that quickly encircled us and began to fire at us by throwing hand grenades at us. I saw one of these formidable little planes that was aiming a shell at me. It had certainly already fired it when I felt myself, as though miraculously raised up and displaced about a metre. At the same moment, the bomb crashed at the very place where I was a few instants before; then it exploded, propelling me into the air.

Regaining consciousness little by little, I saw by my side a gaping hole and my munitions case in pieces. The shell should have torn me to pieces. I was completely deaf and riddled with shrapnel. All my clothes were torn.

I then waited for the danger to have passed completely in order to move and realise the situation in which I found myself. Survivors ran off, leaving me alone. Entrusting myself to Providence, I dragged myself to take cover. There I found my squad mate who thought I was dead. He stopped a German ambulance that was heading straight towards the Russian lines. It repatriated me ten kilometres from the front in order for me to be treated. The results of the examination were serious. I had completely lost my left ear; even today I am completely deaf in this ear, and the right ear was damaged. Furthermore, I still have more than two hundred pieces of shrapnel in my body. They can be counted on X-rays!

After three months of convalescence at the hospital, I was allowed furlough with my family. But I could not return to Alsace because the Americans were there. I then remembered that one of my aunts, the sister of my father, lived in Neustadt in the Ruhr Valley. I reached her home easily. Unfortunately, she and her husband were Nazis…

American and English bombardments were unremitting; we had to take refuge night and day in a bunker that was regularly shaken from the bomb bursts. It was worse than being bombarded in open country. At night I shivered with cold because there were no longer panes in the windows. Water and electricity were also non-existent. After about three weeks, I had had enough, and I decided to rejoin my unit on the Eastern front.


So I took the train, but my unit had been decimated during my convalescence! The Russians had broken through along all the fronts. I remained the only survivor with my squad mate. Thus my wound had once again been providential. The Blessed Virgin was watching over her “Missionar”. I then met a male nurse who was a German priest, but unfortunately not recognised as such. He said his Mass as he could, and I attended it. I related to him my entire last adventure, and he encouraged me in my trial. I soon had to leave him to go to another unit in Breslau.

A few days later, the Russians encircled it. Berlin, situated 350 kilometres from there had already fallen.

Life in Breslau was quite different from real life in the army. We wore civilian clothes and lodged in houses where we had to do our own cooking. We were situated close to an airfield used mainly for evacuating the wounded. Now, out of ten planes about two were able to cross the enemy camp, and every evening we witnessed the spectacle of planes that burned without being able to do anything to intervene. It was horrible! All went thus, come what may, until the end of April 1945.

One morning, on 24 April 1945, the cellar in the building where we had taken refuge was taken by storm by the Russians. We were caught in a trap like rats: either we went up the stairs to surrender, or we returned under the hail of grenades. For once, we showed intelligence, and we went up. The Russians threw us into the street with a good kick in the buttocks. We were about fifty prisoners. We walked for two days, without food, in order to bypass the city of Breslau and reach a hastily built camp for the twenty thousand prisoners that they expected, but we were almost double that number…


After fifty years, there are events that cannot be forgotten… Thus the time of my captivity will always remain engraved in my memory. After my return and for ten years thereafter, I had nightmares every night. I was haunted by the war and my captivity in Russia.

So, my captivity began in this camp near Breslau on 24 Avril 1945. Fifteen days later, the armistice was declared, and another thirty to forty thousand soldiers joined us in the prison camp. We formed an immense sea of prisoners from all the counties of Europe: Germans, Poles, Russians, Czechs, French, Belgians, Dutch, Italians, Yugoslavians, Hungarians… In short, it was the Society of Nations.

We were divided into several groups and, in view of our numbers, it was impossible to feed us all. We all had to find an empty tin can picked up somewhere in order to be able to go seek our ration. We carefully looked after it so that it not be damaged or lost, for without it we would die of hunger. In the morning we were allowed a cup of hot sugared water with a small piece of bread; at noon a half litre of thin soup accompanied with a little thick soup. Finally in the evening we drank a half litre of thin soup accompanied by a small quantity of a thick soup called “kasha”. This was roughly my diet during a year in captivity.

During the day we had no occupation, and we spent our time walking and listening to the most improbable rumours. Thus it was said that the Russians were going to free us rapidly. After three weeks in this camp, I also pushed my way to the gate in order to have a chance to join these groups that the Russians regularly came to seek, and this is what happened. A few hours later, we were headed towards the railway and already I was congratulating myself on my resourcefulness. I was unaware at that time that I myself had thrown myself into another form of hell.


We were crammed into a cattle wagon, as many as possible, about seventy-five prisoners per wagon. In each of them the vertical space had been cut in two by a floor that had been added in such a way that as we got into the wagon we had to lie down. We could only stand up close to the door that was closed. We were nailed to the narrow planks, hardly separated from one another. There we remained for six weeks and two days without the wagon budging. The same ration of thin soup was distributed to us as food.

In order to calculate time and not to become disoriented, we traced lines with a pencil. Each morning we counted one or two dead. No one complained because it made more place. We dropped from seventy-five to sixty. We were so completely stunned that we no longer even spoke to one another. At last, after six weeks and two days, the train started to move, and we debarked at Brest-Litovsk on the Bug River. We descended from the train and noticed that our legs were so numb that we could hardly remain standing! We fell on one another…


We were separated into different camps of about two thousand prisoners each. Once again we were seventy-five prisoners crammed into rooms that could hardly lodge ten. Electricity and water were non-existent; we had neither bed nor a change of clothes. We were never able to sleep lying on our backs but only on our sides because of the lack of space. Thus there was always noise, without counting the fleas, lice and rats that we heard jumping. It was a horror! We had no blankets and always remained dressed; by way of a pillow we used our precious tin can.

We were awakened by a whistle when it was still night. A few minutes later we drank our quarter litre of hot sugared water before leaving for our place of work, situated five kilometres from the camp, where we arrived at sunrise.

Our work consisted in transhipping merchandise all day long. The Russians were in the process of completely pillaging Germany.

At noon, when it did not rain, we were brought a half litre of thin soup thickened with two spoonfuls of kasha. We therefore had to keep our tin can on us; one day mine was bent under the stroke of a lash; I thought that I was going to lose it.

At nightfall, we returned to the camp, exhausted with fatigue, to such an extent that it happened that we slept while walking. Some even snored. This might seem impossible to you, but it is the honest truth! For dinner, we once again drank the thin soup with a small piece of black bread.

Once per month, we were led to another camp in order to take showers. On this occasion we were shaved from head to foot and so, by the same token, searched. By a grace of the Blessed Virgin, I always succeeded in keeping my Rosary in my hand as well as my Miraculous Medal. One day, a Russian considered them, but he closed my hand and left them to me. I succeeded in reciting five decades of the Rosary each day but not more, for I was exhausted. I simply had the consolation of having it with me.

For some time I did not have shoes, so I attached a simple sole to my feet with a wire.

I truly lived through hell during these months of captivity, but I must acknowledge that our guards were benevolent in the end. We often had the impression that they sympathised with our Calvary. The never refused to offer us their cigarette butts. Neither did I ever hear that a prisoner had been tortured. The system alone must be condemned. We died like flies, especially of exhaustion, during the night, and at work while walking.

I saw some die without a cry, without any particular apparent suffering. We had attained such a state of exhaustion that we no longer even talked. We formed a totally silent camp; now we were two thousand! No words, no complaints, we were walking cadavers… Truly man is nothing! It would have been useless to speak to us about “dignity”; we would have considered that an insult.

On the other hand, my soul remained in peace. I can say that I was living totally abandoned in the hands of God. I was never tempted to curse Him. I was very happy; I do not know how to explain it… It was a time of grace that I have never regretted, even if it was horrible. My heart was full of joy.

Harassment, lashes, all that hardly touched me, so to speak. The body suffers, but the soul exults. My spiritual life, I believe, reached a very high level even though for a full year I did not have the opportunity of receiving the sacraments. I prayed ceaselessly; during that war I experienced how true the Gospel is when it says that, in each circumstance of life, God is present and now I know that He is there even more in the time of trials.


(Click here in order to see an enlargement of the map…)

Part one: from Saverne, he was sent to Sylt Island for Arbeitsdienst in the context of the Hitler Youth. He returned to Herbitzheim for Christmas, 1942. On 15 January 1943, he reported for duty in Augsburg, from where he left for Korosten to do his military service for six months. In July, 1943, from Augsburg, he was going to go fight on the Eastern front in Dniepropetrovsk. On 2 November 1943, he was wounded a first time in Franzowka near Tarnow. He was treated in Cracow, then in Schmalkalden, in the province of Saxony, Germany, from where he returned to Herbitzheim in order to complete his convalescence.

Part two: in mid-January 1944, he returned for duty at the Tarnopol barracks and then returned to the front localised in the Carpathians. On 8 September 1944, he was once again seriously wounded at Krosno. He was repatriated to Rabka (to the north of Zakopane) in order to be treated. He remained three weeks on furlough at Neustadt at the home of a sister of his father. In order not to compromise his uncle and his aunt, he preferred to return to fight on the front. Since his unit had been decimated, he found the main body of the German army in Breslau. On 24 April 1945, he was taken prisoner by the Russians. He first spent three weeks in a camp outside the city. There followed six weeks of imprisonment in a cattle wagon, before he was transferred to Brest-Litovsk to a hard labour camp. In December 1945, he was liberated in virtue of being French. He was taken to Frankfurt an der Oder in order to be disinfected by the French Red Cross. In the evening of 24 December 1945, he saw his family again in Herbitzheim.


In December 1945, I noticed that certain prisoners were set aside, among whom some were Alsatians, but I was not among them. Why? I wondered. We did not know where they had been taken. Two weeks later, the same event happened again, and this time; I paid attention, and I heard my name. It was very cold, and snow was falling in abundance; I did not think that I would be able to survive a winter in this place. While I was being transferred to another camp, my friends had to leave for work, mute as always…

I understood right away that all those who had been gathered there were going to be liberated. We were at ease in the sheds, we no longer worked, and we had a double ration of soup. Some time later, we were put into a wagon. The following day the convoy set off in the direction of Warsaw; then we debarked at Frankfurt an der Oder. There the French Red Cross took charge of us.

When we were presentable enough, we then took the train in the direction of Strasbourg. On the train French officers carrying thick dossiers interrogated us one after another. I was astonished to see that they possessed a mine of information about me.

At Strasbourg, we lodged at the barracks where that very evening we were told that we would be able to go home the next day. The next day my father came to meet me. It was 24 December 1945. My mother never ceased to say until her last days that it was the most beautiful Christmas of her life. I was twenty-two years old.