Catholic priests and young boys: Au Revoir, les Enfants

Catholic priests and young boys: Au Revoir, les Enfants

Catholic priests and young boys

You may think you know what the title of this Rumination refers to. When the film Au Revoir, Les Enfants (written and directed  by Louis Malle, 1987) begins, you see a Catholic private boarding school for boys. You see suspicious-looking priests and friars, shepherding the boys about, overseeing their undressing for bed, supervising their showers in the public bathhouse. The fathers and brothers in their brown robes seem stern and severe, yet overly attentive, patting boys on their heads and shoulders, examining their knees for injuries. You feel creepy. You wonder how any boys at all managed to escape from this predatory atmosphere.

Soon, however, the film begins to take on another aspect. The time is 1943-4 and the location is Nazi-occupied northern France. The students are mostly from highly privileged Parisian families who appreciate the school’s reputation for excellence and, presumably, its location away from Paris with its concentration of German occupiers.  The Germans are making themselves felt outside Paris also, however, and we begin to realize what peril the French Jews are in, and how the Resistance is operating in quiet corners. The solicitude of the priests and other teachers begins to take on a heroic aspect. There are Jewish students being hidden among the others. There is a Jewish teacher, hired when he lost his job elsewhere. There is black-marketing going on among the school employees, and the students with resources are complicit, setting up a situation rife with peril as the Germans look for informers. The Nazis and their French collaborators (the Milice) harass Jews even in fine restaurants where the boys’ parents take them as a treat (though even there, there is nothing to eat but rabbit, and even for rabbit, a rationing coupon is needed). The priests and teachers do their best to steer the students through this moral morass.

All of this is based on Louis Malle’s personal experience as a student at the real-life Catholic school called the Petit-Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus d’Avon, a premier institution, founded in 1934 by Père Jacques (Père Jean in the film), Lucien Bunel, who then became its headmaster. A devout member of the Carmelite order, Père Jacques was widely admired for his leadership abilities and teaching methods and was tapped by the order to form the school. Soon, the best Catholic families were sending their sons there. When the war began, Père Jacques (Jean) served in the French military forces, returning to the school after the fall of France. Believing, as a Christian, that the Jews were God’s chosen people, he began to engage in dangerous actions, like hiring a fellow Resistance member, a Jew, to teach at the school.

(Spoiler alert: you might want to postpone reading this next part if you plan to see the film.)
During the Occupation, Père Jacques was notified by the small but potent Christian resistance movement (Témoignage Chrétien) that three Jewish boys needed to be hidden. He immediately acquiesced and took the boys into the school as boarders. On January 17, 1944, the Gestapo arrived at the Petit-Collège, having been tipped off by informers, and arrested the three boys as well as the Jewish science teacher and his family. They were all sent to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival. Louis Malle witnessed the scene of the arrest, which is depicted in the film.

Père Jacques (Jean) was arrested also. The final scene in the film shows him being led off by the Nazis as the students watch helplessly. He turns and over his shoulder says, with an almost conspiratorial little smile, says, “Au revoir, mes enfants. À bientôt!”  (Goodbye, children; see you soon!) As the film’s after-notes explain, unlike the others he was not sent to Auschwitz, but to the ill-famed concentration camp Mauthausen, known as one of the worst, where he selflessly shared his pitiful rations and ministered to the sick and dying. When all the priests at Mauthausen were transferred to Dachau (supposedly less hellish than Mauthausen) he concealed his identity and remained behind, the only priest for 20,000 prisoners. He learned some Polish so he could minister to the Polish prisoners, who called him “Père Zak.” He was unanimously chosen by the French-speaking prisoners to represent them after the liberation in May 1945. By that time, however,  Père Jacques weighed only 75 pounds. Completely worn down with malnutrition and illness, he died in hospital four weeks later at the age of only 45. He was buried in the Petit-Collège and is numbered in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. The soon-to-be Grand Rabbi of France spoke at his burial: “Thus we have seen cruelty pushed to its extreme horror, and benevolence carried to its highest degree of nobility and beauty.”

I have been reading about and studying the various Resistance movements for decades (including of course the now-famous example of the French village of Le Chambon), yet I had never heard of  the Témoignage Chrétien–“Christian Witness” (which, it must be said, has no presence on the Internet).  I did not know of the existence of Père Jacques until now. It took a Criterion Collection film to teach me. The film has been much admired, but I didn’t know anything about it until recently. These gaps in our knowledge need to be rectified (hence the deliberately provocative title of this post).

Pope Francis, I’ve read, wants to move Oscar Romero toward beatification (the step before canonization). The process has been held up because some people have thought that genuine martyrs should be only those who die specifically because they are Christians, not because they are engaging in radical (Marxist?) social protest. Francis wants to change the process to include those Christians who die because they are engaging in Christian actions. If this change happens at the Vatican, surely Père Jacques will be among the beatified.

For more on Oscar Romero, see my post: .

For more unsung Roman Catholic witnesses, see also:

And also:

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