A Calvary ...
1941-1944 René Lefebvre
This account of the life of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's father comes to us from His Grace's youngest brother, who wrote the following:"At the request of a great number of his friends and relatives and also as a memento of him for his descendents, I have had these few pages printed about what my father did, and above all, the sufferings he endured during the years 1940 to 1944. Feeling myself insufficiently equipped to write such an account, not having lived near him during these years, I will restrict myself to transcribing in full, the accounts of two of his companions in distress, thanking them for the numerous and moving details which they have so wished to bring back to us, and the expressions of sympathy they have shown to our stricken family.
— 9 December 1945
We are certain that our readers will find this account of an heroic and patriotic Catholic as moving as we, and that parents will find a marvelous example to emulate in this courageous man.
Born on February 23, 1879, at Tourcoing, my father was always to show an intense faith throughout his life: faith in Christ, faith in his country, faith in greater social justice. This faith was alive, active, and it showed in his pleasant but keen gaze, in his military bearing, in his rigid attitude, in his unwavering spirit of sacrifice.
Besides having a well justified admiration for his mother, Marie Thery, who died in 1917, and whose life was given over to works of charity—to the poor, to the sick—he had a special devotion to his Mother in Heaven, the Holy Virgin. Tertiary of St. Francis, he always started his day by assisting at the 6:15 Mass in his parish church of Notre Dame des Anges, and ended the day with the Rosary. In 1897 he joined the Association of Brancardiers of Our Lady of Lourdes, to become a helper in the hospital.
On April 16, 1902, he married Gabrielle Watine. They both lived a life of intense spirituality and edifying holiness. Eight children were born of this marriage, the eldest of whom consecrated their lives to God: two were missionaries of the Holy Ghost Fathers, one was a Religious in the Order of Marie Repatrice, another a missionary of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, and the last entered the Carmel at Tourcoing.
A convinced monarchist, he devoted himself during the whole of his life to the cause of the French Dynasty, seeing in a royal government the only way of restoring to his country its past grandeur and a Christian revival.
In 1920, my father joined the Conciliation Board in Tourcoing where, until 1941, he showed a special aptitude for developing personal relationships. He always tried to be just and to smooth away the difficulties of the numerous cases which were submitted to him.
The War: 1914-1918
As he was not mobilized in 1914, being at that time the father of six children, he offered his services to the First Aid Association for War Casualties of Tourcoing and went across the German lines into the villages, looking for French wounded. When the Germans came he looked after the wounded French prisoners and helped English prisoners escape. Learning that mobilization had started in France for those eligible, he decided to leave Tourcoing in January, 1915. Under the pseudonym of Alfred Dendalle he left for Brussels and then from there to Holland, with the documents which a Belgian intelligence organization had provided.
When he later arrived in France he learned that his regiment was already at the front. No one would accept him; depressed, he looked for ways of serving his country and succeeded in this through the intervention of his old friend, P. Cavrois. He left for England and put himself at the disposal of the intelligence service. His duties were as liaison between the Belgian and British organizations. So he stayed at Flessingue, Tilburg, Maestricht-Breden. Under the name of Lefort, he received letters, Belgian messengers and information. He frequently crossed from Rotterdam or Flessingue, which were not too closely guarded, to Tilbury or Folkestone.
Then he returned to France as an officer in charge of a convoy of the Communications Services of the S.S.B.M. to the front. He was sent into the Verdun area where there were many bombardments. He then became administrator of Hospital 60 in Paris.
At the end of the war he was in charge of the repatriates at Evian and worked with the Swiss authorities, giving assistance to the sick, infirm, old, and children who were returning to France. Willingly he did all he could to make himself useful to his country, and often at the risk of his life. On the 27th of August, 1920, he received the Croix Civique for Distinguished Service from the hands of the Belgian Minister of the Interior.
Twenty Years Later
After what has been indicated, it is not surprising that twenty years later my father should immediately renew his links with the Belgian Intelligence Service of the First World War, when war was again declared on September 3, 1939. At the time Belgium being a neutral country, the Belgian defense plans had been handed over to the Allies. My father felt the need to serve his country again, as in the earlier war. Then came the rapid invasion of 1940. Immediately on the enemy occupation he went to seek orders in Brussels where the headquarters of the intelligence service to which he belonged, were situated. A link in the chain, my father had two responsibilities, first of all the Intelligence Service: he transmitted the messages he received to Monsieur Lezaire, President of the Ex-Service-men of Tourcoing (who, like him, died at Sonnenberg), who transmitted them to Loos, from where they were sent to London. He also gave lodging in his house, 37 rue du Docteur Dewyn, to soldiers and allied civilians or Belgians coming from Mouseron, who he was commissioned to direct towards the Somme. From there they were sent by plane to England or left for the unoccupied zone of France. It would be difficult to calculate the number of people who, thanks to him, returned to freedom. Sometimes there were groups of ten, other times just isolated individuals. The most active time was during the months of September and October, 1940.
For three months a Scottish major lodged with him. He was wounded and could not continue on his way because he knew no French at all. He began to learn the language and ventured out of the house several times, to the barbershop and even the cinema. When he left he promised to send a message on arriving in London and two days later the message was received.
At the time of the trial of my father in Berlin, two young English soldiers were made to appear before him, the Germans knowing they had lodged at Tourcoing. They made the soldiers pass in front of the accused men, looking hard at them. My father recognized them immediately, but gave nothing away. Interrogated, the soldiers confirmed that they had stayed in a little house in the suburbs of Tourcoing. The moment was a tense one.
Some little time before his arrest, a German sergeant came to lodge at the house; this did not stop my father from continuing his service and even from giving shelter to six Englishmen in his drawing room. He had a feeling that this would turn out badly; he was watched, but not wishing to give up his work he accepted the sacrifice of his life if God asked it of him, and full of confidence, he continued to serve.
On April 21, 1941, at 2:45 p.m. the bell rang at my father's house; the cook went to open the door; two men in civilian clothes asked to speak to Monsieur René Lefebvre on business. She told them that business was conducted at the factory, 10 rue du Bas. But it was an urgent matter, they had come from the factory and knew he was not there. The cook asked them to wait, saying that she would go and see. When she opened the door of the dining room where my father was, the two men in civilian clothes burst in, together with a German officer. Nothing more could be done.
Almost every day, after lunch, my father would rest in an armchair, listening to the radio and nodding off for a moment or two. This is what happened this day: wakened with a start by the entry of the men into the dining room, there was nothing he could do, the radio was broadcasting the BBC news from London.
Threatened with a revolver, a detailed inspection of the house was carried out; a plan of Boulogne was discovered. Transport was ordered and my father was driven to the headquarters of the Gestapo. During this time, the bewildered cook warned the staff at the factory and compromising papers were burned immediately. Some time later, surrounded by the Gestapo, my father arrived at the factory, and there as well, a routine inspection was made. It was in the presence of the anxious staff and the over-run people of the district that the departure for Loos took place.
Thus began the calvary which was only to end three years later in a painful but glorious death.
The stay at Loos lasted only two days and my father was then sent to St. Giles prison in Brussels, the Germans having realized that his service started in this area.
After his arrest the family tried to obtain a lawyer to defend him; Maitre Kraehling of Paris was approached. He delegated Maitre Franck, of Carlsruhe, after the deportation to Germany. A Catholic, a lawyer in good standing with the German authorities, he often saw my father in his cell in Berlin and defended him brilliantly before the tribunal, without much success. He was himself arrested in June 1944; he was shot in January, 1945; it has been impossible to recover any of his documents.
Account of his daughter Marie-Therese
At first my father occupied cell 47 with a man from Brussels who was released after three months; then cell 42, where there was also an educated and interesting Belgian doctor, and a Dutchman who did not understand French. According to what my father said, I understand these three got on well together, and supported each other courageously. But the inactivity was difficult to bear, it was impossible to take even a little exercise in the cell. Straw mattresses took all the floor space (the cell was meant for one person only). They were allowed a walk of one half hour each day but it was in line and in silence.
However, the diet of the prison was not too bad and there was sufficient food. Parcels were handed over to them, usually intact, and in winter the cells were heated. My father accepted the situation with great resignation, he continually had his rosary in his hand and was very pleased to have been allowed to keep his missal and his Office of Our Lady.
From the beginning of his arrest, he became used to the idea of death and he spoke to his daughter when she visited him, of the grace God was giving him to enable him to die for his country. "I am only doing my duty to France and I do not regret anything. I would be ready to do everything again if it had to be done." At each visit he was always calm and serene, asking for news of each of his children. He never complained and he confirmed many times that he had not been subjected to violence or ill treatment, that he had only been threatened with it. He was anxious that his sentence be given but had no doubt as to what it would be.
Extracts from His Last Letters
"I await the hour of Providence. What is certain is that we gain some merit and that we have some little idea of purgatory."
"There are many brave men here; we know it in spite of the strictness of silence. I believe that they also pray as well here, if not as much, as in a cloister, but the services are infrequent; at most Mass every two weeks, and, with insistence, the possibility of Communion."
"It is a difficult time. It is a great consolation to be able to tell oneself that nothing is lost when it is faced as we face it."
"In spite of the very long hours, sometimes in spite of the sufferings that you can imagine, it is not Dante's inferno where one abandons all hope. I pity those who are in my position but have no religion."
"Have courage and patience, the situation will improve and we will have good days for our dear land, returned to its shining traditions which disorder has brought to ruin."
"Thanks be to God, I feel His help; there have been some terrible times, but I have been aware that I have been helped in the moment when I felt at my lowest."
"As all mankind is mortal, I have just written my good-byes to my dear children, my friends and my family. You know that I die a French Catholic, a monarchist, because, for me, it is in the establishment of Christian monarchies that Europe and the world, can find stability and real peace again. If I die here it will be because the Good Lord has decreed it this way and without a special retreat prepared for heaven, the purgatory will have started here below."
"I thank God for everything. Suffering purifies. It will be a great sacrifice for me not to see my children again before I die. With all my heart I bless my children whom I entrust to Our Lady. The Holy Virgin was so good to me, and so I want to remain her beloved child and particularly blessed. She will be willing to bless my family who must remain consecrated to her, to be truly devoted to her, and to seek through her the extension of the reign of her Divine Son ..."
* * *
The solitary confinement lasted a month with inquiries and interrogations, which were especially difficult and took place every three hours. Even at night he was driven in a prison van down Traversiere Street, where the Gestapo offices had been set up.
At the end of some weeks he was so weary that he no longer said anything for fear that in his tiredness he might contradict himself or give away some information.
It was only at the beginning of June that visits were permitted in accordance with the rules for prisoners not yet tried; that is, one visit for ten minutes every two weeks, with a parcel of 6 kilograms of food and clothes. After many applications, his daughter was allowed to see him. At first it was necessary to ask each time for an authorization at Gestapo headquarters, in return for which, one could have a ticket at the prison door. The crowd was such that one had to be at St. Giles Prison at 1:00 p.m. to be attended to by 5:00 p.m. People were let in a few at a time as far as the office entrance and there the proceedings as to the justification of the visit started again. An officer checked that the prisoner had not had any visits since the last time allowed, checked the parcel meticulously—100 grams more than the weight allowed and the visitor had to reduce the parcel—then they gave out an iron disc which allowed you to go up to the room where visits were made. It was a long room looking out on a courtyard on one side, and on the other the prisoners' quarters. Little cabins, like telephone booths, were arranged along the walls—eighteen of them. These cabins had a glass door through which the prisoner could be seen. The prisoners passed in a line behind the warden, stopping in front of the visitor they knew. The Germans marched backwards and forwards, watching one then the other. The visitors had to speak very loudly to make themselves heard. The glass hindered the sound of the voice from passing through and as everyone had to do the same thing there was such a cacophony that it was better to communicate by signs. Some risked little notes written beforehand which they stuck on the glass. In this case the guards had to be watched because the reprisals were very severe.
At the end of ten minutes a bell rang. The prisoners formed a line along the length of the wall and they went out in file and in step to their cells.
The spell at Brussels lasted nine months. On January 22nd, at 10 a.m. my father was taken to an unknown destination in Germany without even being able to tell his children.
From Brussels to Sonnenburg
Account from a letter of Monsieur Bommel of Loos, 25 July 1945
I found your letter of the second about your deceased father, waiting my return from Hazebrouck where I have been having a break with my family, and I hasten to reply to it as well as I can.
First of all I had been put in touch with Monsieur Lefebvre, known to me under the name of Lefort, and Monsieur Lezaire, through the intermediary, Mademoiselle Leplat, to assist in the escape to unoccupied France of some Englishmen and a young Belgian doctor who was waiting at Lille. I can only think that when Mademoiselle Leplat was arrested in Brussels, our names and addresses must have been in her handbag; it must have been that which led to the arrest of Monsieur Lezaire, then Monsieur Lefebvre; the search carried out in the homes of these men led to the discovery of a plan of Boulogne, pamphlets and a notebook, giving the amounts spent by Messieurs Lefebvre and Lezaire in getting the men to unoccupied France.
I had been arrested in 1942 and sentenced to three years in prison for passing young men to the line of demarcation, with a view to joining the army of De Gaulle. I was sent to the prison of St. Giles in January, 1942, then to the prison in Hamburg where I saw Monsieur Lefebvre and Monsieur Lezaire when we had our daily walk. Being in the cell facing your father's, we were able to communicate by signs to each other but it was impossible to speak.
In Hamburg, we were kept in close confinement. The food, though not plentiful, was sufficient; it was made up of soup, pasta, cabbage, or simply flour. Although we were bullied by our guards we were never actually beaten. We received a visit from the chaplain every week but we could not assist at Mass; Communion was given in the cell and in a respectful manner after a preliminary preparation: two lighted candles, one on each side of a brass crucifix, all laid out on a scrupulously clean cloth on the table of our cell. The chaplain behaved according to the regulations and spoke a little French. Monsieur Lefebvre had the benefit of a very special favor of being able to receive Holy Communion every day, the priest having handed over Hosts to him for this purpose. I would hardly have believed this had not Monsieur Lefebvre himself told me about it after our transfer to Berlin on May 20, 1942. Apart from our complete isolation we were not too miserable in this prison.
We had left Hamburg, handcuffed, in a prison van. Paired with your father, we were able to speak freely, and it was in this way that I learned a little of his family, in particular about his saintly wife, and all his children whom he loved so much.
On the 20th of May 1942 in Berlin, we were put in cells of the military wing of the prison of the Nouveau Moabit, where almost every one of the prisoners was condemned to death, and provided the group firing squad two or three times a week. We were two in a cell and because of this, from time to time, we changed our cell companion, often strangers. It was exceptional to be paired with a Frenchman.
Our trial lasted from May 21st to 28th, 1942. Monsieur Lefebvre, Monsieur Lezaire, Mademoiselle Leplat and I, were condemned to death twice, first for communicating with the enemy, and secondly for recruiting young men for taking up arms against the Third Reich.
In the course of the trial Monsieur Lefebvre always maintained a dignified and very courageous attitude, he bore the conflict without flinching, he was resigned to his fate and had put himself entirely in the hands of the Holy Virgin (because in the cell where we waited, we were chained in fours, we recited the rosary out loud under his direction), he urged us to commit ourselves, like him, to the Queen of Heaven, in whom he had great confidence.
Our lives in the cells were sad and monotonous; each morning we waited to see if our executioners would appear. The executions were carried out in groups of ten, twenty or even forty men—after months of waiting. They watched each other die, one after the other, from eight o'clock in the morning until four in the evening.
In the afternoon there was the parade of those condemned to death which lasted half an hour; there were about 200 of us on parade, we walked a metre apart, one behind the other, guarded by the sentries of the regular army, very correct, revolver at the ready. It was very risky to speak or make a sign for the least slip sent us to the dungeon with a special diet: 300 grams of bread a day, a litre of clear soup every fourth day. The unfortunate ones only came out from there on a stretcher.