Voices Online Edition
VOICES - Vol. XX No. 3
Christmas 2005 - Epiphany 2006
Remembering heroic Christians --
Father Christian and the Paris Underground
by Ronald J. Rychlak
Before World War II had ended, a 65 year-old former Manhattan housewife by the name of Etta Shiber wrote a book entitled Paris Underground. It told the story of how she and others, including a friend identified as “Kitty Beaurepos”, helped almost 200 British soldiers escape from German-occupied France.
Since the war was still on when she wrote the book, Shiber changed the names and places so as not to put others in danger. She reported, however, that the characters were real and the facts were “a matter of record”. It is too bad that the identity of so many heroes was lost to history, but such were the requirements of the time. (In fact, the earliest printing contained Kitty’s real name, and all copies had to be destroyed and the book reprinted.) One character that particularly stands out is a French Catholic priest described as “bright-eyed and energetic”, about 28 years old, with a “classic profile”. Shiber called him Father Christian.
Father Christian was the pastor of a church in a French village identified as Concy-sur-Conche (not the actual village, I assume). Etta, after she was widowed, went to live with her friend Kitty in Paris. The two women met the priest when they more-or-less inadvertently ended up sheltering a British pilot following the German invasion of France. After helping the pilot escape to freedom, they sought out another soldier and also helped him.
Having helped two men reach safety, the two ladies thought that there might be a way to help some of the thousands of others who had been left behind following the Dunkirk evacuation. They placed a lightly-disguised classified ad in the newspaper. Father Christian recognized it as an offer of help, and he responded. (So did the Gestapo, but the ladies were able to avoid trouble by convincing the agent that the ad was legitimate.)
Etta and Kitty went to visit Father Christian in his village. He lived in the back of his parish rectory. The Nazis had seized the front half, and it served as their local headquarters. Etta described the priest’s living area as “a small low-ceilinged room which looked like a warehouse compartment, for it was piled high with church paraphernalia”. Father Christian explained that the Germans had thrown all of the religious items out of the church, but he gathered them up and brought them into his home.
Although Etta and Kitty thought that they might be able to help a few trapped soldiers, Father Christian had much grander plans. He was in touch with about 1,000 English soldiers who were hiding in the nearby woods. They were at great risk, from both the Nazis and from the harsh conditions in which they lived. “There isn’t a day”, Father Christian said, “when I am not called upon to bury one of them. They come at night, and leave the dead man beneath the cross at the entrance to the town, and there we pick the body up and give it Christian burial”.
Father Christian tried to care for the living soldiers, but there was only so much that he could do. “I try to keep body and soul together for these men, so far as my poverty permits. But even if we all gave up everything we possess, it would not be enough. I have already stripped every member of my congregation of clothing and food. I must say that they have all behaved admirably”.
Father Christian had a proposal for Etta and Kitty: “I have made all the necessary arrangements to get these men out of here, a few at a time. I will take responsibility for getting them to Paris if you can take charge of them after that”. The priest explained that few of the men spoke French, so it was impossible to send them to Paris alone. They had to be escorted by someone who could speak for them if the need arose. This was highly dangerous duty, but the priest decided to do it himself. “I figure that it will seem much less suspicious if a priest is in charge of a group of three or four young men, handling their traveling passes, and so forth”.
Etta and Kitty agreed to care for the men in Paris and to make arrangements with the underground to help get them into Free French territory, but they wondered how the priest would contact the soldiers. “Reaching them will be no difficulty”, he said, “since there are four of them in the house now”. The priest had stacked the religious items discarded by the Nazis so as to create living spaces within what appeared to be a solid pile. When the ladies expressed astonishment that he would shelter British soldiers in the same building that housed the Nazi headquarters, he explained: “What place is safer from search? They were all sick when I picked them up and brought them here. They’re well again now, but I could hardly chase them back into the woods, could I?”
The first group to be escorted to Paris came from this group of four men hidden in the rectory. One of the men, however, declined to go. He was a radio operator, and he had bugged the Nazi headquarters in the front of the building so that he could hear what the Germans were saying. Since he was the only one of the four who understood German, he thought that he ought to stay. “But what use is it to listen to them here?” Kitty asked. “You can’t get any information you may pick up back to England anyway”.
Father Christian explained that the idea was to help the other soldiers in the woods. “We’ve been able three times to give them notice twenty-four hours in advance that there would be a motorcycle patrol raid. It’s a handy thing to know”.
Father Christian began the process of escorting almost 200 men to safety, a few at a time. It was always dangerous, but he had faith: “We are all taking risks, of course. But we are all in God’s hand”. He saw this as part of his duty as a Catholic, and he was unafraid to call on others: “The servants of the Church are present wherever human beings gather. The priest of Bergasse is an old friend of mine. I am sure he would be willing to be of any service”. In fact, he often sought help from people who worried his collaborators, but Father Christian reassured them: “We priests, you know, are pretty good judges of people”.
One time, when the Nazis were particularly on guard, Father Christian helped a soldier escape by dressing him as a woman in a bridal party. Another time, he helped a deserting German soldier. Shiber was very concerned about this: “Harboring a deserter would probably mean instant execution for any one caught at it”. Father Christian, however, insisted on helping him.
Unfortunately, early one morning in late November 1940, the Gestapo knocked on Etta’s door. The officers arrested her. Kitty, Father Christian, and two others were also picked up. They were charged and tried for crimes against the Third Reich, which carried the possibility of the death penalty.
Since she was an American, and as America was not yet in the war, Etta avoided the death penalty. She got three years of hard labor. The lawyers thought that since she was not to face execution the others might escape it as well. As it turned out, however, Kitty and Father Christian were both sentenced to death. Two others received four and five years of hard labor.
Father Christian took his sentence quite well. “I am quite happy ... because they didn’t get the boys who were with me when I was arrested”. When asked whether he had expected one day to be captured he replied: “Of course.... We are all in the hand of God, and His ways are mysterious. I had not to question the fate He might decree for me”.
Etta’s time in prison was very difficult. In May 1942, after a year and a half in the Nazi prison, she was ill and half starved, but she was handed over to the US in exchange for a German spy named Johanna Hofmann. That was when she learned more about the fate of Father Christian.
Four weeks after he was sentenced, the prison was notified that officers would be coming to take him for execution. On the day of his scheduled execution, two officers arrived with orders for his delivery, signed a receipt taking him into custody, and escorted him away. The officers, however, were not German. They were from the British Intelligence Service. They had learned of the time when the transfer was scheduled, put on Nazi uniforms, and with false papers they came to get Father Christian one hour before the real escort arrived.
The British officers wanted to take Father Christian to England, but he would not hear of it. He had explained to a friend, as Etta learned: ‘I was resigned life was over, and so this extra life I have been granted is clear gain; in risking it, I risk nothing. Besides, God has snatched me from death once, and He can do it again, if He so wills”. He went back to smuggling soldiers out of France. He also worked with the underground, publishing secret papers and sending information to the British.
As Paris Underground went to press, Shiber still had hopes that Kitty had avoided execution, but the reader never learns with certainty what happened to her. Etta died in New York on Christmas Eve, 1948, at the age of 70.
There is no indication of what happened to Father Christian after he returned to his dangerous mission. In fact, his very identity seems to have been lost to history. His actions, however, like those of Etta and Kitty, were not unique. Shiber’s account of these heroic efforts survives not as a testament to a single priest or the two women, but as an example of the risks undertaken by many brave men and women during World War II to protect victims from the horror of the Nazis.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the MDLA Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Mississippi. His latest book, Righteous Gentiles: How Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis (2005) is available from Spence Publishing.
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