ESCAPE THROUGH THE FRONT OR THE BACK
St. Paul’s Abbey, Oosterhout
Churches in the Netherlands had healthy attendances during the war. Many churches, abbeys and monasteries condemned national socialism, and some even called for resistance. Dutch churches also openly protested, particularly against the persecution of the Jews. Ministers, vicars and priests were arrested throughout the country. One of those was priest Kerssemakers.
Priest Jacobus Kerssemakers looked after the sick during the Second World War. His first act of resistance was to heal a French soldier who had been smuggled into St. Paul’s Abbey in Oosterhout. The solider was a prisoner of war held by the Germans, but with the help of Kerssemakers, he was able to return to France and stay out of enemy hands. In 1940, Kerssemakers decided to join the underground resistance. The abbot was not to be told of Kerssemakers’ actions since a monk is obliged to be obedient to the abbot, and he would not have approved of the resistance.
The Allies were in need of maps of the Glize-Rijen airfield. Jan Huijbregts, a friend of the priest and fellow member of the resistance, joined the priest in helping to gather the information. Two employees at the air base compiled maps of the runways and anti-aircraft artillery and handed them over to Kerssemakers. Without letting on to his fellow monks, Kerssemakers smuggled the papers to a contact in Oosterhout from where the material was passed on to the resistance group in Breda.
Since the priest visited sick people in different locations, he was able to move around freely and a resistance network began to build around him and his friend Jan.
The resistance network worked well for a while, until Saturday 10 October 1942. On that day, Jan was on his way to the abbey in Oosterhout with a Jewish couple by the name of Gokkes when he spotted two accomplices of the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) in the distance. Jan called to the couple to flee. Jan himself ran through an alleyway and made it home safely, but the Jewish couple were arrested.
That same day, Kerssemakers was eating his lunchtime meal in the abbey with his brothers, all of them in silence, as was the custom. Suddenly, the bell rang. The gatekeeper left his food to open the door and found two men from the Security Service standing outside. They asked for Kerssemakers. The gatekeeper returned to the dining hall and went directly to the abbot’s table announcing to the abbot, Dom Mähler, ‘They’ve come from the Security Service to take Kerssemakers.’ The abbot then broke the silence in the hall to call Kerssemakers over, ‘I’ll give you a choice, you can leave the abbey by the front or the back.’
The front or the back
The priest opted to report to the men from the Security Service and to meet them in the consulting room. He chose the front. The intense exchange of German echoed around the dining hall from the consulting room and shortly afterwards, the priest was arrested. Many other arrests then followed. Only one member of the resistance group managed to go into hiding in time. Without having the opportunity to speak to his brothers again, Kerssemakers awaited his judgment in prison in Haaren.
Sentences were handed down to the group on 31 March and 1 April 1943, all of them faced the death penalty. For four of the group, the sentence was reduced to a period in a penal camp in Germany, but not for Kerssemakers. He was executed at fort De Bilt near Utrecht on 7 May 1943. His farewell letter read, ‘I give my life directly for God and the fatherland.’ Years later, his Urn was accidentally discovered in Germany and since 1958, it has been buried in the cemetery at the abbey in Oosterhout.
St. Paul’s Abbey in Oosterhout (Image: Marjon, 2010, Wikimedia Commons)