In 1940, Belgium was once again occupied by invading German forces. Yet despite and dangers, Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet continued their apostolic work.
Although they were not formal members of the underground resistance, they nevertheless took many risks to provide aid to those in need. Inevitably, their actions came under scrutiny.
Paul Garcet was the first to be arrested at the beginning of June 1943 for allegedly helping to provide lodging for a parachutist member of the Resistance. Fernand, who had telephoned Paul to ask his assistance for the task, was quick to blame himself for the arrest.
Several days later, Fernand was himself interrogated by the German Secret Police (Geheime Feldpolizei or Gestapo) and accused of having failed to report the location of the parachutist. At the beginning of August, the secret police returned again on several occasions, seeking to arrest him. Fortunately, he was absent each time but it was clear that his days of freedom were numbered.
At this point, Fernand could have himself sought to take refuge. However, fearing that others would be blamed if he disappeared, Tonnet refused to leave, despite the entreaties of his friends and colleagues.
Finally, on 10 August, the police returned and were able to arrest and imprison him at the Saint Gilles prison, where Cardijn had also been interned and where Paul Garcet along with other of their colleagues were also being held.
Esterwegen Concentration Camp
At the end of August 1943, both Fernand and Paul were transferred to the “death camp” at Esterwegen in north-west Germany. Here the task of dehumanising them began. They had their heads shaved, their clothes taken and they were given numbers by which they would be identified.
They were both classified among the most dangerous prisoners with the initials “N.N”, which stood for “Nacht und Nebel”, literally “Night and Fog”, signalling that all trace of their existence was to disappear.
As Marguerite Fiévez wrote in her biography of Tonnet, it was a kind of “death sentence without the name,” turning them into “living dead.” Together with them were a number of other former jocist leaders and chaplains.
Here they were put to work sorting cartridges and recycling materials for use by the Nazi war machine. In response, they both looked for ways to slow down and impede the work.
Doing the least work possible, they both sought to come to the aid of other prisoners, offering them spiritual and emotional support in their distress.
Tonnet and Garcet remained at Esterwegen for seven months until 20 March 1944 when they and others were moved to another death camp at Bayreuth (known as the Flossenbürg camp), where they forced to do hard labour. In these conditions, their health slowly began to decline.
At the end of summer 1944, this labour ended and they were both henceforth confined to their cells. Now Fernand and Paul were again separated from one another. Nevertheless, they both continued to provide moral and spiritual support to their fellow prisoners.
Dachau Concentration Camp
Finally, on 29 November 1944, the Bayreuth camp was emptied and many prisoners transferred to the sinister camp at Dachau in Upper Bavaria. By now, the temperature had fallen below freezing as low as 15°, 18° and 22° degrees below zero on occasion.
Here around 40 men were lodged together in three rooms. By now, most were already too feeble to work and spent the days in bed.
Together again for the last time, Fernand and Paul continued to help organise prayer and even covert Mass services within the camp.
But this did not last long. The month of January was extremely cold. Paul had come to the end. By 20 January, he was already in a close to comatose state. On 23 January, he finally succumbed with Fernand at his side.
Tonnet’s own demise was also now only a week away as he continued to weaken to the point he could no longer eat.
“That’s it!” he told his companions on 1 February. “I can’t continue. I no longer need anything!”
By the morning of 2 February 1945, he too was dead. Less than three months later, Dachau too was liberated, this time by American forces. But it was too late to save the JOC founders.