The Martyrdom of Two Belgian Jocist Leaders

This is an article published in English in 1945 by the Belgian National Tourist Office.

The martyrdom and death in the Dachau concentration camp of two of Belgium’s most outstanding lay leaders, Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet, is the subject of a special issue of the Feuilles Familiales (Family Pages), just published in Brussels. The Feuilles Familiales, proudly displaying in its masthead the announcement that Fernard Tonnet was its founder, is a periodical for the families of former members of the Jocist (Young Christian Workers) movement.

In this commemorative issue of Feuilles Familiales, details about the life and suffering of Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet at the Bayreuth prison and the Dachau concentration camp are revealed by the Reverend Cyprien Neybergh, O.S.B., a Benedictine Father of the Maredsous Abbey, who was Tonnet’s and Garcet’s fellow prisoner at Dachau and was liberated by American troops. Further significant details are given by Monsignor Louis Picard, Director General of the Men’s Association of Catholic Action.

Both at Bayreuth and Dachau, Tonnet and Garcet were classified by the Nazis as N.N. (“Nacht und Nebel,” “night and fog”). Prisoners of this category were not allowed to have any contact with the outside world. They were never used for work outside either the prison or the concentration camp, not even when the Nazis were in desperate need of labor for clearing up the ruins of Munich and large numbers of prisoners were dispatched from Dachau to help in this work. N.N. prisoners were considered as “dead.”

Both Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet remained apostles of their ideas until they died as a result of starvation and suffering, Garcet on January 28, 1945, Tonnet on February 7, 1945. They had been friends since boyhood and colleagues in the leadership of the Jocist movement and later in other Catholic activities. Paul Garcet, a very tall man with a friendly smile for everyone and a very outspoken sense of humor, kept morale high around him by the mere influence of his immense kindness and patience.

At Dachau, Father Neybergh relates, he was on particularly friendly terms with a group of French Communists. “How could anyone get angry with a man like that?” Father Neybergh heard a Belgian Communist say. The first thing Paul Garcet always tried to find out about a new fellow prisoner was the name of his wife. He had an amazing memory for such details. When he saw someone depressed and sad, he would say: “Don’t be blue. Don’t you want to see Elise again ? Elise wouldn’t like to see you as you look now!” He also knew the wedding anniversaries of a large number of fellow prisoners and surprised them by his congratulations on that day. He thought of everybody’s family, above all, of course, of his own wife, Jeanne Partous, a former leader of the Jocist young women’s movement, and their three children. He said his daily prayers with their picture in his hand. His last words, before he died, were: “Go and tell her that I am offering my life for her and our children and for the happiness of their bodies and souls.”

Fernand Tonnet’s influence was different but no less profound than Paul Garcet’s. Fellow prisoners called him “the lay priest.” At the daily half-hour walk in the court of the Bayreuth prison, he gave well-prepared talks. The prisoners had to walk in lines of three so that Tonnet’s “audience” consisted of eight men, those walking on his right and left and the rows before and behind him. The “audience” changed almost daily. All were eager to listen and find new strength in Fernand Tonnet’s addresses. Tonnet talked about the past, about plans for the future, about books ho had read, but mostly about the task of youth to build a better world. Only once every two weeks, at Bayreuth, he remained silent during the daily walk. This was on the days when he was allowed to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion.

At Bayreuth, life was hard. At Dachau, where Tonnet and Garcet were transferred on December 6, 1944, it became hell. Covered with tumors and boils, suffering from fever, his chin and mouth inflamed, Fernand Tonnet was no longer able to give his daily talks. Nor was there a lawful possibility of Mass and Communion. But from time to time he managed to talk to groups of his fellow prisoners. With some of them he worked out plans for a pilgrimage to Lourdes. He wrote pencilled notes, most of them about Catholic Action, in his missal which he succeeded in keeping. On February 6, a Polish priest managed to bring him Holy Communion secretly. In the night he died.


Belgian National Tourist Office, News from Belgium, 1945