William O’Malley is a man of many talents. Not only is he a Catholic priest of the Jesuit order, author of several books, and a teacher, but he has a Hollywood credit as an actor. It was Rev. O’Malley who played a priest in The Exorcist – the 1974 movie now thought of as one of history’s scariest – who consoled and counseled the film’s protagonist: a priest who had lost his faith.
Applying his background in theology, O’Malley has produced a novel that seeks to answer a question that occurred to him while visiting Dachau: the site in Germany where in a concentration camp Jews, Catholic priests, and other enemies of the Nazi regime were murdered by the thousands. It was at Dachau that O’Malley became interested in the role Catholics and their priests played during the Holocaust, wondering “why so many men would endure soul-searing punishment rather than just saying, ‘I submit!’ ”
In his new book ‘The Place Called Skull’ reveals the horrors of the Dachau camp, which was part of Adolf Hitler’s plan to not only to exterminate the Jewish people but to also “crush the Catholic Church like a toad.” The novel tells the story of Paul Reiser, who worked tirelessly against the Nazis in the Catholic underground movement that began in the 1930s and was imprisoned as a seminarian with nearly 3,000 others, half of whom died in the camp. His fellow seminarians and priests were victims of medical experiments, slave work, starvation and typhus.
Young Reiser was proud of his German heritage and Catholic faith, but also understood the inevitable and diabolical effects the Nazi program would have as it steadily encroached on religion, especially among the very young. Reiser, before the war, decided that the best way to positively influence the innocent was to become a priest, serving the helpless and the hopeless.
While recuperating from tuberculosis, Paul was arrested by the Gestapo only months before his ordination as a priest. Taken first to Sachsenhausen, he was then taken with all prisoner clerics to Dachau. Struggling to survive hunger, starvation and madness, Reiser asks himself continuously if it was worth it. Was his faith strong enough to endure the rigors of the work camp where prisoners were rented out as slaves to war industries such as Messerschmidt and BMW? Should he simply recant his faith and return to his family? Could his love of God overcome every human being’s yearning to survive? Nietzsche wrote, “Whoever has a why to live for can endure almost any how.” O’Malley tries to answer what was the “why” of the priests of Dachau.
While names have been changed, and events and characters have been conflated, all the stories in ‘The Place Called Skull’ are true. It offers little-known details of one of the most horrifying periods of history. The imprisonment and slavery of Catholic priests makes for a fascinating story that is too important to be forgotten.
O’Malley has been a Jesuit for 60 years. The author of 37 books and more than 100 articles, O'Malley has taught theology in Catholic high schools and colleges.