There were, of course, members of the clergy throughout Europe during the Holocaust whose words and deeds reflected Christian conscience. And some of them were martyred for their faith. One example was Fr. Max Josef Metzger, a WWI German army chaplain and founder of Peace Alliance of German Catholics. For publicly protesting against the Nazis, Fr. Metzger was arrested by the Gestapo, condemned for high treason and executed in April, 1944. Fr. Alfred Delp, a member of the Kreisau Circle resistance group, and Blessed Fr. Karl Leisner were two other examples. Fr. Delp was executed in Berlin; Leisner died at Dachau concentration camp in Munich. It is important to note, moreover, that during the twelve years of the Third Reich, 2,600 Roman Catholic priests were confined to the Priester-Block (priests’ barracks) at Dachau. At least 149 priests died at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. A total of more than two thousand Polish Catholic clergy, including Fr. Maximillian Kolbe, canonized a saint in 1981, and five bishops, died at the hands of the Nazis between 1939 and1945. Another example of a church leader motivated by conscience was Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg.
Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg (photo above)
In contrast to most Catholic and Protestant clergy, Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg was morally outraged by the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and responded according to gospel values. In August, 1938, Fr. Lichtenberg was put in charge of the Relief Office of the Berlin Episcopate, a group that assisted Jewish converts to Christianity to emigrate from the Third Reich. After Kristallnacht, while most of the leadership of the German churches, including the dissident Protestant Confessing Church, kept silent, Fr. Lichtenberg protested publicly. He said: “We know what happened yesterday, we do not know what lies in store for us tomorrow. But we have experienced what has happened today: Outside burns the (Jewish) temple, a holy place of worship.”
From that fateful day in November, 1938 until his arrest on October 23, 1941, Fr. Lichtenberg prayed daily and publicly from his pulpit for Jews and other victims of the Nazis. When war broke out in September, 1939, Fr. Lichtenberg wrote a letter to the official responsible for air raid shelters in Berlin protesting against racial segregation in the shelters. Predictably, his actions brought him in conflict with Reich authorities. Two students who heard him pray publicly for Jews and concentration camp detainees denounced him to the Gestapo, which in a search of Lichtenberg’s home in October, 1941, found a pulpit proclamation scheduled to be read the following Sunday. The proclamation, in response to a leaflet circulated by the Propaganda Ministry warning German citizens not to help Jews, declared:
“An anonymous slanderous sheet against the Jews is being distributed to Berlin houses. This leaflet states that every German who supports Jews with an ostensibly false sentimentality, be it only through friendly kindness, commits treason against his people. Let us not be misled by this un-Christian way of thinking. Rather follow the strict command of Jesus Christ: ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Prepared to suffer for his defiance of unjust state authority, Fr. Lichtenberg explained his position on the matter saying:
“This (defiance) is because I reject with my innermost the evacuation of the Jews with all its side effects, because it is directed against the most important commandment of Christianity ….. And I recognize the Jew too as my neighbor, who possesses an immortal soul, shaped after the likeness of God. However, since I cannot prevent this governmental measure, I have made up my mind to accompany the deported Jews and Christian Jews into exile, in order to give them spiritual aid. I wish to use this opportunity to ask the Gestapo to give me this opportunity.”
In May, 1942, the Berlin District Court sentenced Fr. Lichtenberg to a two-year term of imprisonment for insidious activity and abuse of the pulpit. Asked if he had anything to add, Lichtenberg replied: “I submit that no harm results to the state by citizens who pray for the Jews.” The presiding judge summed up Lichtenberg’s crime: “On 29 August, 1941, the defendant held evensong … before a large congregation. He closed the service with a prayer in which he said, among other things: ‘Let us now pray for the Jews and for the wretched prisoners in the concentration camps.’… He states that he has included the Jews in his prayers ever since the synagogues were first set on fire and Jewish businesses closed.”
Lichtenberg served two years in prison and died en route to Dachau on November 5, 1943. Many thousands of the laity also paid with their lives for opposing the regime, including the mostly Catholic members of the Munich non-violent resistance group “White Rose,” like brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, who, after being caught distributing anti-war leaflets on the University of Munich campus in 1943, were convicted of high treason and executed by guillotine. Another lay martyr of Nazism was Franz Jägerstätter.
In 1936 Franz Jägerstätter wrote to his godchild: “I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian; it is more like vegetating than living…Since the death of Christ, almost every century has seen the persecution of Christians; there have always been heroes and martyrs who gave their lives — often in horrible ways — for Christ and their faith. If we hope to reach our goal some day, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith.” When the plebiscite to approve Germany’s annexation of Austria was held on April 10, 1938, Jägerstätter was the only person in his town of Sankt Radegund to vote no. Although not involved with any political party, Jägerstätter was openly anti-Nazi and publicly declared he would not fight for the Third Reich. He joined the Third Order of Saint Francis in 1940 and worked as a sacristan at his local parish church. In 1940, at age 33, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and completed basic training. Returning home in 1941 under a military exemption as a farmer, he began to examine the morality of the war and discussed the matter with his bishop. Jägerstätter emerged from the discussion saddened that the bishop seemed afraid to confront the issue.
After numerous delays, Jägerstätter was called to active duty in February, 1943. Maintaining his position against fighting, upon reporting for military service on March 1, he declared himself to a conscientious objector. His offer to serve as a paramedic was rejected. A priest from his village visited him in jail and tried unsuccessfully to convince him to serve. Accused of Wehrkrafzersetzung (“undermining military morale”), after a military trial, he was sentenced to death and executed at Brandenburg-Gorden Prison in August, 1943. His last words as he was led to the guillotine were: “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.” The prison chaplain who ministered to him that day later remarked, “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have met in my lifetime.” Franz Jägerstätter is, unquestionably, an inspiration to people of all faith traditions. His witness demonstrated that a Christian with a well formed conscience could indeed make a difficult and principled choice during a moral crisis of unprecedented proportion, even when that choice meant forfeiting his life — in the tradition of Jesus of Nazareth.
Before his death, Jägerstätter was criticized for failing in his duty as a German citizen, especially by fellow Catholics who served in the Wehrmacht. The town council of Sankt Radegund at first refused to allow his name to be included on the town’s war memorial and a pension for his widow was not approved until 1950. Jägerstätter’s story was not well known until 1964, when Gordon C. Zahn published Jägerstätter’s biography entitled, “In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.”
In June, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic exhortation declaring Jägerstätter a martyr. In October 2007, Jägerstätter was beatified a saint, becoming the second Nazi-era resister to be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI; two years earlier Benedict beatified Cardinal Clemens August von Galen. Ironically, Jägerstätter was martyred on the one-year anniversary of St. Edith Stein’s martyrdom at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Newsweek magazine reviewer of “In Solitary Witness…,”wrote: “In death as in the months of his imprisonment, Jägerstätter was a solitary witness…Zahn wonders pointedly whether a church which asks too little of its members will have the courage in the future to demand enough.” And Thomas Merton, in his review of Zahn’s biography, wrote: “The real question raised by Jägerstätter’s story is that of the Church’s own mission of protest and prophecy in the gravest spiritual crisis man has ever known.”
Jägerstätter’s inspirational story of conscience was indeed remarkable, but, unfortunately, such stories were the exception rather than the rule. Regrettably, there were many, many more stories of people mindlessly obeying unjust authority; of bystanders feigning ignorance of what was occurring. Guilt certainly falls on the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but a measure of guilt also falls on the doers of duty and on the bystanders. Cain, in the Book of Genesis, asks this provocative question “…Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) God’s resounding answer in the affirmative is unequivocal.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the leading Jewish theologian of the twentieth century, wrote: “We must continue to remind ourselves that… all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, (but) all are responsible.”