THE NATIONAL JEWISH MONTHLY, May 1941, pages 284-5, 301-2
An Exclusive Report By One Who Lived 22 Months In Prison
With The Famous German Pastor Who Defied Adolf Hitler
By LEO STEIN
[note 6/30/07: 1942 book publication:
Leo Stein, I was in Hell with Niemoeller (Fleming H. Revell, 1942), 253 pages,
is searchable in google books.]
For years the world has wondered, with apprehension, about the fate of Rev. Martin Niemoeller, the courageous German Protestant pastor who was thrown into a Nazi concentration camp for defying Hitler by remaining true to his Christian principles. Recently there have been reports, and denials, that Niemoeller was converted to Catholicism, that he has become a Nazi, etc. Now Niemoeller, the man and the Christian, is revealed in this exclusive feature by Leo Stein, who tells the inside story of the minister's sufferings in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, as well as his views on the Jewish question. Mr. Stein recently arrived in America and told his story to Kurt D. Singer, who helped him write it. Mr. Singer is a veteran expert on the Niemoeller case; he was secretary of the Niemoeller Aid Committee in Stockholm, Sweden, and is the author of a biography on Niemoeller that was originally published in Swedish and later translated and published in numerous European countries. Mr. Stein's article is the first in America to give Mr. Niemoeller's views concerning the Jewish people. -Editor.
FOR 22 months I lived under the same roof with Pastor Martin Niemoeller, leader of the German Confessional Church (Bekenntniskirche)--Hitler's great "aryan" trouble-shooter. We shared a prison cell at Moabit, and later were together in the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
When I saw him for the first time, be was still wearing his street clothes. It was in Moabit Prison; six of us had been brought before the investigating inspector. We had been kept waiting for almost five hours, and I had a good chance to look at him closely. This, then, was Niemoeller, leader of the German Christians, the man who had called Hitler a "heathen," and had shouted at him the now almost legendary words: "Not you, Mr. Hitler, but the Lord is my Fuehrer!"
The atmosphere in the waiting room was far from pleasant. It was the beginning of July, 1937. A former S.A. leader, von Wegemeister, was making a loud speech. He was a prisoner himself now as a follower of the once-famed Roehm, founder of the S.A., whom Hitler had shot to death in 1934. Wegemeister kept insulting the Jews. "I'll tell the judge what I think of you for locking me up with all these dirty Jews!" he screamed. Niemoeller's face grew pale with anger, although he said nothing; the others approved of Wegemeister's remarks.
Niemoeller and I were the last ones to be brought before the ''judge''; since all conversation between Jews and "aryans" was forbidden in prison, I did not dare to speak to him at first. But his disapproving attitude toward Wegemeister had made me feel close to him. When we were alone, he came over to me and said: "You are a Jew; don't mind all this; that man doesn't know what he's talking about." Then, as if talking to himself, he went on: "These narrow-minded Germans, to talk such nonsense." I told Niemoeller that I had been arrested because I had still been active as a lawyer and had continued to work at the University.
JEWS MISTREATED IN PRISON
I still don't know exactly how it was that Niemoeller came to talk to me. We had to wait together a long time, and in prison it does not take long to get acquainted. Niemoeller was anxious to learn about conditions in the prison, and I had been there for six months. I told him that there were some 3,000 prisoners in Moabit, 600 of them women and many of them Jews.
"Yes," he said reflectively, "I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how Jews have been maltreated. Among other places, I have been at the Prinz Albrechtstrasse [Berlin Gestapo headquarters]. I had a chance to 'study' this prison, which is built underground like a cave."
Niemoeller then told me of his own experiences, and how close he had come to a nervous breakdown. Greatly moved, I listened to his words, which I have not forgotten to this day:
"When they whipped the Jews and I heard these poor creatures cry out [p. 285] like wounded animals, I knelt down and prayed to God. I never prayed so fervently before in all my life. I almost collapsed. Without my prayers, I could not have lived through rough the next day. But the Lord have me new confidence and faith."
I had tears in my eyes when I heard him talk like that. He must have noticed my emotion, because he tried to console me: "Put your faith in the Lord; HE won't let you down."
At this point in our conversation, Niemoeller was taken away, to "Amtsgerichtsrat" Walter, whose real name, of course, was not Walter, because all Nazi officials take pseudonyms in order to avoid retribution in the future, when their former prisoners expect to ask them for an account of their misdeeds.
We were allowed a one-hour walk daily in the prison courtyard to get fresh air. We walked in circles. There was a large circle for the healthy men, and a smaller one for the sick and weak. I was in the small circle, because I was very run down at that time, and soon Niemoeller was permitted to join us, because of his weak physical condition. We were able to talk. For seven months we saw each other daily, in the courtyard or at the doctor's, and sometimes in the dentist's waiting room. We spent many many hours in discussion: we had things in common since I had, in one of my university courses, studied ecclesiastical law.
NIEMOELLER ON THE JEWISH QUESTION
We "discussed" the Jewish question frequently. I put "discussed" in quotes, because Niemoeller does not really like to "discuss" matters; he rather thinks of his listeners as a church audience. He lectures, without realizing it.
"Jesus Christ," he said, "the founder of Christendom, was a Jew. I love the Old Testament more than anything else. Hitler is trying to denounce this Testament as 'Jewish,' but there is no Christianity without it. Whoever is an anti-Semite and persecutes the Jews can never be a real Christian. Hitler is the true anti-Christ."
In view of that fact, I once asked him how it had ever been possible for him to become a member of the Nazi party.
"I find myself wondering about that too," he answered. "I wonder about it is much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: 'There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany'."
"I really believed," Niemoeller continued, "given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time--that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler's assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.
"I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me."
Niemoeller was honest about what he said, as most prisoners are honest who know that for an indeterminate length of time they must accept their fellow-prisoners as friends. He had the following to say concerning the Jews from Eastern Europe who settled in Germany after the First World War:
"I love Sholem Asch, although I don't love all of his heroes equally. The German is super-patriotic; he does not love strangers. But if those strangers make no effort to adjust themselves to his way of doing things, he begins to hate them. That is a national characteristic. I know, of course, that these Jews were persecuted in the Middle Ages, that cruel legislation prevented them from working at most occupations. Hitler is enforcing the same laws today.
"But the Jew who adjusts himself to the country he lives in is much better off than the one who considers himself a Jew first, and only then a German, Frenchman, American, etc."
"You see," he told me on another occasion, "Germany had lost the war; we had an alarming crisis, inflation, [end 285; p. 301] an enormous unemployment problem. Certain Russian and Polish Jews had taken refuge in Germany; the great mass of the poor and unemployed believed them to be well-to-do. Envy developed into hatred. Instead of feeling sorry for these miserable refugees, some people begrudged them the little they had. Hitler quickly stimulated these low passions, which finally brought him to power. Today, Hitler persecutes Jews and Christians alike. There isn't a single Nazi leader in the country today who has not cut himself off from the Christian faith. The so-called 'German Christians' are just heathen, who see in Hitler the Messiah; they have made him their 'Jesus Christ'."
IN THE CONCENTRATION CAMP
The prisoners at Moabit knew that Niemoeller was there, but his presence was not as significant as it was in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, where everybody could see him. At the camp, he had more opportunity to talk to the prisoners. He did pastoral work among them, in spite of ominous warnings from the Nazi officials. He had an encouraging word for everybody, a quotation from the Bible that helped many a man through his most desperate hours. "I shall pray for you, my son," was his constant phrase. "I shall pray for you," he assured a Communist, who was being led away after having been condemned to death. "I shall pray for you," he told a young [p. 302] Jewish physician who was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment because he had been asked by a Nazi to write a memorandum on the Jewish question and send it to Hitler. Without suspecting the trap, the doctor wrote down his ideas and actually forwarded them to Hitler. He paid a heavy price for his naivete.
Niemoeller saw executions at Moabit as well as at Sachsenhausen. Once I saw tears in his eyes. A Jew, who had collapsed the day before, had hidden himself in the camp to avoid being taken to the quarry, where he would have collapsed again and been brutally beaten once more. The guards finally found him, and shot him in cold blood before us.
I saw Niemoeller trembling: in his prisoner's uniform, with his pale face, he was an impressive sight. Tears rolled down his checks, and he said--loud enough for the Nazis to hear him: "Lord, forgive them, for they don't know what they do." We were all startled, and many of us almost wept. One of the guards who had heard Niemoeller walked up to him and gave him a dirty look. "Into the barracks with you," he cried, pushing him. "Get going!"
The same guard slapped Niemoeller a few days later, taunting him: "Where is your dirty God now? Why doesn't He help you get out of this concentration camp?" A moment later he shouted: "Salute Heil Hitler!" Niemoeller stood silent. The guard slapped him again. "Salute Heil Hitler!" he roared.
Niemoeller remained silent, but just then another prisoner--a Jew--stepped out of line, and the guard rushed away to beat the man to the ground. All the prisoners realized that the Jew had done that deliberately, in order to lure the brutal guard away from Niemoeller.
SACRIFICED SELF FOR JEWS
Niemoeller himself never treated Jews differently from Christians. Repeatedly he gave of his bread to Jews, since the Jewish ration was smaller than the "normal" one. He was particularly charitable to the suffering and sick Jews. At the camp, additional food could be purchased--at extortionate rates; many Jewish prisoners were penniless, and Niemoeller did all he could for them. He never made any effort to keep his feelings a secret. At one of our talks, he said: "No power on earth can force me not to see in the Jew my fellow man. Persecutions of the Jews are un-Christian."
He demonstrated his attitude publicly by always speaking to Jews, by helping them even though it meant punishment for himself. "All prisoners are my brothers," he declared, "whether they be Jews or Christians." All this did not make things any easier for him. Some of the prisoners denounced him to the authorities, hoping to ingratiate themselves thereby; each such traitor received a package of cigarettes.
Niemoeller only shook his head when such things came to his attention. He talked with Communist deputies, begging them to train their followers in the spirit of discipline and solidarity.
"In the Germany to come," he told me one day, "the Church will have to make good for so many things. I only hope it won't take too long until then."
HIS LAST WORDS TO AUTHOR
When I was finally released front the concentration camp to leave for America, I went to Niemoeller to bid him farewell. I told him how grateful I was for all the discussions we had had, and for the consolation and courage he had given me. These were his last words to me:
"When you are abroad, tell world what you have seen. Let them know about the brutalities practised daily in the concentration camps. You may also tell them about me. I am not afraid of what might happen to me. I know that Christ has taught us to suffer for mankind. Today I am only proud to be allowed to suffer for him, for Christianity, for all mankind. As for you, try to start life over again, a better life, if possible. We may each other again--when there are no laws and discriminations against Jews anymore, no more pogroms and political executions. Goodbye, my son."
I had tears in my eyes when I left him.
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