Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
In Solitary Witness: Remembering the Heroes Who Said No to Hitler
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 11, 2010
More than sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the Holocaust remains an abiding memory in our collective mind. It still exerts its influence over us. It still figures prominently in our culture. When we are confronted by its brutality and evil, we are still shaken to the core. It still has the ability to shock us, even after all we have seen in the years that have come since.
The mere facts of the Holocaust are breathtaking in their sheer evil:
The Holocaust-- also known as the Shoah in Hebrew-- is the term generally used to describe the genocide of approximately six million European Jews during World War II by Nazi Germany. If we broaden the definition of Holocaust to also include the Nazis' systematic murder of people in other groups-- including ethnic Poles, Romani (or Gypsies), Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian civilians, Soviet prisoners of war, people with disabilities, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents-- the total number of Holocaust victims rises to between 11 million and 17 million people.
It was an historical nightmare of epic proportions.
So we must never forget, and never let anyone cast doubts upon its veracity, or minimize it, or the important lessons it teaches.
One of these important lessons is that, ultimately, it did not succeed. In spite of its tragedy, and the unpeakably vast scourge of pain and heartbreak and death and destruction it wrought, the Holocaust ultimately—thankfully—ranks as an ignominious failure.
Hitler did not
succeed in wiping the Jewish race off the face of the earth. Hardly. Oh, he came
frighteningly close, in
Six million deaths—of Jews alone. Five to ten million more, if we count all the victims of this terror. (That doesn’t even include the strictly military costs of the war which this madness wrought.) Each one of these millions a name obliterated, a personal history destroyed, an individual human story cut tragically short
And so, we must vow “Never again!”.
And so, we must remember them.
And remember that in the whole long, sad litany of human history, that no tyrant has ever succeeded in remaining in power forever. All of them have fallen, one by one, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, too much later.
But fallen they have. The righteous always succed, sooner or later. It may sound hopeless naïve for a student of history to say it, but the good guys ultimately win.
May that inspire us all to seek out the ways of justice, and to stand on the side of the right.
History and politics are not always a “Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide” kind of choice.
But sometimes, they are. There are those who grasp that fact, almost from the first. Who open their eyes, and open their minds, and refuse to just go along with evil, however powerful it might seem. Because they know that evil does not prosper long, and that at some point, in some way, we all face a reckoning where we account for these lives we lead.
May we remember these brave souls. And learn from the lessons their lives teach.
In her study of the trial in Jerusalem of the former-SS official Rudolf Eichmann (who is sometimes referred to as the “architect of the Holocaust” because of the importance of his work in organizing many of the aspects of Hitler’s death machine), the historian Hannah Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil”—that is, her thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who simply accepted the premises of their state, of those who governed them, and therefore participated in great evils, thinking that what they were doing was completely “normal”.
As I’ve stated before, Hitler, personally, probably never killed anyone. He had an entire nation of “normal” everyday people to do it for him. Such is the power of the “banality of evil”.
But we must remember, too, the other side of this historical coin. That is that extraordinary heroism also often wears a remarkably “normal” and everyday face, as well. That is where I draw much of my hope from, in the face of the awful tragedy which the sad history of the Holocaust presents: from stories of great battles and military campaigns—yes; but even more, from the stories of simple men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit, who, in the face of the madness of the times in which they lived, held tight to their deeper humanity, listened for the voice of their God in their souls, and acted—simply, straightforwardly, heroically—and lived out the truth of their own lives and the truth of the world.
They were sadly outnumbered, these heroic souls. But there were more of them than we realize. (In my reading, I come across new examples of them all the time.)
there were whole towns that resisted. In the south of
Sometimes, these brave souls acted alone, in solitary witness against the evil they saw around them. Or they were parts of a small, isolated, seemingly weak group of a handful of comrades. They were small men and women, simple souls, standing against the marauding forces of a totalitarian state and the greatest war machine then known to history, a government that one historian has called a “genocidal state”.
They were men like
Franz Jagerstatter, a simple Austrian farmer, who lived almost his entire life
in the little town of
When he came back to
St. Radegund in the early 1930s, he was a changed man. He had been seized by a
deep Christian faith, and started to attend daily
Then Hitler came to
He remained outspoken in his opposition to the Nazi regime. When others greeted him with the customary “Heil Hitler!” Jagerstatter would respond “Pfui Hitler”. He never joined any anti-Hitler organization; he tried just to go about his daily work as a farmer, as keeper of the church.
But he always made it clear that, if called to fight for the Nazi regime, he would refuse. He wrote:
“What Catholic can dare
to say that these raids which Germany has carried out in several countries, and
is still carrying out, constitute a just and holy war?
Who dares to assert that among the German
people in this war only one person bears the responsibility, and why then did so
many millions of Germans have to give their 'Yes' or 'No'? Can one be reproached
today for lacking patriotism? Do we still even have a mother country in this
world? For if a country is supposed to be my mother country, it may not just
impose duties - one must also have rights, and do we have rights here today? If
someone … might be a burden on the state, what happens to them? Would such a
mother country [capable of such evil deeds] be worth defending at all? …
1943, Franz Jagerstatter received orders to report for military service. He
walked all the way to the local induction center, several towns away, where he
informed those in charge that he refused to fight. He was imprisoned, first at
Linz, then at
He left behind three young daughters, the eldest of whom was six. But he also left behind his writings—letters from prison—which serve as a lasting testament to his heroism and his dedication to the right.
“We must do everything in our power to strive toward the Eternal Homeland and to preserve a good conscience,” Franz wrote from prison. “Though we must bear our daily sorrows and reap little reward in this world for doing so, we can still become richer than millionaires--for those who need not fear death are the richest and happiest of all. And these riches are there for the asking.”
In October of 2007, in
In a suburb just south
Sophie Scholl was born
on May 9, 1921 (exactly one day before my own father, it occurs to me) the
daughter of Robert Scholl, the mayor of Forchtenberg, a town in western
After graduating from
the equivalent of our high school in 1940, Sophie became a teacher at a nursery
school in the outskirts of
Around this time, too,
Scholl/span>, also a student at the University in
The group decided to
adopt a strategy of
resistance/span> against the Nazi regime, and published leaflets calling
for the restoration of democracy and civil liberties in their country. These
were anonymously distributed throughout central
In its pamphlet Passive Resistance to National Socialism/i>, published in 1943, the group explained the reasons why they had formed the White Rose organization:
“We want to try and
show that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the
system. It can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic
people - people who are agreed as to the means they must use. We have no great
number of choices as to the means. The meaning and goal of passive resistance is
to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from our
course, any action, whatever its nature. A victory of fascist
The White Rose/span> group also began painting anti-Nazi slogans on the sides of buildings. These included "Down With Hitler", "Hitler Mass Murderer" and "Freedom". They also painted crossed-out swastikas. Their writings would often end with the sentence: “People of Germany! We are the White Rose! We are your guilty conscience.”
Members also began leaving piles of leaflets in public places. It was during one of these drops, in February of 1943, that Sophie and Hans Scholl/span> were discovered, when Jakob Schmidt, a member of the Nazi Party, saw them throwing leaflets from a balcony of the third floor of a classroom building at the university into the courtyard below. Schmidt immediately informed the Gestapo and both of the Scholls were arrested. Soon, Probst, too, was implicated Probst in the writing of the leaflets.
The three members of
Rose/span> group appeared before the High Judge of the People's Court,
Friesler—brought in from
In her speech before the court, Sophie Scholl had said: “ [We decided that] Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did.” In a few years, she told the judge and jury, it will be you who will be standing trial. It is you who will be judged by history.
Then, on the day of her execution, as she was being led away, Sophie told her cellmate, Else Gebel:
“It is such a splendid sunny day, Else, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”
May that revolt happen now, in our own hearts, when we hear of heroes like the Scholls, and Cristoph Probst, and like Franz Jagerstatter. A revolt against tyranny in all its forms. A revolt against any leaders—or ideologies—or religious faiths—or prejudices—which exalt one people above another. A revolt against all ideas that say we human ones are bound to sin and shame and war and conflict.
These blessed saints of peace—and understanding—and justice—speak to us still. May we remember them, and take up their struggle, and create anew a world which reflects the love and justice of God.
What they dreamed, be ours to do.
Hope their hope, and seal it true.