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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
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 Europe at least. In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe was about nine and a half million; by 1950, a few years after the war, it was just over three million. In 1933, there were about 3 million Jews in Poland alone; by 1950, there were 45,000. According to the Nazis own count, Germany itself had 565,000 Jews in 1933. The German census of 1950 showed that 37,000 were left.

 

          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.)

 

           Sometimes, there were whole towns that resisted. In the south of France, under the Vichy regime, a French Protestant pastor named Andre Trocme and his wife, Magda, inspired their entire village, La Chambon, to join in the resistance. Together, during the course of the war, they saved the lives of more that 3500 Jews, most of them children and young people, whom they housed, and hid, and educated, and nurtured.

 

          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  St. Radegund, in western Austria, just across the river from Germany. As a young man, Franz had a reputation as something of a young tough. He drove a motorcycle; was part of one of the local gangs that roamed the streets of Austria (and Germany) in those years of deprivation and dislocation that followed the First World War. He fathered a daughter out of wedlock, then left St. Radegund, not necessarily of his own volition, and worked in the iron mines of Upper Austria.

 

          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 Mass. He considered entering seminary, but after hours of prayer and counseling by his local pastor, he decided against it, in order to stay at St. Radegund and support his ailing mother. So he settled down on the small family farm. One day at Mass, he met Franceska, the woman who would become his wife; they married, and had three daughters in quick succession. When he became sexton of the church at St. Radegund, he was the happiest of men. He loved his faith. He loved his church. Being able to work there every day, and take care of it—this church where he had been baptized, where he had been married, where his daughters had been christened-- was like an answer to a life’s prayer.

 

          Then Hitler came to power in Germany. In March 1938, came the Anschluss—the Nazi takeover of Austria. Then and only then—with Nazi troops in the streets and Nazis in control of the national government—the people of Austria were asked to vote to “approve” the Anschluss. Of all the men in St. Radegund, only Franz Jagerstatter voted “No”.

 

          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? … Germany was attacked by no one. Once, I believe, we would have had the right to defend ourselves, and that was four years ago when we were still Austrians."

 

          In February, 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 Berlin. After a military trial, he was sentenced to death and subsequently executed by guillotine on August 9, 1943, at the age of 36.

 

          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 Linz, Austria, Pope Benedict XVI declared the Franz Jagerstatter an official martyr of the Catholic Church. Today, by the side of the wall of the church he loved in St. Radegund, in its simple cemetery, the ashes of the Blessed Franz Jagersatter lay buried, in a grave covered with edelweiss, the national flower of Austria.

 

          In a suburb just south of Munich, there is another small cemetery, which lies in a wooded area adjacent to a building which once served as an SS prison. In Perlach cemetery lie the remains of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, as well as their friend, Christoph Probst – all three members of the student group, the White Rose; all three executed at Stadelheim prison in 1943, for subversion against the Third Reich.

 

          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 Bavaria. A few years later, her family moved to Ulm and in 1933 Sophie, like so many German young people,  joined the Hitler Youth. At first she was enthusiastic about Germany’s new regime, but, influenced by the views of her father, a political opponent of the Nazis, she became increasingly critical of  Hitler and his government. Sophie's brother, Hans Scholl, became even more outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis, and soon started meeting clandestinely with other students opposed to the government.  

 

          After graduating from the equivalent of our high school in 1940, Sophie became a teacher at a nursery school in the outskirts of Ulm. In May 1942, she entered the Maximillian-Leopold University in Munich, studying biology and philosophy. Later that year, in the aftermath of the German defeat at Stalingrad, her father was imprisoned for making critical comments about  Hitler to one of his employees. "This Hitler is God's scourge on mankind,” the Herr Scholl had said, “and if this war doesn't end soon the Russians will be sitting in Berlin."

 

          Around this time, too, Hans Scholl/span>, also a student at the University in Munich, had formed the White Rose resistance group, committed to opposing to the government of Nazi Germany and its policies. Eventually the group numbered seven members: six students-- the Scholls, plus their friends,  Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Jugen Wittenstein—and one teacher, Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy.  

          The group decided to adopt a strategy of passive 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 Germany, at first by simply taking names at random from the telephone book. Later, the group decided to focus on university lecturers and bar owners as a more efficient means of disseminating their limited resources. It was not long before the Gestapo soon became aware of the group's activities.

          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 Germany/st1:country-region> in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences... The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, smash its tormentors."

          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 the White Rose/span> group appeared before the High Judge of the People's Court, Roland Friesler—brought in from Berlin especially for the occasion-- on February 20, 1943. They were, of course, found guilty of sedition, and they were executed by guillotine a few hours later. Just before he was executed Hans Scholl shouted out: "Long live freedom!"

          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.

 

 


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