Seventy years later, the size of these German congregations is not so important, he says. “We only care about how they failed to challenge the Nazis.”

A draft of Schmitz’s letter urging church leaders to condemn Nazi mistreatment of Jews

Elisabeth Schmitz (1893–1977) had studied theology at Humboldt University before becoming a public schoolteacher in Berlin. In 1935, she wrote a 24-page letter of protest and anonymously mailed 200 copies to the leadership of the Confessing Church.

Using theological language, Schmitz urged the Confessing Church to address the growing danger of Nazism. She timed the letter, mimeographed in her apartment, to arrive shortly before the Synod of Steglitz. The letter fell into the hands of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, among others, but was not introduced at the synod.

Three years later, following Kristallnacht, Schmitz wrote to her pastor, Helmut Gollwitzer, urging him to denounce the violence. He agreed and became one of only a handful of pastors who condemned the injustice.

In the aftermath of the pogrom, Schmitz resigned, explicitly stating that she could no longer work for the Nazi state as a teacher expected to advance its ideology. In retirement, she was able to purchase a small countryside home from Jewish friends and use the site to hide others until they could escape to freedom. In each of these cases — especially her open letter, her resignation letter, and in her provision of refuge to Jews — she risked her life for others.

Despite her bravery, for decades after the war Schmitz led a simple life in anonymity, and when she died, seven people attended her funeral. During the past decade, she has become the subject of a biography, and the city of her birth, Hanau, has dedicated a memorial marker. On the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held up Schmitz as an example, calling her one of the few exceptions to “the silence that surrounded the pogrom.”

Elisabeth Schmitz’s actions offer a central lesson to the church, Bishop Carder says. “The church has to live its own story but also engage the society in which it exists.

“Without a broad understanding of God’s kingdom, political, economic, and social powers become controlled by self-interest. How did we let it happen that the imago dei in every person was not respected during slavery and then in Hitler’s Germany? And today?”

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