‘Elisabeth of Berlin’

By Blake Radcliffe

Photos courtesy of Steven D. Martin/Vital Visuals
Schmitz following her retirement from teaching

As contemporaries whose resistance to Nazism came at great personal risk, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Elisabeth Schmitz never met. While Bonhoeffer’s courage has been documented since the end of World War II, evidence of Schmitz’s defiance of Nazi ideology was lost for decades. The story of her heroism is just now being widely shared with the release of a documentary, Elisabeth of Berlin, which premiered at Duke.

Bishop Kenneth Carder, professor of the practice of Christian ministry, helped bring the film’s world premiere to the Divinity School last October, with support from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

Schmitz was a lay member of the Confessing Church who had studied theology before becoming a history teacher, and her theological formation sharpened her critique of Nazism. For divinity school students and alumni, Carder says, “This story teaches us that academic theology gives us the tools to participate in the great debates of our time, which demand great minds and courageous spirits to engage them.”

The premiere was held in anticipation of the observance of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938, destruction of nearly every German synagogue and thousands of Jewish businesses. The presentation launched a year long series of forums at the Divinity School exploring the role of faith communities in civil society.

The series is led by Stephen Chapman, associate professor of Old Testament, who believes that Schmitz could see the outrageous treatment of the Jews because of her vantage point from the margins — both as a woman and as a lay member of the church.

“The stories of those on the periphery expand the imagination of what’s possible to bear, and they also further our historical perspective,” Chapman says.

“For pastors, a perennial issue is that of church and culture. The more powerful and comfortable that you become, the more difficult it is to see when persecution transpires.”

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