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.”
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.”
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?”
The suffering of the Jews was not an abstraction for Schmitz, says Carder. “Walter Brueggeman’s concept of the prophetic imagination grows out of our ability to grieve or lament. We enter into the suffering of another in a personal way. Seeing the other perspective deepens witness and lament and one’s response.”
In Exodus 3:7, God hears the suffering of his nation and identifies with the oppressed, says Carder. “The disestablishment of the church is an opportunity. We belong in the margins.”
How are leaders of churches great and small to apply the lessons of Elisabeth Schmitz’s life in their work and practice today? Some say even small efforts made in this direction will be of great consequence.
The Rev. Neal Christie, the assistant general secretary for education and leadership formation at the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, described the board’s support of the film in this context.
“Elisabeth … ought to remind the church of the importance and ethical demand to advocate for others before the powers,” Christie says. “For the General Board of Church and Society, this is a core value and purpose.
“There is nonviolent power in a single letter written and circulated, much like there is power in petitions and campaigns that we circulate to our constituencies to demand justice for God’s people.”
Steven Martin, the director of Elisabeth of Berlin, is a United Methodist extension minister in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and is one of Bishop Carder’s former parishioners. He describes the practical lessons of Elisabeth Schmitz’s life in terms of theology, and friendship.
“Goebbels said, ‘Everyone knows one good Jew, but we have to steel ourselves for the Jewish question.’ A lot of people chose his words over their friends’ lives.
“After 12 years of relentless propaganda, it took a huge amount of clarity for Elisabeth Schmitz to see that a friend was a friend and that all the talk about the Jews was wrong. That is what is remarkable about her.
“Her friendship together with her theological training made the difference. The lesson of her piety is that you have to be steeped in the life of the church, and reach out to those that Jesus called ‘the least of these.’”
Bishop Carder finds in her story a call for regret and repentance, but also for hope. “One lone voice can make a difference,” he says. “The contribution multiplies, like the loaves and the fishes. Never underestimate what God can do with a little.”
For more information on the documentary film, Elisabeth of Berlin, directed by Steven D. Martin, visit Vital Visuals.