Faith from the Ashes: An Interview with Sibylle Sarah Niemoeller Von Sell
Garber, Zev, Shofar
The first time I encountered Sibylle Niemoeller was at the 22(nd) Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the German Church Struggle (now named the Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches), which met at the University of Washington from February 29 to March 4, 1992. The conference theme was "Religion, Power, and the Politics of Resistance," to acknowledge and honor the centennial birth year of two towering giants of the Church Struggle against Nazism, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Niemoeller. At the opening ceremony, Pastor Niemoeller's widow paid tribute to her husband, who died 6 March 1984. I was impressed by her poise and stature as she delivered a heartfelt talk on the personality of the quintessential leader of the German anti-Nazi Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church). At the end of the session, I thanked her for her fitting remarks and I was struck by her wearing a Star of David. How fascinating, I thought, Pastor Niemoeller's widow wears a Jewish religious medal! Had I known her, I would've asked, l'shem ma? For what reason the Star -- an expression of Christian penance, German guilt, newfound identity?
My introduction to the milhomah yahrn (Yiddish, years of World War II) began at Hunter College in the Bronx (now Lehman College), where I studied as an undergraduate between 1958 and 1962. There I learned about antisemitism and the Shoah and discovered that the supersessionist message of Christian teachers, leaders, and saints helped prepare the twisted road from Calvary to Auschwitz and the numerous valleys of death between. Had I not read at the Graduate School of Religion at USC Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (1958) and found out about the White Rose group, I might not have known about good-spirited Christians who refused to submit to Nazi ideology.
Subsequently I came across Martin Niemoeller's memoir, Briefe aus der Gefangenschaft Moabit (1975), in which he charged the brethren not to lose hope or direction and to fight the good fight for the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. His letters from Moabit prison and his famous "Confession of Guilt," which originated orally in his postwar American travels and became the concluding words of his many addresses to American audiences, left an indelible affect on me. "First, they came for the socialists. But I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me." Inspirational words from a Christian German patriot who refused to bend before the Caesar of the Hooked Cross.
I participated in the second Remembering for the Future conference, held in Berlin, March 13-17, 1994. My co-authored paper attempted to find the roots for the Auschwitz Convent controversy in unconscious cultural bias and notable absence of dialogue between Christians and Jews.(1) It also showed the dangers of marginal interfaith interchange which knee-jerks to sectarian claims because we fear to know each other's fear and see with each other's sight. Shades of Niemoeller's wise admonition, indeed! During the conference, I visited with Hubert Locke, co-founder with Franklin H. Littell of the Annual Scholars Conference, Niemoeller's cell at Sachsenhausen (where he spent three years in solitary confinement after eight months in Moabit and before four years in Dachau, and where he was liberated in 1945). Here my black Christian friend prostrated and wailed, while I, an American-born Orthodox Jew from Eastern European shtetl heritage, said the Kaddish to honor and remember the sacred soul of this chasid ummot ha-`olam, one of the righteous among the nations. And at that moment I vowed to know more about the Pastor Martin Niemoeller.
The vow stayed with me for several months, but I did nothing to fulfill it. …