Review of Hartmut Ludwig, An der Seite der Entrechteten und Schwachen: Zur Geschichte des “Büro Pfarrer Grüber” (1938 bis 1940) und der Ev. Hilfsstelle für ehemals Rasseverfolgte nach 1945

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 2 (June 2013)

Review of Hartmut Ludwig, An der Seite der Entrechteten und Schwachen: Zur Geschichte des “Büro Pfarrer Grüber” (1938 bis 1940) und der Ev. Hilfsstelle für ehemals Rasseverfolgte nach 1945 (Berlin: Logos Verlag, 2009), Pp. 195, ISBN 978-3832521264.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Ludwig-AnderSeiteThe record of the German Evangelical Churches, including the Confessing Church of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in failing to mobilize opposition to the Nazis’ violent attacks on the Jews is a shameful one. It has been excellently researched in the recent book by Robert Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany. In the post-1945 period, when the horrifying facts of the Holocaust were revealed, the Church was overwhelmed with a deep feeling of guilty shame. The subject was to be avoided. It took many years before the details emerged of one of the more significant, if belated, efforts in the Protestant ranks, namely the establishment in 1938 of an office to assist the persecuted Protestant victims of Nazi oppression. Hartmut Ludwig’s contribution in retelling the story of the “Büro Grüber” is therefore much to be welcomed.

By 1938 the escalation of Nazi violence had alarmed many individual churchmen, including Bishop George Bell in England, who was deeply concerned for those Protestant pastors of Jewish extraction, who were now threatened with eviction or discrimination. Bell sent his sister-in-law, Laura Livingstone, to work with the Quakers in Berlin and to provide, at a minimum, advice about resettlement and emigration. But the German church authorities, including those of the Confessing Church, were still too eager not to offend their political masters, and refused any engagement on this issue. Not until the summer of 1938 was Pastor Heinrich Grüber designated as contact person for a nation-wide network to offer guidance and assistance to Protestant church members of Jewish descent. Grüber was in charge of a parish in eastern Berlin, where he had been much engaged in social work. Since he could not expect any approval from the church bureaucracy, he decided to set up his own independent office. He called for help from a group of lay persons of both sexes from the local parishes, almost all of whom were themselves drawn from the target group of Protestants of Jewish origin.

The onslaughts of the notorious “Crystal Night” pogrom in early November impelled Grüber to take immediate and unauthorized steps to provide assistance to those victims who needed to emigrate from Germany as soon as possible. Many of the Christians of Jewish descent had expected that since they were not part of the Jewish community and, in many cases, had not been for many years, they would be exempt. “Crystal Night” destroyed this illusion. Grüber’s office now found itself overwhelmed with applicants. Grüber himself travelled to England in December to see what opportunities existed for Christians of Jewish origin to emigrate there. In the following months, until the outbreak of war in September 1939, his office expedited as many cases as they could, although the exact numbers are unclear. He also recruited over thirty assistants to help with the complicated paper work required to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles preventing the emigrants from leaving Germany.

Despite their plans to expel the Jews as quickly as possible, the Nazi authorities’ hostility to anyone who sympathised with the plight of Jews only increased. The escalation of military operations from 1939 to 1941 made emigration opportunities ever more difficult. Grüber’s educational and social work had to be stopped. In late 1940 the first deportations of Jews from Germany were begun to Poland and also to southern France. Grüber was alarmed but powerless to prevent these vindictive measures. In December 1940 the Gestapo peremptorily ordered his office to be closed, while he himself was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen. The office files were confiscated and later destroyed. In September 1941 all Jews were ordered to wear the Yellow Star, and in October the Gestapo prohibited any further Jewish emigration from Germany. Instead they were to be deported to unknown destinations in the east. Fourteen of Grüber’s co-workers were among those deported and subsequently murdered in one concentration camp or another. The author gives each of them a short biographical tribute on the basis of carefully-reconstituted evidence.

Fortunately, Pastor Grüber himself survived, and already in June 1945 was back in Berlin determined to continue to care for the very few remaining Jewish Protestants, some of whom had been in hiding, and others married to non-Jews in the so-called “privileged marital status”. All of them needed help to rebuild their shattered lives. And many had to contend with the wounding disparagements of neighbours who still maintained the prejudices of the previous regime. The new Protestant church authorities refused to acknowledge any special responsibility towards those who had been so let down by their predecessors. The task of combating anti-Semitism remained.

In the post-war years Grüber achieved renown as the Provost of Berlin, and for nine years the chief negotiator for the Protestant Church with the Communist government in East Berlin. But he also saw to it that his relief agency for assistance to the formerly racially persecuted continued to operate, even after Berlin was politically divided. The agency still exists, helping with restitution cases, supporting old age homes, and fighting racial prejudices. It is a continuing obligation in Grüber’s memory.

Harmut Ludwig began his researches on this topic twenty-five years ago, while he was a graduate student at the Humboldt University in East Berlin. After the fall of Communism, he was able to gather new sources on both sides of the former Berlin Wall, as well as to interview survivors, their relatives, or the relatives of victims. The record of the dangers and, often, calamitous disasters which befell these victims of Nazi ruthlessness is now more or less complete. But so too is the evidence of the dedication and compassion shown by Grüber and his assistants, who constantly strove to follow their role model of the Good Samaritan, and thereby to atone, if only in part, for the scandalous dereliction of the wider Church.