Public Lecture: On the Side of the Disenfranchised and the Weak: The Office of Pastor Grüber (1938-1940)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 22, Number 1 (March 2016)

Public Lecture: On the Side of the Disenfranchised and the Weak:  The Office of Pastor Grüber (1938-1940)

By Hartmut Ludwig, Humboldt University, Berlin; translated by John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Historians are now largely agreed that during the twelve years of Nazi rule there were four distinct and successive stages to the discrimination, persecution and eventual expulsion of Germany’s Jewish citizens. Each of these stages saw an escalation in the severity of the measures taken earlier, and eventually led to the decision to eliminate almost everybody of Jewish origins in the areas of Europe under Nazi control.

The first phase from 1933 to 1935 can be described as the period of discrimination and disenfranchisement. In 1933 there were approximately 500,000 persons belonging to the Jewish communities, as well as approximately 400,000 Christians or non-believers who were of Jewish descent and were included in the Nazi categories of those to be discriminated against. The first measures were implemented only two months after the Nazis came to power in January 1933, when on 1 April a nation-wide boycott of Jewish shops and businesses was carried out. This was followed a week later by the passing of a new Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which covered all appointments to major institutions, such as hospitals and universities. (The title of this Law was entirely misleading since it was chiefly concerned to apply the discriminatory code of the so-called Aryan paragraph, banning Jews from public offices, along with supposed political opponents, in order to extinguish the idea of any independence in the civil service.)

This law did not apply to Germany’s religious bodies, but nevertheless the pro-Nazi sections of the Protestant Church, known as the “Deutsche Christen”, demanded that the same “Aryan paragraph” should be applied to their church. This suggestion was heavily contested, and led in fact to the establishment of the Confessing Church, and a ginger group calling itself the Pastors’ Emergency League.

Their protest was based on their view that the “Aryan paragraph” introduced racial considerations instead of loyalty to the church’s doctrines. On the other hand, these churchmen did not raise any objections to the law’s application to the wider society. Only a few protested it on these grounds, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who frequently quoted the verse taken from Proverbs 31.8: “Open Thy mouth for the Dumb”, and at the same time asked: “Who recognizes that this is the Bible’s least demand in such a time as today?” And as Karl Barth wrote two years later when the Confessing Church had also suffered persecution: “The Church has not found adequate expressions to counter the million-fold injustices being perpetrated. She speaks – if she speaks – only on behalf of her own members. She still clings to the fiction that we are living in a state which upholds the law as envisaged in Romans 13.”

The second stage from 1935 to 1938 can be seen as a period of isolation and exclusion. This began with the decree embodying the Nuremberg Racial Laws of September 1935, which was followed by an unprecedented campaign of vilification against the Confessing Church because it allegedly was trying to counteract and silence the Nazis’ campaign against the evil influences of the Jews. But this was a grossly exaggerated propaganda attack. In fact, when a staff member, Marga Meusel, had put forward the request that the Confessing Church create an office to help those affected by the Nuremberg Laws, she was ignored, as was the elaborate protest written by the Berlin girls high school teacher, Elisabeth Schmitz, which she presented in vain to the Confessing Church Synod in September 1935. “How should we answer all the despairing and bitter questions and complaints? Why is the Church doing nothing? Why does it allow these countless acts of injustice to happen? Why does it continue to make these joyful acclamations of the Nazi state, which are really political declarations, when the lives of a section of its membership are being endangered?”

Renewed calls for some practical steps to assist these Christians of Jewish extraction came from the Heidelberg Pastor Hermann Maas, as well as from the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, which had already in January 1936, at a meeting in London, set up an “International Relief Committee for Refugees from Germany”. In addition, the English Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who was much engaged in ecumenical activities, had sent his sister-in-law, Laura Livingstone, to Berlin to help arrange and intensify such international collaboration. But it was only after five and a half years of Nazi rule that the Confessing Church finally recognized that it had a responsibility to assist the Christians of Jewish origin. So began the work later known as the so-called Office of Pastor Grüber.

The third phase from 1938 to 1941 began with the violent pogrom and the burning of synagogues on November 9 and 10, 1938, commonly known as the Kristallnacht, and led to the enforced expulsion of numerous Jewish citizens from Germany in order to make the country as quickly as possible “free from Jews”. During this pogrom some 30,000 men were dispatched to a concentration camp, from which they were released only when they could produce a paper showing that they were emigrating from Germany as soon as possible. A number of pastors were included in this repressive action. The Churches were silent. Out of the approximately 18,000 Protestant pastors only a small handful brought the subject up in their sermons. The chief of the Gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich, then organized the “Reich Association of Jews” in order to speed up the process of their expulsion. Devotedly the Nazi members and their supporters in the Protestant ranks, the “Deutsche Christen”, followed this lead. Six “Deutsche Christen” provincial churches in Anhalt, Saxony, Thuringia. Mecklenburg, Lubeck and Schleswig-Holstein then expelled any Christians of Jewish extraction out of their congregations. In May 1939, a new Institute, called the “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life” was founded in Eisenach. Its staff members then undertook a project called “God’s Message” which produced a New Testament from which all mention of Jesus’ Jewish origin had been removed.

The fourth phase from 1941 to 1945 began in October 1941 with the first mass deportation of Jews from Germany to the ghetto in Litzmannstadt in Poland. This was preceded by a police edict of September 1, 1941, ordering all Jews over the age of six to wear a Jewish star on their clothing. By this means they were openly stigmatized and eventually excluded from German society. In Breslau, Katharina Staritz, who was vicar of the main church, called on all her colleagues in her diocese to give particular pastoral care to any Christians of Jewish origin, since, in her view, they held the same rights in the church as other parishioners. She was then arrested and deported to the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück and was held there until May 1943. Only in a few parishes were Christians wearing the Jewish star allowed to take part in the church services. In other parishes, a poster was put up stating “Jews are unwanted here”. In addition, on December 22, 1941, the vice-chairman of Church House in Berlin sent out a circular to all churches advising them that Christians of Jewish origin should absent themselves from participation in church life. And on January 20, 1942, the head of the Gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich, informed leading members of the Reich government, at a conference held at the Wannsee, near Berlin, about the measures to be taken to deport all remaining Jews in order to make Germany “free from Jews”. Many of those affected still continued to believe that they were only being resettled in Eastern Europe. For that reason, various parishes organized “Farewell Services”. But it became ever clearer that these people were not being resettled, but instead murdered. So some of them tried to go underground, and adopt a false identity in order to survive. In March 1943, representatives of a Bible study group in Munich wrote to their bishop, Hans Meiser, and requested him to break the church’s silence on this issue of Jewish persecution. In their letter they wrote: “We are driven by the simple requirement of loving your neighbor. . . Every “non-Aryan” whether Jewish or Christian today in Germany has fallen into the hands of murderers. We have to ask ourselves whether we are going to behave like the priest or the Levite, or like the Samaritan.” Bishop Meiser refused their request.

The Establishment and History of Pastor Grüber’s Office, 1938-1940

We can distinguish between three phases: 1) the creation of this relief office in 1938; 2) the extension and consolidation of the relief efforts in 1939, and 3) the restrictions and final closure of the Office in 1940.

The various relief efforts for Christians of Jewish origin which had been created since 1933 had nevertheless failed. Already in May 1933 the Berlin ecumenical leader Professor Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze had proposed a plan for a joint ecumenical service for German emigrants, whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. The idea was to establish a counselling service for all those forced to leave Germany because of Nazi persecution, which would operate to give advice about job opportunities and some financial assistance in order to help them create new lives abroad. But in June 1933 Siegmund-Schultze was arrested and obliged to leave Germany. So this plan came to nothing. Only in 1935 was the same effort started from Switzerland by Pastor Hermannn Maas.

But in July 1933 some Christians of Jewish origin founded in Berlin a self-help organization with a grandiose title of “National Association of Christians with German Citizenship, Who Are Non-Aryans or Only Partly Non-Aryans”. The object was to persuade the government that these Christians of Jewish origin were just as good Germans as others, and in order to persuade the churches to treat them as fully entitled to the same rights as others. But the church leadership was dominated by “Deutsche Christen” who agreed with the Nazi policy of seeking to expel these Christians of Jewish origin from the church. So this plan also came to nothing. This National Association was obliged to rename itself in September 1935, and adopt the name of the “Paulusbund” In March 1937 all those who were fully Jewish were forced out. So the remaining structure was meaningless.

In August 1934, the plight and shattering experiences of these Christians of Jewish origin led Marga Meusel, the director of the Protestant Welfare Agency in the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf and her colleague Charlotte Friedenthal to recommend a central church advisory center. They turned to Martin Albertz, the Church Superintendent for the Spandau region of Berlin, who sought to gain the support of Friedrich Bodelschwingh and Theodor Wenzel, both leading personalities in the church’s Inner Mission. But both refused. And in June 1935 the Confessing Church leaders made it clear that they were not prepared to join such a venture, so Marga Meusel was able to help only a very few persons out of her office in Zehlendorf.

Phase One: The Creation of the Church Relief Agency for Protestant Non-Aryans (Pastor Grüber’s Office)

The Nazi occupation of Austria in March 1938, and the consequent campaign led by Adolf Eichmann to drive out Austrian Jews in a particularly violent manner, led to a new wave of refugees. At the end of May, Pastor Hermann Maas came from Heidelberg to Berlin in order to try and persuade the leadership of the Confessing Church finally to become more active on behalf of these Christians of Jewish origin. Together with Martin Albertz, who was a member of the Provisional Leadership team in the Confessing Church, he openly complained about the lack of any Relief Agency. They then managed to persuade the pastor of the church in Kaulsdorf, a suburb on the east side of Berlin, Heinrich Grüber, to accept the challenge. According to a report by Laura Livingstone, he immediately threw himself into this task with great energy and enthusiasm. Because he recognized that this Relief Agency should not be undertaken solely by the Confessing Church, he sought to gain increased legitimacy from the whole of the German Protestant Church. He then hired Ingeborg Jacobson as his secretary, working out of his manse in Kaulsdorf.

On June 22, 1938, Grüber was able to enlist the support of Thomas Breit, the chairman of the Council of Berlin’s Protestant Churches. This opened the way to approach other churches in the rest of the country. In the following months, and through a massive correspondence campaign, Grüber was able to build up a network of twenty-two sponsors and colleagues in Germany’s major cities.

This new refugee situation compelled President Roosevelt to invite representatives from various countries to meet at Evian on Lake Constance from June 8 to 15 in order to consider how best to respond to this wave of emigrants or refugees from Germany and Austria. Naturally those persons affected by the Nazi persecutions placed great hopes on this meeting. But the assembled governments and their delegates seemed not to recognize the dangers. One after another each country announced that it was unwilling to open its doors to these refugees. The main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, ironically commented: “No one wants to accept these mongrels. Most of the delegates rightly refused to take in these scoundrels who were seeking to bring about Germany’s ruin”.

Despite this discouraging situation, Grüber sought to set up a Relief Agency for emigrants. But for it to succeed, he needed official permission. In August he paid a call on the German Foreign Ministry, and discussed his plans with one of the officials there. Naturally he took care to describe his efforts as being fully in line with the Nazi government’s aims. As he later wrote: “If the state now believes that these non-Aryans are no longer acceptable for the growth of Germany’s national well-being, it should still recognize the desirability of their being allowed to emigrate in order to find some other refuge elsewhere. In other words, it is in the state’s interests that this flood of emigrants should not leave with hatred and resentment in their hearts. We particularly see this danger in the young people who have grown up without any future or hope of advancement, because they have been largely chucked out of every opportunity of employment. Such young people have nothing to lose, so they may well turn to anarchism or bolshevism.”

Grüber waited four months for an answer from the Foreign Ministry, but in vain. So on November 30 he turned instead to the Office for Emigration set up by the Ministry of the Interior, which he knew was not yet fully infiltrated by ardent Nazis. From this office he received permission to contact foreign states to discuss their reception from Germany of Christians of Jewish origin.

In the middle of October he convened his colleagues from various parts of the country to a meeting in Eisenach, and again at the end of November, when they met in the Quakers’ International Office in Berlin. Paul Braune, the head of the Hoffnungstaler Hospital in Lobetal later reported to Bodelschwingh about this meeting. “Ninety per cent of the discussion revolved around emigration, while my questions about the provision of welfare for those who were remaining here did not find as much interest. One had to recognize that for these beleaguered persons only one goal was uppermost: how to get out of Germany”. Grüber was tireless in beseeching Bodelschwingh to come to Berlin to give him support, and to intervene with the various ministries in protest against the anti-Semitic measures being perpetrated throughout the country. Two days after the notorious November 9, 1938, pogrom he wrote to Bodelschwingh to say: “We cannot and must not leave these people in the lurch…. Matthew 25 is still our guideline.” We can only surmise why Bodelschwingh never replied. But Grüber and Braune collaborated with a rough division of labor, under which Grüber concentrated on emigration and Braune looked after the social welfare needs of these Christians of Jewish origin.

One of those who tried to leave Berlin as quickly as possible after the November pogrom was Heinrich Poms, who was in charge of the house in the Oranienburg Street operated by the British Mission to the Jews. This house was only a few hundred meters from the New Synagogue, in the middle of the Jewish quarter of Berlin. Poms arranged for Grüber to take over the lease of the Mission House, which then became the Church Relief Agency for Protestant Non-Aryans. Also close by was the Catholic Agency engaged in the same work for Catholic non-Aryans, led by Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg. On December 7, Grüber wrote to all his colleagues to announce that his agency was now opening its office in Oranienburg Street 20. And in a circular sent out on December 19, he gave the names of his immediate colleagues: Margarete Draeger, Paul Heiritz, Will Oelsner, Heinrich Hirschwald and Ingeborg Jacobson.

Phase Two: Extension and Consolidation of the Service in 1939

It soon became clear that the space in Oranienburg Street 20 was inadequate. Pastor Werner Sylten, who had volunteered his services and was taken on by Grüber as his deputy, had found an old and stately building, An der Stechbahn 3-4, across the street from the Berlin Castle, which had a very suitable second-story suite of rooms. This house which had previously belonged to Arnold Panofsky, who was Jewish, had recently been “confiscated”. So in January 1939 Grüber’s office for emigration took over six of the rooms, while for the time being the other departments which dealt with welfare, child evacuation and spiritual counselling remained in the Oranienburg Street house until the autumn of 1939. Some 20 colleagues worked as counsellors or secretaries, seeing between 100 and 120 clients every day, and providing advice as best they could. In the beginning of February 1939 Laura Livingstone moved her office to the same address, and by the end of March the two offices had recruited 30 co-workers. They also established contacts abroad, such as Pastor Adolf Freudenberg who represented Grüber’s office in London. After he paid a visit to Berlin, he reported: “The staff in the Stechbahn offices, who were all themselves members of the persecuted group of non-Aryans, did not allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the flood of enquirers, all of whom now felt the sword of Damacles hanging over their heads. Instead, they cheerfully sought to provide advice and help as best they could. This was a small candle of comfort in the surrounding darkness”.

By May 1939, besides the central office, there were 22 sub-offices throughout the country, led by contact persons who in many cases were themselves Christians of Jewish origin. Circulars to these contacts were sent out from time to time reporting on the regulations for emigration to various countries abroad, or where complications had been encountered. For example, a circular issued in March stated: “There are reasons to repeat our instructions, which should be closely observed, that we are strictly to confine our services to Protestant non-Aryans. In no case should we provide advice to those still belonging to the Jewish community”. And another circular asked that the addresses of those who had received advice and already left the country should be put in a card index and forwarded to Berlin.

Margaret Draeger was in charge if the section dealing with children and their evacuation. After the November pogrom, both Holland and Great Britain opened their doors to receive several thousand children between the ages of six and 17 who were being persecuted because of their racial origin. Difficulties however arose because the organization of these child transports had been undertaken by the Jewish agencies in Germany, leaving little room for Christian children to join them. Sylvia Woolf organized several such transports of children to Sweden.

In this third phase of the Nazi persecution from 1938 to 1941, the aim was to drive all remaining Jews out of the country. But since all previous efforts seemed inadequate and hadn’t produced the desired results, the head of the Gestapo, Heydrich, resolved to step up the process by instituting a central office for forcible emigration. The result was the Reich Office for Jewish emigration. All Jews, including the Christians, were to be included so that they could be better controlled, and financially plundered. The Nazis did not see the merging of Christians of Jewish origins along with other Jewish agencies as a problem, since they wanted to get rid of them all. But these Christians saw the issue in a quite different light. Would the Jewish agencies provide the same help, or would they be doubly discriminated against?

On February 14 Grüber and his Catholic counterpart Fr. Max Grösser, the General Secretary of St Raphael’s Society wrote to the specialist for Jewish affairs in the Gestapo headquarters to say: “It is a heavy burden for Christians of Jewish origin to be lumped together with full Jews, particularly when their financial affairs are being discussed”. In fact, the division between the two groups was only heightened by the Nazi persecution. They therefore requested a separate arrangement for Christians of Jewish origin so that the existing Christian agencies could work independently from Heydrich’s office.

A compromise was eventually reached, whereby the Christian agencies were allowed to continue their work, but were only tolerated and not seen as partners in the Nazi plans. This so-called collaboration meant that they were unable to prevent the financial plundering of Jewish property, but in fact received a monthly subsidy of 5000 Marks to cover their administration costs.

After the November pogrom, the Minister of Education, Bernhard Rust, forbade Jewish children to attend public schools. But since school attendance was still compulsory, this meant that Christian pupils had to go to Jewish schools. In order to avoid this situation, the Confessing Church leaders in Berlin established a private school arrangement of their own. Pastor Adolf Kurtz and his curate Klara Hunsche created a special school class in January 1939, at first in the parish house of the Apostles’ Church on Nollendorf Square. But after the Emigration Office had moved to the house An der Stechbahn, three or four rooms became available in the Oranienburg Street offices, so that the Protestant children were able to move in. The Gestapo allowed this arrangement for these Christian children. Klara Hunsche directed the teaching, while Pastor Kurtz dealt with outside bodies. By October 1939 the school had 42 pupils in four classes. This family school actually managed to survive after the Gestapo closed down Grüber’s office in December 1940. In February 1941 more than 1000 children and youth were attending but it clearly remained a thorn in the Gestapo’s flesh. They demanded that it should be merged with a Jewish school, and in August 1941, the Ministry of Education withdrew the school’s operating permit. Subsequent negotiations between Eichmann and Pastor Kurtz and the Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Wienken resulted in a compromise solution. The family school had to be abandoned, but instruction for Christian children of Jewish origin was to be continued in two separate classrooms in the Jewish elementary school on the Kaiser Street in central Berlin. But on June 30, 1942, the entire provision of education for Jews was forbidden.

Phase Three: Restriction on the Service and Final Closure of the Office, 1940-41

In November 1939 another restructuring of the Office took place, when Grüber announced that he would have to limit his engagement in this work. Pastor Werner Sylten, as his deputy, would take on the leadership position. But in order to ensure continuity and a broader support base, Grüber proposed setting up an advisory board, which would involve persons not as yet directly engaged in the work of the Office but who understood what was being attempted, such as Superintendent Martin Albertz, the lawyer Fritz Werner Arnold, Pastor Paul Braune and Heinrich Spiero, who had been the chairman of the Paulusbund.

With the outbreak of war, most states around Germany closed their borders. So organizing emigration plans also decreased. Some of Grüber’s staff had been able to emigrate shortly before war began, but at the end of 1939 there still remained 27 staff members in four sections. Thanks to a special permit given by Eichmann, Grüber was allowed to travel to Switzerland in March 1940 to investigate what the possibilities of emigration there might be. He wrote to Visser ’t Hooft, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (in process of formation) to say that he had managed to arrange for several people to get to Shanghai. But his attempt to obtain money from the USA was in vain.

The Gestapo continued to demand that all successful emigration activities should be reported to them. And after they closed down the Office, they confiscated and destroyed all the files and card indexes. So we now have only sketchy and insufficient evidence about these emigration projects. In a report prepared by Adolf Freudenberg in London, he stated that up to the end of August 1939, 1138 persons had successfully emigrated. In a later circular issued in November 1940 he was able to name a further 580 persons, bringing the total to 1718. But this figure was only for those who were serviced by the Berlin office, and did not include the partner offices in other cities. We only have the numbers supplied by the Munich office, which had assisted 48 persons to emigrate before the outbreak of war. So we can reckon that approximately 1800 to 2000 persons were able to reach safety abroad through the services of Grüber’s Office.

In 1940 the hindrances imposed by the Gestapo only increased. The scope of the Office’s activities was even more reduced. It was clear that, for the Gestapo, their only interest in Grüber’s office was to ensure the emigration, or more properly the flight, of Jewish refugees out of Germany. In February 1940 for the first time Jews from Germany were deported from Stettin to Lublin in former Poland. Grüber was beseeched to protest this outrageous action. But when he did so, he was summoned to the Gestapo headquarters in the Alexander Square and told in no uncertain terms not to criticize the measures taken by the Nazi Party and government. Grüber replied: “As long as I can speak, I will do so, and as long as I can work, I will work”. In October 1940, 6504 Jews were deported from the Saar region in western Germany and sent to the Gurs camp in southern France. Grüber only learnt about this from Pastor Hermann Maas in Heidelberg, and then considered how he might alleviate their plight in Gurs. But unfortunately his plans came to nothing.

In December 1940 the Gestapo took steps to stop Grüber in his tracks. They accused him of overstepping his allowed authority, and ordered the Office to be closed. The staff was dismissed and Grüber himself arrested. He was first taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Alexander Square and later transported to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. On December 20 Pastor Werner Sylten was ordered to appear at the Gestapo headquarters. He was told that the Office was now closed and all further work was forbidden. He should dissolve the office entirely, and transfer its furniture to its Jewish counterpart. He was given permission to have three or four former staff members help him. The welfare files should be transferred to the Jewish agency. A month later he was informed that the files dealing with emigration should be handed over to the Jewish agency’s division, i.e. Protestant members of Jewish origin. But this arrangement only lasted until November 1941, when the final phase of deportation and mass murder of Jews and Christians of Jewish origin began.

Sylten’s hoped that at least pastoral counselling for his charges could continue. But this was not allowed. On February 1, 1942 he informed the Gestapo office that he had fulfilled all their requirements, but on February 27 he was arrested and after several months in solitary confinement sent to Dachau Concentration Camp where he was later murdered.

Ingeborg Jacobson, who had been Grüber’s secretary, gave the names and addresses of several former clients to Helene Jacobs, one of the Confessing Church parish members in Berlin-Dahlem, in the hopes that she might be able to help them. And in fact a small group led by Franz Kaufmann did manage to assist a few persons who attempted to “take a leap into the dark” that is to go underground and live illegally. These persons were equipped with false identities and false papers. But of course they were constantly in danger. They had frequently to change their quarters whenever nosy neighbors or the police began enquiries. But several Protestant pastors in Württemberg, East Prussia and Pomerania made hiding places in their parish houses and established a chain of refuges where these Christians of Jewish origin were able to find sanctuary. It was of course a highly dangerous undertaking, but in some sense can be seen to be carrying on the work which Pastor Grüber and his Office had attempted to do.

Fortunately Grüber himself survived the war, and later returned to his parish in East Berlin, where he continued his efforts to assist the few remaining Christians of Jewish origin. He became renowned as the Provost of Berlin, and for nine years served as the chief negotiator with the Communist government. But his lasting memorial is the dedication and compassion shown to the Nazis’ victims when he constantly strove to follow the role of the Good Samaritan and thereby to atone for the scandalous derelictions of the wider church. He died in 1975.