Monday, August 20, 2007

A Quaker Story: Our Day in the German Gestapo

One question for me as a Quaker and a human being is: how do I respond to the new Gestapo of the Bush Regime? Could these men in the story below have done more? Should they have done more? I read that there were something like 44 Quakers in Germany in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Over the course of the next several years, 28 left, but 63 joined. Even though the numbers are small, there's something hopeful about that. Most of these Quakers hid Jews in safety.

How does God want ME to speak truth to power? Raucous marches? Street theater? Letters to Congress? Voting? Meeting for Worship? All of the above? Should these men have marched in and demanded an end to the ever-increasing violence against the Jews? I struggle with this as I reflect on what constitutes action or non-action. Often I feel like I'm not doing enough. Sometimes I feel that sitting in Meeting for Worship isn't "doing enough". But Meeting for Worship helps me connect with the Spirit, which is a powerful act by itself. What comes next, after that connection, sometimes becomes more clear after Meeting.


And now, the story:

Sixty-two years ago, three Quakers, Rufus Jones, George Walton, and Robert Yarnall, representatives of the American Friends Service Committee, traveled to Germany in response to the Day of Broken Glass. On November 10, 1938, Jews in Germany were attacked, beaten, arrested, and their businesses and synagogues vandalized and burned. The shattered glass gave its name to the event.

Quakers, having carried out extensive relief work in Germany following World War I, decided to send the three-man delegation to Berlin to determine what might be done to meet the needs of those who were attacked. The three arrived and were greeted by a newspaper article written by Josef Goebbels, propaganda minister, who referred to them sarcastically as "three wise men."

After arriving in Berlin, it became apparent the three Quakers would have to discuss with the Gestapo whatever relief work they proposed to carry out. Through the good offices of the American consul general in Berlin, an interview was arranged, and the three Quakers proceeded to Gestapo Headquarters. They were received by what Rufus Jones described as two hard-faced men.

A Quaker statement had been drawn up and translated into German. Among other things it stated, "We do not ask who is to blame for the trouble which may exist or what has produced the bad situation. Our task is to support and save life and to suffer with those who are suffering."

The Gestapo representatives took the statement to share with their Chief Heydrich, later known as the Hangman of Czechoslovakia. During the period the two were absent from the room, the three Quaker representatives bowed their heads and held a silent meeting-probably the only Quaker meeting ever held in Gestapo headquarters.

When the Gestapo men returned, they indicated the Quakers would be allowed to bring relief to those who were suffering. The Quakers asked for this decision in writing, but the Gestapo men refused, saying the organization never gave anything in writing. "What will be the evidence?" the Quakers asked.

"Every word spoken in this room has been recorded, and the decision will be in the records," said the Gestapo men.

"We were glad then that we had kept the period of hush and quiet and had uttered no words for the record!" the Quakers reported later.

The Gestapo representatives indicated every police station in Germany would receive word that Quakers had been given full permission to investigate the sufferings of Jews and to bring relief as they saw necessary. It is unlikely the message was ever sent, but in other respects the promise made seemed to be kept, and the door was opened for some relief.

Perhaps the memory of past favors extended to the German people by Quakers had helped. Although the encounter clearly didn't change the Gestapo men's hearts or the course of history, Rufus Jones remarked that the men seemed to reflect a softer visage at the end of the meeting. They "shook our hands with good-bye wishes and with a touch of gentleness."

Researched and written by Jack Sutters, AFSC Archivist

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