Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Moltmann Wrestles With God in POW Camp

Moltmann, "Wrestling with God" from Chapter 1 of "The Source of Life" (a practical theology of the Holy Spirit"):

In the years I spent as a prisoner of war, 1945-48, the biblical story about Jacob's struggle with the angel of the Lord at the Jabbok was for me always the story about God in which I found again my own little human story:

And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the d When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob's thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Tell me, I pray, your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen god face to face and my soul has been healed." And the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh (Gen. 32:24-31).

We were caught up in the terrors of the end of the war, and in the hopeless misery of a prisoner of war's existence. We wrestled with God in order to survive in the abysses of senselessness and guilt and we emerged from those years "limping" indeed, but blessed. The end of the war, when it at last came, found us with deeply wounded souls; but after the years in Norton prisoner-of-war camp in Scotland many of us said: "My soul has been healed, for I have seen God." In the labor camps, the night of cold despair fell on us, and in that night we were visited, each in his own way, by tormenting, gnawing thoughts. But when we emerged, we saw "that the sun had risen." As a lasting reminder, each of us had somewhere or other "his lame hip," as it were -- the scars of that time in body and soul. That is why I chose this story, so as with it, and hidden in it, to tell our story as I experienced it.

When we lie awake at night and descend into the deep wells of memory, then suddenly everything is present again, although it is all so long ago. It is as if there were no time. The pains and the blessing are still in us, for they go with us wherever we turn. Out of the profusion of the visions that then swim to the surface, let me take a few, so that we can remember together.


We were the ones who escaped. We escaped the mass death of the world war. For ever one who survived, hundreds died. Why did we survive? Why aren't we dead like the rest? In July 1943 I was an air force auxiliary in a battery in the center of Hamburg, and barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air Force's "Operation Gomorrah" let loose on the eastern part of the city. The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: "My God, where are you?" And the question "Why am I not dead too?" has haunted me ever since. Why are you alive? What gives your life meaning? Life is good, but to be a survivor is hard. One has to bear the weight of grief. It was probably in that night that my theology began, for I came from a secular family and knew nothing of faith. The people who escaped probably all saw their survival not just as a gift but as a charge too.

We had escaped death, but we were prisoners of war. I was first of all in the wretched mass camp 2226 Zedelgem near Ostend, then in Labor Camp 22 in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. It was July 1946 before I came to Norton Camp. The end of the war and the summer of 1945 brought cold horror into the camp: all the German cities in ruins; 12 million people fleeing from East Prussia and Silesia. Many people were face to face with nothing, and didn't know where to go. We had escaped but we had lost all hope. Some of us became cynical, some of us fell ill. The thought of there being no way out was like an iron band constricting our hearts. And each of us tried to conceal his stricken heart behind an armor of untouchability.

My spiritual nourishment had been Goethe's poems and his Faust, which my sister had given me to take with me ("pocket edition for the armed forces"). These poems had awakened the emotions of the boy, but now, when I was shut into a hut with 200 others, they had nothing more to say to me, although I often said them over to myself. I had dreamed of studying mathematics and physics. Einstein and Heisenberg were my heroes. But in that hut my dream fell to pieces: what was the point of it all?

And then those sleepless nights, when I was overwhelmed by the tormenting memories of the tanks that overran us on the fringes of the battle of Arnheim, and woke up soaked with sweat; when the faces of the dead appeared and looked at me with quenched and sightless eyes. It was five years at least before I found some degree of healing for these memories. In that mass camp, where we just sat around and had nothing to do, one was especially at the mercy of those tormenting memories. In those nights one was "alone" like Jacob and fought with principalities and powers that seemed dark and dangerous. It was only afterwards, and later, that it became clear with whom one had been wrestling.

And then came what was for me the worst of all. In September 1945, in Camp 22 in Scotland, we were confronted with pictures of Belsen and Auschwitz. They were pinned up in one of the huts, without comment. Some people thought it was just propaganda. Others set the piles of bodies which they saw over against Dresden. But slowly and inexorably the truth filtered into our awareness, and we saw ourselves mirrored in the eyes of the Nazi victims. Was this what we had fought for? Had my generation, at the last, been driven to our deaths so that the concentration camp murderers could go on killing, and Hitler could live a few months longer? Some people were so appalled that they didn't want to go back to Germany ever again. Later they stayed on in England. For me, every feeling for Germany, the so-called sacred "Fatherland," collapsed. It was only when my father's jewish friend Fritz Valentin returned to Hamburg from his English exile in 1945 (he was president of the provincial court, a convinced Christian, and later founder of the Protestant Academy in Hamburg) that my father in his French captivity and I in England felt duty bound to return to that country of contradictions, between Goethe's Weimar and Buchenwald. The depression over the wartime destruction and a captivity without any apparent end was exacerbated by a feeling of profound shame at having to share in this disgrace. That was undoubtedly the hardest thing, a stranglehold that choked us.


For me the turn from humiliation to new hope came about through two things -- first through the Bible, and then through the encounter with other people.

In the Scottish labor camp, together with some other astonished prisoners, I was for the first time given a Bible by a well-meaning army chaplain. Some of us would rather have had a few cigarettes. I read it without much comprehension, until I stumbled on the psalms of lament. Psalm 39 held me spellbound: "I was dumb with silence, I held my peace and my sorrow was stirred" (but Luther's German is much stronger -- "I have to eat up my suffering within myself"). "My lifetime is as nothing in thy sight ... Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not thou thy peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were ..." They were the words of my own heart and they called my soul to God. Then I came to the story of the passion, and when I read Jesus' death cry, "My God, why have you forsaken me?," I knew with certainty: this is someone who understands you. I began to understand the assailed Christ because I felt that he understood me: this was the divine brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with him on his way to resurrection. I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope. I was even calm when other men were "repatriated" and I was not. This early fellowship math Jesus, the brother in suffering and the redeemer from guilt, has never left me since. I never "decided for Christ" as is often demanded of us, but I am sure that then and there, in the dark pit of my soul, he found me. Christ's godforsakenness showed me where God is, where he had been with me in my life, and where he would be in the future.

The other thing was the kindness with which Scots and English, our former enemies, came to meet us half way. In Kilmarnock the miners and their families took us in with a hospitality that shamed us profoundly. We heard no reproaches, we were accused of no guilt. We were accepted as people, even though we were just numbers and wore our prisoners' patches on our backs. We experienced forgiveness of guilt without an confession of guilt on our part, and that made it possible for us to live with the past of our people, and in the shadow of Auschwitz, without repressing anything, and without becoming callous....

The other experience turned my life upside down was the first international Student Christian Movement conference at Swanwick, in the summer of 1947, to which a group of POWs was invited. We came there still wearing our wartime uniforms. And we came with fear and trembling. What were we to say about the war crimes, and the mass murders in the concentration camps? But we were welcomed as brothers in Christ, and were able to eat and drink, pray and sing with young Christians who had come from all over the world, even from Australia and New Zealand. In the night my eyes sometimes filled with tears.

Then a group of Dutch students came and asked to speak to us officially. Again I was frightened, for I had fought in Holland, in the battle for the Arnheim bridge. The Dutch students told us that Christ was the bridge on which they could cross to us, and that without Christ they would not be talking to us at all. They told of the Gestapo terror, the loss of their jewish friends and the destruction of their homes. We too could step onto this bridge that Christ had built from them to us, and could confess the guilt of our people and ask for reconciliation. At the end we all embraced. For me that was an hour of liberation. I was able to breathe again, felt like a human being once more, and returned cheerfully to the camp behind the barbed wire. The question of how long the captivity was going to last no longer bothered me.

In some English circles, Norton Camp counted as a camp where young Germans were supposed to be "re-educated" for a better Germany. But in reality it was a generous gift of reconciliation offered to former enemies, and as such it was unique. I came to the camp in the autumn of 1946. My wartime Abitur -- the school-leaving certificate -- was no longer accepted and I had to go back to school. The decision whether I should become a teacher and pastor was made for me through my experiences math the Bible and at the Swanwick conference. In the evenings I often walked along the camp fence and looked up at the chapel on the hill: "I circle round God, the age-old tower . . ." I was still searching, but I sensed that God was drawing me, and that I would not be seeking him if he had not already found me. On August 15, 1946, I wrote to my family: "I end most days in a curious way. In our camp there is a hill, overgrown with huge old trees. It is really the center of camp life, for there is a little chapel on it where we meet for evening prayers, so as to end the day with a hymn and collect our thoughts for new life. I like to sit there in the evening and look through the `Norman' windows into the twilight, out on to the lake and the fields. Perhaps we ought to see this whole imprisonment as a great churchgoing." We loved the chapel. It cast a wholly unique spell over us.


Norton camp was a kind of monastic enclosure, "excluded from time and world," as Gerhard Noller wrote in 1948 in his farewell letter. The day began at 6:30 with a bugle call (because we had lost our watches when we were taken prisoner) and ended at 10:30 P.M., when the English put out the lights. All at once we had time, time in plenty, and stood, spiritually and mentally starving as we were, in front of a wonderful library put together by the YMCA. During those days I read everything -- poems and novels, mathematics and philosophy, as well as any amount of theology -- and the theology especially was fabulously new to me. The YMCA also printed books for the help of POWs. I still have some of them -- Nygren's Eros und Agape and Bonhoeffer's Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship). My first book of systematic theology was Reinhold Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man, which made a deep impression on me, although I hardly understood it. New worlds dawned for us, worlds which had been forbidden to us under the Third Reich. We read emigre literature, as well as the work of modern English and American writers.

The semester timetables were rich and varied, and of course we wanted to hear everything. I learned Hebrew under Walter Haaren and Gerhard Noller. Gerhard Friedrich introduced us to the New Testament. And then there were the visitors from outside: Anders Nygren stayed a fortnight and taught us systematic theology. Professor Soe from Copenhagen did the same for Christian ethics. Werner Milch, an emigrant, later in Marburg, enthralled us with a history of 20th-century literature. Fritz Blanke came from Zurich, and Matthew Black from Scotland. I met him again later in St. Andrews. Of course, we were a "show camp," and not without reason; but we were also richly benefited and honored by the visits and addresses of Birger Forell, John R. Mott, W A. Visser 't Hooft, Martin Niemoller and others.

I think not least of the moving sermons by our camp chaplains Rudolf Halver and Wilhelm Burckert. They were the first sermons I had ever heard, and I could still repeat some of them today, especially Halver's sermon of August 10, 1947, on the magna peccatrix, the woman who was a great sinner. I can still see in my mind's eye the long procession of prisoners on their way to Cuckney church, or to the Methodist church where Frank Baker was minister. I met him again later at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

At night we sometimes crawled through a hole at the right-hand corner of the back fence so as to fetch wood from the duke of Portland's park for the iron stove that stood in the middle of the hut. How much time we had for night-time talks in the firelight of the stove, long after the lights had been put out! Never again have i lived "the life of the mind" as intensely as I did in the last semester of the theological school in Norton Camp. It was a marvelous, richly blessed time. We were given what we did not deserve, and received of the fullness of Christ "grace upon grace."


For us, what looked like a grim fate when it began turned into an undeserved, rich blessing. It began in the night of war, and when we came to Norton Camp the sun rose for us. We came with wounded souls, and when we left "my soul was healed." Certainly we did not "see God face to face" like Jacob at that place on the Jabbok. According to biblical tradition, that is reserved for only a few "friends of God"; for all others it is promised only for the great day of resurrection, when we shall see "face to face" and know as we are known." No, what we experienced was just the reverse: God looked on us with "the shining eyes" of his eternal joy. Blessing and the Spirit of life always have their origin in the "light of God's countenance" (Pss. 51:11; 139:7; Num. 6:24-26), just as his judgment means his "hidden face" (hester panim), and rejection is the face of God when it is "turned away." What we experienced was for many of us the turn from God's "hidden face" to "the light of his countenance." We experienced with pain his hiddenness and remoteness, and we sensed that he looked upon us "with shining eyes," and felt the warmth of his great love.

We have met together here after 50 years in order to praise the hidden and yet so merciful God for everything that we have experienced of him. We have also come to remember 4th gratitude the people who came to meet us prisoners with such readiness to forgive and such hospitality. We shall never forget Birger Forell and John Barwick, who set up Norton Camp, and we have lasting ties with the YMCA, which organized that generous "prisoners' aid" that raised us up. With Psalm 30, verse 11, I acknowledge:

Lord, thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to thee for ever.

--Moltmann, "Wrestling with God" Chapter 1 of "The Source of Life"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!