The Buchenwald Letters, III


It is with a profound sense of sadness that we come to the final letters Rev. Paul Schneider wrote from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. It is almost as though as long as the letters continued, we were forestalling those dark days of 1939. While these letters break the heart, may they also strengthen and encourage us, for joy comes in the mourning.
These urns were discovered during a renovation of the Buchenwald crematorium. The canisters still contained remains when they were discovered.

29th November, 1937
You will be anxious to have news of me. We arrived here on Saturday morning. My first impressions are, therefore, over. Like all beginnings they were hard. I no longer feel lonely in my cell; but I am more than ever thankful for the transition period at Coblenz. I have, so to speak, been let into this gradually. With God’s help, both of us, you too at home, will be happy and faithful during this time of preparation for Christmas. This year, above all, we shall receive the deep inner joy of Advent and Christmas, which is quite independent of outward circumstances. We must accept the joy of this season. Especially at home you must rejoice, lest our children or strangers look for our joy and find only sorrow. I beg you to do this as I shall also try to do. Let us rejoice at God’s gift. We know full well that our fate is in God’s hand….

5th December, 1937
Now, I am coming to your Sunday letter, a habit which I must not lose. As you see, I am not used to writing these days. Thank God I have my first week behind me. I thank him also that at the end of the week I am still sound and well. I hope that, by now, you have received my first letter, which told you of my first impressions. I also hope that I shall receive some word from you during the next week. You will understand that, despite the fellowship of many fellow prisoners, I can still feel lonely at times. But the good God is with me here and can make that which is ‘far off’, ‘near’. He can make this strange land my homeland. He can meet me, in this world, with all the power of the world that is to come. I know that this is what you pray for me.
Now, as Christmas approaches, the little children will be getting excited, more and more every day, and you will all sing the Advent hymns with enthusiasm. Yes, these hymns have a special meaning for us and their promises take on a new life.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow.
Therein we see ourselves. He will not fail you either. ‘ Look up! ‘ as the hymn says. I know the troubles I have brought upon you, with no father at home and all that entails. If dark clouds seem to overshadow the glorious festival that lies before you, ‘Look up’. The eternal light, which lit up the poor manger at Bethlehem, would find a way into our darkened hearts. It will purify our hearts and overcome the darkness. Separated though we are, we shall keep the feast, with trust and faith. For God can give us joy, even in these times. Little kindnesses and helps come to me even here and lighten my life….

9th January, 1938
I am sorry that circumstances have so spoiled our correspondence that you did not receive my Christmas letter and that your birthday passed without a special greeting from me. I am sorry, but there was nothing I could do. Now, I must tell you of what is happening to me. I am still sound and healthy. I am beginning to get myself adjusted to this place. I have received three letters from you. The first came at the end of the second week here. The Christmas letter came on Christmas Eve. To see your dear handwriting and to know that we faced the joy of Christmas together, despite our separation, was more to me than all the other greetings that many sent to me. I am grateful for those others and they are dear to me; but yours was more precious than anything I have ever received. Your third letter came on 7th January. How happy I was to hear that you had kept the feast with true faith and joy, and that you had been blessed! How I longed to be with you and with our dear friends!

23rd January, 1938
…Especially I thought of you on your birthday. I am glad to hear that you were given so helpful a text and word of comfort in Dahlem on your birthday. Thank you for the texts in your last letter. They have helped me much. Perhaps you could send me the texts for the next two Sundays and one or other of the readings selected. In this way, we can be reading and thinking upon the same passage and be closely bound together in prayer.
There is not much news from here; but I can quite honestly say that I am still well and am almost beginning to make myself at home! Here, too, we may thank God for work and food, which we receive from his hand. Here, too, God makes the 23rd Psalm come true. He restores our soul, he leads us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Above all, we will hold fast to the promise of God, that he will lead out the prisoners in his own good time, and we shall possess our souls in patience.

6th February, 1938
At noon today, I received your dear letter, written on the 2nd of this month. How glad and thankful I am for this good news. … It is clear to us now, my darling, and the knowledge gives me great gladness that, despite all our sins against our love, Paul with comrades during WWI (3rd from right)yet all the storms and shocks have only bound us closer together. This, I think, is because, despite all our failures, we have really tried to fear God above all things, to love him and to trust him. This we have learnt to do in Jesus Christ, his beloved Son, our Lord. Thus, my bond, which holds me to you, bound like a bunch of grapes to the vine, and my bond with all our dear family is not a burden, but a strength. I am not alone and that strengthens me to follow my ordained path. I have complete confidence that God’s good Spirit, which keeps us while we are separated, will lead us further in the way that we must tread and that the eye of God will mark our paths….
Once again, all the news I have is to say thankfully that I am well. I think you would approve if you saw how well I looked. The long periods in the open air make me look very well indeed. So far, God has led me kindly and kept me from all illness and accident. His care for us all is truly wonderful and he gently leads us out.
Little Gerhard will now have had his birthday. He enters his new year of life with very much to learn. I am sure he will learn in this coming year to be strong and brave, as well as obedient. How much I wanted to be with you on his birthday and all last Tuesday I tried to picture you at home. The table would be arrayed for him and you would all sing his song. I wanted to sing my greetings with you.

6th March, 1938
Yes, you are right. Here, too, the frost and the snow have gone and the signs of spring are breaking in upon us. We rejoice at warmer sun, the sound of the birds in the trees and all the stirring of new life. It does body and soul good. We are happy despite everything. So, with great thankfulness, I can write again and tell you that I am still well. Above all we can be glad and thankful that our letters keep open the life line between us. There are things we cannot write, but we hold these even more firmly in faith. These are the unfulfilled longings that only we understand. Unspoken and unwritten they hold us yet closer together. They are the many little things, which Claudius recalls in his lovely evening hymn, ‘the things we laugh about’ or perhaps cry about, ‘because our eyes see them not’. There are also things we cannot say and may not know, but simply leave God to order as he will.
Pray for me that I may be a true follower of our crucified Lord and that I may witness a good confession in this time of testing….

4th April, 1938
How glad I am always to be able to tell you that all goes well with me and that I am sound in body and soul. We had such a lovely spring and March was so unexpectedly fine that surely we have no more to fear from the cold winds of winter. They are passed. Winter has been conquered and summer stands waiting at the door.
As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, we celebrate the victory of life over death. Our faith is the victory, which overcometh the world. When I think on your troubles and your work, I make one simple petition: that you may be given new power and new faith. Your troubles lie also upon our children. Let us all take our anxieties and our troubles and lay them upon him who is able to bear them better than we are. I wonder if our youngest, who is born into such a troublousPaul at his study window presenting his daily morning flute “concert” world, will eventually know a world of far greater peace? Will Dietrich find his way in this world? Oh, the questions that crowd in upon us! But leave this to our God. Let the joy which our children bring to you be ever a source of power and help. Rejoice in them. How lovely it will be when we see each other again! Who knows how soon that might be? How we shall rejoice in each other! God knows the way and he knows what we have yet to suffer and what joy lies ahead for us. How is Mother bearing up under these burdens? Greet her for me with true and thankful love.

While Paul Schneider had a pastoral demeanor, he was also utterly fearless in opposing a system and ideology which he believed his Christian faith required him to oppose. A clerk named Leikam at the Buchenwald camp would write later:
In the spring of 1938, there was an order that all prisoners passing by the Nazi flag on their march to work should greet it by taking off their caps. Schneider declared that this saluting of the Nazi flag was idolatry and he refused to obey the order. At first, most of the prisoners did not think of refusing. None of them did it willingly; but, apart from Schneider, they all obeyed. One who envied him, or perhaps had a grudge against him, informed the authorities and he was charged with refusal to obey a command. Then began Paul Schneider’s lone path of suffering. He was called to the SS and freely confessed his attitude. At first he received twenty five lashes and was then put into the dark cell. This meant solitary confinement and he remained in this cell till his death. There he told the SS exactly what the Christian attitude to Nazism was. He spoke freely and without fear. There was probably no other man in Germany who denounced the regime as fearlessly. He called the devil by his name: murderer, criminal, tyrant, monster. Because of this witness against Nazism, and he never failed to set against it the grace of Christ and call men to repentance, Schneider received in his body repeated and heavy tortures, humiliations and pains. All the ingenuity of Nazi sadism was used against him. Torture was alternated with good treatment and appeals to relax his strong opposition. Schneider was unmoved and he was tireless in calling out words of Scripture to his fellow prisoners. Morning and evening, whenever his cell door was opened or he was taken out to fresh torment, his voice could be heard shouting aloud words of comfort and judgment from the Bible. … One January morning in 1939, when two escaped prisoners had been brought back and killed, Paul Schneider could be heard clearly denouncing the murder: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I witness against the murder of prisoners….’ The worst time for Schneider was in the early summer of 1939. For several days he was hung up, with his hands behind him and his body permanently bent. This devilish device caused him continuous pain. His suffering was borne nobly and he was greatly honored in the camp.

18th October, 1938

Thank you with all my heart for your dear letter which came the day before yesterday as a true Sabbath joy. How glad I am that things are going much better with you now and that so many satisfactory changes have taken place in the home. It is good to read that even the heavy burdens seem light again. It is a great comfort to me here to know that I have such dear and such industrious children. How vividly I can see, in my mind’s eye, the potato field, with all the little children and the womenfolk and the machine in between! Baked potatoes will taste twice as good after such a day’s work! … I was glad to read what you said about Luise. How did they manage to find the darling so quickly? … I understand, dearest, what you write about this time of waiting. It is painful to you, also, I know. I hope the letter which has since gone to you from me will bring you a little comfort. We must be thankful and glad that, after more than a year, I am still well and sound and that, so far, I can still send greetings to you with gladness and comfort. Whatever comes, we have this promise: it cannot be heavier than we can bear. God knows the right time for everything. He knows the time of growth and the time of harvest. And this, not only for the fruit of the field, but also for our lives—our own harvest and growth.

8th June, 1939

Your Whitsun letter was again a ‘children’ letter and I was glad. Thank you. Especially I was glad to see the greetings, written with their own hands. I can see from these how much they have learnt and how much they have grown. Time here seems to stand still. I shall have to see what presents to bring for the children when I return. Your letter has really made me feel as though I am away on holiday and must soon begin to think what to bring back as presents for the children. I am afraid that there is no such chance of chocolate! Yes, my dearest, the ‘children’ letter has done me good. I shall treasure it. Your continued watch over our six dear ones, your love and care for them, will help them to face the future bravely and erect. That is to be a great comfort. They are the pledge of our love, rooted and grounded in the truth of God, and they will help us. Their very growth and soundness tells us that our love does not fail. When the troubles come and we ‘pass through the waters’, our love is held by the strong tie of those six pledges. You have given me hope again….

18th June, 1939

It was foolish of me in my last letter to place our very human hopes so high that I seemed to forget that God’s ways, which are not always the same as our hopes, are just and holy and for our salvation. We must have but one hope, ‘the living hope’. That hope, we must learn again every day. That hope must be our only wish. We must follow our Lord….

This letter, which was sent on 3rd July, 1939, was the last Paul Schneider wrote before his death.

On the day before yesterday, I received your dear letter from Oberstdorf with greetings from Sophie, Mariele and the four warriors. Many thanks for the letter and for all the greetings. I am so glad that, thanks to the kindness of friends, you can Paul’s cell in the bunkerenjoy these lovely days of holiday with Evemarie, as a little compensation for all your difficulties. Thanks also to Mariele, who has taken your place at home. How kind is God’s care and guidance! Our little daughter’s already in the mountains. Perhaps mother too will soon be well and strong, climbing mountains! I hope the weather keeps good for you. It was lovely thirteen years ago (i.e. on our honeymoon). God allowed us to have one more trip to the south, for one holiday together. The many visits will keep our house busy and help you to pass this difficult time more easily. My greetings to Leo and his parents. I always remember Herbert Mayer as a man of trust. Greet him for me. It is a good and very satisfactory arrangement for the young couple to live with you—for the time being! Thank them for this sacrifice. Mother will take the parting from Conrad hard. What a pity she cannot come to us, that our little house is not big enough. How pushed about she is in her old age! ‘My time is restlessness….” If only we could learn from all this and mature by that which is come to us and overcome the sorrows! Now, I wish this letter could get to you as quickly as yours came to me. Greet your kind hosts with my thankfulness. May God richly bless you and our dear little daughter during these days of holiday and may you have a happy homecoming.

Gretel Schneider would write:
That was the last letter. I returned from Oberstdorf with little Evemarie on 4th July. The next day, we were beset with visits because of the departure of our assistant pastor. He was called for military service on 18th July. This delayed our morning prayers, which we held between 10 and 11 a.m. Our text was, ‘Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’ The hymn we sang, ‘O Thou who breakest every band’, was a great strength to me in the next few days. In the evening, at 6.30, I received the telegram: ‘Paul Schneider, born 29th August, 1897, died today. If it is wished to bury at own cost, contact within 24 hours, Registrar of deaths, Weimar. Otherwise, cremation. Camp Commandant, Buchenwald.’ That night, I went to Weimar.
Paul Schneider was buried at Dickenschied, 21st July, 1939. His grave became a memorial and a strength to the Confessing Church, whose struggle with Hitler was to go on.