While most Christians are familiar with Dietrich Bonhoffer’s courageous opposition to the Nazi regime, few know the name of the pastor whose faithfulness made him the first shepherd of God’s flock to be martyred. Paul Schneider, pastor of two small Reformed Church congregations at Dickensheid and Womrath, believed that the state’s demands that the Church submit to the Aryan laws constituted an abandonment of the Gospel. He became known as the “Pastor of Buchenwald,” after the concentration camp where he was exiled and where he continued to proclaim the Gospel until his death. Over the next several issues, we will share with you letters he wrote to his beloved wife, Margarite, which shall forever remain among the most poignant testimonies of, in Bonhoffer’s words, the cost of discipleship.
Paul Schneider was not a theologian. He left no theological works, properly speaking, yet compared to the narrative of his life, the theological works penned by scholars in the quiet peace of the study pale. For here is the end of the matter, not that we rightly confess the truth in words alone, which he surely did, but in living the Christian life regardless of the cost. Schneider had drawn the attention of the Nazis when he placed a church member under discipline for withdrawing his son from the church’s Heidelberg Catechism discipleship class and sending him to join the Hitler Youth. Schneider was forbidden to pursue the discipline case, but the next Sunday he boldly read from the pulpit the second announcement of the impending excommunication. He also rebuked the party officials who attempted to inject Nazi elements into the funeral service of one of his church’s members.
Despite his frequent arrests and orders not to return to his local congregation, he believed to follow such orders was to deny Christ and his ordination vows. Returning to Dickensheid, he began his last exile at prisons in Kirchberg and Coblenz, embarking upon a path that would lead eventually to Buchenwald. We begin with his first letter from Coblenz, written on the 10th of October, 1937.
COBLENZ, 10th October
SchneiderFor a week now, my dear, I have been away from you, on service in the holy war of the Church of Jesus Christ. What is going to happen to me I do not yet know. Possibly the Concentration Camp. Within a reasonable time, it will be decided. Then we shall be able to adjust ourselves to it and the time of uncertainty will be over. In any case, I am still in no doubt that my decision and my actions were right. I do not regret them. Perhaps you too, my dear, are now sure in your heart that we have taken the right way. Perhaps now the happenings in the Church and the news of similar happenings among the brethren has convinced you that we were right not to yield to the demands of the Government in this matter. Above all, God will continue to stand by his promises, sustaining us and helping us by his almighty power. He will comfort us and bless us in all our sufferings. Whoever wishes to avoid suffering now must be careful lest he be rejected by God. I simply cannot understand how or why God gives freedom to men to choose whether they will join in active resistance to the State or whether they will make intercession for the brethren who are witnessing to their faith in suffering. Therefore, take courage even if we must continue to be the only ones to go into the depths of persecution. Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings. He comes quickly and, in the last days, there will be times of refreshing before the face of our God. Then all your grief and sorrow shall be turned into joy and laughter.
COBLENZ, 17th October (Unofficial)
Your dear letter of the Saturday before last reached me yesterday, i.e. Saturday, and it could not have come at a better time. It helped me to keep the Lord’s Day with rejoicing. How much this piece of paper can mean to me, telling me that you are still there! Especially the end of your letter comforted me and strengthened me. Now, we may live through this experience together and suffer together. God is training and trying our faith in him and our love of him. We know how much we need this, because we were poor beginners.
I am so sorry that you have not yet heard from me. I know that my condition always seems worse to you and to the others than it really is. I don’t want you to think that. I wrote to you the Monday before last, but that letter has just been returned, as your letter to me arrived. I must begin again and tell you all the news in this letter, which should get through to you. You will know already that I was taken on the evening of 4th October to the well-known building in ‘Vogelsang’ in Coblenz. It was a very quick journey despite some stops on the way. For the first four days, I was in my old cell again, cell 1. I was examined there twice. All these days I have been very sad and lonely. I have wondered how things were going with you and I have felt deeply the sorrow of our parting, the sorrow of separation from you and from the church. I have felt myself far from home. I must admit that it was a great comfort to me one day to hear another bird singing his lovely song outside my window. Apart from him, I have had no company.
On Friday, 8th October, I was brought to my present abode, a few streets away from ‘Vogelsang’ [‘bird song’]. On the whole, it is more comfortable and deserves far more the name of Vogelsang than the other did! For here, my little window looks out, albeit through blinkers of sheet iron, on the top of a chestnut tree. In this tree, I can see the sparrows playing or a little tomtit or a pair of thrushes. This time, I am not underground, but on the second floor, although the view is somewhat spoiled by the sheet-iron blinkers. The cell is about three and a half feet wide, fifteen feet long ten feet high. . . . Don’t be too disappointed that they won’t allow you to visit me. We shall so think of each other that we shall be truly close to one another, even when separated like this. This time I have my Bible and my hymnbook. They have both been a great help to me; but I need more to keep my mind working and my thought clear. I want to collect some books around me and plan out my reading. Could you send me the collection of Lutheran and Reformed Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism and a few numbers of the Evangelische Theologie?
My dear wife, I often sit and think what an unnatural father I am and why I have brought all this upon you and whether I have the right to do so. Then I begin to sit in true repentance in my cell—and it’s a very suitable place for that! But weMargarete (Dieterich) Schneider, 1925 can do no other. This is the way God has led us. I have thought and thought, but I cannot yet see how we can avoid going in this way. So, with complete trust, we must leave our affairs in God’s hands and let him justify us. By faith are we justified in all our sin, but he will also justify us before the world in his own good time. My dearest, I am so thankful to God for his kindness in allowing me to have those wonderful weeks with you and the children. Now, we will trust the promise of the Lord that he who leaves all he has and all his own, for the sake of Jesus, will receive back a hundredfold in this world and, in the world to come, life everlasting. The chestnut tree becomes for me God’s greater and more beautiful world. This world becomes for me the even lovelier world of God’s eternity. ‘As having nothing, and yet possessing all things.’ The Lord Jesus grant me a persistent sense of this possession until I come to him.
COBLENZ, 18th October [Unofficial]
After I had written to you yesterday an official letter as my special Sunday privilege, I decided to write to-day an unofficial one. God knows if and when it will gladden you. I am sitting on my favourite window-seat, looking at the chestnut tree. It is quite yellow now and winter’s dead hand is trying to snatch the leaves from the tree, but they are still holding fast with all their ebbing strength. Already the fine shape of the tree is emerging, which soon will give dignity to the naked and cold branches. So the autumn and the winter storms come over the Church and Christianity and it will be shown what was only leaves and what solid, a true part of the tree. In this world truly it will come to pass even as in the parable of Jesus. Life will come out of so naked and cold a thing as a tree in winter. Let us not be troubled by the sad and sorry appearance of the Church, which for those who can see has also its beauty.
Now, a word or two about my fellow-prisoners. There is a Czech here who is giving me a correspondence course in English, in return for some help that I am giving him. He was a locksmith once, but has recently been a tramp. He writes a good hand and has carefully prepared two pages of English words, with pronunciation and a few sentences for a beginner to practice. He has also confided to me a beautiful prayer, giving thanks to God the Father, which he has written himself. He is an intelligent man. Then, there is the earnest Jehovah’s Witness woman. I have been brought two cells nearer to her and am now separated from her by only one small cell. Last Sunday, we were able to have an exchange of notes through the cell door. I am sorry for the poor woman with her tense nerves. She has already been a long time in prison. The Mr. O., whom you know, has examined her and is working on her case. And then there is an Italian and a Pole, both good fellows in their own way; but when they go out for a walk in the courtyard, they spend all their time looking for cigarette ends, which they can later make up into new cigarettes to smoke! So they are always looking downwards and lose half the fresh air they could breathe. There ought to be a moral in that somewhere. When a man is the slave of his passions, so he goes searching for bits and pieces to satisfy him….
In my cell, night is already falling and only here at the window is it possible to see at all. Before it gets too dark, I must write out an evening prayer for my Czech friend and his companions in the hope that I can smuggle it to them this evening. . . .
COBLENZ, 24th October, 1937 (Unofficial)
. . . On Tuesday, I was taken downstairs for questioning on the basis of information given by . . . and Frau . . . It concerned pastoral visits I made last autumn. This was the first I had heard about these two complaints. I was shocked to discover how perfectly innocent pastoral work can be twisted to sound like a political denunciation. Of course, I was able to explain and, if it comes to a proper trial, I hope that I shall know how to account for my words. With God’s help, I will. IPaul preaching at the May Day Festival in Hochelheim, 1933 suppose this preliminary inquiry was to decide whether my case was ready for trial. I could almost wish that the final trial were over and I had an end to this suspense. I want to explain my case whether it comes out all right or not. The enemies of the gospel will in the end hang themselves with their own rope. Our task is simply to forgive them as we are taught in the gospel for we too are unfaithful servants. The questioning on Tuesday was largely routine and not very intensive. Every day this week, except one, we have been allowed to take our walk in the courtyard. At first, most of us walked about as we pleased, quite unorganized. I went my own way at my own fast pace. The Czech and now the two other young fellows have attached themselves gradually to me, while the older prisoners, the Jehovah’s Witness and the Pole went their own quiet way. Yesterday I again walked by myself because the others were dragging behind. They seemed tired. I was not, and wanted the strenuous exercise of a quick walk. You see how much stronger I am getting, and my leg is ready for service. . . . Now I am back in my penitence cell, which has already become dear and friendly to me. It is astonishing how a place which in itself is wretched can take on so homely an air. The properly made bed, the bench and the wall seat, the plain window newly cleaned, with its view of the chestnut tree, have an air of comfort. This is heightened now that I have fixed your picture on to the inside of the door and Martin Niemoller’s on the wall. I have fastened these two pictures with a sticky paste I acquired yesterday. And so, when I sit at my balcony seat, by the open window, as I am now sitting to write this letter, or simply to admire the golden sun of the autumn afternoon transforming the chestnut tree, then I seem truly to be enjoying life and envy no man in the world. . . . Now that I know our church has an assistant to care for it, I can enjoy the quiet of this place the better. It is good that our churches’ trust in the Confessing Church has been rewarded in this way; but remind the people that he is not paid by the State. He is our man and he can only stay among us if we stand by him to the point of sacrifice. . . . Again this morning I had my own service, with Gospel and Epistle, Prayers and Hymns. That is when I especially remember all of you at home. The Scriptures told me again of the glorious freedom of the children of God. After service, I read and did some English study. After an afternoon nap, I went back to my window seat and here I am still. It is already seven o’clock and soon my evening meal, with cocoa and bread and margarine, will be coming in. At a quarter to eight, the lights will go out, so that the jailer can go home. I shall then begin to repeat what I have been learning during the week. All this week I have read and learnt passages from Isaiah and Romans. Time does not hang on my hands.
COBLENZ, 31st October, 1937
Coblenz Police Station sketches made by Paul Schneider, 1937 – Translation “Police Station.” – The tree is bare / and the heaven is gray / Getapo! / Release me on my homeward way!Once again it is Sunday afternoon, already the third Sunday of my imprisonment. Even in prison, God has shown his promise to be true that on the Sabbath day, which he has ordained, he will come with rich blessing. Out of his word and with festive joy he has brought peace to my cell and to my heart. I believe our other prisoners have felt so too. After our midday meal, we had our walk in the courtyard. I was glad that this time we were all together and marched in order—Pole, Italian, Czech and Pastor. I had to restrain myself to a moderate pace, but did so gladly. This has not been the rule during the week. Each has been left to go at his own rate. This former disorderly walking was part of an order to keep us from talking to each other. On special occasions and whenever the opportunity was given, I did speak some serious words to them. The Czech has often approached me and I feel a concern for him. One of his approaches earned him a punishment and we were all in danger of losing our Sunday letter and our weekly visit. This morning, we are all back in favor again and the threat of punishment is gone. The papers which you brought have come to us in our cells and they are like a true Sabbath blessing. The young Italian has read them most closely and understands why I am imprisoned; the earnest Jehovah’s Witness approves most heartily of the Geyser sermon; the aged, thoughtful Pole, who has a lovely character, is asking for more papers on these lines; the Czech, when he has overcome his pride and his resistance, will change his unbelieving attitude. I am not sure how much the young Pole means by his profuse thanks, but I entrust him to God and believe that some good will come out of this time for him. These men have now been my companions for three weeks and you see that I have already a small church and pastoral responsibilities. Our good cook has had an accident and broken both bones in her arm. I was able to send her a greeting in the hospital and also put some papers in with it. You see what a wonderful service you have done with those leaflets. Your visit on Friday was a great joy, throwing a flood of light into my life and giving me a happy memory to hold in my mind. Please give my true thanks to Brother Petry for bringing you here and for what he has done since. Perhaps we shall still need to use the hard words of the letter to the Corinthians. Now, are we both thankful to God that He has, with the help of the assistant, so cared for our church and our home. We must learn to be thankful that he has given to me so peaceful a sanctuary, wherein his blessings are evident. We must not deceive ourselves, lest later we become disappointed. My situation is very serious and we must face it. Things are not getting better. After your visit on Friday evening, I met Herr O., whom you have met already. He urged me to sign a document saying that I accepted my banishment and would not again attempt to return to the Rhineland. Naturally, I refused, explaining the nature of my call and the bands, which bind a shepherd to his flock. He countered by saying: ‘Can’t you see that you are heading straight for the Concentration Camp?’ I said that I couldn’t see where I was going, but if I must suffer that then I would suffer it. Clearly my case, despite last week’s interrogation, is not yet ready for trial. Herr O.’s threats may well have been the usual attempt at intimidation, but I suspect this was also the answer to my letters to the authorities. Whatever be the meaning, Herr O. said to me before he left that, in the next few days, I can expect my case to go further. After the first shock of this blunt statement, I began toCoblenz Police Station sketches made by Paul Schneider, 1937 – Translation – “Undisturbed study.” – The cell is narrow, but / the Word is wide – / In this Holy Book, God / has caused all ages / to reside realize what it meant. I am satisfied that he was speaking the truth, that his threat was not idle and that I must be prepared for the Concentration Camp. I am content. I know that God, who has dealt so kindly with us until now, will continue to be by our side and will allow no circumstance to be harder than we can bear. Herr O. also gave me your letter of the previous day—the quickest that any of your letters has come. So I had a double visit from you on the same day. The letter was just what I needed after the first shock, reminding me, as you so sweetly did, that God had commanded us not to fear, but to be of good courage. Like your letter of a week ago, it was one more example of the little kindnesses of God.
The chestnut tree is now almost bare. The last few days have robbed it of its last leaves. But the sky is blue and clear in these last days of autumn. The birds tumble over themselves with joy in the cool sunshine and are still quite merry on its bare branches. This is a parable perhaps of our home life, which has been hard and bare this past year. Until this came upon us, everything in our family life had been so good and beautiful. Now the beloved cross has been set up there also; but that too will most certainly show us that God is true. He will let his eternity, the Kingdom of Heaven, shine even more brightly through the troubles than it shone through the joy. Our little children, the dear merry birds, will sing happily on the branches of our faith, our love, our hope and our prayers.
. . . What you tell me about the state of affairs in our congregation and in the Church generally only confirms my view about the importance of my own case. I am more than ever convinced now that my refusal to accept a banishment from the State, which was ordered without legal grounds, and which is now to be enforced by the threat of punishment and imprisonment, is of paramount importance for Paul as an assistant pastor in Essen, 1925the relation of Church to State. It concerns the freedom of the Church to preach the gospel in season and out of season. I understand less and less the attitude that we must confine ourselves to wordy resolutions as long as we are allowed to operate as legally recognized bodies. I hope the Church leaders, who so far have said little about my case, will recognize the importance of the issues involved and find the words to express their principles. Or do I have to remain the one little pastor of the whole Hunsriick area who has to show the State what is right? Is it not asking too much of the State that itshould take a serious decision, which ought to be taken boldly by the Church? Why have the church leaders been silent for three months, since I refused to accept my banishment? I wrote to them quite clearly, pointing out that I considered this decision to be their concern. They should have directed me one way or the other. It seems to me that the future of the Church in Germany depends not upon its leaders, but upon the separate congregations, the local churches and their pastors. We can do without our clever church politicians un-less they are prepared to fight their battles in their local church and from the base of a single congregation. From now on, I see my struggle as a struggle for an indissoluble link—at least, indissoluble so far as man is concerned—between pastor and people. This alone is right and it is also necessary for the continued life of the Church. . . .
The way in which our children are forced to use the so-called ‘German greeting’ [Heil Hitler!] has often worried me. I can understand that they do it without thinking, because they are ordered officially so to do, at the beginning and the end of every conversation. Don’t let them continue in it without thinking; tell them that father considers it to be idolatry. Refer them to Acts 4.12.
Continued next issue…
Letters translated by E. H. Robertson from a German volume originally copyrighted in Europe by Lettner-Verlag, Berlin, and subsequently published in Great Britain in 1956. We have been unable to find any current copyrights.
Photos from Paul Schneider: The Buchenwald Apostle by Claude R. Foster, Jr. Published by West Chester University, West Chester, PA, 1995.