Christmas Eve in a Gestapo Prison
The Following is Chapter V of a book entitled The Valley of the Shadow by Lutheran pastor Hanns Lilje. During the Second World War, Lilje was close to the highly fragmented German resistance to Hitler and National Socialism. After the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler by army officers led by Count Schenk von Stauffenberg in 1944 (the “20th of July plot”), Lilje, although he had no part in the plot, was taken in the wave of arrests that followed and held in a Gestapo prison with every expectation of eventual execution. The Valley of the Shadow are his recollections of that dark time. Following the war Lilje became the Lutheran bishop of Hannover, West Germany and he worked tirelessly on rebuilding the German Church and forging bonds of unity across confessions.
Christmas was near. Christmas Eve in prison is so terrible because a wave of sentimentality passes through the gloomy building. Everyone thinks of his own loved ones, for whom he is longing; everyone suffers because he doesn’t know how they will be celebrating the Festival of Divine and Human Love. Recollections of childhood come surging back, almost overwhelming some, especially those who are condemned to death, and who cannot help looking back at their past lives. It is no accident that in prison suicide attempts are particularly numerous on this special day; in our case, however, the most remarkable thing was the sentimental softness which came over our guards. Most of these S.S. men were young fellows, who were usually unnecessarily brutal in their behaviour, but when Christmas Eve came we hardly knew them—the spirit of this evening made such a deep impression upon them.
At this time we had a Commandant who was human. Although he had risen from the lower ranks to be an S.S. officer, he had remained an honest man, who, although he was harsh, was not brutal, and who often granted us certain facilities, until, on account of his humane attitude, he was removed from his post. Essentially he made more impression on us than his successor, who, in many respects, was also a decent man.
On this particular evening in the year, this Commandant had made various kind and humane actions possible; for instance, among us there was one who was condemned to death, and was already chained. The Commandant had his chains removed, and his violin was given back to him. This man was a great artist, and his playing was like magic. Presently the great vaulted Hall resounded with the beautiful strains of his violin. As evening fell, I was walking up and down my cell, looking at a Nativity Scene which one of my children had made for me; illuminated by a candle, and decorated with some fir branches, it made my cell look like Christmas. Meanwhile I was thinking about the Christmas Eve service which I had conducted a year before in our Johanneskirche in Lichterfelde. It had been a memorable Christmas: a Christmas festival almost entirely without children, for most families had sent their children away from the city, since it was increasingly exposed to air raids. So the men who were left were chiefly men detained in Berlin by their war duties; or else they were older people, many of them solitary, who were rather indifferent to the dangers of air raids, and did not need to take care of themselves for the sake of other people. In any case, it was a remarkable congregation which gathered in the damaged, ice-cold church for the service on Christmas Eve. As I recalled the service I remembered that I had preached on the words from the Prophet Isaiah: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ (Isaiah 9.2) At the beginning of my sermon, I had pointed out that when we were children we used to dawdle home after the Christmas service, because we wanted to look into everybody’s windows to see them lighting up their Christmas trees, until at last we reached our own home, and stood spellbound before our own dazzling Christmas tree. This year, however, all the windows were darkened, and the whole world was ‘blacked out ‘. Then I said: ‘This year, we older people, men separated from their families, solitary people, old people, must learn to celebrate Christmas apart from all childish romanticism and all sentimentality, for this year there is no room for this sort of thing’; then, with the help of this prophetic saying, I tried to make clear the real meaning of the Christmas message for ourselves, grown-up people passing through a dark and difficult time.
I had just reached this point in my reflections, and had just begun to feel a painful longing for a congregation, to whom I might preach the Christmas Gospel on this very evening, at this hard and difficult time, when suddenly, outside my door, I heard my number called. Usually when this call resounded through the wing of our prison it didn’t mean anything good. Too often it meant interrogations, or ill-treatment, removal from the prison, or still worse, but although I was prepared for anything, I really couldn’t imagine that they would do something terrible to me; I rose, and followed the guard who led me downstairs from my cell in the third storey. I was taken directly to the Commandant. In accordance with his usual custom he did not speak, but went on ahead to another cell. Before he entered this cell he turned to the guard, and said: ‘Bring number 212 to this cell too!’ When the heavy cell door was opened a man rose to meet us; at once I saw in him a striking family likeness, and realized that he was Count X. His brother, one of the first to be condemned after the 20th of July, had asked, just before his execution, that I might be allowed to give him the Sacrament, a request that was naturally refused. He had been one of the most frequent attenders at my services, and on the Sunday before his arrest he had joined in divine worship and had received Holy Communion.
Quite spontaneously, forgetting where I was, I mentioned this recollection to X, but the Commandant interrupted me harshly, saying: ‘I have not brought you gentlemen together for personal conversation!’ Then he added, turning to the Count, ‘ You asked that a certain clergyman, your own friend, might be allowed to visit you this evening in a pastoral capacity. Unfortunately I have not been able to accede to this request, but here is Dr. Lilje, who will address some words to you.’ Now I saw what was expected of me. The Count replied: ‘What I really want, sir, is to make my confession, and then receive Holy Communion.’ Immediately I said that I was ready to do what was required; and the Commandant seemed to have no objection. So a small silver cup was brought, a little wine, and some bread—in the meantime number 212 had also been brought into the cell. He was the violinist who was under sentence of death. The guard was sent out of the cell, so we four men were there together.
At the Commandant’s suggestion the violinist played a Christmas chorale, exquisitely; then, in this cell, and before this congregation, I read the Gospel for Christmas Day: ‘Now it came to pass in those days there went out a decree. . . .’ (Luke 2.1) The violinist played another Christmas chorale; in the meantime I had been able to arrange my thoughts a little about the passage in Isaiah which had filled my mind when I was summoned downstairs. I said to my fellow prisoners: ‘This evening we are a congregation, part of the Church of Christ, and this great word of divine promise is as true for us to-day as it was for those of a year ago, among whom, at that time, was your own brother—and for all who this year receive it in faith. Our chief concern, now,’ I said, ‘is to receive this promise in firm faith, and to believe that God, through Jesus Christ, has allowed the eternal light to “arise and shine” upon this world which is plunged in the darkness of death, and that He will also make this Light to shine for us. At this moment, in our cells, we have practically nothing that makes the Christmas festival so familiar and so lovely, but there is one thing left to us: God’s great promise. Let us cling to this promise, and to Him, in the midst of the darkness. Here and now, in the midst of the uncertainty of our prison life, in the shadow of death, we will praise Him by a firm and unshaken faith in His Word, which is addressed to us.’ Then, in the midst of the cell, the Count knelt down upon the hard stone floor, and while I prayed aloud the beautiful old prayer of confession from Thomas à Kempis (which he himself had chosen) and then pronounced absolution, the tears were running silently down his cheeks. It was a very quiet celebration of the Sacrament full of deep confidence in God; almost palpably the wings of the Divine Mercy hovered over us, as we knelt at the altar in a prison cell on Christmas Eve. We were prisoners, in the power of the Gestapo—in Berlin. But the peace of God enfolded us: it was real and present, ‘like a Hand laid gently upon us ‘.Since the Commandant had obviously done all this without permission, and on his own personal responsibility, he could not allow any further conversation. The violinist played a closing chorale; I parted from my fellow-prisoner with a warm handshake, saying: ‘God bless you, brother X.’ When we reached the corridor the Commandant shook my hand twice, with an iron grip; he was deeply moved; turning to me, he said: ‘Thank you! You cannot imagine what you have done for me this evening, in my sad and difficult daily work.’ I was immediately taken back to my cell, but I praised God, and indeed, I praised Him from my whole heart that in this building, under the shadow of death, and in the face of so much trouble and distress, a Christian congregation had assembled to celebrate Christmas. For it is possible to have every external sign of festivity and comfort and joyful celebrations, and yet not to have a true Christmas congregation, while in the shadow of death and in much trouble of heart a real Christian congregation can gather at Christmas. It is possible for the candles and the lights to blind our eyes, so that we can no longer see the essential element in Christmas; but the people who ‘walk in darkness’ can perhaps see it better than all who see only the lights of earth.
Upon us shines the Eternal Light, Filling the world with radiance bright.
Shortly after Christmas, Count X was sent to a concentration camp. The violinist was killed by the Gestapo during the last days before the collapse; I have completely lost sight of the Commandant who, soon after this, was removed from his post because he had proved too humane. But the memory of my Christmas service in 1944, illuminated by the consoling and eternal Light of God, still remains with me.
Bishop Hanns Lilje in 1950 leading his clergy in procession. God grant us the faith and courage to stand firm for the Faith like our brother Hanns Lilje.