Thursday, December 6, 2001

While Mortals Sleep: Christians in Nazi Germany

Jack Cavanaugh’s While Mortals Sleep, the first book in the "Songs in the Night" series, introduces a German pastor and his community—Berlin, Germany in 1940. Josef Schumacher preaches at the church his father-in-law once led. Wife Mady is expecting their first child, and the young couple often hosts the church’s young people at their home.
Like many pastors, Josef finds that the church youth are distracted by other things. In this case, the Nazi youth clubs take preference, and Josef faces a losing battle for their hearts and minds. Josef struggles with his conscience, against the temptation to compromise, to get along and be liked by the people in his new congregation. Others around him—even his wife and father-in-law—advise taking the easy road. When he attends the Fuhrer’s birthday party celebration, he too feels the surge of patriotism, a resurgent National Pride for Germany and its charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler.

An outburst at church against the Nazi-decreed "Heil Hitler" salute only earns Josef a trip to Gestapo headquarters. Nobody at church will speak up for a fellow member of Jewish descent, even when the man is found dead. A boy reports his father to the Nazis: for possession of a radio tuned to the BBC. Christmas party merriment stops when the participants realize that the Christmas music they listened to came from a BBC broadcast. The German people live in fear, outwardly succumbing to the Nazi pressures, inwardly fearing betrayal, in a hate-filled world that divides child against parent, wife against husband, and son-in-law against father-in-law.

When Josef mentions Martin Luther in a sermon, he receives a cryptic note: "If you are indeed a friend of Luther, use the word Bulwark in a sermon and you will be contacted." Will Josef respond, and how? Life as a spy, taking on daring rescue missions, awaits him, and meanwhile Mady is about to give birth to their child.

Throughout the story, Josef and Mady's personal life is impacted, revealing their true natures. Josef's desire for action and helping others, contrasted against Mady's wish for a normal, "proper" and respectable life as a pastor's wife, threatens to pull the couple apart. A meddling parent complicates the situation. Yet perhaps the old saying "absence makes the heart grow fonder" will apply to them as well.

Through While Mortals Sleep we experience Nazi Germany's T-4 project, the horrors of the Hadamar facility that practiced euthanasia and experiments on humans. By 1940, Germany had started the project to kill those of their own people "not worthy to live," including physically handicapped and mentally retarded children. As mentioned in the book, T-4 referred to the address on Tiergraaten Strasse (check spelling). The actual project started in 1940 and continued for several years.

Much is also said, both good and bad, of Martin Luther, the renowned German reformer. His great hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" is quoted by the characters with special attention given to the second line of that first verse: "a bulwark never failing." Yet at the same time, as pointed out by a Nazi youth, Martin Luther also wrote very anti-Semitic things, advocating harm against Jews; and indeed the Nazis quoted these words of Luther in their campaign against the Jews.

The exciting story of Josef and his fellow Germans takes place during one year, sandwiched between the Christmas of 1939 and Christmas of 1940. A prologue relating the events of late 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, provides relevance to our generation along with a few clues to later events in the story.

No comments: