"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saint Alexander: The Freedom Fighter Who Became a Saint (October 28, 2012)

It was January of 1943, and Hans Hirzel had a bit of a problem. Sophie Scholl—a friend of both his sister and himself, now a student at the Ludwig-Maximillian University in Munich, and (secretly, of course) a member of the White Rose student resistance group-- had come Munich a few days before and had presented him with a briefcase chock full of typewritten, mimeographed leaflets, ominously titled “A Call to All Germans”. It was the fifth leaflet the group had produced, and its content presented a direct challenge to the Nazi dictatorship:

“The war is approaching its destined end,” the leaflet read. “Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it. The guilt of Hitler and his minions goes beyond all measure. Retribution comes closer and closer… But what are the German people doing? They will not see and will not listen. Blindly they follow their seducers into ruin…  Germans! Do you and your children want to suffer the same fate that befell the Jews? Do you want to be judged by the same standards as your seducers? Are we to be forever a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind? No. Dissociate yourselves from National Socialist gangsterism…  A new war of liberation is about to begin. The better part of the nation will fight on our side. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…”

            In the Nazi state where a citizen’s every move was subject to scrutiny, mere possession of such incendiary literature could bring swift retribution. Helping to reproduce it and distribute it could bring a long term in prison at the least-- and just as likely, a death sentence.

            But now, Hans Hirzel, 18 years old, just out of high school and waiting to enter college in Munich himself, had about 1000 copies of the leaflet, hidden in his bedroom at the parsonage of the church where his father was pastor. He had heard from Sophie Scholl some of the things that she and her older brother Hans and several other university students had been doing to show their opposition to the regime. He had agreed to help them spread the word in other cities—including their hometown of Ulm. Now, his chance had come—with all the danger it included.

            He went to see his schoolmate, Franz Müller, whom he knew also opposed the Hitler regime. Müller, a faithful Catholic, had even given Hirzel and some of their other friends copies of sermons delivered by Bishop Clement von Galen of Münster against the Nazis’ euthanasia policies. They had spoken among themselves of doing more in opposition to the dictatorship. Hans knew that Franz would help—or he at least hoped so.

Hans Hirzel
Franz Müller

            Franz agreed to try to get enough postage stamps to mail the leaflets— and envelopes, too. Sophie had given Hans money donated by various individuals for just this task. Purchasing a thousand stamps at once, obviously, would arouse suspicion even in a society less-observed than Germany at the height of war. He would have to make trips to as many different post offices as possible—as far away as Stuttgart and Tübingen, if need be, always with a ready excuse of what the stamps were for. Finally, stamps and envelopes, were secured—not quite a thousand, but enough to get going on their dangerous project. The two schoolboys agreed to meet to get the leaflets ready for mailing.

            But where? Neither of their homes were safe, not with parents and neighbors and siblings prowling around. Nor, of course, would any public place be acceptable. Then Hans thought of the choir loft at his father’s church, the Martin Luther Church in Ulm, which boasted one of the largest and best pipe organs in the entire area. There was a large space behind the organ, where no one ever went. They could move a table there, a couple of chairs; he could set up a small lamp by which they could work; he would also bring a typewriter to address the envelopes, with addresses taken at random from the telephone book. Meeting there would arouse no suspicion: Hans was a gifted musician, who often used the organ at the Martin Luther Church to practice; he even had his own key to the building. He would even play a few pieces as they worked, to disguise their true intentions in being there.


            They met the next night, and walked to the church. Hans let them in, then locked the door behind them. They drew the black-out curtains in the sanctuary, then made their way up the stairs to the organ loft. As Franz Müller arranged the leaflets on the table, Hans sat at the organ bench and began to play. The first song he chose was Luther’s Ein Feste Burg—“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”.

            Even though he was a staunch Catholic, Franz Müller knew Luther’s masterpiece; indeed, all Germans did. It was an important aspect of their culture and history—a song sometimes called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”, a stirring call to arms in the face of the evils of the world.

            A mighty fortress is our God,

            A bulwark never failing,

            A helper sure amidst the flood

            Of mortal ills prevailing…

            Luther’s last line brought to mind the high stakes of the fight these two boys were now waging:

            The body they may kill,

            God’s truth abideth still,

            His kingdom is forever—

            Or, in the original German “Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.” – “That Reich will remain forever.”  That Reich—not the insane Third Reich of madmen who now ruled over Germany—that is what would abide forever.

            “It was as though I was hearing my own death sentence,” Franz Müller said later, “That was clear. We might well die because of what we were doing there. But then, I began to breathe heavily, and I thought to myself, ‘Finally, someone is speaking the truth!’”

            Indeed, some would die. By the end of the next month, February 1943, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans Scholl, and their friend Christoph Probst, would be executed in Munich when they were discovered distributing leaflets at the university. Within weeks, the Gestapo had rounded up dozens of their supporters in cities throughout Germany. Their investigations led them readily to Hirzel and Müller in Ulm.


            Thirteen defendants went on trial at the Second White Rose trial in April 1943—among them Hans Hirzel, Franz Müller, and Hirzel’s sister, Susanne. The judge was Roland Freisler, president of the “People’s Court” of the German Reich, Hitler’s “hanging judge”. Somehow, Freisler got it into his mind that three Aryan-looking youngsters like Hans and Franz and Susanne—all were blonde with blue eyes, epitomes of the German racial ideal—could have freely chosen to become enemies of the Third Reich. They must have been tricked, Freisler believed; misled, fooled; they were “impressionable schoolboys” who should not have to pay for their errors with their lives. Instead, he sentenced Hans and Franz to five years in prison, and Susanne to two years for her lesser role.


            But toward others of the defendants, whom he considered White Rose ringleaders from the University in Munich, the hanging judge was not so forbearing. Three of them-- Professor Kurt Huber, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell—were sentenced to death.

Alexander Schmorell was born in Orenberg, in the depths of Russia, almost a thousand miles east of Moscow on September 16, 1917.  His father, Hugo Schmorell, was an ethnic German, although he had also been born and raised in Russia. His wife, Nataliya Vvydenskaya—Alex’s mother-- was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, and, shortly after his birth, Alexander was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church.

When Alex was only two years old, his mother died of typhus. In 1920, his father married Elisabeth Hoffman, a Catholic German woman who had also grown up in Russia, and in 1921, the Schmorells left Russia in order to flee the Bolsheviks who had just come to power. They took with them Alex’s nanny, Feodasiya Lapschina, under the pretext that she was the widow of Hugo’s brother. The family later had two more children, Erich and Natascha, who were baptized Roman Catholic. But under the influence of Feodasiya Lapschina, and in honor of his late mother, Alexander was raised in the Orthodox faith. Also because of Feodasiya, all three of the Schmorell children grew up in a bi-lingual household, maintain close ties to their family’s original roots in Russia.

In 1935, when he was 17 years old, Alex met Christoph Probst, a fellow student at the Neue Realgymnasium, or high school, in Munich. Their friendship grew, and in 1940, Alex was best man at Christoph's wedding to Herta Dohrn. In 1942, he became godfather to their second son, Vincent.


In 1939, more at the insistence of his doctor father than by his own choice, Alexander began to study medicine, and in the fall of 1940, he transferred to the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, with an internship in the medical student military company of the Nazi army.

From the start of Hitler’s Reich, Alexander Schmorell despised the Nazis. Because he still considered himself more Russian than German, their ideas of a "master race" were anathema to him. He especially resented any ideas that he and his fellow Slavs were somehow "inferior" to racial “Aryans”. When he was inducted into the military, he refused to swear the oath of absolute allegiance to Adolf Hitler. But for some reason, his commanding officer chose to ignore Schmorell’s actions, and he was sent as a medic, first to Austria, then to Czechoslovakia, as those countries were forced one after the other, under the German yoke. But Alexander often told his friends that, even if ordered to do so, he would never turn a gun on his Russian brethren. While he loathed Stalin and the Communists almost as much as he did the Nazis, he still considered Russia his true homeland, and yearned to return there when the war was finally over.

Sometime in the fall of 1940, Alexander Schmorell became part of the same student-military company as Hans Scholl.  They became friends, and Hans started coming to the Schmorells' house for "reading evenings", which Alex would host now and then. It was here that Hans Scholl also got to know Christoph Probst, then later Willi Graf. Soon, this group began speaking among themselves of the need for a concerted effort to oppose Hitler and the Nazis from within Germany, and the nucleus of the White Rose was formed.    

Between the middle of May and the end of June, 1942, Alex and Hans wrote the first four of the group’s leaflets. When, with the help of an artist friend named Lilo Ramdohr, Alex managed to get hold of an old duplicating machine, distribution of the leaflets began in earnest.  Full of citations from German arts and letters, the Bible, world religions, as well as facts and figures from the daily papers, the early White Rose leaflets called upon the German people not just to oppose particular policies of the German government, as Bishop von Galen had done, but to rise up and topple the entire regime. A passage from the Second Leaflet of the White Rose written by Alexander Schmorell in 1942, contains the world’s first public outcry against the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jews:

“…since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings-- no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question-- and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings.”

In July, Scholl, Schmorell, and Graf were sent to the Eastern Front in Russia for three months. In spite of the severity of the conditions he faced, Alex was thrilled to step foot in the land of his birth once again. Because of his fluency in Russian, he was able to meet with regular Russians on his own, and even attended Orthodox services, while still dressed in his Nazi uniform.


When they returned to Munich in October of 1942, the efforts of the White Rose were revived and redoubled. Hans Scholl’s sister, Sophie, joined the group, as did Professor Kurt Huber. Contact was made with the Hirzels in Ulm and allies in other cities. There were tentative ties forged with other small circles of resistance throughout Germany. In January of 1943, the Fifth Leaflet was published, and the White Rose members sought out ways to distribute thousands of copies throughout the German Reich. Alexander Schmorell made the most arduous and dangerous of the journeys—traveling to Linz, Vienna, and then Salzburg, to distribute leaflets.

After the fall of Stalingrad in February of 1943, a wave of pessimism swept over the German nation. It now seemed evident that Germany might well lose the war. A sixth White Rose leaflet was published, calling for wide-scale desertion from the Nazi cause. On February 18, however, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught while distributing this leaflet at the University in Munich. They were arrested, and soon, too, was Christoph Probst. Immediately,  the search for other accomplices began. At first, Alexander Schmorell attempted to escape to Switzerland, and even managed to secure a forged passport. But when he realized how dangerous this ploy might be, he decided to return to Munich and go into hiding there instead. But on February 24, he was recognized at an air raid shelter, and turned in to the police. On April 18, he and twelve other White Rose accomplices were placed on trial. On April 19, three—Graf, Huber, and Schmorrel-- were sentenced to death. On July 13, 1943, Alexander Schmorrel was executed by beheading in the same room at Stadelheim Prison in Munich where the Scholl siblings and Christoph Probst had met their fate a few months before.

            But the story of Alexander Schmorrel does not end with his death, of course. Nor does the story of the White Rose.

            In their fifth leaflet, the members of the White Rose had written:

“Only in large-scale cooperation among the nations of Europe can the ground be prepared for reconstruction… The Germany of the future must be a federal state… Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence-- these will be the bases of the New Europe.”


            However imperfectly, their dream of a New Europe would be realized in the years after the war by the work of the European Union.  

             The White Rose was not a religious group per se, of course. But it cannot be doubted that faith in God and a search for a wider, deeper meaning of life were among the primary reasons that these young people acted as bravely and selflessly as they did. Alexander Schmorell was the only one of the group who was Orthodox. Some, like Willi Graf and Franz Müller, were Catholics. Most, like the Scholls and the Hirzels, were Lutherans, of varying degrees of piety. Some professed no particular faith all.  But their deep and fundamental faith in the ability of men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to transform the face of the world is obvious and exemplary. Even some of his closest friends thought of Alexander more as a cultural exponent of Orthodoxy than as a deeply religious person. His faith seemed, at first, a way for him to stay connected to his Russian heritage, if nothing more. But his faith would be deepened in the crucible of a heroic and self-sacrificial life. It would become real in the face of danger and then death.  In his letters to his family from prison, Schmorrel would write about this deepening faith in the clearest of terms. Facing certain execution, he experienced a deep and transcendent feeling of peace, knowing he served the truth. In his last letter, written just before his execution, he exhorted his father, step-mother, and siblings, "Never forget God!" Alex felt comforted by God’s presence, surrounded by the deeper meaning—a deeper truth which the example of his life now demonstrated clearly to all of us, and all posterity. And for this reason, if no other, Alexander Schmorrel is a saint.

For perhaps true sainthood is not necessarily about outward holiness and piety, but about how a person lives out the Way of God in the years and days and hours of the life he or she is called to live on earth. And it is about the ways in which these blessed men and women remind us—constantly, persistently, in all their diversity and glory—what God requires of each of us in our own lives—right now.

St. Alexander Schmorell was glorified as a New Martyr by te Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Munich, Germany on February 5, 2012. His home parish lies across the street from the cemetery at Perlacher Forest where he was buried in 1943, in the shadow of Stadelheim Prison where he was killed.  




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