With A Garden Grows: Quakerism in Nazi Germany, her new book of translations from the German, Mary Mills has given us a challenging glimpse into the heart of courageous, faith-driven action during exceedingly dangerous times.
[When] the Armistice came, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit were amongst the first to enter Germany. They found hunger, malnutrition and hopelessness…. Assistance came from the Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) in London and from the newly formed American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia….
About a million children were helped to survive the traumas of post-war Germany. At its peak the Quäkerspeisung scheme was feeding half a million children daily.
In “Quakerism’s Encounter with the Spiritual Situation in Germany,” a discourse3 at Bad Pyrmont in 1938, Yearly Meeting Clerk Hans Albrecht recalled this historical prelude to the struggles of Quakers under Nazism.
Here, in this small borough, a German Quaker community has come into being, which has had a vigorous bond to the larger Quaker communities in England and America….
[There is] a great difference between the formation of Quaker communities from almost 150 years ago in this region and the contemporary Quaker movement in Germany after the war.
While the former…emerged mainly from the missionary efforts of Sarah Grubb from Ireland and have remained limited to a small area, the present Quaker movement has arisen spontaneously from the search for spiritual-religious forces, which came with the surprising arrival of Quakers from England and America as friends after the war. (14-15)
Albrecht then added deeper grounding for the current faith and practice of his listeners.
English Quakerism to a large extent has its roots in pre- and post-Reformation German mysticism, which was pushed back by the ecclesial reformation and then jumped into an England torn by religious strife, where it encountered similar movements….
Then George Fox’s action happened in England. His action gave speculative and philosophical mysticism a decisive, forward-pointing turn toward activity, which arises from inner religious experience.
He returned all religion to the sublime simplicity of a single teaching: the Inner Light, which allows every individual the freedom to go unburdened the way of his personal religious experience and yet allows all people to become one again in union with God. (16)
A Heroic Relationship with God
Albrecht pointed out that this renewed German Quakerism was the reawakening of an old legacy of Central European spiritual life, which returned to us with the message of the Inner Light in action. It was the same experience that 600 years ago in Köln [Cologne] enabled Meister Eckhart to win over such multitudes…when he spoke about the “fortress of the soul,” “the flicker in us,” and “the birth of God in the soul.” (17)
Albrecht believed that the Germany of the 1930s was caught between the false, materialistic promises of National Socialism and Marxism, on one side, and the failure of the Protestant Church to offer a living spiritual alternative, on the other. The Church had lost its grounding in mysticism, in part through its despairing response to World War I, in particular its retreat into “dialectical theology and rational bible study.”
The one-time spiritual leader of the people, adviser for the individual, bearer of charity, morality and justice—all these areas have been taken over by the state, groups of people, movements, and the social feeling of a new time. (20)
Quakerism, by contrast, Albrecht saw as uniting thinking and mysticism.
It does not concern a compromise of religious views but rather the development of an independent, spiritual concept of religion…. That is not intellectualism, but the creation of a spiritual, unsentimental atmosphere, into which God can descend. (22)
Quakerism is the mystical creation of a heroic relationship of God to human being and of human beings to each other. “God is not only above us but in us, and we can prevail with him”4 if we accept him into our will. Thus the human being, who is merely a creature, is himself a creator. (22)
Turning Mysticism into Action
In May of 1956, the year Hans Albrecht died, he returned to this theme of relationship in a discourse entitled “The Essence of Encounters.”5
Fox did something huge by making the abstract mysticism of the Middle Ages vigorous and giving it an intuitive turn to action. That takes place again and again in our quiet prayer meeting, where the person is not the addressed object of an acted out storyline but a subject, initiating action on a higher level….
[Here the] highest encounter occurs: the communal encounter with God and at the same time, the inner encounter with my neighbor, who moves me to do the will of God toward him, namely, to recognize him and all people on this higher level as a Friend. (50)
This is core of the Quakerism which Albrecht and his fellow German Quakers practiced: recognizing the neighbor as a Friend and turning that recognition into action. It enabled many courageous efforts in opposition to the Nazi regime and its broad public support.
As early as 1930, Hans Albrecht gave a “Deposition” on behalf of Expressionist artist George Grosz, when the Weimar government had charged Grosz with blasphemy for his anti-war drawing, Christ with the Gas Mask. Albrecht’s testimony aided the acquittal of Grosz and his publisher, Wieland Herzfelde.6
Quakers in the World describes the German Quaker response when Hitler came to power in January 1933 and ordered a boycott of Jewish stores. At the 1933 Yearly Meeting, Friends confronted this situation. After much disagreement, the Yearly Meeting settled on a minute which “encouraged each of them to stand firm in their principles without endangering others. It ended by encouraging those who could not support this policy to leave.”
Some Quakers lost their livelihoods and others suffered harassment. Several spent time in Concentration Camps, although none were actually executed. Some resisted in relatively small brave ways by, for example, not saying “Heil Hitler,” an act reminiscent of early Quakers refusing to raise their hats to their “betters.” Some went further and befriended Jews and even helped them to leave the country….
From November 1938 until September 1939, when War was declared and the British had to leave, both German and British Quakers were involved in the Kindertransport, which enabled 10,000 Jewish children to be evacuated.7
The Little Gardeners’ Album
Mary Mill’s book concludes with the translation of a very mundane yet powerful example of focused Quaker action in the midst of growing danger. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the translation.8
In 1934 as human rights were being trampled and groups such as Jews and political dissidents became increasingly targeted by the Nazis, the Quaker School at Eerde was founded by Friends from England, Germany, and America, in cooperation with the small, but vigorous Dutch Yearly Meeting…
Many Jews and liberals sent their children to the school. Students and teachers from mixed marriages or families that had converted to Christianity were welcomed into the school community….
The “Little Gardeners’ Album” is a journal written by the pupils of Quaker School Eerde, who formed a gardening club and called themselves “Little Gardeners….”
A light-hearted, exuberant joie-de-vivre permeates the children’s description of the activities they undertake in the spirit of gardening. They detail the importance of maintaining garden beds while sponsoring festivals, composing and reciting poetry, writing and performing playlets, and playing musical pieces—all in the name of gardening.
I think “The Little Gardeners’ Album” may be viewed as a practical application of some of the ideas discussed by Albrecht in “The Concept of Community” and “The Essence of Encounters….”
One cannot help but notice the total lack of fear on the part of the Little Gardener pupils as they continue their studies and gardening activities in a country overrun by the Nazi war machine…. Generally, their happiness seems to give them a sense of security even as the world outside their school was falling apart. (62-63)
Does Spirit-led Action Fail?
The world at large may look upon efforts like the Eerde School as failures. The German Quakers did not “save” those children, did not “stop” the horrors perpetrated by their fellows throughout Europe. As Mary Mills writes,
Nonetheless, the virulent persecution of Jews invaded the school in September of 1941…. Between September of 1941 and July of 1945, 14 Eerde Jewish pupils were murdered in concentration camps. Most of them perished at Auschwitz. The Little Gardeners [themselves] suffered at least one casualty [who] died on a forced march from Auschwitz. (63)
Yet Albrecht and his fellow Friends were clear about the higher purpose of their actions. During a 1938 retreat at Bad Pyrmont, Albrecht gave a discourse called “The Concept of Community.”9 He spoke of the false division of the world into “the divine and the temporal.”
We avoid the divine because the burden of our imperfection and inability chokes us and makes us flee into this world, until the moment comes to us again when the icy cold of our own hopelessness and of the inner and outer, familiar and foreign misery cuts to the quick in the wasteland of this life. These are often horrid hours of loneliness, when we long for other people.
We long for spiritual companions in fate, who stand before God in the same distress that always slumbers within us. True fellowship, even the most personal, is always at the same moment a fellowship of suffering. For life and suffering are indivisible just as love and compassion are indivisible. (36)
It was in order to create that community of “spiritual companions in fate” that Quakers and their allies acted throughout the horrors of World War II. It is for that same purpose that we act in the present. Not to “fix” the future, but to stand before God in the present, embracing our neighbors as best we can for the sake of all of our lives with God in the present.
The last entry of “The Little Gardeners’ Album” is dated July 13, 1941—scarcely three months before German troops invaded the school. The previous year the children seemed aware of the German move into the Netherlands, yet they wanted to continue with their annual Little Gardeners’ Festival “despite upsetting circumstances.” (79)
Now they held what they would not have known was their last festival. All of the events were created and acted out by the children and their teachers.
There was cocoa, cookies and chocolate. From time to time, there was singing, and also a little play was performed…. While we sang in an atmosphere of warm friendliness, suddenly it started to rain…. In the gym, there was a roller coaster, and in the music kitchen, there was a chamber of horrors…. We rode on a wagon through the dark gym, where the wagon made rather sharp turns. Now and again, the light was turned on and screams could be heard and the riders were squirted with water….
Afterward…the circus was held. Olaf was the first act and appeared as a muscleman…. Wulf, Olaf and Maarten appeared as athletes. After an exciting round of boxing, Schmeling (Olaf) against Louis (Wulf), the “Tilagirls” danced. They were scared away by a dappled horse and a red horse. The horses danced folkdances, neighed, and reared up. During the intermissions, Herman and Richard Neuse appeared as clowns. After the circus, everyone got ice cream and went to bed with a full belly and a happy face.
For more information, see “Hans Albrecht and the Quaker Witness in Nazi Germany,” for Mary Mills’ introduction to the efforts of Hans Albrecht and the German Quakers in 1930s, as well as “Recovering History: Hans Albrecht & the Quakers of Nazi Germany,” for her story of how she became aware of that witness.
See also What Does Quakerism Mean to Us? by Hans Albrecht (1930).
2 “Quakers in Germany since 1918,” Quakers in the World.
3 “Quakerism’s Encounter with the Spiritual Situation in Germany,” A Garden Grows, pp. 14-30.
4 Albrecht here quotes Friedrich Rittelmeyer, Meditation: Zwölf Briefe über Selbsterziehung (1929), available in translation as Meditation: Guidance of the Inner Life (translated by M. L. Mitchell, 4 th edition, 2012).
5 “The Essence of Encounters,” A Garden Grows, pp. 45-50. Hans Albrecht held this discourse on May 1, 1956, in the prayer room of the Quaker neighborhood home in Braunschweig on the occasion of the Göttingen-Braunschweig Quarterly Meeting. This is an abridged version.
6 “Deposition,” A Garden Grows, pp. 7-13. This deposition and a reproduction of Christ in the Gas Mask were previously published by Mary Mills in the April 2003 issue of Friends Journal.
8 “The Little Gardener’s Album,” A Garden Grows, pp. 61-83.
9 “The Concept of Community,” A Garden Grows, pp. 31-44.
Portrait of Meister Eckhart from The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Children, many of them German Jewish refugees, relax on the steps of a Quaker boarding school in Eerde. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Monica Lake)
From a photocopy of the original German “Little Gardeners’ Album.” This image shows the beginning of the entry for July 13, 1941, with illustrations by the children of Quaker School at Eerde.