During World War II, Aug. 9 came to represent varying barbarities inflicted on innocent civilians, from the gassing of a Jewish Carmelite nun to the beheading of a German Christian war protester to the incineration of a Japanese city with a historic Christian church as Ground Zero, Gary G. Kohls writes.
By Gary G. Kohls
Seventy years ago this week, the Jewish Carmelite nun Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was murdered, killed on Aug. 9, 1942, by fellow German Christians at Auschwitz.
Born Edith Stein on Oct. 12, 1891, she was a contemporary of Adolf Hitler, who was two years older. She was the youngest child of an Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband died suddenly when Edith was a toddler.
Stein was a remarkable German Jewish feminist scholar who titled her PhD thesis “On the Problem of Empathy.” She was a Red Cross nurse during the bloody 1914 1918 “war to end all wars” and was inspired to convert to Roman Catholicism shortly after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila in 1921.
She was a popular lecturer for the German Catholic feminist movement during the Weimar years and felt called to become a Carmelite nun after the anti-Semitic Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. When she entered the Carmel at Cologne, Stein became Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
During the 14 years of the Weimar Republic, which began at the end of World War I, Stein became increasingly alarmed at the growing viciousness of German anti-Semitism. She tried unsuccessfully to warn the Vatican about the trend.
Despite her entry into the cloistered community at Cologne, the Nazis once in power after the Weimar Republic collapsed never forgot about her Jewish roots and her liberal inclinations. She fled Germany, but was hunted down by the Gestapo in Holland and sent to Auschwitz, along with her sister Rosa who had also become a Carmelite nun.
They were transported across Germany by box car in the heat of summer, arriving on Aug. 9, 1942. The sisters were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave, later to be exhumed so that the corpses could be incinerated in industrial-strength ovens that had not yet been installed in 1942.
“Gott Mit Uns” (God with us) was stamped on the belt buckles of the German Christian soldiers who made the trip go cheaply and efficiently all the way to the gas chambers. Those soldiers were simply following their orders to arrest, brutalize, transport and murder Jews and others whom their elite leaders considered subhuman. Gassing undesirables, without benefit of a jury trial, had been made legal by Hitler and his henchmen.
Tragically, most German Christian leaders during the pre-Nazi and Hitler years with the exception of a very small minority of courageous resisters had, at least by their silence if not their active support, endorsed the fascist, anti-Christic nationalism, militarism, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia and the legal right of the ruling elite to kill the enemies of the state.
In 1998, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was sainted in the Catholic Church.
Franz Jaegerstatter, Another Aug. 9 Victim
On Aug. 9, 1943, Franz Jaegerstatter, a devout Catholic pacifist from Austria, was murdered by German Christians for refusing to comply with Hitler’s conscription order to “serve” in the German army. He was one of a handful of known Catholic conscientious objectors to war known to have exercised their consciences and oppose the draft during the Hitler era.
Because of Jaegerstatter’s explicitly expressed, gospel-based, conscientious objection to war, he had been abandoned by his priest and bishop, as well as by his family and friends, all of whom had tried and failed to get him to understand that it was his patriotic duty to kill for “Volk, Fuhrer und Vaterland.”
His spiritual advisers had tried and failed to convince him that his commitment to gospel nonviolence was futile – and fatal, given the nationalistic militarism operating at the time. Instead, being obedient to Jesus’s ethical teachings about nonviolence and the God of love (rather than to men), he refused to recant of his beliefs.
Consequently, Jaegerstatter was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison on Aug. 9, 1943. Among his executioners were obedient baptized Christian soldiers whose belt buckles also read “Gott Mit Uns.”
The Bombing of Nagasaki
On Aug. 9, 1945, an all-Christian bomber crew, flying a B-29 Super Fortress that had been christened “Bock’s Car,” took off from Tinian Island in the South Pacific, with the blessings of their Catholic and Protestant chaplains.
In the plane’s hold was the second of the only nuclear bombs to ever be used against civilian cities containing innocent humans. The primary target – Kokura, Japan – was clouded over, so Bock’s Car headed for the secondary target, Nagasaki.
St. Mary’s Cathedral, located in Nagasaki City’s Urakami River district, was a massive building, one of the few structures in Nagasaki that was visible from 31,000 feet. It was one of the landmarks that the Bock’s Car’s bombardier had been briefed on for weeks before the mission. The cathedral was briefly seen through a break in the clouds, and the drop was ordered. The bomb exploded in a searing fireball as hot as the sun 500 meters above the church.
The Urakami Cathedral was the oldest and largest Christian church in the Orient, and Nagasaki had the oldest, largest and most influential Christian community in Japan, which was founded by the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, in 1549.
The Nagasaki Christian community is legendary in the history of Japanese Christianity because of its secret, catacomb-like survival during two centuries of murderous persecutions by the Imperial Japanese government. Mass crucifixions took place in the early 1600s, with the banning, torturing and killing of devout Christians who refused to give up the faith.
Despite the persecutions and the formal outlawing of the religion (it was a capital crime to be a Christian in Japan for over two centuries), Nagasaki Christianity survived and ultimately flourished – until 11:02 a.m., Aug. 9, 1945.
The Nagasaki Christians who lived in the vicinity of the church did not survive. Six thousand of the church’s members were killed instantly, including all of the parishioners and priests who were attending mass that morning. Of the 12,000 members of the church, 8,500 eventually died because of the bomb. Three orders of nuns and a Catholic girl’s school were wiped out instantly.
Tens of thousands of others, mostly non-Christians, also died the day the bomb hit. Hundreds of thousands were mortally wounded, some in a state of lingering death that lasted for days, weeks, months or years. Radiation-induced disease and deformity among the “surviving” victims and their progeny continues to this day as a gruesome testament to the horrors of nuclear war.
What Imperial Japan could not do to Nagasaki Christianity over a period of 250 years – annihilate it – fellow Christians from America did in nine seconds. The Cathedral was totally destroyed and thousands of Nagasaki Christians were instantly boiled, incinerated, carbonized and vaporized into nothingness.
In my library, I have a picture of an irradiated crucifix that was photographed in the days following the blast, lying helplessly on its back, a deeply profound symbol of a religion gone wrong.
Blessing the Nagasaki Mission
Just before the Nagasaki mission on Aug. 9, 1945, Lutheran Chaplain William B. Downey of Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, prayed for the safety of the crew and for world peace.
Downey and his colleague, Father George Zabelka, were the two chaplains attached to the U.S. Army Air Force’s 509th Composite Group, whose major responsibility on Tinian was the delivery of the atomic bombs. Neither chaplain was aware of the terrible destructiveness of the secret “gimmick” weapons.
But they were just two of many millions of people adversely influenced by societal attitudes at the time. Zabelka said later that “the whole structure of secular, religious and military society told me clearly that it was all right to ‘let the Japs have it.’ God was on our side.”
The two chaplains considered themselves responsible for the souls of the soldiers under their care. They both knew what the conventional incendiary and high explosive bombs were doing to Japan’s essentially defenseless cities in the spring and summer of 1945 leading up to the “gimmick” bombs, and yet, Zabelka admitted that “I said nothing.” He regretted that silence for the rest of his life.
Zabelka spent the last two decades of his life atoning for that silence, working tirelessly for world peace, denouncing militarism as being clearly anti-Christian. A contrite and sorrowful Zabelka was in Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1995, asking for forgiveness from the Japanese people for his role in what is now widely regarded as a crime against humanity and an international war crime.
Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, the foremost apostle of Christian nonviolence in America today, and the person most responsible for Zabelka’s conversion to gospel nonviolence, has dedicated his life and ministry to raising the consciousness of the church to the truths of Jesus’s nonviolent teachings. McCarthy says:
“Today, as for most of the last 1700 years, most Christians continue to justify as consistent with the spirit of Christ those energies, understandings and emotions which lead inevitably to August 9. Today most Christians still do not unequivocally teach what Jesus unequivocally taught on the subject of violence. Today most Christians still refuse to proclaim that violence is not the Christian way, that violence is not the Holy way, that violence is not the way of Jesus.”
Box Cars, Bock’s Cars and Ground Zeros
Every July 1, to call the Christian community to repent and return to the ethical truths of the original form of Christianity, (i.e., the nonviolent love of friends and enemies as the way of Jesus), Father McCarthy leads a 40- day fast from solid foods, solemnly breaking it on August 9 at the site of the first atomic bomb detonation test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico. That secret test, on July 16, 1945, was blasphemously code-named “Trinity.”
McCarthy suggests that all ethically-minded people, especially Christians who practice their faith as if the Sermon on the Mount mattered, ponder the un-Christ-like horrors suffered by the hundreds of millions of war dead over the last century, the hundreds of millions of spiritually dead and dying veterans of foreign wars and the crippled civilian survivors of war and gun violence.
And he advises considering also the secondarily traumatized families of those soldiers who went off to the killing fields thinking that they were only doing their patriotic duty to some kind of god (and some kind of country) when they were actually mostly cannon fodder doing the bidding of war-profiteering corporations and the wealthy elite.
Of course, it goes without saying that we need to mourn for, repent of and try to reverse our nation’s militaristic nationalism and the ever-lasting U.S.-led wars that create more wealth for the weapons manufacturers and financiers and more suffering for their victims who are riding in figurative “box cars” heading toward torture chambers at detention camps like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, CIA prisons around the world and maximum security prisons around the nation.
And, of course, we cannot ignore the substantial risk of spiritual death for the obedient active-duty soldiers who are aboard the “Bock’s Cars” over Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and who knows where else in the world upon which the American empire is rapidly encroaching.
And we need to apologize to and compensate for the many innocent, un-tried and un-convicted victims of extra-judicial killings who are at the various Ground Zeros of the CIA and Pentagon-launched killer drones.
Gary G. Kohls, MD, is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org) and is a member of a local non-denominational affiliate of ECAPC, the Community of the Third Way.