Christmas in the Cauldron: Kurt Reuber and the The Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Kurt Rueber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor. A friend of Albert Schweitzer he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army at the beginning of the war. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stlaingrad. When that division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut of from most supply and without real hope of relief he continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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A Self Portrait 

However that care also included spiritual matters. Rueber was also an artist and pastor and as such he reflected on the desparation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

As the seige continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froeliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battlaion commander.  The officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket.

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German POWs walking out of Stalingrad

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his  Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

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Reuber operating on a wounded soldier above and drawing below

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home. 

prisoner's madonna

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad  to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin when its ruins were restored as a symbol of hope and reconcilliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgagrad, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel. 

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I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

13 Comments

Filed under faith, History, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, Religion, world war two in europe

13 responses to “Christmas in the Cauldron: Kurt Reuber and the The Madonna of Stalingrad

  1. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padre Steve's World…Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate and commented:

    Dear Friends of Padre Steve’s World
    As most of you know I serve as a chaplain in the Navy and spent 17 1/2 years in the Army, much of it in the Medical department before entering the Navy in 1999. Since most of you know my story regarding Iraq and PTSD I won’t bore you with it here. If you don’t you can look on the site and find lots about my struggle. That being said, as an Iraq veteran that sees both the futility of the war that American servicemen and women were placed by the Bush administration as well as the gross illegality of the 2003 invasion, I am attracted to the stories of men who served in hopeless causes, and sometimes those who served under leaders who can be best described as war criminals, or if nothing else profoundly stupid in their policy decisions and malevolent in their intentions. Unfortunately, too often decent, honorable people get caught up in the service of such leaders, even men who serve as physicians and priests treating and caring for those abandoned by their country. Whether that is the Germans at Stalingrad, or the French at Dien Bien Phu, I understand and feel a kinship with such men.
    This story is about a German physician who was also an artist and a pastor who produced a work which survived Stalingrad and today is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, the Madonna of Stalingrad.
    Peace
    Padre Steve+

    • Ihor Mychkovsky

      Your Madonna Of Stalingrad article is very moving and inspirational. I forwarded your website link to a number of my friends. Thanks Padre Steve– I wish you good health and please continue your good work.
      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (2018)

  2. Hi, I have really enjoyed reading your post about the Madonna of Stalingrad.
    I would very much like to buy a print of this moving image. Unfortunately I have not been able to find one on the Internet and wondered if you could let me know where you purchased your copy. Many thanks.

  3. Kenneth fraser

    I have a print of Madonna and her baby I would like to sell can anyone help me with the value please

    • Monika Morgan-Panzer

      What size is the print? Where did you get it from?

      • Kenneth fraser

        It came from a old house refurbishment in London and the old occupants were from Germany aged around 80 years old at the time,I have had this 27 years.its 290mmx390mm

  4. Monika Morgan-Panzer

    Can you perhaps email a photo? mo_jo_otto@yahoo.com Thank you.

  5. Antman

    The Germans certainly got their comeupence at Stalingrad. Only a few months earler they were hanging nurses and laughing about it.

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