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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+

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

A Tangled Web of Friends

“I will speak ill of no man, and speak all the good I know of everybody.”
– Benjamin Franklin

“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”
~ Mark Twain

Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.
-Shirley MacLaine

We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.  ~Abraham Lincoln

It is interesting when you have traveled a fair amount and lived in quite a few places you get to know a lot of people from across the social, political, racial and religious spectrum.  In fact my friends are among the most diverse collection of people that anyone that I know.  I was looking on my Facebook.com page recently after a post and noted the diversity of my friends. What was interesting was that they often are very passionate about their particular point of view be it religious, social or political.  After a recent post I realized that in some cases it would not be a good thing to have some of them in the same room as each other as there might be bloodshed.

“To know someone here or there
with whom you can feel
there is understanding
in spite of distances or
thoughts expressed
That can make life a garden.”
~ Goethe

Friendship… is not something you learn in school.But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.
Muhammad Ali

One doesn’t know, till one is a bit at odds with the world, how much one’s friends who believe in one rather generously, mean to one.  ~D.H. Lawrence

The interesting thing is that somehow the lives of this very diverse group of friends somehow intersect mine.  I guess that is part of the life of a moderate.  Now I’m sure in their hearts that some on the Left think that I’m a fundamentalist right fascist with militarist tendencies who is too concerned with the concerns of those on the political right, to which I will admit the militarist tendencies. Some on the right think that I am a leftist, agnostic socialist with militarist tendencies who is far too concerned with the concerns of those on the political left, to which I will admit my militaristic tendencies. However in the case of all my absolute concern with the rights of people on all sides of the political, social and religious spectrum that is the United States of America overrides about everything. While I may have strong opinions on various issues or may not have an opinion whatsoever depending on the issue I do not believe that political, religious or social views should keep me from being friends with anyone. There are some who will disagree with that and a decent number of people that have ended relationships with me over issues that I think are extraneous to friendship but what the hell these is no accounting for taste.  At the same time I have been an ass at times and blown away relationships that should have been cultivated, but there is no accounting for my bad form.

Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”
~ Abraham Lincoln

I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.
-Plutarch

A true friend is one who thinks you are a good egg even if you are half-cracked. ~Author Unknown

Despite all of this somehow I stand in the intersection of all of these wonderful people who are my friends going back to childhood.   I guess one thing I’ve learned, often the hard way, is that you can have friendships and care about people even when you have disagreements with them, even serious disagreements because respect and love are more important than necessarily having to agree.  Thus in an era of polarization I believe that as Americans that we need to find ways to get along.  Thus when those on the left suggested leaving the country or persuading the military to lead a coup when George Bush was President and those on the right who advocate the same about President Obama I wonder what the hell they all are thinking.  Now I know that many of my friends are extremely passionate about what they believe regardless of the viewpoint and that those views are very important to them I know that somehow we must find a way to as Rodney King once said “to get along.”  Maybe it is my inner Anglican speaking but somehow I think that we need to find an American Via Media or middle way.

“There is no hope of joy except in human relations.”
~ Antoine de Sainte-Exupery

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.
Albert Schweitzer

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival ~C.S. Lewis

My friends include political conservatives and liberals, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Independents.  They include Christians from across the spectrum, Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Evangelical, Social Gospel and Fundamental, Charismatic and anti-Charismatic, Latter Day Saints, Seventh Day Adventists, Oneness Pentecostals, Particular Baptists, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Premillenial Dispensationalists and Amillenialists.  Likewise they include Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans and Wiccans and I think even a few believers in the Klingon God Kahless. Also represented are heterosexuals and homosexuals, anti-homosexual activist and pro-homosexual activists, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, militarists and pacifists, capitalists, socialists, environmentalists, industrialists; progressives, traditionalists, white, black, Asian and Hispanic, people from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Korea, Japan and China, India, and Central America, Mississippi and Manhattan, California and Carolina, Dallas and Detroit.   Doctors, lawyers, priests, rabbis and imams; Protestant ministers, labor leaders, teachers, preachers, pundits, poets, politicians, professors and prosecutors; nurses, doctors, scientists; actors, musicians and artists; bureaucrats, technocrats, kleptocrats; geeks, freaks, sailors, jailers, whalers, runners, gunners, fighters, riders, sky divers, scuba divers, truck drivers; guitar players, ball players, naysayers; free thinkers, beer drinkers,  thrill seekers and Methodists.  I have to admit that I stole the Methodist line from Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles.

“There is nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends.”
~ Hillaire Belloc

It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.
Saint Thomas Aquinas

In all of this, each one of this diverse  including you all in your own way are my friend, some closer than others, but friends none the less. We have shared good times and bad, encouraged each other prayed for each other, laughed together, cried together and even shared some good beer with each other.   We’ve agreed and disagreed, and agreed to disagree.  Yet we are all friends and each of you has added something to my life.  I think Jesus said it well, when he said, “I no longer call you strangers but friends.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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