Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.
I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.
As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. 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 Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.
However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation 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 siege 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 Froehliche. 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 battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and that man was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.
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. I wonder if the Christians currently swearing their fealty to President Trump will be capable of such reflection when his regime finally collapses, regardless of how and when it does. Twenty or so years ago I would have likely been part of Trump’s cult of “Christian” followers.
“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.
His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.
I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office since then, until I moved to my new assignment. It is now in my storage space. I will have to bring it and a few other items to my new office at the shipyard. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. I miss looking on it every day. To me the print is a symbol of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.
Praying for an end to war.