Editor’s note: Theresienstadt serves as a window into what happened to followers of Jesus who were of Jewish descent during the Holocaust. It is estimated that as many as ten percent of the Jews in Nazi Germany believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. And they suffered and went to their deaths along with their fellow Jews.
This article is excerpted from a paper by Kai Kjær-Hansen, “With Hans Walter Hirschberg and Arthur Goldschmidt in Theresienstadt.”
Theresienstadt, about 40 miles north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, is the town that Hitler “had donated to the Jews” and which in Nazi propaganda was described as a “spa town” where elderly Jews could “retire.” From the end of 1941 to the beginning of 1945, more than 140,000 Jews were sent to this ghetto, which for about 88,000, became a transit camp to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately 33,000 died in this ghetto. When it was all over and the ghetto had been liberated on May 8, 1945, there were about 19,000 survivors.
Theresienstadt was governed by a council of Jewish elders; but although there was a certain degree of self-management, it did not mean that they had freedom to do as they pleased. It meant that they were expected to make things work and to carry out the German orders with all the compromises that involved for the council itself.
Among those who died inTheresienstadt, or were deported from Theresienstadt toAuschwitz or survived the horrors inTheresienstadt, were individuals who were Christians of Jewish descent. It is tempting today to call them “Messianic Jews,” but this would not correspond with their self-perception. Like most other Jews in Germany they saw themselves as Germans; unlike most other German Jews they were Jews who had embraced the Christian faith, some by conviction, others for pragmatic reasons. But in Theresienstadt they shared the fate of “Mosaic” Jews. In the eyes of the Nazis, their Christian faith did not obliterate their Jewishness.
Hans Werner Hirschberg, who had been a judge in Berlin, arrived at Theresienstadt on February 10, 1944. He survived and later wrote:
One tenth of the Jews who had been interned there belonged to a Christian confession. Some were Protestants, some Catholics. Among these Jews, there was a group of Evangelical Jewish Christians from Holland, four hundred in number that distinguished themselves. They even had a Jewish Christian pastor with them. Many of our ‘church members’ had, although they had been baptized, never really considered being followers of Jesus until they came to Theresienstadt. But here, under the influence of God’s word, many of them were truly converted. Jews who had been Christians in name only became true Christians. Many Mosaic Jews and Jews who had no faith whatsoever found Jesus and were saved in Theresienstadt. I am one of the few survivors from the concentration camp in Theresienstadt. Most of my brothers went home to be with the Lord. But my Saviour saved me out of this camp so that I might proclaim the wonderful things that He performed among those who were in “the valley of the shadow of death.”
Arthur Goldschmidt’s parents had converted to Christianity in 1858. After Goldschmidt, born in 1873, had to resign his post as a judge in Hamburg in 1933, he devoted himself to his hobby as a painter. His wife Kitty, who was a baptized Jew, died in June 1942.
One month later Goldschmidt was deported to Theresienstadt. Here he founded an evangelical congregation where he preached and administered pastoral care. He survived in the ghetto. Before his death on February 9, 1947, he wrote down an account of the evangelical congregation in Theresienstadt. Here are a few glimpses from the account that was published in 1948.
On the first Sunday in the ghetto, Goldschmidt and another man get together in an attic and read the New Testament which he has brought. The word gets about, and others join them the following Sundays. No more than twenty persons can assemble without permission. “What was I to do?” He realizes that the administration was not likely to appreciate the formation of a Christian congregation in a Jewish town, and without the consent of the Jewish council of elders he could not proceed.
Goldschmidt continues: “So I turned, nonetheless, to Mr. Edelstein, who was then the leader of the Jewish council, and described the state of affairs to him. When he was informed of the fact that an evangelical congregation had already been founded, he was astonished but also full of understanding. The good God is ultimately the same, and to him, Edelstein, it is the same in which way he is honoured.” Both sides realize that the room where the Mosaic Jews worship cannot be used.
On October 18, 1942, they get the first and semi-official recognition of the congregation as a room with electrical light, used as a variety theatre and a lecture hall, is made available for them by the council of elders. And the congregation grows. Between 150 and 200 attend the services; at the festivals there are even more.
Goldschmidt does not hide that, from time to time, there were some difficulties with the council of elders. But the following words are nevertheless remarkable: “In retrospect it must be admitted that this administration of what was intended as a pure Jewish society, which naturally would see a Christian congregation as a foreign body, in general has been very obliging.” Here is an example:
Christian German Jews cannot celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree, which is difficult to come by. Again in Goldschmidt’s words: “Finally the SS permitted us to have a small tree, which would be decorated by the women; not even candles, a much desired rarity donated from all sides, were missing.” But then listen to how Goldschmidt continues:
“The last year the Christmas tree was cynically forbidden by the SS man who had to make the decision. But then, fortunately, the Jewish administration saw to it that an artificial tree with inserted branches and with multicoloured electrical lamps was made for the service!
“. . . and what is more,” Goldschmidt continues, “the administration, or more correctly the leader of the Jewish council, Dr. Murmelstein, even organized a gala performance for the Christian children with a children’s choir singing Christmas carols, children performing a small fairytale play and a magician—a man in the camp that had been deprived of his profession—showed his tricks.”
1. Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism Eighth International Conference Proceedings (Lake Balaton, Hungary 19-24 August 2007, 23 August 2007)