Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Quakers

Just the other night I was having a discussion with Jason about the church. Yes, scintillating topic. If you’re a pair of seminary grads and church nerds (like my husband and I are), then yes it is exciting to talk about church, or ecclesiology: the study of church. (See? Nerds.) I read a portion of Opa’s memoirs that introduces his relationship with the Quaker tradition. All italicized quotes (except the last one) in this blog post are from Opa’s memoirs: “From Nazi Germany to a Career in Freedom.” Opa thought a lot like my Dad thinks when it comes to religion: it’s not a bad idea. I don’t think that Opa was a particularly spiritual person or even a person who professed a certain faith as his own. He would probably be best described as agnostic, or perhaps a believer in a greater being. His spirituality was more of an intellectual path. And one that he didn’t share much about.

Regardless of Opa’s hesitance to embrace a particular faith, he was certainly drawn to faith groups. Opa’s mother was Jewish, and Opa enjoyed the Jewish version of boy scouts as a young boy. The Jewish groups were abolished and replaced by the “Hitler Youth” groups, just another venue for propaganda and brainwashing. Opa declined membership. Later Opa enjoyed meeting with a group sponsored by the Quakers. This group was for intellectual discussion only- avoiding political and religious discussion for the sake of keeping the group open and focused on learning and enjoying each other. Here is Opa’s description of his experience:
A Quaker Meeting House in Guben, Germany, 1934
...I got restless for some intellectual (spiritual?) activity. Through a friend, I was introduced to a Quaker “Young Friends” group that met monthly... We met every third Tuesday at the Quakers’ Meeting House, where we had our own “round table.” Normally, there were about fifteen to twenty of us, both boys and girls.Mr. Wohlrabe was our mentor, a remarkable man, compassionate, well educated, a good leader. We stayed away from political or strictly religious topics as there were both Christians and Jews, and even some “agnostics” in the group. We took turns getting “assignments” for presenting next month’s subject; all of us took pride in making well-prepared presentations when our turns came up. I remember spending hours planning my presentations; the others did too. We gave book reviews, talked about the lives of interesting people (such as Mahatma Gandhi), the racial situation in South Africa... at one time, I wrote a stage play on “the Fourth Wise Man,” which we acted out before the adults at the Quaker Meeting House...
As an aside- I really wish I could tell you I had a copy of that play- but alas- I do not.  

I read a collection of experiences by one Quaker couple who were in Germany through the two world wars.  You can read it here:
If you google “Quakers in Nazi Germany”, you will find a wealth of information on all that the Quakers accomplished in working to help others. The site I read documented the story of this Quaker couple risking their entire lives just to BE there for the people of Germany. Not Quakers, not Jews, not the rich or poor. ANYONE that showed up and needed them, and that included the Nazis. It took a group effort; people were all-in. Opa even mentions in his memoirs that the Quakers’ penchant for nondiscrimination helped them out in the beginnings of Nazi Germany.

"Quakerspeisung" (Quaker feedings) food relief program
after WWI with particular concern for children
Many of the Germans, including the Nazi’s, benefitted from the food programs the Quakers provided in the early twenties, and thus considered them “harmless” and did not interfere with their meetings.

For the Quakers, their core purpose in existing is to love others. To be the hands and feet of God to a hurting world. Loving others for the Quakers meant helping people. Any people. The kind of help that might involve risk. The kind of help that has no agenda. In the stories I read about the Quakers during war time, their agenda is love. Period. There is something different about that. Something risky. Something divine.

The meetings that Opa was involved with was an answer to a desperate need for the youth of Nazi-held Germany: intellectual stimulation that reached beyond the propaganda and grabbed the soul. The Quakers provided a space for that. At risk.  

In the research that my husband provided me (I know- he does it for me!), I learned some of the basic tenants of the Quakers. One that is exhibited in Opa’s story, and in the story I happened upon online, is the idea that LOVE WINS. The group that exhibited this principle so well is called The American Friends Service Committee. It is an organization within the Quaker tradition that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, as shown on the Nobel Prize website (spoiler alert- they helped Opa!):

Quaker delegates of the American Friends Service Committee who set up a relief operation in Toulouse, France, January 1941. 
(From US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was founded in 1917 by members of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States in order to provide young Quakers and other conscientious objectors to war with an opportunity to perform a service of love in wartime. In the ensuing years, the Committee has continued to serve as a channel for Quaker concerns growing out of the basic Quaker belief that «there is that of God in every man» and the basic Quaker faith that the power of love can «take away the occasion for all wars». Though the Religious Society of Friends itself is small, the work of the Committee is supported by thousands of like-minded men and women of many races, creeds, and nationalities, who serve on its staff or make contributions, both financial and spiritual, to its ongoing programs.  (

That’s what saved Opa: love. I believe this each time I read more of his story. That’s what can save all of us. I believe this more each day I live.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear feedback! Share your thoughts and your stories.