Luckner, Gertrud (1900–1995)

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Luckner, Gertrud (1900–1995)

British-born rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust, who was arrested by the Nazis, survived two years in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and worked to increase understanding between Christians and Jews in postwar Germany. Born of German parents in Liverpool, England, on September 26, 1900; died in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, on August 31, 1995; undergraduate degree in political science, 1920; attended University of Frankfurt am Main; University of Freiburg im Breisgau, Ph.D.

Gertrud Luckner, described by Gay Block and Malka Drucker in Rescuers as a hunch-backed and profoundly deaf old woman who "might be mistaken for a gnome rather than the respected philosopher she is," may have looked like an unlikely hero, but she risked her life in assisting Jews during the Holocaust and would later be remembered for her unerring courage. She was born in England in 1900, the only child of German parents. The family relocated to Germany when she was seven, and Luckner grew up in Berlin and nearby Potsdam. It was not long before she became aware of the inequities of the world, particularly during World War I, when the privations of the working classes brought Germany to the brink of social revolution even before the termination of hostilities (November 1918). As did many many young Germans of the day, Luckner became a pacifist and anti-militarist.

Soon after the war, her parents died and she was on her own. In 1920, she was awarded her undergraduate degree in political science from the recently founded University of Frankfurt am Main, probably the most progressive college in the country at the time. Years later, she received a Ph.D. degree from the University of Freiburg im Breisgau with a dissertation on self-help measures taken by the unemployed in England and Wales. During these years, Luckner was an active Quaker, being particularly impressed by the theological simplicity of that Christian denomination, as well as by its traditions of generously responding to those in need, including poor and impoverished women and children during and after World War I.

As a believer in international peace and reconciliation, Luckner made every attempt to link her thoughts and actions in a pragmatic fashion. In 1926, she went to Poland to study social and economic conditions there as well as to find practical means of rendering assistance to those most in need. She also worked to overcome national stereotypes and resentments, which had long poisoned relations between the Polish and German peoples. Upon her return to Germany, she continued her career in applied social work. With a command of the English language, she spent a year in the United Kingdom in 1930, studying slum conditions. In 1931, she moved to the charming university town of Freiburg im Breisgau, but by that year there was little charm to be found either in Freiburg or in the rest of Germany. The world depression had led to intense social distress due to mass unemployment, and many of Freiburg's students, long known for their extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism, were now adherents of the National Socialist Party of Adolf Hitler. Although many Germans, particularly conservatives, failed to recognize the danger to democracy and civilized values posed by Nazism, Luckner was not among them. Long before the Hitler regime was established, she recognized that this movement, based on racism and violence, posed great peril to civilization.

In 1933, soon after the Nazis established their dictatorship, Luckner established a small but vibrant study and discussion circle in Freiburg in order to better understand events as they developed. Most of the members of the group were young women and men of the upper classes. Luckner was convinced that by regularly bringing this future elite together and providing them with literature to enlighten them about the inhumane nature of the Nazis, she would be able to immunize them against the growing evils of the day. The same year, Luckner visited one of her Jewish friends, the much-respected Berlin rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck. From Rabbi Baeck, she got a master list of the names and addresses of all the Jewish organizations in Germany.

In 1934, she took a major step by becoming a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. For Luckner, Christian belief had to be experienced in the real world, with real, imperfect people, both sinned and sinned against. In the Nazi Germany of 1934, such thinking could easily place one in danger. With each passing day, Luckner watched the results of the Nazi ideology for Germany as a nation and for millions of individual Germans: thousands of Germans were suffering in concentration camps because of their political views, thousands more for having been born Jewish. On her own initiative, Luckner visited the Jewish organizations on her list to warn them of the dangers ahead as well as to bring those in peril some words of encouragement from a sympathetic German woman of Christian faith. She maintained these contacts over the next years, even as the Nazi terror against the Jews increased. Luckner assisted in the activities of the Raphaelsverein, a Catholic organization that helped Jews and others who were homeless due to Nazi persecution. By 1938, she was working in Freiburg for another Catholic group, the charity organization Caritasverband.

On the night of November 9–10, 1938, Luckner was an eyewitness to the most terrifying event yet in German public life, Kristallnacht, a carefully orchestrated attack on the synagogues and businesses of the Jews still remaining in the Reich. In Freiburg, a synagogue was directly across the street from the main offices of the Caritasverband. As a result, Luckner was able to witness the deliberate destruction of the Jewish house of worship by local storm troopers. Shaken but determined to do something, she got on her bicycle to alert her Jewish friends of the imminent threat and to provide them with the names and addresses of Christians who were willing to give them shelter. While on her mission of mercy, Luckner found her bicycle tires slashed, no doubt by local Nazis who already knew of her "un-German" assistance to Jews. Unfazed, she abandoned her bicycle and continued on foot to spread the warning that terrible night.

Now that Hitler and his millions of followers had seized the institutions of an advanced state, their ability to do harm was greatly enhanced. National Socialism ruled through terror, setting up a vast network of concentration camps. It had succeeded in forging a national consensus of mass support, largely because the regime had virtually eliminated unemployment. Most Germans also approved of the fact that through rearmament the Nazis had transformed the German Reich into a nation that was once again strong, proud and even feared. As a Catholic who believed that her faith must determine her actions in daily life, Luckner differed from many of her fellow Germans, both Catholic and Protestant, who identified themselves as Christians but did little to oppose the evils of the dictatorship or take the risk of rendering assistance to Jews and other victims of the Nazis. Fearless but also practical in her defiance of National Socialism, Luckner worked against Hitler's system by providing aid and encouragement to those most threatened by its arbitrary power.

Luckner continued her activities with the Caritasverband, helping Jews to flee Germany and rendering as much material and psychological support as possible. Trips to Switzerland, where she had friends sympathetic to her efforts, enabled her to remain in contact with the out-side world and to send letters to other countries, thus keeping other Christian groups and individuals informed of the deteriorating situation in Germany. She continued to travel throughout Germany, visiting members of increasingly threatened and isolated Jewish communities. Although Luckner moved mostly in Catholic and Jewish circles, she retained many of her old contacts with Quakers, many of whom were also active in assisting Jews and others. Terrified—and with few if any of their former Christian friends and neighbors willing to engage in contact with them—these Jews were deeply grateful for even an hour's conversation with Luckner. "No one else visited them but me," she later recalled. "They never forgot it."

By now a well-known and much-respected personality in Germany's dwindling Jewish communities, Luckner was particularly welcome on her visits to Berlin and Munich. Living in the capital of what was now boastfully called the Greater German Reich, Berlin's Jews were at the mercy of Heinrich Himmler's SS and the vast propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels. On her numerous visits to Berlin, Luckner invariably spent time with Leo Baeck, who had persuaded his daughter to emigrate to London but had determined that he must remain in Germany with his flock. While in Berlin, Luckner also visited and exchanged information and ideas with the Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg, a man who shared with Luckner a deep hatred for the essence of Nazism.

In the Bavarian capital of Munich, which played a crucial role in the history of National Socialism and where the local Jewish community was at great risk from its anti-Semitic gauleiter, Luckner worked closely with one of that city's most determined anti-Nazis, the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp. Together, the two searched for ways to lessen the destruction caused by the dictatorship. During these trips, Luckner visited Jewish homes, sometimes spending the night with families whose lives were now dominated by fear. The diminutive Luckner, who weighed less than 100 pounds, was sometimes attacked and beaten by local Nazi toughs, but she continued her visits to families including those who were defined as Jews by the Nuremberg Laws although they had converted to Catholicism. By the end of 1940, with most of the European continent under German control, German Jews had few if any places to which to escape. Luckner's home in Freiburg im Breisgau was only a few miles from the German-Swiss border, enabling her to assist a small, fortunate number of Jews across the frontier. These rescues included the challenging task of procuring Swiss visas, but Luckner and her small circle of sympathizers accomplished such remarkable feats virtually on a routine basis.

By the summer of 1941, Nazi policy toward the Jews had radicalized to the point of systematic mass murder. Beginning with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of that year, special mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) killed hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children in the recently occupied areas of the east. Although these activities were kept secret, rumors worked their way back to Germany through various channels. Luckner and a number of other Catholic welfare officials, including Margarete Sommer in Berlin, already knew about the murderous conditions in the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, and other cities of Nazi-occupied Poland. They sent as many packages of food and clothing as they could to German Jews whom they knew had been sent to these ghettos, fully realizing that their efforts could do little to relieve the immensity of suffering there. Many Germans had heard stories about terrible things taking place in the east, but made no attempt to discover more information for fear that such curiosity might bring a visit from the Gestapo to their homes. Luckner was among the few to consider it imperative to find out more.

One family to whom Luckner sent packages and letters was that of Gertrud Meyer . The family had been "resettled" to the Maidanek camp, and, when in 1942 Luckner's offerings were returned to her unopened, she suspected that the Meyers had perished. She now redoubled her efforts to save as many Jewish lives as possible. In one case, that of the Rosenberg family of Freiburg, Luckner helped save the one Rosenberg child who had been defined as a "full-blooded Jewess" (both parents being Jewish). The girl's two brothers had been born during their father's first marriage, to a woman who was not Jewish, and they were thus defined as half-Jewish hybrids, Mischlinge. The brothers had even served in the German Wehrmacht in the early stages of the war. When their sister was scheduled to be evacuated to the east, Luckner took advantage of the boys' previous military service, coaching them to emphasize this fact when they pled on behalf of their sister. The stratagem was used on one of Adolf Eichmann's adjutants whom Luckner knew to be partial to the military, and was successful. The girl was sent to the "model" ghetto at Theresienstadt/Terezin, where by good fortune she was able to survive the war.

By early 1943, Nazi Germany had been decisively defeated in the battle of Stalingrad and it became clear that the war had been lost, but the Nazi death machine destroyed more lives than ever. The fiction of "normality" for Jews in the Reich was abandoned, one sign of this in Berlin being the arrest and deportation to Theresienstadt of Leo Baeck on January 24, 1943. Using her work for the Caritasverband as a cover, Luckner traveled around the country organizing rescue efforts. She made several risky attempts to gather information on the actual mechanisms of murder, crossing the border of the Reich to investigate the conditions in the German-occupied Polish territory known as the Generalgouvernement. Early in 1943, she got as far as the city of Kattowitz, which was located in the immediate vicinity of the Auschwitz camps.

The Gestapo had long viewed Luckner's travels throughout Germany with suspicion. On March 24, 1943, she was arrested while traveling on a train en route to Berlin. Her captors found on her person the sum of 5,000 reichsmarks, entrusted to her by Archbishop Gröber of Freiburg to take to the Jews of Berlin. Her interrogation began on the train and continued on a daily basis for the next nine weeks. Although she was not physically tortured, at times her interrogators' anger dominated the sessions, and on one occasion she was scolded for "riding trains for Jews" while, because of severe fuel rationing, most other Germans were forced to "ride their bikes for victory." For three of the nine weeks, Luckner was grilled every night from six in the evening to eight in the morning. Although she provided her interrogators with little information of substance, they concluded that her activities on behalf of Jews constituted sufficient evidence of Reichsfeindlichkeit, of being "an enemy of the Reich." Her case was deemed important enough for Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Reich Security Main Office), to personally sign papers condemning her to a permanent term of imprisonment given the fact that if released it was clear that she would again work "against the Reich" on the behalf of Jews. Upon learning that she would be sent to the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück, and not Auschwitz, Luckner felt "somewhat relieved."

Located about an hour's drive from Berlin, Ravensbrück began operation in 1939. Although it was supposed to accommodate 7,000 women, almost from the start it held more women than its maximum capacity. By the time Luckner arrived in early November 1943, the camp had several thousand more women than could be accommodated with even a minimum maintenance of decent health and living conditions. Immediately after arrival, she and her group had to undress and stand naked for hours outdoors in the bitter cold. Eventually, they were issued uniforms to replace their own clothing. Hers was not only filthy but blood-stained. Once during a daily roll call Luckner struck up a conversation with a woman in the line behind her. The woman turned out to be Gertrud Meyer, to whose family Luckner had sent letters and food parcels several years earlier. Meyer's husband, Luckner now learned, had been gassed and cremated at the Maidanek camp.

Ravensbrück concentration camp had never been intended to serve as an extermination facility by the Nazis, but the life of its inmates was precarious at best. From 1939 to 1945, an estimated 90,000 women from many nationalities lost their lives there, the weak and ill customarily being "selected" for gassing and cremation. Malnutrition and disease killed women every day. Survival in Ravensbrück depended not only on luck and robust good health but also on the human institution of solidarity. Possibly by chance, Luckner was assigned to barrack number 6, which was designated for Communist prisoners. Although there were deep ideological and philosophical differences between Luckner and her barrack mates, they accepted her, and in time a strong friendship and mutual respect grew to unite them in a common desire to survive their ordeal. On more than one occasion, her Communist cell mates saved Luckner's life by putting her on work details that allowed her to escape death, and several times she narrowly missed being killed in Ravensbrück's gas chambers. In July 1944, her Communist friends were able to prevent her from being sent on a death transport to Bergen-Belsen, where she would have been gassed. Occasional food parcels from her Catholic colleagues in Freiburg enabled Luckner to maintain sufficient strength not to die of disease. Even so, she barely survived a bout with severe intestinal influenza and almost died after being sent to the barracks for the sick and dying, where she lay for days in lice and filth, literally between dead and dying women. Although weak and ill, Luckner somehow smuggled food and a nightgown to her Jewish friend Gertrud Meyer; both women would survive Ravensbrück.

Luckner, who was liberated by Soviet soldiers in May 1945, was determined to restore not only her own life but those of her fellow Germans whose country was in chaos. A letter she gave to a British soldier addressed to Leo Baeck in London got through, and she was over-joyed to learn that he had survived more than two years in Theresienstadt. Amidst the immense suffering that Luckner had witnessed, she had also seen a nobler side of human nature, which included the courage and solidarity of Ravensbrück prisoners, as well as the dignity shown by victims facing inevitable deaths. Luckner regarded the Jews as a people of profound spiritual depth, noting "with what composure they met the horror."

Although her health had been shattered in Ravensbrück, Luckner was soon back in Freiburg at her Caritasverband office. Her official duties were mainly linked to assisting those Catholics of Jewish ancestry who had survived the Holocaust, but as far as she was concerned it was the duty of all Catholics to concern themselves with helping Jews restore their lives. Luckner believed that a new relationship between Catholics—indeed, all Christians—and Jews needed to be created. For this to take place, the animosities, theological and otherwise, that had poisoned Jewish-Christian relationships for almost two millennia would have to be abandoned if a better world were to emerge from the smoldering ruins of the Holocaust. Regarding a permanent forum as essential for the start of a productive Christian-Jewish dialogue, Luckner began to think of publishing a journal to advance such a purpose. With no funds and no church authorization, in August 1948 she began publishing the Freiburger Rundbrief (Freiburg Circular), the purposes of which were several. These included fostering interreligious dialogue, publishing reviews of events and books of interest to both Christians and Jews, providing catechists and priests with educational materials, exposing new manifestations of anti-Semitism, and preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Although it exerted considerable influence from the start, her Freiburger Rundbrief had only a small circulation in the 1950s, averaging 3,000 to 4,000 copies annually; by the late 1980s, it had risen to about 13,000.

Some priests and Catholic laity supported the Freiburger Rundbrief project, but many German Catholics after World War II were indifferent, with some arguing defensively, "We Germans also suffered in the war." Undismayed, Luckner wrote a letter to the Vatican in which she asked for support from Robert Leiber, the German Jesuit who was a personal secretary and confidant to Pope Pius XII. Instead of giving the Freiburger Rundbrief its support, the Vatican's response to Luckner's letter was to issue a monitum, an official warning, against the philosemitic work she was doing. Rome's justification was that Luckner's crusade against anti-Semitism was leading Catholics toward a dangerous attitude of religious indifferentism, the notion that one religion is as good as the next. Another sign of the hostility of the Catholic Church hierarchy toward Luckner's activities was its miserly allotment of funds for assistance to German Jews, which grew from 8,858 deutschmarks in 1950 to only 23,743 deutschmarks in 1958.

The serious signs of disapproval from the Vatican did little to stop Luckner. Her vigilance discovered age-old prejudices embedded in Catholic devotional traditions, including an annual procession in a south German city that continued to commemorate an alleged Jewish defilement of the sacred host in the Middle Ages. She also discovered and publicized the fact that of the actors in the world-famous Oberammergau Passion Play, all with the exception of one were former members of the Nazi Party. Most important, as time went by the ideas found in the Freiburger Rundbrief began to influence both Christian and Jewish writers and theologians. In his book Jesus and Israel, Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac challenged Christians to abandon their prejudices. In 1950, Luckner joined with other Catholics and Protestants to formalize Isaac's challenge into ten assertions which came to be known as the Seelisberg Theses. By adopting this statement, the group around Luckner created an atmosphere for dialogue that was acceptable for both Jews and Christians.

At the start of the 1960s, the trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann created a radically new intellectual and moral atmosphere in West Germany. Whereas most ordinary Catholics as well as their clergy had previously ignored the questions raised by the crimes of the Nazi regime, now these issues had become almost unavoidable. Two Catholic bishops, Julius Döpfner and Franz Hengsbach, told their flocks that the time had come to face the fact that "all of us have a share in the sin [of all atrocities]." Both Döpfner and Hengsbach had responded positively for years to Luckner's crusade for better understanding between Christians and Jews, and in May 1960 Bishop Hengsbach wrote a letter to Luckner encouraging her to continue her important work. Bishop Döpfner, who in 1948 had become the youngest Catholic bishop in Europe, was a lifelong supporter of Luckner and her Freiburg circle.

In 1965, the almost two decades of effort by Gertrud Luckner on behalf of Christian-Jewish dialogue came to fruition. In that year, the Second Vatican Council passed its important decree on Jewish-Christian relations, Nostra Aetate. No longer to be seen as the foes of Christendom, the Jews were now defined as a crucial part of a shared moral heritage. Written by Cardinal Bea, a German Jesuit who was in contact with Luckner and her circle, the statement met with enthusiasm from West Germany's Catholic bishops who recognized that it was time for German Christians to come to terms with their moral failings during the Holocaust, an era when one of the most advanced nations of Western civilization kept silent and allowed its Jewish minority, as well others deemed racially, morally and politically unacceptable, to be annihilated.

In the last decades of her life, Luckner continued her work and could look with pride upon the continuing positive impact of the Freiburger Rundbrief. Her many friends in Germany and elsewhere, including Israel (which she visited over 30 times), mourned her death in Freiburg im Breisgau on August 31, 1995. The assembly room of Freiburg's new synagogue was named in her honor. In Israel, Luckner's name is held in the highest regard. There is a Gertrud Luckner Home for the Aged in Nahariyya, and in 1960, on her 60th birthday, the Jewish National Fund honored her by planting a grove in Israel named after her. In 1966, she was designated a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and research center in Jerusalem.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia