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A slice of an archive photo of a Nazi parade.

A Visit from the Gestapo

Peter Mommsen

  • Antony Tompkin

    My Mother and her family lived through the Natzi 'ere of terror' and survived. They were Roman Catholics and continued to practice their faith as best they could despite the sometimes frightening threats by Natzi officialdom as well as that of treacherous neighbours informing against them. The terror was compounded by the Allied bombing of the area which caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries. As a young boy I grew up in Germany and was weaned on stories by my Mother and Grandparents on the sheer hell of living during this period of history. As I look back on this time now from 2016 I realise that my family were in fact very traumatised by living under this pressure. I still have in my possession original documents which my mother had to produce as a school girl to prove her 'racial purity'. Terrible days indeed

In the following excerpt from Homage to a Broken Man, Heiner is a teenager living with his parents at the Sparhof, a Christian intentional community inspired by pacifist and agrarian ideals. The communitarians are passionate about living by the example of the earliest Christians, sharing possessions and welcoming people of all backgrounds. When Hitler seizes power in 1933, trouble comes quickly.

One day Heiner’s father Eberhard took him aside and told him about several recent warnings he had surreptitiously received from contacts inside the government. They had revealed details about Hitler’s secret campaign against “undesirable elements.” Heiner knew the story in generalities: there had already been a spate of assassinations. But what his father told him next left him pale. Fifty new concentration camps were to be established within a year. “If you ever read in the papers that I have committed suicide, do not believe it,” Eberhard warned.

“Who is it telling you all this?” Heiner wanted to know.

“The less you know, the less you can betray if you are ever arrested,” his father said. But he hinted that his sources were old friends who talked to him at considerable risk.

“It is useless to sing hymns and fold our hands, to babble about the cross, if we are not ready – ready as Jesus was – to tread that path to the very last step, to the last breath.”

“It can no longer be tolerated that a German community exists whose aims are the very opposite of National Socialism, and which advertises these aims by the spoken and written word. Of these aims, I need but mention [the Sparhof’s] fundamental repudiation of private property, their repudiation of the laws on blood and race, and their refusal to bear arms.” So wrote the National Socialist District Magistrate to the German Secret Police in a report in which he pressed for the dissolution of the Sparhof. To him, these people were not only closet Communists, but Jew-lovers and pacifists to boot. These were the sort of people the concentration camps had been built for.

In October 1933, Hitler yanked Germany out of the League of Nations, and announced a national plebiscite. Every eligible voter would be required to answer a question whose meaning was not so much political as religious: “Do you, as a German man, and do you, as a German woman, approve the policy of your Reich government, and are you ready to affirm and solemnly to pledge yourself to this policy as the expression of your own conviction and your own will?”

Officially, votes were to be cast by secret ballot. But Eberhard was worried that the Sparhof was being watched, and two weeks before the plebiscite, he visited the District Magistrate to inform him that no one from the Sparhof would be voting. The Nazi official frowned. “Do you know what that means, Dr. Arnold?” he demanded. “It means concentration camp. There is only one thing that you can do, and that is to vote yes.”

Eberhard left the government office in great agitation. Coming home, he had the taxi driver drop him off on the road. He often went on foot for the last few hundred yards, through the woods and down the hill to the farm. But it had been raining, and as he hurried over the grassy slope, he slipped. Alfred, who had gone out to fetch him with a storm lantern, found him moaning with a broken left leg, and ran home to call Moni, a nurse. When she arrived, she blanched: the fracture had shattered the bone so badly that a piece protruded through the skin.

They carried him home. When Heiner saw him, he looked half-dead, and his leg was bloody and contorted. But Eberhard’s thoughts were less on his leg than on his fear for the future. What would happen to the Sparhof, to all the souls in his care?

“We are Christians,” Heiner said. “We have no weapons.” The S.S. men burst into laughter.

The next evening, while the votes were being counted in a nearby village, Eberhard called the community together. “It is something great when people are found worthy to be cast into prison or killed for the sake of the Gospel. But the greatest thing of all is to love our enemies in the spirit of Jesus. It is useless to sing hymns and fold our hands, to babble about the cross, if we are not ready – ready as Jesus was – to tread that path to the very last step, to the last breath.”

Eberhard guessed they had at least forty-eight hours. But to be safe, early the next day, Annemarie took the babies and nursery children to hide in a nearby forest. The other adults worked frantically over emergency plans.

Nothing happened for three days. The fourth dawned gray and dull. Around eight in the morning, Heiner went to the stable to hitch up the horses for the day’s work. He had finished harnessing one horse and was just fetching the second when Alfred ran in, breathless. “Two S.S. men are here, and I’m afraid they’re on their way to your father.” Through the mist, Heiner made out the two black figures moving toward the main house. He rushed to secure his horse, and then turned back to follow them. By now the whole farm was ringed with armed men, the mist spewing them from all sides as if from the ground.

Heiner sprinted toward his father’s study. “Stop!” the shouts rang out from all sides. “Against the wall, all of you!” Two guards grabbed Heiner and pushed him against the side of the barn. His mind raced. Hadn’t his father told him how the S.S. carried out secret executions?

Heiner and the others were hustled into the woodworking shop. Two men with drawn revolvers stood outside the door and another by each window. “Where have you buried the weapons?” they asked again and again. “If you tell us of your own accord, your punishment will be reduced.”

“We are Christians,” Heiner said. “We have no weapons.” The S.S. men burst into laughter.

Hours passed. The troopers had come at dawn, and now the sun was high. “What will happen at the end of the day?” Heiner wondered. “Will it be concentration camp or a firing squad?” Hardest was not knowing what was happening to his father or anybody else; many of the women worked in the kindergarten or the laundry, in buildings where they would now feel vulnerable and alone. Suddenly the chief Gestapo officer entered the workshop, and asked for his name. “Arnold,” Heiner replied. The man smirked. “I have been looking for you.” He ordered two of his men to escort Heiner to the main building.

In the dining room, Gestapo officers were interrogating the adults one by one. Heaps of books and papers spilled from the tables – having failed to uncover a cache of weapons, the secret police had seized what other evidence they could, especially books with red covers (“surely Communist”), art folios, and letters from abroad.

Meanwhile, in the room where Eberhard was lying, another interrogation was in full swing. Heiner could hear shouting and scolding – and his father’s voice, clear and calm in the midst of everything.

Inspector Hütteroth, the chief, was leading the proceedings. He seemed most interested in proving Eberhard guilty of “propaganda against the state.” Every May Day, when the Communists and Socialists marched for the rights of workers in the regional capital, Eberhard had marched with them. Though never a member of any party, he had always been given a speaking slot at the rally. Now Inspector Hütteroth pointed to one of the S.S. guards. “This man swears to it that you called for insurrection.”

“That is a lie!” Eberhard thundered, rising as high as he could without moving his casted leg. “I dare you to tell it again to my face! I have never done such a thing!” The S.S. man shrank before Eberhard’s gaze and offered no rebuttal. Inspector Hütteroth, too, was tongue-tied and closed his book.

Next the Gestapo chief began examining the Arnolds’ living room. He noticed the inlaid coat of arms on the furniture. “Is there someone in the house by the name of von Hollander?” he asked, perplexed.

Heiner’s mother Emmy looked up, startled. “Yes. That was my name. My father was Johann Heinrich von Hollander, professor of law at Halle.”

“Then I helped carry your father to his grave,” the Inspector replied, suddenly pensive. “I was one of Professor von Hollander’s students.” He clicked his heels, and left the room.

At 5:00, as it grew dark, the intruders left. They had made no arrests. Emmy sighed. To think that her family furniture, though scratched and chipped from years of heavy use, had saved them from arrest! The S.S. men marched four abreast, while a big car carried away Inspector Hütteroth. With him went several baskets full of books, manuscripts, official minutes, and financial records. The neighbors, who had gathered to see how many people would be taken away, looked oddly disappointed and immediately slipped away.

From Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold – A true story of faith, forgiveness, sacrifice, and community.

Hero photograph: German Federal Archives.

Heiner in 1934 Heiner (left) in 1934
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Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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