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    A Father’s Final Gift

    Days before his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brother sent his children this letter.

    By Klaus Bonhoeffer

    June 16, 2024
    • Gary Spangler

      I find Klaus Bonhoeffer’s letter to his children, shortly before his death, a remarkable demonstration of composure, emotional wisdom, and a father’s love for his children. While not written to impress anyone, I’m humbled by the wide range of his understanding of human life.

    Lehrterstrasse, Berlin

    April 1, 1945

    My dear children,

    I won’t be alive for much longer, and need to take leave of you. This is very difficult for me, because I love you all so much. Each of you has always brought me nothing but joy. Now I will no longer be able to watch you grow up and become independent adults. I have full confidence, however, that in your mother’s hands – along with the advice and support of relatives and friends – you will find the right way forward.

    Dear children, I have seen plenty and lived through even more. But my experiences as a father can no longer guide you. Therefore I would like to write down a few things of importance for the future, even if you are only able to understand them later.

    Above all, hold fast to your mother and care for her with love and trust, in the spirit of chivalry. As long as God allows her to be there for you, consider how you can make her happy. And don’t stop once you have reached adulthood: it is my wish that even then you would stay as close to her in your hearts as I did to my parents. After all, you can only really understand your parents once you yourself have grown up. By the way, though these have been difficult months, they have been glorious ones too, centered on the essentials, and buoyed up by your mother’s love and her strength of soul. You will understand what I mean later.

    Stick together as siblings; indeed, work at growing even closer. The fact that you are so different causes frictions at times, I know; but once you are older it will allow you to give that much more to one another. A quarrel here and there is not so bad; just don’t carry grudges. If you’re tempted to, think of me and be quick to offer one another a forgiving hand. Help each other as best you can. If one of you is feeling sad or moody, look out for him or her until he or she is happy again. Don’t grow apart, but nurture whatever draws you together. Play, sing, and dance together as we so often did as a family. And don’t form exclusive relationships with others; if possible, include your siblings. That can stabilize and deepen a friendship.

    I’m wearing, on my right hand, the ring which symbolizes my bond with your mother – one that has brought me so much happiness. It is a sign that I belong to her, and to you. The ring on my left hand, with its coat of arms, is a reminder of the family we all belong to – a memento of our ancestors, and the descendants who will follow us. This ring says: Listen to the voice of the past. Don’t fall into self-glorifying delusions or lose yourself in the present, which is fleeting, but be true to what is good in your lineage and pass it on to your children and grandchildren.

    As for the other people you will encounter in your lives: take them as they are. Don’t react right away to what you find strange or unsettling; look for what is good in every person.

    Please understand this special obligation properly. Reverence for the past and responsibility with regard to the future can provide a fitting attitude for life. Be proud of the family which has given you these strengths.

    Set standards for yourselves and your friends. Don’t fall for cheap applause. To seek recognition from others can make you unfree, if you are not able to dispense with it gracefully when it does not come your way. Not everyone succeeds at this.

    As for the other people you will encounter in your lives: take them as they are. Don’t react right away to what you find strange or unsettling; look for what is good in every person. For one thing, that is more just; for another, it will protect you from narrow-mindedness. A garden contains all sorts of flowers. Tulips are beautiful but have no scent; and roses have thorns. Look for the hidden shoot of green, by which I mean to say that you are unlikely to discover the beautiful qualities of others – they are often concealed – until you have sought them and walked in their shoes.

    Klaus and Emmi Bonhoeffer, 1930

    Klaus Bonhoeffer and Emmi Delbrück ca. 1930, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bilder aus seinem Leben, edited by Eberhard Bethge, Renate Bethge, and Christian Gremmels (Gütersloher Verlagshaus GmbH, Gütersloh 2005).

    Those preoccupied with themselves will never have a sense for this. But believe me, dear children, life will only truly open itself to you, whether in the little things, or on a larger scale, when you stop thinking just of yourselves, and think of others, and really experience them. The singer or player who is focused only on his part or wants to hear only his voice will never grasp the whole. It will always elude him. Someone who, on the contrary, truly fulfills his higher purpose will not only listen to the sound of his own instrument, but also to the tones of his fellow musicians. He who lives life in such a way will be fully permeated by this breadth of spirit.

    I am not speaking here merely about jumping into the fray now and then, when help is needed. That is certainly rewarding. But the person who gratefully receives all that life brings his way can often contribute more. So do justice to others, and participate in their lives in this manner – that is, with good will. Never be a spoilsport. Practice the politeness that naturally arises from interacting with others in this spirit and wins them over. Knowing how to treat people of power and influence without losing one’s own inner freedom requires savvy, but it is also an art of the heart that can bring about a lot of good.

    It is foolish to despise worldly wisdom. On the other hand, if you are not given to sophistication, hold back in all impartiality. You’ll have plenty of time to consider all this. It is only because I’ll soon be gone that I am addressing this now.

    Hopefully, circumstances will allow each of you enough time and peace to grow intellectually, according to your own nature, and to learn all you can, so that you may taste the unfading delight of a living education. Just remember that the value of what people call formation is not in the higher things that cultivation might allow you to achieve – don’t look for it there – but in the inner freedom and dignity it confers, by expanding your horizon, in terms of both time and space. To touch what is great and lofty can heighten one’s judgment, ennoble one’s emotions and refine one’s sense of decency. It can kindle a flame of enthusiasm that rises above the neediness of humdrum existence and never goes out. It will make you kings. Just be sure to rule yourselves too! Use this power to develop your gifts, and turn them into abilities and proficiencies; and then, if time is kind to you, it will remember the person and not just the achievement.

    Another wish I have for you: as long as you are young, I hope you hike the country and take in as much as you can, as fully as possible. Walking produces the right frame of mind for absorbing a landscape and succumbing to the impressions it yields – whether of people, villages, or beautiful old cities. While hiking, as while singing, one can lose oneself in beautiful fantasies – the sort which mysteriously awaken the essence of the country. And then: turn South. Our strength and destiny lie just as much in the unfulfilled longing for sunlit clarity.

    The era you are growing up in – this age of horror, death and destruction – has paraded the transitory nature of everything earthly before our eyes: the glory of men, which is like the flower of grass. Under its impact, we can do little else than live life with a consciousness of how it must pass. But this turning from what is transient to what is eternal is the beginning of wisdom. That is the blessing of this time.

    And yet: do not give yourselves over to the sort of pious moods that sometimes arise, when confronted by the world’s confusion and haste, and shake your faith, but deepen it, and let it grow firmer. Don’t remain in semi-darkness, but strive for clarity – though without injuring what is tender, or desecrating the unapproachable. Attempt to penetrate the Bible; and then take possession of this world, knowing that only what you have experienced and acquired for yourselves with utmost honesty has validity.

    God be with you!

    Embracing you with loyal affection and love,

    your father

    Translated by Chris Zimmerman from Eberhard and Renate Bethge, eds. Letzte Briefe im Widerstand (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1984), 53-36.

    Contributed By KlausBonhoeffer Klaus Bonhoeffer

    The older brother of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Klaus Bonhoeffer (1901–1945) was a jurist and legal adviser for Lufthansa.

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