Growing up as a bomb baby in Germany, as I did, it was common not to have a living father. About 2.5 million German children lost their fathers in World War II. Source. In my case, my father lost his life two months before I was born, so we never knew one another.
From my mother, I learned that she had met him while both were students of theology under Karl Barth in Basel. While on a ski trip there, she lost a ski during a storm and would have perished, but Nico (as everyone called him) defied all odds to rescue her, and so she came to trust him. (See her memoirs.) He was good on the guitar and could play the violin. They were both active in the underground fraction of the German Protestant Church, the Bekennende Kirche (BK). They helped Jews hide or escape, they published newsletters — once, my mother told me, he was almost caught transporting a mimeograph machine — and they listened to BBC. He was ordained as a pastor. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. He was drafted and killed in the war in Russia.
Those tidbits were approximately the sum total of my knowledge of this man from whom I have half my genetic material and little else. I assembled these few stones into a mosaic that made up the image of my father in my head. It wasn’t much, but it was good. Compared to many of my peers who did not know who their father was, or might have preferred not to know, or who had living fathers who abused them, I was well set up in the paternal role model department, at least in the imagination.
If I did not know more, the reason was partly that my mother did not know more. Their whole relationship, from first acquaintance to last contact, spanned less than four years. They lived together a total of five months. Less than nine months elapsed between their wedding day and his death. And then, directly after the war, in my mother’s move from the village of Fürstenhagen to the city of Frankfurt, a small truckload of items got lost forever, including the briefcase containing his letters and other memorabilia. She had left only three photographs of him.
My mother’s memoirs, which I found among her papers after her death in 1997, gave me a much better picture of my mother, but added little of substance to my picture of my father.
There the matter might have rested indefinitely. But one day in the summer of 2009 I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman who identified herself as a staffer at the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. She wanted to know if I was the “Kolja” Nicolaus who was the son of Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus and Margot Nicolaus born in September 1941. (Indeed I am.) A German historian in Berlin was looking for me.
Weeks later, after several false starts, I made an email connection with Hartmut Ludwig, a Dozent in the Theological Faculty of Humboldt University in Berlin. Although he holds a Doctor of Theology degree, Ludwig refused the usual German honorifics, Doktor and Professor, and insisted on being addressed simply as Herr Ludwig. His writing and teaching is focused on the modern history of the Protestant Church in Germany, particularly during the Nazi period. During his digging in various archives, he had come across some letters from my father that had aroused his interest. He had pursued this thread, and had written a short chapter about my father as part of a German book, Protestant Profiles, that appeared in 2009. (I have translated this text here in a separate post.) In his research he found a mention of my birth, wondered if I were still alive, and whether I had any relevant material.
I sent Herr Ludwig, of course, my mother’s manuscript, together with all surviving documents in my hands, such as birth and death certificates, which might be helpful in nailing down dates. We carried on a correspondence by email. This gave me a chance to polish up my rusty German writing skills and learn how to make Umlaute on an English-language keyboard. In the fall of 2010, my wife, my elder son Fred, and I visited Berlin as part of a European trip, and we had a very pleasant dinner with Ludwig and his wife at the historic Hotel Albrechtshof. It was an appropriate venue: here the underground federal council of brethren of the BK had met during the Hitler period.
Ludwig knew a great deal more about my father than I did. As a professional historian with a number of publications, he had access to the archives of the German Protestant Church; to the private archives of Karl Barth; to the university archives of Tübingen, where my father had studied; to the archives of the Krupp works, where my father’s father, my father, and my father’s sister had worked; to the recently opened archives of the Gestapo in Berlin, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt; and to several others. He was able to photocopy some of the documents for me; others I later obtained from the archives myself, thanks to his lead. I have been repeatedly impressed by the depth and detail of the archives’ holdings, and I am grateful to the staff members of the archives for their efficiency, friendliness, and readiness to assist.
Among the documents were copies of letters my father wrote to my mother from the Eastern Front in 1941, which had been circulated privately among members of the BK and so found their way into the archives. There was also a letter my father wrote to Pastor Busch in Essen, asking for guidance on a political question — a letter intercepted by the Gestapo. And there was a letter my father wrote to friends in England, likewise intercepted, that landed him in a Gestapo prison. The German archives also contained files kept on my father by Gestapo officials in Essen and in Frankfurt, together with the files of the prisons where he was kept.
I am immensely grateful to Prof. Ludwig for his initiative, which has given me the impetus and the foundation for piecing together a new, evidence-based portrait of my father. Naturally, as a son I look at my father through a different lens than Ludwig, the historian of an institution and a movement. Wherever possible, I have drawn on my mother’s memoirs and I have added some links via Google to people, places, and events that touched my father’s life.
My father, Albrecht Fritz Nicolaus, was born in Kiel on May 8, 1914. His father, Martin Karl Nicolaus, born in Essen in 1885, had gone to work for the Krupp works in Essen in 1910, in the Hollerith department. Hollerith cards were the computer data storage medium in that epoch. A copy of Martin Karl’s personnel file card, preserved in the Krupp Archives, is on the right.
Only a year later, Krupp transferred Martin to the Krupp works in Kiel. This was probably the Germaniawerft, where Krupp built U-boats. In June of 1914, shortly after the birth of my father, Martin withdrew from the Krupp workers’ pension system, probably because he was promoted to lower management.
In Kiel, Martin met Anna Kroneberg, and they married. Their first child, Lieselotte Nicolaus, was born on August 10, 1912.
Anna Kroneberg had a sister, Minna, also in Kiel, who met and married K. J. Heinrich Brüggensiecker; and they had a son, Heinrich, a year after my father was born. (Heinrich reappears much later in my and my mother’s story.)
After the end of World War I, in 1919, Krupp transferred Martin back to Essen; there he worked, apparently in the office of the Gussstahlfabrik (the cast steel plant) until the end of his life in 1942.
Albrecht was five when the Nicolaus family moved to Essen. He did his primary and secondary school education there. His education proceeded on the college-bound track, and he completed his Abitur — the final exam that qualifies a student for entrance to university — in the spring of 1933 at the Reformrealgymnasium.
Directly after his Abitur, Albrecht entered the Arbeitsdienst (labor service). Instituted during the Weimar Republic in 1931 as a voluntary program to combat unemployment and to do public works projects, the Arbeitsdienst became compulsory with the Nazi takeover. From April 1933 to March 1934, Albrecht did his labor service at Camp 2/44 in Stolzenberg, a place name that no longer exists, somewhere in Pomerania (northeastern Germany). The work was very probably farm labor. These camps had a partly economic and partly propagandistic purpose. Apparently, some of the latter stuck to Albrecht.
In April 1934, at age 19, Albrecht enrolled as a theology student at the university in Marburg, an institution affiliated with the Protestant church. There he joined a Wohnkameradschaft, similar to a fraternity house, affiliated with the DCSV, the German Christian Student Association, a group somewhat similar to the YMCA.
At the same time, on April 4, 1934, Albrecht joined the SA, the Sturmabteilung, the brown shirts. The photograph to the right shows Albrecht and his mother and an unidentified third person (possibly his sister Lieselotte) at a summer camp near Marburg in August, 1934, during the time that Albrecht was an SA member; perhaps this explains the haircut. While in the SA, Albrecht earned two certificates of proficiency in sports. He left the SA on March 1, 1935. The DCSV, the German Christian Student Association to which Albrecht belonged at Marburg, was banned by the Nazis in 1938.
Albrecht passed his Hebrew language exam at Marburg in July 1934, and his Greek language exam in February 1935. (He would have done his Latin earlier, in high school.) Theology students needed to demonstrate proficiency in all three Biblical languages. In July 1935, Albrecht took and passed two exams in theological doctrine, with Profs. Maurer and Schlier at Marburg, earning a grade of B (“Gut“). He obtained a waiver of one fourth of his fees and a scholarship of 60 Reichsmark while studying at Marburg.
From July 1 to November 25, 1935, Albrecht worked at Krupp, where his father and sister also worked (she had begun there in 1929 as an accounting clerk). He was a Ferienarbeiter (vacation worker) in the Büro für Arbeiterangelegenheiten — Office of Workers’ Affairs, probably what we would call today the “human resources” department. He returned there a second time the following year, from July 1 to October 31, 1936. (See file card, left; from Krupp Historical Archive)
In November, 1935, Albrecht registered at the University in Tübingen in the theology school. He immediately filed an application for a waiver of half the university fees. In addition to evidence of satisfactory scholarship, he had to submit personal information and family financial data, which is duly preserved in the file.
The application attested that the family owned no land or other capital assets, real or otherwise. Its only significant source of income was Martin’s salary as office employee (Büroangestellter) at Krupp, which came to 382.50 Reichsmark per month or 4,590 Reichsmark per year. His earnings were below the threshold for the income tax and the wealth tax. The family had no debts. Lieselotte’s pittance went to subsidize Albrecht’s studies. His summer job earnings covered part of his unpaid debt for fees at Marburg. He did not belong to the Nazi student association or to any political party. Albrecht’s mother had to undergo a serious neck operation and was being treated at the Krupp clinic. The father’s health insurance would cover only a small part of the expected but still unknown medical bill; thus the family’s financial situation was strained. The application was granted and Albrecht continued his studies at Tübingen.
The following spring, while at Tübingen, Albrecht wrote a letter to Pastor Wilhelm Busch which began his troubles with the Nazi police.
Pastor Busch was a prominent senior clergyman in Essen and was a mentor to the young Albrecht and a friend of the family. Busch had begun as pastor of a parish of coal miners (Essen was a center of coal and steel production) and then became Youth Pastor, leader of the city’s Protestant young people. The chief meeting place of this youth association was the Weigle Haus. In 1933, the Hitler Youth made a practice of attacking various Catholic or Protestant youth club houses by night and taking them over. Busch gathered about 100 of his older youth together and organized them to guard the Weigle Haus and defend it. When the Hitler Youth crowd assembled and attacked in early 1934, Busch’s guards defended the house vigorously with hoses, sticks, and fists. Not expecting resistance, the Hitler hoodlums, pursued by the defenders, fled to the nearest train station, where bystanders joined in beating them up. The Weigle Haus was saved. [Source] The battle made Busch a hero with the city’s youth, but a marked man in the eyes of the regime. Thus it was no surprise that Albrecht’s letter to Busch was intercepted by the Gestapo (the Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police).
The original of Albrecht’s letter, written in the pointed and slanted Gothic handwriting of the day, has been lost. But the Gestapo made a typescript, which survives (right). The Gestapo official’s large diagonal handwritten note in the left margin says “Send immediately: express mail to D[üssel]dorf & Tübingen.”
March 23, 1936
My letter was actually supposed to be about a different matter, but in the meantime something very pressing has come up: the plebiscite.
The ballot, which I received yesterday, drove me into something of a corner and I still don’t see the way out. But I don’t want to risk my small capital of connections with the fatherland prematurely through light- or wrong-headed moves. Still — a new parliament? Because by giving my approval to March 7, I make out a blank check for everything that follows, all with a little “x” — it’s a real cross to bear! Quite a bit more could be said on this topic.
Please don’t make too much out of the fact that a young man of “today” wants to borrow civic advice from an old soldier of “yesterday.” But I would be grateful to you for a clear word.
(signed: Albrecht Nicolaus)
The event of March 7 was the German army’s march into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone under the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno. The plebiscite, scheduled for March 29, was to approve a new Reichstag (German parliament) composed almost entirely of Nazi party members, and to give a gloss of popular ratification to Germany’s flagrant breach of these treaties. The plebiscite was exactly as Albrecht feared, a blank check for everything that followed.
A note in the Gestapo file indicates that Albrecht’s mail was placed under Postkontrolle (mail control) after this letter was intercepted, but nothing further of interest was found, and the mail watch on Albrecht was stopped for reasons of economy three weeks later. (It was resumed, however, two years later on account of another letter, discussed below.)
The Gestapo clerk in Tübingen writes on April 16, 1936, that “until now the only information we have on him is that he is active as an organizer among the so-called Bekenntnis-students in Tübingen.” (Image to the right)
There is no indication that Busch received Albrecht’s letter, or that if he did, answered it. He certainly did not answer it in writing, or the answer would be in the Gestapo archives.[ref]The opinion is that of Günther van Norden, Die Jugendarbeit des Pfarrers Busch in Essen (The Youth Work of Pastor Busch in Essen), in Evangelische Kirche an Ruhr und Saar, Beiträge zur rheinischen und westfälischen Kirchengeschichte, Bielefeld 2007, p. 169[/ref] Busch was imprisoned and released several times during the Nazi era. He married my parents on Oct. 3 1940 and baptized me on Oct. 12, 1941. Busch survived the war and became an influential figure in postwar religion and politics.
In 1937, Albrecht moved to Basel, Switzerland, to study under Karl Barth. Barth is today revered as something of a Protestant saint. In my parents’ time, he was a highly controversial figure. He was a professor of theology at Bonn, Germany, when Hitler came to power. He was instrumental in the formation of the Bekennende Kirche in 1934 and was the principal author of its theological manifesto, the Barmen Declaration. The following year, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, was fired from the university, and forced to leave Germany. He returned to his native Switzerland to teach at Basel, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of theology in Europe. He was a member of the trend of “dialectic theology,” which had remote roots in the German philosopher Hegel, and became its foremost advocate. His thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics, which he began in 1932, is considered a monumental classic of theology.
Barth’s most controversial teaching, in his academic work as in the Barmen Declaration, centered on the thesis that the sole source of the church’s truth was the teaching of Jesus Christ. That may sound like a Sunday school platitude, but it was intended and received as a stab in the heart to theologians — particularly Nazi theologians — who held up church tradition, culture, history, nature, natural law, philosophy and of course political ideology and political leaders as equally or more important sources of church doctrine. Students from Germany sympathetic to the BK came to Basel, particularly because the German theology schools had been largely purged of anti-fascists.
My mother Margot came to Basel at the same time. In her memoirs (elsewhere on this website) she writes:
In the winter semester of 1937/38 there was a bunch of about half a dozen Germans of anti-Nazi background in Basel as students of theology, all of them eager to learn from Professor Karl Barth: Albrecht Nicolaus from Essen, Joachim Hanschkatz from Finsterwalde, Helmut Hesse from Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Maria Netter, Günther Völker, Ruth Wendlandt and myself, Margot Eickhoff, from Berlin. We all became good friends and, in the case of Albrecht Nicolaus and Margot Eickhoff, we got married two years later.
Lectures were delivered and seminars held at the old, old university building in Basel, overlooking the Rhine river from a high point. The benches and desks in the building were ancient: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Dutch scholar, had sat there some time at the end of the 15th century! And I was sitting there now!
Karl Barth’s lecture halls were always crowded with students anxious to hear what the world-famous professor had to say. In the beginning it was very difficult to understand him because he had a very thick German-Swiss accent that was a strain on our ears. Eventually, we got used to it. The professor also wrote volume after volume, all very scholastic stuff with lots of quotes in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
Barth’s domestic life was equally interesting. In the heart of one of the stodgiest institutions in one of the most hidebound countries in Christendom, the famous Calvinist theologian was living in a ménage à trois.
Once a week the German theology students were invited to the midday meal (the main meal of the day) at various theology professors’ houses. This was a generous way of sustaining the German students on their meager budgets. So there I was at the great master’s house, at the great master’s table. Naturally, the great master sat at the head of the table and his wife to his right. There also sat the master’s two sons, also students of theology, and the invited guests. But who was the lady who sat at the master’s left side? The lady’s name was Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The master called her Lulu. He and Lulu did most of the talking. Barth’s wife was icily polite but mostly silent. It fast dawned on the invited students what was going on here.
Officially, Lulu was Professor Karl Barth’s secretary and co-worker. For him she had studied Hebrew, Greek and Latin and wrote all his manuscripts and letters. She had a room next to the master’s study and that’s where she devoted her life to Karl.
Karl Barth’s colleagues – we found out – had repeatedly told him that his marital infidelity was untenable for a Christian theologian and they implored him to separate himself from his mistress. But Karl Barth insisted that Lulu was sent to him by God and that he would insult God if he let her go. For Karl Barth’s wife divorce was unthinkable — he was a world-famous theologian.
At least one student whom Margot knew was so devastated by the contradiction between the master’s writings and his home life that he quit school and went home. But most of the students seemed to be far more impassioned by matters of doctrine than by prurient pursuits. Margot, who was an attractive young woman, reports on her evening at a theology students’ dance party:
One of Karl Barth’s sons invited me to a dance at a party given by a fraternity to which a lot of theology students belonged. I was pretty worried that I would be a failure at dancing — I had never been at a dance before. I felt obliged to go since it was considered a privilege to go. I was able to buy a simple and inexpensive long cotton dress, pink with little black decorative bands, and there I was with a son of the famous professor, in line being looked over by the theology professors and the music started and we were supposed to dance. But did we dance?
No, Sir. All the Swiss and some of the German theology students stood and sat around a table upon which stood a bottle of cheap red wine – and all they did was discuss – of all things – the resurrection of the dead. Will you believe me? This went on for hours and hours. The Swiss students talked and talked while their French speaking colleagues danced and danced. The son of Karl Barth who had invited me to the dance never danced a single dance with me or anybody else.
Just before the end of the affair the other son of Karl Barth, Marcus, came and invited me to a waltz which I managed to do since he was a strong leader. His brother took me home in a taxi and said that he enjoyed my company although he had not spoken a single word to me all evening.
Albrecht became a special person for Margot in the course of a ski outing. At that time and in that place, one could still cross from Switzerland to Germany and back without difficulties. Margot writes:
I wanted very much to go skiing in the mountains since a lot of students enjoyed doing it. Although I had never been on skis before, I did not think that there was I any thing to learn – it looked sooo easy – and so, one weekend a group of German students decided to spend a weekend in the nearby Black Forest, just across the border from Switzerland in Germany.
With a couple of borrowed skis I joined the group. Albrecht Nicolaus was part of our group. We decided to do the easy climb up the Feldberg, and the weather forecast promised beautiful snow. Barely halfway up the Feldberg, a snowstorm started with such wildness that I one could hardly see anything ahead. Under these conditions, the group split and it so happened that only Albrecht Nicolaus, “Nico” was near me. He encouraged me to go on and on because I became so tired that I only wanted to sit down in the snow and wait for the storm to subside. Without Nico’s encouragement I would have frozen to death sitting in the snow. […]
Suddenly my left ski loosened itself from my foot and disappeared in the white nowhere. Without a ski, my left foot got stuck knee deep in the snow. This time, I thought, I’m going to die in the snow. But Nico did not want to leave me to die. He said that he would go back to the restaurant on top of the mountain and get (borrow) another pair of skies and come back to me. Quite frankly, I thought he could not possibly find the way back to the top of the mountain and then come back and find me in the white hell.
Where I was, I waited and waited and waited. When I had almost given up hope, there was Nico with a fresh pair of skis. He helped me to put them on and then kept to my side as we went on through the white unknown downhill, down, down.
Suddenly, there was a clearing and a small hotel was in sight. It was a youth hostel. We were safe. We got quarters for the night, separately, of course. The next morning we took the train back to Basel. When we arrived, our friends told us that they had already prayed for our dead souls.
In that night three experienced mountain guides had lost their lives in the snow storm.
This happened quite some time before Nico asked me to marry him. But from that day on I knew that I could rely on him with my life.
In Basel, Albrecht found not only his future wife and mother of his child, but also a new clarity and conviction. Years later, after the war, Margot wrote to Karl Barth thanking him for his guidance. After his time in Basel, Margot wrote, Albrecht “underwent a profound transformation in his nature.” In Albrecht’s last letter before his death, she wrote, “my husband remembered very particularly the insights he gained through your work, which became ever more precious to him in many a trial by fire.”