After returning from my hitchhiking trip in the late summer of 1937, a big surprise hit me. A letter arrived from Basel, Switzerland, inviting me to spend the winter semester as guest student of the Department of Theology of the University of Basel. I could not believe my eyes. This was incredible. Why did they invite me?
I was not conscious of it at the time but then was told by Pastor Jacobi (who had confirmed me in the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche) that I happened to be the first student of theology who had been arrested and imprisoned because I was involved in helping Jews to hide and to escape. Word had gotten around fast among the Protestant churches of Germany and Switzerland.
Suddenly, a dream I had given up as hopeless came true. Who was now in Basel at the University? None other than Professor Karl Barth who, while at the University in Bonn, Germany, had refused to sign a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler and who then was forced to return to his native Switzerland.
I was eagerly looking forward to study under the world famous master of “dialectic theology”. I had already studied some of his voluminous books while in high school. But then my father had died just after I finished high school and there was no way I could financially afford to study at a university out of town.
The invitation was a great honor and opportunity. In Basel I found a room in the house of an older, widowed lady who turned out to be very concerned about my well-being. She asked for the schedule of my classes which I innocently gave her. Every morning, regardless of how early I had to leave (one class started at 7 a.m. in I the cold of winter), she came to my door with a tray of hot Ovaltine, two home-baked rolls, plus plenty of butter and home-made jelly.
“Now you eat this, you promise, because I you are too thin.”
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.
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.
One of the German students (his last name was Beckmann) who also had come to Basel because of Barth’s fame became totally disillusioned when he learned of the schism between Barth’s words and his life. He gave up theology and left Basel before the end of the semester.
During the Winter semester 37/38 in Basel something strange happened. 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.
While I was a student during the winter semester 37/38 in Basel, 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.
My last strength was gone after we finally managed to get to the top of the “easy” mountain where, thank goodness, there was a restaurant. After a hearty pea soup with bacon and a sausage, I felt better but the prospect of facing the snow storm – it had gotten worse – again frightened me so that I asked the boss in the restaurant to, please, let me stay overnight — in a corner, anywhere, making no trouble to anyone — just let me stay, please.
But the boss said that this was out of the question. “You MUST go”, was the definite answer. So, I went with Nico. We could not see anything ahead of us and the only sure thing was that, most of the time, we went down, down, down.
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.
The German theology students in Basel were all serious people but we had a good sense of humor, too, and being in our early twenties, we loved life and had a good time with modest, inexpensive pleasures: walking along the Rhine river on cold winter Sundays (topped by a cup of hot chocolate half way in a restaurant before returning), hiking in the mountains, or a rare ski trip in the nearby Black Forest Mountains in Germany.
Who were they and what happened to them?
There was Maria Netter from a formerly Jewish family which had converted to Christianity generations ago. She was from Berlin and lived in a street not far from where I lived. At the time we got to know her in Basel, only her father was still alive. He was a business man constantly on the go in many countries from which he sent her occasional post cards. Maria was the only one in our group who had plenty of money. She could afford to ride horses. One day she had the gall to come to a theology lecture in her riding outfit, complete with riding PANTS (all women wore only skirts or dresses) and BOOTS (women wear SHOES!). This was utterly unheard of at that time and especially in stuffy Basel.
This episode was reported as a news item, an outrageous item, in the Baseler Nachrichten. SOCIETY was outraged but we all laughed about it.
Soon after the semester ended, her father died and she asked some of her friends from the Basel days to help her go through her father’s things and wind things up in Berlin. She ordered huge platters of delicious food for us and we “went through her father’s things.” One of us found a 100-Mark bill as a book mark. Maria just gave it away. “Finders, keepers,” she said.
Maria returned to Basel and continued her studies. She wrote a paper on “The Horse in the Bible.” Eventually, we learned, she became a journalist specializing in art.
Joachim Hanschkatz was the son of a pastor in Finsterwalde (Niederlausitz) where I once had met the family. Joachim had a younger brother who was mentally retarded. In Basel Joachim fell in love with a Swiss girl. He spent his meager funds on roses and gifts for the girl he adored. But his love was unrequited.
Soon after the beginning of World War II Joachim was drafted into the army. For a while his unit stayed close to the Polish border. On Sundays he held services in churches in the neighborhood where pastors had been drafted. He prayed for Jews and the many others oppressed by the Nazis. Soon he found himself court-martialed for his “crimes.” He was sentenced to help clean up a minefield. He was blown to bits.
Günther Völker: A teacher’s son, very sensitive and gentle. In Basel he found a room with a very strict Christian landlady. One evening he came home after 10 p.m. His landlady was waiting for him at the door and sternly reprimanded him for coming home late. “The Holy Ghost goes to bed at 10 o’clock”, she said. “After 10 o’clock the devil comes out.” Naturally, we laughed a lot about that and kidded each other not to come home after the holy ghost goes to bed.
Günther also was drafted into the army and was sent to Russia with his unit. A few times he sent us sad poems from the Wolga. Then there was silence. He never came back.
Helmut Hesse: He was the son of the Moderator (head) of the Reformed Church who lived in Wuppertal-Elberfeld. Two other sons also were theologians. The family was known as strong anti-Nazis. Helmut was not drafted into the army because he had developed a serious kidney ailment. Instead he was taken to the Dachau concentration camp. I learned that he was beaten to death.
Both Helmut’s two brothers were drafted into the army. Both ended up in the Soviet Union. One never came back. The other, after years in Siberian prison camps, came back crippled for life.