That time of year. So much going on. A few bookstore events, a note about bookstore tshirts and a bit of literary nonfiction.
November 24: Shop Small Saturday! The bookstore sets up next to Montana Farmacy in Eureka. Perfect location for a Textual Apothecary. 9am – 3pm
December 1: Holly Faire! The bookstore sets up at the Creative Arts Center for their holiday bazaar. 9am – 5pm. 1st Ave West in Eureka.
Bookstore tshirts People send inquiries about purchasing traveling bookstore tshirts. As this isn’t an online business, it is a small challenge to find the ideal way to fill orders. If you send a check with your order (size, men or women’s style, mailing address), the tshirt you want will be mailed. $25/shirt. St. Rita’s Traveling Bookstore PO Box 2036 Eureka, MT 59917. But of course it is better to meet the bookstore while it is on the road and get your shirt at a discounted price as well as conversation.
My name is Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller. My friends call me Martin. As with most of us who reach the sixth decade, many things touched our lives over the years. Many things – some tender as a delicate blossom in spring, some strong as a tank pushing through barbed wire into war. Some we barely notice like the first time I walked into Rosenstein’s store to buy a bottle of ink. One is on my body forever.
My father was a minister and my mother was a very sweet woman. They raised me in the Lutheran faith, a strict German family, quite conservative and yet I felt loved by my parents while growing up. After completing high school, I entered the Navy and eventually served on submarines and U-boats. Unfortunately or should I say fortunately depending on where you stand on such matters, Germany was in the First World War at that point. By 1918, I grew to know beyond a doubt military life and war were not for me. I considered following in my father’s footsteps, to become a minister.
But before starting down that path, I had the wonderful fortune to meet Else and we married in 1919. Who could have asked for a better woman and wife? We decided to try farming as I envisioned a bucolic life together tending the fields, raising children, sitting by the stove on snowy winter nights reading to each other. But it was difficult for us to get enough money to buy a small farm so we decided I should pursue becoming a minister. Finally I was ordained in 1924 and received my first placement as curate at Münster’s Church of the Redeemer.
We did well in those years. I was able to do what the church and congregation needed and expected of me. Eventually we moved to serve a larger church outside Berlin. With Else and my vocation, life settled into a pattern I enjoyed and appreciated. Evenings after dinner when there weren’t church events, Else and I sat in the parlor. Sometimes I would have a small glass of schnapps, smoking my pipe as I read. Else worked on her sewing. She sewed christening outfits for infants. She had a way with delicate stitches on those tiny clothes.
During quiet evenings at home we might listen to the radio. There was quite a lot going on in the early 1930s. Adolf Hitler was about to become Chancellor. I thought he had good ideas how to strengthen our country and improve the economy. Once in 1932, I actually met with the man as I represented the committee of Protestant churches. When we spoke together that afternoon, I believed he had our country’s best interests at heart. He had a vision that inspired me. He solemnly promised he would maintain the laws of the Church. There might be some restrictions against Jews but nothing serious. I saw he truly wanted our country to be strong and good. He was looking for the best way to accomplish this and I had faith in him. When I left that meeting, I nearly ran I was so excited to get home. I wanted to tell Else how fortunate we were as Germans to have this leader, to have this future for our children.
I will always remember that evening. Else and I talked of our plans for the next year, how I might apply to a larger church. We even drank a small toast together after the children were in bed. Our family was growing and with the little ones, it would be prudent for me to find a position better suited for a large family. There was such a glow that evening. There was such a glow.
But the glow didn’t last. Within the year it became evident Hitler had other plans, which were not in keeping with Church laws. His government took over churches, dictating what was allowed. It was a difficult time and I didn’t know what to do. Else looked to me for answers but what could I tell her? Members in my congregation had growing concerns. Should they be worried? Could this government be voted out?
One afternoon I struggled writing a sermon, trying to find the right words to calm people’s fears. I remember it was an early Thursday afternoon. The children were quietly resting following lunch. I needed ink for my pen and appreciated the opportunity for a short walk to the stationary shop a few blocks away. I looked forward to chatting with Mr. Rosenstein about pens and papers because we both appreciated quality in writing supplies. The afternoon weather was brisk but warm enough. The blue sky with a few random clouds put me in a better mood. Surely we would weather this government and move on to something better.
Arriving at the shop, I was surprised to find it locked. The blinds were drawn and I immediately thought something must have happened to Mr. Rosenstein or his wife. I went to the newspaper kiosk a few steps away to ask the gentleman there if he knew. He winked and told me the Rosensteins had moved. Moved? That didn’t make the least bit of sense. What about their shop? The man looked at me as though I was a dunce. “They’re Jews, for godsake! The government is finally taking them away.”
I needed to do something. But truth be told I didn’t know what to do. You might think a man of the cloth would pray and ask for guidance at a time like this. But it was as though some dark heavy wool settled not only on my country but on my faith and my mind. I met with other ministers who were also troubled by the increasing violence and propaganda. We formed a group to oppose these anti-Christian governmental policies. We asked for meetings but Hitler’s regime had no use for us by then.
We still tried. I could have tried harder, but I didn’t know then how terrible it would become. I truly didn’t know. On a hot July morning I sat with Else in the garden’s shade as the children played. There was a knock at the door. Else went to answer. How could she know it was the police there to arrest me? We were a good German family. I was a minister. Yet they took me to a prison. Eventually they sent me to Dachau.
Dachau was the first camp the Nazis built. It grew over time into what they called sub camps. There were so many prisoners being brought in they needed to continually expand the complex. Tens of thousands of Germans, Austrians, Poles, French and Czechs. And yes, there were many clergy imprisoned at Dachau along with Jews. The Nazis thought clergy whether Catholic or Protestant would persuade people to fight against the insanity of the government. So they locked us up, used us as fodder along with the others. Seven years I was at Dachau. Seven years living in a hell only humans could create.
So many deaths. So much senseless torture. So many lives torn asunder. We rarely had news from outside the walls. I tried to picture Else and the children around the table eating dinner together or out in the garden. But mostly all I managed was to survive, to do whatever I was told. And then one day, one which had dawned like so many others, life changed when US soldiers opened the gates.
Did I know what to do? No. I managed to find Else. The children, well, they were no longer children as seven years had passed. Two had died. I wanted so badly to go back to the days when I was a minister and the children were small, when life had a rhythm I understood. Now I understood nothing. My life had become something I never could have imagined. Would I ever feel love for my country again, this country which committed such atrocities?
With other German ministers, I compiled a document that testified to our guilt, admitted our shame in not doing more. But the document was a flimsy piece of paper compared to the millions of innocents lost. It meant nothing.
Recently I met a scientist who explained in detail the type of bombs the Americans dropped on Japan. Again I felt the black horror men are capable of committing. I cried as the scientist described the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shadows etched on sidewalks where people were incinerated by those bombs. And I knew I must act. I began working for peace. I talk with anyone I can. I tell them the mistakes I made and how this time we must stand firm against the worse parts of humanity.