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February 5, 2014 By 

Maria von Wedemeyer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

By Wendy Murray

Yesterday, February 4, what would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s 108 birthday. A Lutheran pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging, age 39, in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. He and small-but-fierce contingent of devoted Protestants actively resisted the Nazi encroachment in both church and state. They founded the Confessing Church movement to mount active resistance to government-sponsored efforts to nazify German Protestantism. His writings have influenced subsequent generations who struggle with the role of Christian devotion in a hostile culture. The Cost of Discipleship, a modern classic, is widely known for Bonhoeffer’s haunting statement: “When Christ calls a man he bids him to come and die.”

He was engaged in January 1943, at age 36, to Maria von Wedemeyer only to be arrested by the Gestapo three months later in consequence of his involvement in plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed (April 1945) while imprisoned at Flossenbürg concentration camp only weeks before Hitler killed himself and the German surrender.

During the two short of years of his engagement to von Wedemeyer (and what ended up to be the last two years of his life, 1943 – 1945), the two exchanged letters that were amorous and wrenching. Published for the first time in 1995 as Love Letters From Cell 92, edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz (Abingdon), this intimate correspondence reveals a side of Bonhoeffer that is generally not known. I reviewed the book for Christianity Today magazine when it was released. I include a portion below :

“Wait with me, I beg you! Let me embrace you long and tenderly, let me kiss you and love you and stroke the sorrow from your brow.” This is not an excerpt from a Harlequin romance but the impassioned longings of the champion of radical discipleship.

These sentiments—and more like them—present a new aspect of Bonhoeffer, showing him to be surprisingly amorous, but in a way altogether consistent with his theology of costly grace. His love for Maria was “costly” because Bonhoeffer was forced to relinquish it; it was “grace,” because after 37 years of heady bachelorhood, he tasted of the wellspring of romantic possibility. Bonhoeffer's Love Letters

Maria von Wedemeyer has been duly acknowledged as the true love of the gifted German theologian. But before the publication of this volume, Bonhoeffer’s devotees had not been given such a glimpse of the force of this relationship and the passion this man felt, and then sublimated during his hard years in prison.

He loved her, longed for her, and she for him. The tenderness and optimism behind this collection of letters causes the reader to languish with them as week after week, into months, into years, the couple anticipates the time when they will sit together on the couch at Patzig (Maria’s family estate) and hold hands. The reader also knows the tragic ending to this tale, while the writers themselves do not. A constant theme echoes throughout: “Don’t get tired and depressed, my dearest Dietrich, it won’t be much longer now.”

Maria entrusted this collection of letters to her sister, Ruth-Alice von Bismarck, just prior to her death in 1977. For years before that, Maria would not allow the letters to be published. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer, writes in the postscript: “I had resigned myself to never seeing this correspondence.”

It took the subsequent 15 years for von Bismarck to complete the task of sequentially collating the correspondence with the aid of Ulrich Kabitz, who added the necessary footnotes and historical data. Consolidating such fragmented, at times incomplete, material into a coherent narrative was no simple task. But, overall, it works: the reader is pulled into the drama and tedium that these two lovers experienced during their years of waiting and hoping.

For the rest of the article…

Eighteen times, Maria von Wedemeyer was able to visit her fiancé in Tegel prison, from 24 June 1943 to 23 August 1944. Their engagement was made up of 18 tormenting farewells. These and their letters were all they had, fanning the flame, over and over again, of their longings for a life together. Maria received the poem “The Past” in a letter smuggled out of the prison at the the beginning of June 1944. On 27 June she was with him again in Tegel, and after the failed coup of 20 July 1944 they saw each other one last time, on 23 August.

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 347-348).

He had to admit to himself that “nothing is more tormenting than one’s longing”; and this torment was what lay behind his poem, “The Past”, written immediately after a visit from his fiancée.

You left, beloved bliss and pain so hard to love.

What shall I call you? Life, Anguish, Ecstasy,

my Heart, of my own self a part – the past?

The door slammed shut and locked,

I hear your steps depart, resound, then slowly fade.

What remains for me? Joy, torment, longing?

I know just this. You left – and all is past. 

(Ferdinand SchlingensiepenDietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, 345-346).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer were engaged in January of 1943. On the 17th of that month, Bonhoeffer wrote to a handwritten letter to Maria. As of January 23, Dietrich had not heard back from Maria. So he fired off another letter to her on that same day. But the next day, he received a good  and encouraging letter from her. On January 24, he wrote another letter to her. I love this period in Bonhoeffer’s life because he is so excited (dare I say giddy) over Maria?

My dear Maria,

Now the letter is here, your kind letter–I thank you for it and thank you anew each new time I read it, indeed to me it is almost as if I were to experience now for the first time in my life what it means to be thankful to another person, what a profoundly transforming power gratitude can be–it is the Yes–this word so difficult and so marvelous, appearing so seldom among mortals–from which all this springs–may God from whom every Yes comes grant that we may speak Yes always thus and always more and more to one another throughout our entire life.

From every good word of your letter I have sensed with joyful certainty that will be good between us. The life together, toward which through God’s goodness we hope to move, is like a tree that must grow deep roots, silent and hidden, strong and free, no hothouse growth forced into quick bloom…

…Yours with much love and continued thoughts of you,

Dietrich

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, 387-388).

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer were engaged in January of 1943. On the 17th of that month, Bonhoeffer wrote to a handwritten letter to Maria. As of January 23, Dietrich had not heard back from Maria. So he fired off another letter to her on that same day. I love this letter because Dietrich wondered what was going on Maria’s heart and mind, and he needed to hear from her so that he would be more at peace!

Dear Maria,

Tomorrow so it will be one week since I wrote. I thought I needed to wait for your response before I could I write again. Now that today’s mail has again brought nothing, I must write simply so that I myself can continue to wait peacefully. I am not trying to push you, truly–I would much rather wait much longer. If responding is so difficult, then  I will wait until it has become easy and inwardly necessary and free. Anything else would be wrong-headed–and how could I ever forget that it has to be a miracle for response to be easy. Even now, nothing ought to be rushed and forced; indeed time must pass before everything can become clear. In all this we are to so fully at one.

But I needed to write this note as a sign (of life) if I wanted to free myself from burdensome thoughts and restore peace of mind.

There would be so much more to say. But I don’t want to do so today but rather simply wait and lay everything, truly everything, into God’s hand.

From my heart,

Dietrich

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, 386)

 

The engagement between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer took place in January of 1943. On the 17th, Bonhoeffer wrote to a letter to Maria. His words are filled of emotion and excitement…

…May I simply say what is in my heart? I sense and am overwhelmed by the awareness that a gift without equal has been given me–after all the confusion of the past weeks I had no longer dared to hope–and now the unimaginably great and blissful thing is simply here, and my heart open up and becomes quite wide and overflowing with thankfulness and shame and still cannot grasp it all–this “Yes” that is to be decisive for our entire life. If we were now able to talk in person with each other, there would be so infinitely much–yet fundamentally only always one and the same thing–to say!

Is it possible that we will see each other soon?   And where? Without having to be afraid of others’ words again? Or for one reason or another shall this still not happen? I think now it must happen.

And now I cannot speak any differently than I have often done in my own heart–I want to speak to you as a man speaks to the girl with whom he wants to go through life and has given her Yes–dear Maria, I thank you for your word, for all  hat you have endured for me and for what you are and will be for me.

Let us now be and become more happy happy in each other…

…This letter must be off immediately so that you will receive it tomorrow. God protect you and us both.

Your faith Dietrich

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, 384)

 

 

The engagement between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer took place in January of 1943. On the 17th of that month, Bonhoeffer wrote to a handwritten letter to Maria. Did I really say “handwritten”? That was the main means of communicating in 1943! I am old enough to remember the days before cell phones and e-mail and Facebook. In those days, we anticipated when the mailman came!

Dear Maria,

The letter was under way for four days before just now–an hour ago–arriving here! In an hour the mail is being picked up again, so at least an initial greeting and thanks must go with it–even if the words I wish to say have not emerged!

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, 383)

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer were engaged on January 13, 1943. Even in a world of uncertainty and even danger, there can be the love between a man and a woman. On that same day, Maria wrote to Bonhoeffer:

In these past few days I spoke with my mother and my uncle from Kieckow. Now I am allowed to write you, and I ask to respond to this letter. It is so difficult for me to have to put in writing what even in person can scarcely be spoken. I wish to rebut every word that wants to be spoken here, because words are so clumsy and forceful with things that want to be said gently.

But because I have experienced that you understand me so well, I now have the courage to write you, although I actually have no right at all to reply to a question you have not even asked me.

Today I can say Yes to you from my entire, joyful heart.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, 383)

On October 26, 1942, Max von Wedemeyer was killed on the eastern front. Max was the brother of Maria von Wedemeyer who would become engaged to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in January of 1943. Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to her on October 31th. Bonhoeffer is very pastoral in this letter.

Dear Miss von Wedemeyer,

If I might be allowed to only this to you, I believe I have an inkling of what Max’s death means to you.

It can scarcely help to tell you I too share in this pain.

At such times it can only help us to cast ourselves upon the heart of God, not with words but truly and entirely. This requires  many difficult hours, day and night, but when we have let go entirely into God–or better, when God has received us–then we are helped. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). There really is joy with God, with Christ! Do believe it.

But each person must walk this way alone–or rather, God draws each person onto it individually. Only prayers and the encouragement of others can accompany us along this way.

Yet with God we find communion with those who belong to God, the living and the dead.

May God work miracles in you, in those you love, in us all during these days, and strengthen us for the life and work to which we return for God’s glory.

Please greet your grandmother in particular once more.

In heartfelt communion,

Your faithfully devoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, 366-367)

Bonhoeffer’s Love Letters

The contemporary fame of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi German Protestant theologian who was executed in 1945 for taking part in the plots against Hitler, rests primarily on the Letters and Papers from Prison he wrote to friends and family. In these cryptic messages, most of them smuggled out of his cell in Berlin’s Tegel Prison, Bonhoeffer outlined a new kind of secular theology for a “world come of age” that has become the axiomatic premise for post-Christian thought.

Last week a new cache of Bonhoeffer letters came to light—revealed by the woman to whom he was once engaged. She is auburn-haired Maria von Wedemeyer-Weller, 43, who came to the U.S. in 1948 on a graduate fellowship in mathematics at Bryn Mawr, and now lives near Boston, where she works as a computer systems analyst. In all, she received more than 40 letters from Bonhoeffer while he was in prison; the 38 she was able to keep when she fled East Germany during the Russian invasion have been given to Harvard’s Houghton Library, with the stipulation that they not be published without her permission during her lifetime.

In an article about Bonhoeffer in the current issue of the Union Theological Seminary quarterly review, she quotes at length from several of the letters. What they reveal is not more of Bonhoeffer the theologian but of Bonhoeffer the man—who was, Mrs. von Wedemeyer-Weller notes, “deeply in love during this important period” of his intellectual ferment.

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April 2014
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