In her autobiography In the Beginning, which I blogged about yesterday, Irina Ratushinskaya describes an incident during her schooldays in Odessa in the 1960s, living under communism.
A pupil had splashed ink on a wall and Irina, aged 12, and a fellow pupil, a boy called Seryozha, were asked if they knew who the culprit was. Irina relates that “I began to pour out the customary lies; that I didn’t know, I didn’t see anything…” Seryozha simply answered “briefly and to the point: “I’m not going to tell you.””
Irina describes her shame at her own cowardice: “It took Seryozha’s action to make me aware of the humiliating nature of my own reaction.”
I was reminded of this early anecdote of moral courage (which helped Irina herself to be braver during future interrogations) when reading Catholics Confronting Hitler by Peter Bartley (Ignatius Press). During his detailed account of how Pius XII did everything he could to protect Jewish victims of Nazi terror, through his envoys, his nuncios and Catholic parishes and institutions in every country that Hitler invaded, he describes the White Rose resistance movement in Munich.
This is the story of a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, both devout Christian students who, encouraged by a small group of like-minded friends and influenced by older Christian mentors, tried to make their fellow Germans aware of their Government’s barbarous activities on the Eastern front. They distributed leaflets around Munich University on 18th February 1943 criticising the government and urging their fellow-countrymen to passive resistance, “to forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine.”
Hans and Sophie were swiftly rounded up by the Gestapo, along with their friend Christoph Probst, who was married with three young children. The Scholls and Probst were given a perfunctory trial under the notorious Nazi judge, Roland Freisler, sentenced to death and beheaded at Stadelheim Prison on 22 February 1943.
Although neither of the Scholls was Catholic, Hans had been inspired by reading a sermon by the Catholic Bishop of Munster, Clemens von Galen, protesting against Nazi atrocities. “Finally a man has had the courage to speak out!” he exclaimed.
The White Rose group of students read Augustine and Aquinas and were deeply impressed by Cardinal Newman’s writings on conscience. Indeed, Christoph Probst was received into the Church just hours before his execution.
The Scholls were similarly drawn to conversion, but because of the swiftness of their sentence and execution they chose not to, for the sake of their bereft mother, a committed Lutheran lay preacher. Nonetheless, as their younger sister, Inge, observed, “Christ became for them … the elder brother who was always there, closer even than death … the truth which gave answers to so many questions, and life itself.”
When we find it hard to speak of our Christian convictions in secularist or atheist company, it is good to be reminded of the example of young people like Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were willing to face not merely ridicule for their beliefs but to lay down their lives.