Chain of Preachers of Hope: Susanne Witte

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Susanne Witte
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Every other week our Lay Dominican fraternity “Lacordaire” meets in the rooms of the monastery and parish of St. Paulus in Berlin Moabit. Our eyes are turned to the photograph of Mrs. Witte. She greets us, friendly and self-confident, always giving us some new hope. We’d like to share her story – a story of hope really – with you.

The room where we meet is the one in which the meetings of the senior members of our parish take place. It’s precisely this room where Mrs. Witte led “her” senior citizens’ social group and meeting point. She led it almost to the end of her life in 2005. It was the last of her many projects. Two days a week a diverse programme was offered there: singing, dancing, praying, a gym group, some other activities like little day trips, summer vacations in the Rhön and so on. With Mrs. Spiekermeier at her side (mostly playing the piano) she here created an anchor point, offered protection and shelter, a harbour for many.

Offering protection and shelter characterized her whole life. Susanne Witte was born in 1905 in Berlin. In Berlin Moabit she spent her childhood and youth. In St Paulus she made her First Holy Communion. And even as a young woman she was already engaged in youth work in the Dominican parish. She chose to become a social welfare worker. At that time social work was a new occupational profile for independent women. It turned out to be her calling.

In the 1920s St. Paulus counted about 22,000 members (today there are “only” 5,500 members in the same area). The parish of St Paulus was one of the poorest in all Berlin. Unemployment, abundance of children and poor living conditions characterized lives. Br. Ulrich Kaiser OP was pastor of the parish. “He was aware that only words are not enough in hard times like that. So he founded different aid associations which organized warm rooms, soup kitchens and recreation homes for children. He explored new avenues in city pastoral work”. Susanne Witte had been an important member of his team. In the early 1930s he managed to purchase property in Friedrichshagen on the south-eastern outskirts of Berlin. A job creation plan for the workless and voluntary work done by members of the parish enabled the community to erect a chapel and a small household building on the premises. From then on Susanne Witte travelled to Friedrichshagen by rail and tram taking along a couple of dozen children from poor Moabit who were longing for air and light. She took part in organizing youth meetings and religious retreats there too.

Up to the year 1937 Susanne Witte was able to work as a pastoral assistant for the youth work in St. Paulus. Then the National Socialists – who came to power in 1933 – prohibited any Catholic youth work and she had to be laid off. She then got another job at the communal health services of the Reinickendorf district. There she mostly took care of young mothers and single working women. In the meantime she continued her work in St Paulus on a voluntary basis. She was a Lay Dominican (the Third Order at that time) and led the Marian Congregation. All her life she especially loved the Silesian Marian hymns.

Her Jewish colleague Ruth Casper took part in her group activities in St Paulus too. Ruth converted to Catholicism in 1926 there. “We always felt deeply connected by the life we shared in the parish” Susanne Witte recounted.

Here is a reference to the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany: shortly after the so-called “Machtergreifung” in 1933 with the call to boycott Jewish businesses, the first anti-Jewish measures began. Before the beginning of the Second World War, these measures by “Nuremberg Racial Laws” of 1935 mainly continued. The discriminatory regulations regarding civil rights, prohibition of marriage, professional opportunities defined who was a Jew, a half-Jew, etc.. A terrible culmination point had been the burning of synagogues throughout Germany, the “Reichspogromnacht” on November 9, 1938. Many Jews left Germany. From that very night in Berlin Bernhard Lichtenberg (canon of the cathedral) every Sunday prayed publicly for the persecuted. He was later denounced and died on his way to a concentration camp in 1943. In 1996, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Once again with the beginning of the war in 1939 the situation of the Jews exacerbated dramatically. In 1941/1942 the worst phase of the Holocaust began. From all over occupied Europe the Jews were deported to collecting points and ghettoes in the east and taken to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and others and murdered in their millions there.

In 1942 Ruth Casper had been deported too. However, she succeeded in getting a message through to Susanne Witte in which she asked her to take care of her mother. The mother, Regina Kirschbaum, who was firm in her Jewish belief, was placed in a “Jewish House”, a kind of collecting point near Bayrischer Platz in Berlin-Schöneberg. Susanne Witte visited her there: “I went to this house with shaking knees, but at least could enter. I had been there a couple of times to bring her mother some necessities and other things. They had almost nothing to eat…”

The Gestapo also came searching for the inhabitants of this house. But Regina Kirschbaum managed to hide in the basement and so evaded deportation. “In the evening of that day, Mrs. Kirschbaum stood in front of my door with a handbag and asked if she could come in. I said, certainly. She came in, very distraught, as I had been. From then on she stayed with me. It had been so far easy and natural, as I lived alone. I had no relatives whom I could have endangered and then she was the mother of my friend, who was dear to me. And both of us still didn’t know what had happened to her daughter. We just suspected. Yes, from then on she stayed with me.” Regina Kirschbaum stayed with Susanne Witte until the end of the war.

Both women were able to survive together with the help of her social environment. “You only knew what happened in your own little district, because you didn’t talk about it, except for in the parish, in which I had help from my friends – maybe four or five and there was one of the priests, who helped me, sometimes they even came up to me, a young priest, who knew about it, said: Listen, there is imminent danger. I’ll bring your Jewish friend to someone across the street. She isn’t suspicious.”

They often engaged in religious conversations, which Susanne Witte remembered as having been very intensive and impressive. “You know, this Jewish woman had some belief! I mentioned it earlier, she made me feel ashamed by her great, firm belief in God. It was incredible. She sometimes said to me reproachfully: You’re a Christian, aren’t you? If you believe in God and Christ how can you be so scared? We often talked about the bible and such things. Basics of the Christian religion, because she couldn’t understand, that her daughter, the youngest of three children, converted to Catholicism.” Regina Kirschbaum could even observe the Sabbath at Susanne Witte’s home.

As “quite naturally” she many times described her commitment, even though she knew about the danger: “Well, I knew, that I could have been arrested…you know, maybe I did have a naïve belief in God, I don’t know. I never contemplated it to the end, what could have been. My closest friends told me that it could become dangerous. They knew and said: Are you crazy, that won’t work, you can’t. And I said: Would you leave the mother of a good friend on the street and subject her to certain death? Would you…?”

She remained a social worker for the Reinickendorf district until she retired. After her professional life she headed a Mothers’ Convalescence home “Maria Rast” in West Berlin on a voluntary basis and was very active in various charitable and social works. St Paulus still remained the focus of her spiritual life and the centre of her activities. As the last of her many projects, she founded her senior citizens’ social group meeting point.

It was impressive to see how sensitively yet assertively she dealt with people, whether old or young. She perfectly knew who felt like an outsider, who needed encouragement or consolation.

In 1999 Yad Vashem recognized Susanne Witte as “Righteous Among the Nations”. In 2005 she died only a few weeks before her 100th birthday.

Susanne Witte helped because she felt she had to. She never expected anything in return. When we meet in St Paulus, her example greets us and gives us hope and confidence. She would have said: “Why, certainly, it’s quite natural.”

Text: Margret Burkart and Hans Gasper.

English translation: Silke Petersen and Herwig Weinert.