Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, has recognized 27,921 Righteous Among the Nations. That’s the number of non-Jews who risked their lives to help and save Jews during the Holocaust that Yad Vashem has been able to ascertain with evidence.
These are remarkable stories of personal risk, self-sacrifice, living in truth, fidelity to conscience, charity toward neighbour, and the unshakable determination to live honourably in the sight of God.
Consider that number: 27,921. If you learned the story of one Righteous Among the Nations each day, it would take you 76 years.
Today I learned a bit about the story of Helmuth James von Moltke, a German who was executed for treason due to his opposition to the Nazis.
The German philosopher Josef Pieper called von Moltke “one of the noblest figures in the German resistance” and pointed me to the last letter that von Moltke wrote to his wife the day before his execution.
I bought this book, Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence between Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke, 1944-45, just so that I could read this letter in full and then proceed to explore their broader correspondence.
Here is the magnificent last letter:
11 Jan 1945
My dear, I just feel like chatting with you a bit. I don’t actually have anything to say. We’ve discussed the material consequences in detail. You will manage somehow to make your way through, and if someone else takes over Kreisau, you’ll cope with that too. Just don’t let anything trouble you. It really isn’t worth it. I’m definitely in favor of your making sure that the Russians are informed of my death. Maybe that will enable you to stay in Kreisau. Moving about in what is left of Germany is hideous in any case. If, against all odds, the Third Reich does endure, which I cannot imagine in my wildest fantasies, you’ll have to find a way to keep the poison away from the little sons. Of course I have nothing against your leaving Germany if it comes to that. Do what you think right, and don’t consider yourself bound one way or another by any wish of mine. I’ve told you again and again: A dead man cannot rule.—But you needn’t have financial worries. So long as the Deichmann house pays and so long as you maintain the Kreisau mortgage—but you must remain adamant that it was acquired with your money, partly as an inheritance from Grandmother Schnitzler, partly as a gift from Aunt Emma (Wodan)—then you will always have enough to live on, and even if both don’t work out, there will be enough people to help you.
I think with unadulterated joy of you and our sons, of Kreisau and all the people there; our parting doesn’t seem the least bit grim at the moment. Maybe that is still to come. But at this moment it isn’t a burden to me. It doesn’t feel as though we’re parting at all. I don’t know how this can be. But there is not a hint of the feeling that came over me so powerfully after your first visit in October: no, it was probably November. Now my inner voice is telling me: a. God can lead me back there today just as well as yesterday, and b. if He calls me to Him, I’ll take it with me. I don’t have the feeling that sometimes used to come over me: Oh, just one more time I’d like to see it all again. Still, I don’t feel the least bit “otherworldly.” You can see that I am happily chatting with you instead of turning to the good Lord. There is a hymn—208, 4—that says, “for he to die is ready who living clings to Thee.” That is exactly the way I feel. Because I am alive today, living I must cling to Him; He wants no more of me. Is that pharisaical? I don’t know. But I believe I know that I live only in His grace and forgiveness, and have nothing on my own, nor can I do anything on my own.
I’m rambling on, my love, just as things come to mind, so here is something entirely different. In the final analysis, the trial’s dramatic element was this: In the trial all concrete accusations proved untenable, so they were scrapped. Nothing remained of them. But what triggered fear on the part of the Third Reich in putting to death five people—in the end it will be seven people—is ultimately no more than this: A private individual, namely your husband, is known to have discussed things “that are the exclusive purview of the Führer” with two clergymen of both denominations, with a Jesuit provincial, and with several bishops, without the intention of doing anything concrete, as has been established. The discussion was not about organizational issues or the composition of the Reich—all those topics fell away in the course of the trial, as Schulze said explicitly in his prosecutorial statement (“differs completely from all other cases, because there was no mention of any violence or any organization”); instead, issues concerning the practical and ethical demands of Christianity were explored. Nothing else; that is the sole reason we are being convicted. Freisler declared to me in one of his tirades, “There is only one way in which Christianity and we are alike: We demand the entire person!” I don’t know if people sitting near us caught all that, because it was a kind of dialogue—a spiritual one between Freisler and me, for I could not utter many words—in which we came to know each other through and through. Freisler was the only one in the whole gang who got to know me, and of the whole gang, he is the only one who knows why he has to kill me. There was nothing about a “complicated man” or “complicated ideas” or “ideology”; just: “The fig leaf is off.” But only for Herr Freisler. We were talking, you might say, in a vacuum. He didn’t make a single joke at my expense, as he had with Delp and Eugen. No, he was dead serious: “Who do you take your orders from? From the Beyond or from Adolf Hitler?” “Who commands your loyalty and your faith?” All rhetorical questions, of course.—At any rate, Freisler is the first National Socialist to have grasped who I am, and the good Müller is a simpleton by comparison.
My love, your very dear letter has just arrived, the first letter, my love, in which you didn’t grasp my mood and my situation. No, I’m not preoccupied in the slightest with the good Lord or with my death. He has the inexpressible grace to come to me and preoccupy Himself with me. Is that arrogant of me? Perhaps. But this evening He will forgive me for so much that in the end I can finally ask Him for forgiveness for this last bit of haughtiness as well, though I do hope that it’s not haughty, because I’m not extolling the earthen vessel, no, I’m extolling the precious treasure that has made use of this earthen vessel, this utterly unworthy abode. No, my dear, I’m reading the very same passages of the Bible I would have read today if there had been no trial, namely: Joshua 19–21, Job 10–12, Ezekiel 34–36, Mark 13–15, and all the way through our 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians, as well as the brief passages I wrote down on that slip of paper for you. So far I’ve only read Joshua and our passage from Corinthians, which closes with the beautiful saying, so familiar to us from childhood: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” I feel, my love, as though I’ve been authorized to say it to you and the little sons with absolute authority. Don’t I have every right to read the 118th Psalm, which was set for this morning? Even though Eugen had it in mind for a different situation, it has become much truer than we ever would have thought possible.
This is why, my love, you’ll be getting back your letter in spite of your request. I’ll carry you across with me and have no need for a sign, a symbol, anything. It’s not even that I was promised I wouldn’t lose you; no, it’s much more: I know it.
A long pause, during which Buchholz was here and I was shaved; I also drank coffee and ate cake and rolls. Now I’ll go on chatting. The decisive statement in those proceedings was: “Count, the thing that Christianity and we National Socialists have in common—and this is the only thing—we demand the entirety of a person.” Did he realize what he was saying? Just think about how wonderfully God prepared this, His unworthy vessel: At the very moment when there was danger of my being drawn into active preparations for a putsch—Stauffenberg came to Peter [Yorck] on the evening of the 19th—I was pulled away, and thus I am, and remain, free of any connection to the use of violence. Then He planted in me the socialist leanings that free me, as an owner of a large estate, from any suspicion of representing special interests. Then He humbled me more than I’ve ever been humbled, which made me lose all my pride, which finally made me understand my sinfulness after thirty-eight years, which made me beg for His forgiveness, made me learn to trust in His mercy. Then He has me come here, so that I can see you standing firm and be free of thoughts of you and the little sons, i.e., free of anxious thoughts; He gives me the time and the opportunity to arrange what can be arranged, so that all earthly thoughts can fall away. Then He makes me feel the pain of parting and the dread of death and the fear of hell to their utmost depth to get that over with as well. Then He endows me with faith, hope, and love, with a wealth of these things that is truly lavish. Then He has me talk and clarify things with Eugen and Delp. Then He lets Rösch and König escape, so that there aren’t enough men for a Jesuit trial and at the last moment Delp is added on with us. Then He gets Haubach’s and Steltzer’s cases, which would have brought in unrelated issues, detached from ours, and in the end, essentially puts only Eugen, Delp, and me together, and then He gives Eugen and Delp—using the hope, the human hope they have—the weakness that leads to their cases being deemed only secondary and thereby takes out the factor of religion, and then your husband, as a Protestant, is chosen to be attacked and condemned on the primary basis of his friendship with Catholics, and in this way he stands before Freisler not as a Protestant, not as the owner of a large estate, not as a nobleman, not as a Prussian, not as a German—all that is explicitly excluded in the trial, in the words of Sperr, for example: “I thought: What an astonishing Prussian”—but as a Christian and absolutely nothing else. “The fig leaf is off,” says Herr Freisler. Yes, any other category has been removed—“a man who must naturally be rejected by his peers,” says Schulze. What a mighty task your husband has been chosen for: all the trouble that the Lord took with him, the infinite detours, the elaborate zigzag curves, are suddenly explained in one hour on January 10, 1945. Everything takes on a previously hidden meaning after the fact. Mami and Papi, the brothers and the sister, the little sons, Kreisau and its problems, the work camps and not flying flags and not belonging to the party or its divisions, Curtis and the trips to England, Adam [von Trott zu Solz] and Peter and Carlo [Mierendorff]: all this has finally become comprehensible in this one hour. The Lord went to such lengths for this one hour.
And now, my love, I come to you. I haven’t listed you anywhere, because you, my love, are in an entirely different place from all the others. You’re not a means God used to make me who I am; it’s more as though you are me. You are my 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Without this chapter, no human being is a human. Without you I would have accepted love as a gift, the way I did from Mami, for example, gratefully, happily, the way one is grateful for the sun that provides warmth. But without you, my love, I would have “had not love.” It’s not that I’m saying I love you; that’s not right at all. It’s more as though you’re the part of me that I would lack on my own. It is good that I lack it; because if I had this greatest of all gifts, the way you do, my dear love, there are many things I couldn’t have done, I would have found it impossible to stay so persistent, I couldn’t have watched the suffering I had to see in the way I did, and much else. Only together do we add up to one person. As I wrote a few days ago in symbolic terms, we are a single idea of divine creation. That is true, literally true. This is why, my love, I am also certain that you will not lose me on this earth, not for a moment. And we were also finally able to symbolize this fact by our shared Holy Communion, which was now my final one.
I was just weeping a little, not in sadness or melancholy, not because I want to go back, no, the weeping stems from my gratitude and emotion as I encounter this proof of God’s existence. It is not given to us to see Him face-to-face, but we find that we are deeply shaken when we suddenly realize that He has been moving before us throughout our lives, as a cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night, and that He permits us to see it all at once, in the blink of an eye. Now nothing more can happen.
My love, this past week—yesterday in particular—must have rendered some of my farewell letters outdated. They’ll read like yesterday’s news by comparison. I’ll leave it to you whether you want to send them off nevertheless, or whether you’d want to say or write anything in addition. Of course I hope that the little sons will understand this letter someday; but I know that it’s a matter of grace and not of some sort of external influence.—Of course you should send my regards to everyone, even people like Oxé and Frl. Thiel and Frau Tharant. If you’d find it difficult to call them, leave it alone; it makes no difference. I’m naming them only because they are the outermost, the most extreme cases. Since God has the incredible grace to reside within me, I can take with me not only you and the little sons but all those I love and a multitude of others who are far more distant from me. You can tell them that.
One more thing: In many aspects, this letter is also an extension of the report I wrote yesterday, which is much more matter-of-fact. You need to combine them to craft a legend, but it has to be written as though Delp had told it about me. I have to stay the main character in it, not because I am or want to be but because the story would otherwise lack its center. I’m simply the vessel for which the Lord has gone to infinite lengths.
My love, my life is completed, and I can say of myself: He died in the fullness of years and full of what life had to offer. That doesn’t change the fact that I would gladly go on living, that I would gladly accompany you a bit further on this earth. But then I would need a new task from God. The task for which God made me is done. If He wishes to assign me another task, we will learn about it. So do make every effort to save my life if I should survive this day. Perhaps there will be another task.
I’ll stop, as there is nothing more to say, nor have I named anyone for you to greet and embrace; you know yourself who is meant in the tasks I have for you. All the sayings we love are in my heart and in your heart. But in closing, I will tell you this, by virtue of the treasure that has spoken from me and has filled this humble earthen vessel: May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen.
If I could teach one university course, I would like to teach a course on the Righteous Among the Nations as ethical exemplars for moral living in our world today. How desperately we need their witness. There is no “long game” to play. There is only fidelity in every moment. Perhaps there will be another task, but perhaps the one we have today is it. May we die in the fullness of years having fulfilled our task.