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Gathering Recalls 'Kristallnacht'

About Sibylle Niemoeller

KEENE, N.H. 10/28/03 - A remembrance of Kristallnacht, a 1938 event marking the first case of state-sponsored mass violence against Jews by the Third Reich, will take place at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 9, in the Larracey Auditorium of Keene Middle School. The annual event is free and open to the public.

The program will feature symbolic candlelighting and glassbreaking, short readings by local citizens, musical interludes, and remarks by Sibylle Sarah Niemoeller von Sell, widow of one of Hitler’s most vocal Christian opponents during the days of the Third Reich.

On the night of November 9, 1938, a pogrom was orchestrated throughout Germany and Austria by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Ministry and the S.A. (Sturmabteilung or Storm Troops). During this violent night, 91 Jews were killed. In addition, 815 shops, 29 department stores, 171 homes, and 267 synagogues were burned or destroyed. The shattered panes of glass from windows of Jewish buildings gave the pogrom its name: Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass.”

In the days following Kristallnacht, approximately 30,000 Jews were arrested and taken to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. They were met at the camps with great cruelty imposed by the SS guards. Kristallnacht would prove a watershed for the total removal of Jews from Germany.

Born to a Prussian aristocratic family and christened the goddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Sibylle von Sell witnessed Kristallnacht while living in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. The pastor of the von Sell family’s Lutheran church was Martin Niemoeller, whose public attacks of the Nazi regime gave him such international attention that Hitler was reluctant to have him executed. He was, however, arrested, spending the war years in the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Dachau.

Today Niemoeller may be best known for his statement, “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Refusing to join the Hitler Youth, Sibylle von Sell was not allowed to complete high school but pursued training as an actress and dancer. Later, she suffered interrogation and physical abuse by the Gestapo for her family’s connection to the unsuccessful 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. After the war, she emigrated to the U.S., where she and Niemoeller were reacquainted and eventually married. After a career as a journalist and Red Cross worker, she is now a noted Holocaust educator.

The Kristallnacht remembrance is sponsored by Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies, the KSC Campus Ministry, the Keene Interfaith Clergy Association, and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York City-based organization. In coordination with the Keene Chamber of Commerce, many businesses will display information about both Kristallnacht and the remembrance in their display windows in the days before the event.

About Sibylle Niemoeller

C. Paul Vincent

Director, Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies

A few years ago, while attending the annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, I was chatting with my friend Burton Nelson at an evening reception. Burt, a world-renowned scholar on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, suddenly said to me: “You see that lady over there?” I turned and saw an elegant woman, perhaps in her late sixties, engaged in a lively connversation. “That’s Sibylle Niemoeller,” Burt said, “the widow of Martin Niemoeller.” When Burt asked if I’d like to be introduced, I eagerly accepted. But what should I say? Well, one issue was troubling me that only this lady could answer: what did Martin _really_ say?

Pastor Martin Niemoeller, born in 1892, was arguably Adolf Hitler’s most famous prisoner. A hero of the First World War, in which he had served with distinction as a U-boat captain in the German Imperial Navy, Niemoeller was ordained a minister during the years of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Before Hitler took power in January 1933, Niemoeller supported the Nazi Party; indeed, the Nazi press initially adored Niemoeller and held him up as a model for his service in the Great War. But the Lutheran minister soon broke with the Nazis. Before the end of 1933, he organized a Pastors’ Emergency League to protect Lutheran clergymen from the Gestapo. The next year he was among the principal organizers of the Barmen Synod, the assembly that laid the theological basis for the Confessing Church-an organization of Protestant clerics and laymen that became a symbol of German resistance to the Third Reich.

For the next three years, generally using his pulpit in the up-scale Berlin suburb of Dahlem, Niemoeller engaged in a dangerous game of publicly attacking the Nazi regime. But on 1 July 1937 he was arrested on the basis of 36 separate charges, the most significant being treason. Although he was found guilty, foreign pressure resulted in his getting a suspended sentence. But there would be no reprieve. On Hitler’s orders, Niemoeller was almost immediately re-arrested. From that point until the end of the Second World War, he became Hitler’s only personal and private prisoner. Following one year in prison, he spent three years at Sachsenhausen and four years, in solitary confinement, at Dachau. When he emerged from the concentration camp in 1945, he was instrumental in drafting the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt, wherein Germany’s Protestant churches formally accepted guilt for their complicity in allowing the crimes of Hitler’s regime to occur. He was eventually named President of the World Council of Churches.

Sibylle Augusta Sophia von Sell was born to an old and esteemed Prussian aristocratic family. Her two grandfathers and three of her great grandfathers were Prussian generals. Ulrich Freiherr von Sell, her father, served as a diplomat before the First World War, then after the war became the financial advisor to Germany’s deposed emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II von Hohenzollern. The late emperor became Sibylle’s godfather.

Well before Hitler took power in 1933, the family of Ulrich von Sell was staunchly opposed to the National Socialist Party and its leader. When Martin Niemoeller became pastor in 1931 of St. Anne’s Church in Berlin-Dahlem, the Sell family was among his parishioners. They quickly formed a close friendship. Sibylle, a young girl who grew to idolize Pastor Niemoeller, soon faced her own personal torments. After refusing the join the Hitler Youth, she was not permitted to complete high school. Training as an actress and dancer at Berlin’s State Theater Academy, she was able to pursue an acting career in Danzig, Essen, and eventually Berlin. But her family, actively engaged in both hiding Jews and passing them on via Berlin’s “underground railroad,” was also involved in the unsuccessful July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Indeed, Sibylle’s cousin, Werner von Haeften (Claus von Stauffenberg’s aide de camp) carried the case with the two bombs that were to have killed Hitler. After the plot’s failure, Haeften was shot; his brother was hanged by piano wire on a meat hook. Sibylle and her father were arrested by the Gestapo. Although Sibylle experienced intense interrogation and physical abuse, she was eventually released. Her father remained imprisoned in Berlin until the end of the war. Tragically, the Soviet KGB kidnapped Ulrich von Sell off the street and took him to the former Nazi concentration camp of Jamlitz. What happened next is unknown. The Soviets, fearing that the Western Allies might discover the camp, ploughed it under and Sell simply vanished-much as would happen with Raoul Wallenberg.

Sibylle worked after the Second World War as a radio announcer and journalist. But she soon decided to emigrate to the United States, where she worked in New York City as an NBC-TV research associate and eventually became an American citizen. In 1968, by pure chance, she ran into Martin Niemoeller in New York. As both individuals had lost their spouses, a romance ensued and they were married in 1971. Until Pastor Niemoeller’s death in 1984, they lived together in Wiesbaden, Germany, where Sibylle worked for the American Red Cross at the U.S. Air Force Hospital. Returning to the United States in 1998, Sibylle settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Converting to Judaism in 1990, Sibylle Sarah Niemoeller von Sell, the godchild of Germany’s last Kaiser, is now a noted Holocaust educator. She lectures at colleges and universities throughout the United States, and has been a keynote speaker at numerous conferences and in many synagogues and churches. The Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies is delighted that she will be addressing this year’s Kristallnacht Remembrance event, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, 9 November, at the Charles Larracey Auditorium in the Keene Middle School. The event is free and open to the public.

Oh, and by the way, when I asked Sibylle what Martin really said, this was her reply:

**”First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”**

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