Ludwig Dewitz: Moving Faith
BY BRIAN D. HECKER, PUBLIC SERVICES ARCHIVIST, JOHN BULOW CAMPBELL LIBRARY
To hear Dewitz’s address from his inauguration, click here.
Ludwig Richard Max Dewitz (1916-2000) was professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary from 1959-1983. He was well known as a humorous and often demanding polyglot with a penchant to throw chalk and erasers at the unruly. Students would come to appreciate his kindness and song-based approach to teaching Hebrew, and his love of classical music, which was often shared with cake and tea.
Dewitz completed his ministerial degree at King’s College, University of London, in 1943, was ordained in the Waldensian Church in Italy in 1949, and completed his Ph.D. in Semitic Languages and Culture at John’s Hopkins University in 1960. What Dewitz brought with him to CTS was well beyond what these credentials communicate. Much of his life prior to his appointment was marked with personal fragility and received generosity in the midst of unrelenting ambiguity and tragedy. Many of the details of his life shared here are drawn primarily from his unpublished memoirs.
Dewitz was born on April 29, 1916, in the Prussian city of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) and was raised by his mother Maria (née Goebel) (1887-1963) and stepfather Erich Dewitz (1879-1940) in Berlin, Germany, during post-War Weimar Republic (1918-1933). His twin lifelong passions for classical music and languages were instilled in him during these early years, as he sang in the children’s choir of the Berlin State Opera and studied Latin, Greek, English, and French for the better part of a decade at the rigorous Askanische Gymnasium from 1926-1934.
He was baptized as an infant at Auenkirche (Evangelische Kirche an der Wilhelmsaue) in the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf and was later confirmed in 1930, but frequent church attendance was not particularly a part of the rhythm of his early youth. He attributed his own growth in the Christian faith to his time within the Bund Deutscher Bibelkreise (Federation of German Biblical Circles, or BK). At the age of twelve in 1924, he began regularly accompanying a friend to weekly gatherings at the Wilhelmstraße 34 YMCA hosted by the BK and Gustav Adolf Gedat (1903-1971). Male youths would convene to play games, eat treats, listen to adventure stories, and participate in “collateral” devotionals. It was after a message on John 8:36 at a July 1932 BK retreat in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) of Germany when Dewitz came to believe that God desired to reach him and humanity through Jesus Christ.
Months later in Dewitz’s home city, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as the Chancellor of Germany (January 30, 1933), celebrated by legions with a torchlight parade down Wilhelmstraße. By April, Hitler began legally mobilizing the antisemitic rhetoric that had so long permeated his vitriolic speeches, passing measures almost weekly geared towards the systematic erasure and expulsion of Jewish people from the public life of Germany. All these events unfolded with numerous riots, thousands of arrests of dissenting German citizens, wide scale book burnings, and the organization of multiple concentration camps. Many began scouring genealogical sources to prove their “Aryan” ancestry, and an Ariernachweis (“Aryan certificate”) was distributed to civil employees as well as other professionals and students to prove the viability of their “natural” credentials.
Danger and Decisions
Around Dewitz’s 17th birthday, students nearing graduation at the Gymnasium were provided an Ariernachweis for their parents to complete and return. His family was already in a precarious situation because Erich was ethnically Jewish, and after several weeks of waiting for his mother to complete his document, the young Dewitz was becoming even more anxious. His mother calmly asked him to sit down and shared some surprising news: she had adopted him as an infant and both of his biological parents were fully Jewish.
So, in the span of less than a year, the young Dewitz found himself within a new spiritual embrace and facing new political and public exclusions. Over the course of his last two years at the Gymnasium, he developed a desire to enter the ministry. This was in the midst of witnessing his longtime classmates and teachers regularly greeting one another with the “Hitler salute” and upon graduation in 1934, he was not permitted to study theology at any state university in Berlin. He also saw the rise of the German Christian movement, which fervently embraced the Nazi regime, and heard sermons likening Hitler’s attempt to purge the Jews as Christ cleansing the temple.
He became involved with the newly formed Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) which had arisen largely in opposition to Nazi attempts to control church affairs (though it did not consistently oppose antisemitism). He witnessed the closure of St.-Annen-Kirche in Dahlem, Berlin where Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was pastor and also encountered moments of vulnerable solidarity – friendship or even assistance to Jews could jeopardize the livelihood of non-Jews. Kurt Gerstein (1905-1945), also a member of the Confessing Church and former BK member, provided monies for Dewitz to audit lectures at the Theologische Schule Bethel in Fall 1934. Dewitz departed shortly after, in early 1935, when he was informed that some students would be celebrating the second anniversary of Hitler’s induction as Chancellor. The school would eventually lean further into the Confessing Church and was closed by Gestapo in 1939. Years later, Gerstein would join the Waffen-SS as a self-appointed spy and went on to become one of the first to inform the international community of the atrocities of the Final Solution after witnessing the execution of thousands at the Belzec concentration camp.
In August 1935, Dewitz was approved by Karl Koch (1876-1951) to attend lectures at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Berlin, founded by the Confessing Church. It had become primarily an underground operation, as he and other students met clandestinely at different locations each week (known only through distributed slips of paper) with faculty members such as Franz Hildebrandt (1909-1985), Hans Asmussen (1898-1968), Martin Albertz (1883-1956), and Joseph Chambon (1884-1965). After two semesters, a session was spotted by the Gestapo and the attendees were let off with a warning. Dewitz ceased participation not wanting to risk further attention and arrest.
Discouraging silent months passed and seemingly without a possible future, Dewitz was surprised by a request for an interview with Samuel Hinds Wilkinson (1863-1939), director of Mildmay Mission to the Jews in London, at the Hospiz St. Michael, located within the Wilhelmstraße 34 (now sandwiched between multiple Nazi headquarter buildings crawling with swastika flags and hateful antisemitic ephemera). The interview was very brief but turned out to be extremely significant: Dewitz was asked of his age, whether he was a Jew and Christian, and whether he would like to become a missionary and train in England. He quickly acquiesced upon consideration and left with a newfound hope and joy, though never learning how Wilkinson knew to contact him.
To England and Italy
Dewitz submitted a supplied application to the Missionary Training Colony located in Upper Norwood, London, and spent the fall of 1936 through February 1937 in Mussolini’s tension ridden Italy on account of a tutoring position through the Confessing Church. While abroad he received the news of his acceptance and that he needed to be in England by March 1. His temporary passport had not yet expired, but he found it was not possible for him to pay the £15 entry fee. In a fortuitus turn of events, Geraldine Alice Grimwood (1870-1955) had read a short piece about “L.D.” in Trusting and Toiling on Israel’s Behalf, a magazine of Mildmay Mission to the Jews, and sent Wilkinson £200 on behalf of “L.D.” not knowing his need.
Dewitz spent the next two years at the Missionary Training Colony (MTC), where he and other students such as Stephen Frederick Olford (1918-2004) would spend several weeks at a time open-air preaching and evangelizing throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, traveling by foot and often sleeping in wooden barracks. He also joined the staff of Mildmay Mission to the Jews in 1939, attending to several Jewish refugees seeking shelter in Great Britain from ongoing Nazi persecution.
Worry for his Parents
His mother Maria and stepfather Erich remained in Berlin through this time and increasingly felt the growing constrictions, as intermarried couples were often encouraged and even bribed to divorce. By early fall 1938, both had been forcibly removed from their Kreuzberg residence in west Berlin and only Maria could work. Both were in Berlin during the wretched pogrom of November 9 -10, 1938, infamously known as “Kristallnacht” (the night of broken glass), and prolepsis of the Final Solution. The decayed Nazi imagination coalesced for an organized frenzy of violence and terror, as window shards from over 7,000 Jewish owned storefronts littered the streets, billowing flames and smoke from several hundred arsoned synagogues filled the air, and 20,000-30,000 male Jews were taken to concentration camps (12,000 alone from Berlin). Neither lost their life those fateful days, but Dewitz worried greatly for his mother and especially feared for the whereabouts of his stepfather when he heard news reports.
Inasmuch as the Nazi state desired the expulsion of Jewish people, the regime ensured that emigration would be a difficult and impoverishing process, but after contacts were made through MTC, Maria and Erich secured sponsored passage less than a year later and arrived in England on July 28, 1939, just over a month before the outbreak of World War II when emigration from Germany became nearly impossible.
Difficulties and pain of separation were far from over. Erich was quickly diagnosed with angina and passed away in February 1940 and in the following July, the widowed Maria and her son were again separated, as he was among the several thousand immigrants (many also Jewish) deemed as a potential “enemy alien” infiltrator by the British authorities and interned within barbed wired on the Isle of Man.
Dewitz was taken into custody July 8 and sent to Kempton Park, a bayonet guarded temporary holding camp, before joining 1,200 internees in Onchan Camp, located on the north end of the Douglas Bay. Dewitz regularly hosted Bible studies with interned clergy and John Duffield (b. 1889), the local visiting Vicar of St. Peter’s Church in Onchan. Dewitz held numerous conversations with interned renowned musicians and art historians, and attended lectures and concert events at the “Popular University” organized within the camp by the expressive artist Jack Bilbo (born Hugo Baruch, 1907-1967). He also kept correspondence with those outside, including Geraldine Grimwood and his mother. The two remained concerned for the safety of each other, as he was behind barbed wire, and his mother was in London during the German Blitz aerial bombing campaign that began in September 1940.
Dewitz was finally released at the end of November 1940, after an emergency appeal was made by Mildmay, as it had been overwhelmed by the number of people seeking shelter from the bombings.
Coming to Columbia
He remained on the staff of Mildmay through 1950 and spent his final two years in Milan, Italy, where he was responsible for distributing donations to displaced Jews awaiting emigration to Israel. His encounters in the aftermath of the Holocaust and learning of Christendom’s past bloodshed would continue to shape his empathetic witness to Jewish people. Many bore the continued trauma of the unconscionable genocide and had no reason to distinguish the cross from the swastika or Christian service from persecution. Dewitz continued to minister to Jews in Baltimore, Maryland as director of the Emmanuel Center from 1950-1959 before joining the faculty of CTS.
Maria and her son remained close over the decades after the death of Erich and were often reliant on the kindness of strangers. She accompanied him to CTS and lived in his faculty house across the street from the seminary. She regularly attended Columbia Presbyterian Church and died on April 17, 1963. President J. McDowell Richards and Rev. Lee Willingham officiated the ceremony and she was buried in Decatur Cemetery. After Dewitz retired in 1983 he continued to teach and preach in multiple settings and married his longtime friend Mariam Brodsky. He died on November 1, 2000 and was buried near his mother in the Decatur Cemetery.
The C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives is honored to house the papers of Ludwig Dewitz, which includes diaries covering his early years as a missionary to Jews and time of internment as well his several years traveling abroad while as a faculty and emeritus faculty member of CTS, various unpublished memoirs, faculty papers, and photographs. The archives also holds multiple audio CTS chapel recordings and lectures presented by Dewitz. For access or questions, please contact the archivist by phone at (404) 687-4628 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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