Sarah Niemoeller’s life bears witness to the turbulent history of the past century. Strike that—not just mere “witness.” The feisty aristocrat and activist has always found herself as a full-fledged participant and combatant.
The nearly 90-year-old baroness—full name: Sibylle Augusta Sophie Sarah Niemoeller von Sell—fought and survived the Nazi Gestapo. Married a concentration camp survivor, the famed Lutheran minister Martin Niemoeller (who earned the title as “Hitler’s only private and personal prisoner”). Hob-nobbed in later life with friends such as Stan Laurel and George Burns, in a journey replete with an incredible cast of characters.
Niemoeller is touring the country’s college campuses and sacred sites this year, sharing her personal history and discussing an upcoming autobiography, scheduled for publication in early 2012. Her story features an unlikely array of villains, heroes, comedians, clerics, tragic figures and a cast of characters worthy of any Hollywood biopic.
Her message to students and the public today, however, is simple: “Zachor.”
The English language translation of the word doesn’t exactly do justice to the Hebrew interpretation. “The Hebrew form comes as an obligation, a command, to remember. It’s not at all passive,” clarifies Xavier’s Rabbi Abie Ingber. “It’s an action call to remember, and Sarah is fulfilling that call. Those who have been there …”
“… have an obligation to remember as long as we are alive,” says Niemoeller, completing the rabbi’s sentence. “I am going on 89, so this is the time.”
It’s Rabbi Ingber, the founding director of Xavier’s Interfaith Community Engagement program, who invited Niemoeller to speak to University students, faculty and staff as part of October’s “Touching History” series.
Easing into a chair in the rabbi’s Gallagher Student Center office, Niemoeller pauses to collect her thoughts. “Talking about history,” she begins again, “IS important. If we don’t remember the past, we have no future. It need not necessarily be that history repeats itself, if we keep diligent about it, and practice tolerance, tolerance, tolerance. Evil does not stare you in the face, it creeps up on you.”
In an interview with Xavier magazine, a private conversation offered the morning of her Oct. 4 visit to campus and her “Touching History” lecture, Niemoeller touched on a number of points:
“My family’s efforts to rescue the Jews … taught me that a small dedicated group of people CAN change the world.”
“I wore a loaded gun all the time. Without it, I would not be here.”
“When news happened, we only heard about it on the BBC. We listened to the BBC broadcasts, every hour, on the hour.”
“I learned that the smaller the cell of resistance, the more successful it can be. My family built an underground railroad for Jews on the run.”
Born during the waning days of the Weimar Republic into an aristocratic family in Potsdam, Niemoeller claims no less than Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last Prussian emperor, as her godfather. Her father, Baron Ulrich von Sell, was Keeper of the Privy Purse for the government, and her mother was Baroness Augusta von Brauchitsch.
Early on, the teenager personally witnessed the rise of the Third Reich, first by meeting Hitler as a 14-year-old when he visited her boarding school, and then by witnessing 1938’s Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass” (the first state-sponsored mass violence campaign against Germany’s Jews). She was acutely aware of her parents’ role, along with four other families, in creating a network to smuggle escaping Jewish refugees out of Germany.
“I learned about politics very early, at the dinner table,” she recalls. “It was custom for servants to stand within earshot during dinners, but we did away with that custom fast, because of what my parents were talking about.” (She recalls one heated discussion with Field Marshal von Hindenburg, who railed against that “Austrian painter’s apprentice” trying to gain power in the Reichstag).
“One of the resistance centers was close to our house,” she recalls. “Ironically, it was a big villa owned by Leni Riefenstahl (the Nazi propaganda filmmaker). Little did she know that her gardener was a giant in the Resistance. What an irony. A kitchen full of escapees, a cellar full. And she never knew about it, never found out about it.”
Things soon turned badly, and quickly.
“Hitler considered himself immortal. He survived some very well-planned assassination attempts,” she points out. Not even the most elaborately planned attempt, the final plot codenamed Valkyrie, would succeed. That ill-fated attack, outlined in the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, targeted the dictator at his East Prussian headquarters known as Wolf’s Lair.
“The 20th of July, 1944. Valkyrie. Soon after, that’s when the Gestapo came for us,” she says. “I remember like it was yesterday. I knew all of them (the Valkyrie co-conspirators).” Indeed, secret meetings regularly took place inside the von Sell home, with night visitors including Admiral Canaris as well as various von Sell cousins. One cousin, Werner von Haeften, was the man who actually carried the attaché case with the bomb inside Wolf’s Lair.
Within days, the teen-aged Niemoeller found herself interrogated by the Nazi authorities. “My father was taken away by the Gestapo. My father never came home.”
The youth finally ended up, with her high-society equestrian skills, training horses for military service for the Russian front. “I was a horse-breaker, six months before the end of the war.”
Then came an escape plan. “I stole a horse from the cavalry school. I rode westward for 14 nights. Twice I fell asleep on this horse, a beautiful snow-white Arabian. I rode until I fell, outstretched, into the arms of the 82nd Airborne.” Fresh from the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. Army 82nd division was marching through Germany. “They were a fantastic outfit.”
After the war’s end, she worked with British Intelligence to identify Nazi leaders. Keeping a promise to her father, she finally abandoned her native Germany and came to America, marrying NBC executive Ross Donaldson and working for the TV network as a researcher while raising their son in New York City.
In 1968, newly divorced, she ran into Pastor Niemoeller, whom she had known back in Germany as a girl. They courted, and in 1971, married.
After the pastor’s death, Niemoeller moved to Doylestown, Pa., in order to be closer to her son, a physician. She is a convert to Judaism and attends Temple Ohev Shalom in Bucks County, Pa.
Her Judaic conversion is a focal point in her new autobiography, “Crowns, Crosses, and Stars,” which is scheduled to be published by Purdue University Press in March 2012 (and includes an introduction by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, the survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald who wrote “Night”).
She also details how the Nazi final solution evolved from, first, deportation, then to ghettoization, and then to the death camps. “We need to remember,” Niemoeller told a packed hall of students at the Conaton Learning Common’s Kennedy Auditorium. “First, the Nazis said Jews should not live in Germany. Then they said Jews should not live among us.
“Then they said, Jews should not live.”
HER HUSBAND’S FAMOUS WORDS
Shoah and the Swastika
Rev. Martin Niemoeller became such an ardent critic of Nazism that he gained worldwide attention, so much so that Adolf Hitler was reluctant to have him executed. Instead, the Fuhrer imprisoned the pastor at Dachau concentration camp for seven years. He joined a group of imprisoned clerics that included Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Sarah Niemoeller, the pastor’s widow, has donated the typewriter that he used to write his most famous sermon (to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.). That sermon/poem reads:
“First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out – because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”