When God Speaks, How Will You Respond?
“And Elijah heard the voice of God: Not in a whirlwind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but in the still small voice of calm.”
-- I Kings 19:12
Three years ago, I stood on the pulpit of the Thomaskirche (Bach Cathedral) in Leipzig, Germany, and told of my father’s arrest in that city on the Reich’s Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht), November 9, 1938. That evening, German soldiers rounded up the city’s Jews, forcing them to stand in the stream that flows through the Leipzig Zoo, and commanded other citizens to curse and spit on them.
I posted my remarks on the blog on my website, and in the days that followed, I received a number of touching comments about it. There were no further comments until two years later – precisely one day before I was to preach in the Thomaskirche again – when an American artist, amazingly named Stephen Lewis, and living in Leipzig, shared this story:
Just by chance I came across your blog post, I read it, and now feel I must do my best to tell you a story that I was told by a dear friend I knew briefly before he died. I am a painter and not the best with words, but hope to be able to bring it across to you in the sincerest way.
One day shortly after moving my art studio into an old storefront on Arthur Hoffmann Street in Leipzig, I was welcomed to the building by a kind elderly couple named the Bernsteins. They lived on the first floor above my studio. My German was very poor and the Bernsteins spoke only a few words of English, but they told me many stories about their families, the war, and the GDR. The stories started out easy and simple and were often followed by questions for me asking if I had known about such events. In the beginning, Herr Bernstein would visit me while I was painting, but I was soon helping them carry groceries or delivering coal to them from their basement. These chores were always followed by sweet coffee in their kitchen.
As time went on, the stories became deeper and it seemed to me as though they had not been told before.
Once, while Frau Bernstein was out, Herr Bernstein told me about a bright young man who was his schoolmate, pal, and friend. He told me about the boy’s family and that they were Jewish.
Herr Bernstein froze standing at the edge of the table with his age-worn hands clenching the sides of the tabletop and he began to cry.
I could see him relive the moment when as a young man he was ordered to go to the Leipzig Zoo where many Jews were being held in a space where you could look down into it from above.
Herr Bernstein wanted me to understand this story. It was important. He was confessing of his disgust for the Nazis and failure to do the right thing. He explained that as he went over to see what was going on, he passed a group of German soldiers and looked down in the pit. He said he was shocked to see all the people, ashamed and horrified as he watched soldiers yell at them, spit on them; one soldier even urinated on them from above. Outraged, he tried to shame the soldier to stop. He was struck and knocked to the ground.
With tears running down his face, he looked at me and pointed to the kitchen floor. He sobbed and told me he saw his school friend in the pit, ashamed to confess he was not able to help him. The young man looked up and recognized Herr Bernstein being kicked and spit on. Although he saw the horror, Herr Bernstein could not save his friend.
I share this story with you not to make light of your experience visiting the zoo or to make excuses for the Germans. After reading your account, I thought if you knew about how Herr Bernstein tried to stop the madness and how the victims may have witnessed at least one German who tried to stop the soldiers, it might mean God was at work during this terrible event.
Herr Bernstein said he could see strength in his friend’s eyes. He could still see him and was crushed to tell me the story.
Having shared the story, I announced that Stephen Lewis was in attendance. Then, recalling a favorite Jewish legend that teaches: “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise know they are loved and they rejoice,” I spoke out to Herr Bernstein: “I stand here now, hoping you rejoice in our remembrance of your remarkable, courageous act of resistance against Nazi terror.”
Though the price he paid was dear, Herr Bernstein, like Elijah, heeded God’s still small voice when God spoke to him.
How will we respond when God speaks to us?