WRITING FROM HIS SMALL CELL in a German prison, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer advised his family and friends to read the lengthy novel Witiko by Adalbert Stifter—the book that gave him great comfort from the time of his arrest in 1943 until his execution in 1945 for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. He also recommended that they read it slowly and not skip any parts, concluding, “For me it belongs among the most beautiful books of all I know: by its purity of language and of the characters it transports one into a quite rare and curious feeling of happiness.”
Over the past year, I have taken Bonhoeffer’s advice, lugging Witiko into the tiny windowless room at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where I have read it aloud to my son while chemo drugs dripped into his arm to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I have carried it on crowded trains from New Haven, Connecticut, to New York City, at the same time hauling our gear and assisting my son with his cumbersome walker, the kind with yellow tennis balls slit open and stuck on the back legs to help it glide more smoothly across the ground. In summer heat, I have tucked the book in my shoulder bag while navigating a mass transit system that makes little allowance for disabilities: few elevators, stairs and more stairs, no benches in the stations on which to rest. I have read it in waiting rooms while my son has been tested, prodded, and scanned by a phalanx of medical personnel. Because part of my job is to wait, I have had the time to read slowly, as did Bonhoeffer in his cell. And I have come to understand why the book was so vital to him, for Witiko (the name of the knight who goes in search of his destiny in twelfth-century Bohemia, a time of violent political turmoil) is the apotheosis of the single-minded man, the “whole man,” the opposite of the man who doubts—ideas expressed in Ethics, Bonhoeffer’s theological masterwork, left incomplete at the time of his hanging. It is no surprise that when his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer read the novel, she commented that the knight Witiko reminded her of Bonhoeffer himself.
On August 17, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents from Tegel prison asking them to send him Witiko, directing them to look in his library in the attic room of their home in Berlin. Bonhoeffer had been arrested in that room on April 5, 1943, not on charges of treason but on suspicion that his exemption from military service was inappropriate and, therefore, a crime. On the same day, his sister and brother-in-law Christine and Hans von Dohnanyi (who had recruited Bonhoeffer into the resistance) and another couple were also arrested. That the Gestapo suspected Bonhoeffer of something far more serious than a military exemption is indicated by his incarceration on the top floor of Tegel prison, where prisoners condemned to death were kept. What the Gestapo knew for certain was that Bonhoeffer was working as a civilian agent for German military intelligence, hence his exemption. They also knew of his prior opposition to Nazism and his being banned from publishing and public-speaking because of his “activities subverting the people.” Bonhoeffer attempted to explain the dichotomy by stating that he had realized his error and was proud to serve Hitler, but his explanation strained credulity. What the Gestapo did not yet know was that under cover of his ecumenical work, Bonhoeffer—aghast at Hitler’s atrocities—had passed information to contacts in England in an effort to win Allied support for the German resistance.
Bonhoeffer had first mentioned Stifter to his parents on Easter, 1943, shortly after his arrest. In that letter, he also requested a book on theology, a pair of shoes because the heels were falling off the ones he was wearing, a hairbrush, a suit, a pipe, matches, and tobacco. That Easter, a German newspaper had printed a reproduction of Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Michael Battling the Dragon in which the archangel Michael and three other angels fight a seven-headed dragon, the personification of evil. Bonhoeffer tore it out and hung it on the wall, perhaps finding solace that in the apocalyptic battle described in Revelation, the dragon did not prevail. Over the door of his cell a former occupant had scribbled, “In one hundred years everything will be over.” Yet the words Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents that day were uplifting. “What is so liberating about Good Friday and Easter is the fact that our thoughts are pulled far beyond our personal circumstances to the ultimate meaning of all life, suffering, and indeed everything that happens, and this gives us great hope.”
Three weeks later, he wrote that Stifter “has a wonderful simplicity and clarity that gives me great joy. Oh, if only we could once again talk together about all of this! Despite all my sympathies for the vita contemplativa, I am nevertheless not a born Trappist monk.” To reassure his parents that he was not in danger, he added airily that enforced silence might be good for him because, according to Catholics, the best scriptural expositions came from the contemplative orders.
Read by prison censors, these are letters of concealment and constriction. Readers of Letters and Papers from Prison must keep in mind that things are not always as they seem, even when the topic is an innocuous discussion of a historical novel. The knight Witiko is an exemplar of righteousness, but he is also a cipher. Bonhoeffer and his correspondents used a secret code in books they sent to each other, putting dots under critical letters in reverse order and writing and underlining their own names as a sign that a message was contained therein. One of the books so marked was a Stifter breviary. Sometimes family members intentionally embedded in their letters information favorable to Bonhoeffer’s case that they wanted the censors to read and pass on to Nazi officials responsible for his interrogation. The letters are not straightforward because they could not be straightforward. In his powerful essay “After Ten Years,” written at the end of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote to his co-conspirators regretfully, “We have become cunning and learned the arts of obfuscation and equivocal speech.” He concluded with the troubling question about how they would act after secrecy was no longer necessary: “Will our inner strength to resist what has been forced on us have remained strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves blunt enough, to find our way back to simplicity and honesty?” The imperative for secrecy was so strong that in the attic where his books were kept, including Witiko, Bonhoeffer had stashed a copy of the essay over a rafter. It was not found until after the war.
Only his letters to Eberhard Bethge (his friend, fellow pastor, and relative by marriage) and a few to Maria von Wedemeyer escaped the censors, because they were smuggled out of prison and mailed by a sympathetic guard. Writing to Bethge, Bonhoeffer was truthful about the grimness of prison life. For example, in November 1943, he referred to his tendency to resignation (acedia) and melancholy (tristitia), writing that he had resolved not to yield to their “ominous consequences,” by which he meant suicide. “I have told myself from the beginning that I will do neither human beings nor the devil this favor; they are to see to this business themselves if they wish; and I hope I can stick to it.” The bluntness of his letter to Bethge is in marked contrast to the mind-easing tone of his letter to his parents written shortly after his imprisonment: “Above all you need to know and indeed believe that I am doing well…. Curiously those things that one usually imagines to be particularly unpleasant when in detention, that is, the various external privations, do in fact hardly matter at all. It is quite possible to satisfy one’s morning appetite with dry bread—and by the way, I am also getting all kinds of good things!” But his parents were too wise to be fooled, for they themselves were playing the same necessary game, minimizing the difficulties and dangers of their daily lives.
However, those difficulties and dangers were obvious in the letter that Paula Bonhoeffer wrote to her son in response to his request for Witiko. After trying hard to find it, she replied disconsolately on September 20, 1943, that she had failed. Intense night bombings of Berlin by the Allies had begun, forcing the Bonhoeffers to take protective measures. “Your bookshelves upstairs have now been completely emptied, and everything has been brought downstairs, also the pictures and contents of your cupboards. When one sees the many damaged roofs, it is clearly better this way, even though naturally everything has become quite mixed up in the process.”
The elderly Bonhoeffers always made an effort to get their son what he needed, delivering packages to the prison entrance no matter the weather or the threat of bombings. The packages included food to supplement a sparse prison diet mostly of potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and bread. They also included books. So when they could not find Witiko, they sent him the Stifter breviary with the coded message. Paradoxically, Bonhoeffer had managed to find a copy of Witiko on his own in an unlikely place. He wrote on November 9, 1943, “The last ten days have unfolded entirely under the spell of Witiko, which—after I had pestered you so long to find it—turned out to be right here in the prison library, where I had truly not reckoned to find it!”
I became aware of the strong bond between Stifter and Bonhoeffer when I read his Letters and Papers from Prison for the third time. Since his death, there have been three versions, each more comprehensive than the one before. The most recent was published by Fortress Press in 2010 as volume 8 of the definitive series Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. If the worth of a book were measured by spine size, then the first version measures one-half inch, the second “New Greatly Enlarged Edition” (as trumpeted on the cover) measures one inch, and the third measures a portly two inches. I own all three and remember reading the first in the late 1960s when I was in college. The dramatic cover of that paperback has black bars on a light-blue background with an irregular red shape in the middle as if a jailbreak has occurred. On that shape the title is printed, below which is the line “published originally as Prisoner for God.” Belonging to my father, the book bears his strong signature in red ink on the front page and is heavily underlined. Although the paper is yellowed and brittle, I will not throw it out. It was one of those rare books that opened up for me, then a young, questioning Christian, a way to continue to believe.
While going through the newest version, I kept a detailed list of every book Bonhoeffer read with the intent of reading some of them myself, for I have found that if you want to know in which direction a person’s thoughts were heading, it is wise to read what he was reading. The same words his eyes fell on, your eyes fall on, and although comprehension may well be different, rich insights can come of the effort. I also kept track of oblique references, because when reading text written under repression, one must pay attention to whispers.
Keeping a list made one thing clear: Bonhoeffer, even in prison, was a prodigious reader in a broad range of subjects. Novels were important but not because they transported him beyond the cell walls, providing him fleeting release. As he wrote to his parents, “This intensive reading in recent months will also do much good for my work. One often learns more for ‘ethics’ in such places than in textbooks.” Of course, theologians and philosophers ranked high, including Emanuel Kant and Karl Barth. But that is only the beginning. He read a medical handbook so he could help in the prison infirmary, tending to injuries from bombings that blew out the windows. He read a book on chess. He read history, sociology, and even science, including Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker’s The World View of Physics, sent to him by his brother Karl-Friedrich, who was a professor of physical chemistry.
Because I have written about science and religion, I wanted to read Weizsäcker’s book to gain an understanding of Bonhoeffer’s nascent ideas on the subject, including his assertion that God is found in what is known instead of unknown (the gaps in knowledge) in a “world-come-of-age.” I even went so far as to obtain a rare copy of The World View of Physics. So it was odd that what I found compelling was Witiko, to which Bonhoeffer referred in some of his most emotionally charged letters.
The first English translation of Witiko was issued by the Swiss publisher Peter Lang in 2006. The translator was Wendell W. Frye, a professor of German at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. When I could not find a copy, I wrote to him and explained what I was attempting to do. He graciously sent me one, writing, “Having read and taught Witiko at least a score of times, I can definitely see Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ideas.” He advised me to read the book not once but twice, which aligned with Bonhoeffer’s advice to his parents to read it slowly. “I have always found that rereading Witiko is a very profitable undertaking; it’s like visiting an old friend,” Frye wrote. “Each time I notice something else; perhaps that’s the mark of a great work of literature.”
There was one other personal reason why I chose to set aside work on The World View of Physics, turning to Witiko instead. My son, Marc, who is thirty-eight years old, a husband, and father of a son named Alex, had just received his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma after a long period of increasing fatigue and severe night sweats. In an email to friends, he wrote about that diagnosis: “I first saw my cancer through the eyes of my son. Three weeks of coughing had continued to get worse. Alex, needy as always, slept in my arms, refusing to sleep in his crib. I woke both of us with a gut-wrenching, gravelly cough-wheeze. Instead of startling or crying, he gave me a look of deep concern and compassion, deeper than I had ever seen on an adult, with an understanding far beyond his nine months. Seeing that look, I asked myself, ‘I wonder if this is worse than I think. How can he know?’ A week later they found the mass in my chest.”
The large tumor was impinging on Marc’s right lung, heart, and vena cava, causing a profound heaviness and a sense of constriction that went beyond the physical. The decision was made to travel every week from our home in Connecticut to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for treatment, a trip that takes about four hours. But his problems were compounded when, following the first chemotherapy session, he had a severe reaction to one of the drugs. Instead of targeting the cancer cells, the drug attacked the motor neurons throughout his body. There was no way to stop the destruction or to reverse what was happening. To use a wartime analogy, Marc was taking friendly fire. With his feet flopping like fish when he tried to walk, his blood pressure rising rapidly, and his other vital signs becoming unstable, he was admitted to Memorial Sloan Kettering. By the time he was released six days later—bloated, deeply fatigued, and leaning heavily on the walker—the distance between Connecticut and New York City had become logarithmically longer. (I will never forget making our way to the escalator at Grand Central Terminal to find it wasn’t running. I held the walker while Marc, with uncomplaining determination, walked down, placing his feet on each unmoving stair with the exactitude of a mountain climber making a steep descent.) Were it not for the fact that my brother and sister-in-law live near Memorial Sloan Kettering and with great kindness provided us a place to stay as well as unfailing support, we would not have been able to make the trip.
Given the difficulties, I knew I could not concentrate on The World View of Physics, which would require me to grapple with quantum theory viewed through the dark lens of Weizsäcker’s work on an atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. However, I thought I might be able to read a novel that I could pick up and put down, making good use of the time that was going to be on my hands. That this was the correct decision was proved a few months later when I attempted to read Ethics while Marc received chemotherapy. Interruptions from nurses, volunteers asking if he would like soup, and my trips to the cafeteria to buy green tea—all of these things made it impossible for me to sustain the level of concentration that Ethics demanded. I barely made it through a paragraph. To be honest, that same day Marc and I had tried to play cribbage, but I kept forgetting whose turn it was and how to add up to fifteen.
Because of “chemo brain” (an actual phenomenon), Marc was not doing any better than I was in keeping score. He described how chemotherapy made him feel in an email to family and friends: “Sour—chemo tastes sour—breathes sour—feels sour. It is in my mouth, my stomach, my lungs. It fuddles my brain and muddles my thoughts. It is death, small, insidious, killing me slowly, and the tumor faster. I feel it, too, dying in my chest as if a mad crow were digging through my skin, picking at my innards with sharp snips. I sip water as I type and it tastes sour. Everything is tinged by the poison disguised as medicine.” Yet Marc was stoical about the necessity of chemo, knowing that the metabolism of cancer cells was the basis of its effectiveness. He quoted Sun Tzu in The Art of War: “the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
Everything—environment, stress, fatigue—militated against reading ponderous books and playing cribbage. They would have to wait until another day. There was only one essential thing: to be fully present in the world of cancer. The necessity of being present in the broken world was something Bonhoeffer believed in intensely. Facing his own death, he wrote to Bethge on July 21, 1944: “If one has completely renounced making something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a church leader (a so-called priestly figure!), a just or an unjust person, a sick or a healthy person—then one throws oneself completely into the arms of God, and this is what I call this-worldliness: living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities—then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane.”
And so I began to read Witiko, discovering immediately that Stifter is not like any other author. Thomas Mann, the German novelist and Nobel-Prize winner, wrote that Stifter “is one of the most remarkable, most enigmatic, inwardly bold and strangely enthralling storytellers in world literature, critically too little penetrated.” His books are well known in Europe, but only Rock Crystal gained any attention in the United States. About two children who get lost in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, it was translated in 1945 by Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Mayer and given an introduction by W.H. Auden, helping elevate its status.
Based on the life of an actual knight, Witiko is filled with so much factual material it verges on being a text on obscure medieval history, trying the patience of modern readers who are not used to such exhaustive detail presented at a slow pace. Even in the battle scenes, the narrative does not rush—it accretes. The factual framework required Stifter to recount the story of Bohemia over a period of forty-six years. Attempting to write “the life of whole peoples,” he had to balance the centrifugal force of history against the centripetal force of the individual. Unfortunately, critics disliked Witiko, carping about the excessive detail and the woodenness of the style (criticisms still lobbed at the book today). What praise there was came too late. With his health in decline, Stifter committed suicide in 1868.
For Bonhoeffer, Witiko held immense ethical power. He held up the knight as an example of the “single-minded” or “whole” man in a lecture at Finkenwalde Seminary in 1937. The “whole” man was the opposite of the “double-minded” man, a phrase that Bonhoeffer had underlined in the book of James, where it is written that “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Such a person is a doubter. Even when he asks God for wisdom, he is like “a wave of the sea blown and tossed by the wind.” Therefore, he receives nothing. Bonhoeffer also mentioned Witiko in relation to 1 Timothy 1:18, pointing out that the “virtuous knight” fights to build up the community, encouraging the seminarians to do the same.
Bonhoeffer had been pivotal in establishing Finkenwalde Seminary to train ministers for the Confessing Church, which had dissented from the Reich church over the latter’s alignment (the word used was synchronization) with Nazism. That alignment called for the expulsion of pastors who had Jewish ancestry, but that was just the beginning. Hitler wanted nothing less than a pure “Aryan” church under his total control, and he wanted that church to use “dejudaized” Bibles shorn of the Old Testament. Jesus was to be German in blood. Finkenwalde was a perilous undertaking, and its teachers and students were at risk of arrest. The idea of a brave knight who chooses to take on responsibility for his community was compelling. In Witiko’s actions, Bonhoeffer saw his own.
Bonhoeffer prefaced the letter about finding Witiko in the prison library by telling his parents that “the dismal autumn days have begun and one has to try to get light from within.” Because of intense Allied bombings, the prison was blacked out at night, so reading had to be done during the day. As to Witiko, he wasn’t sure whether to recommend it. “With its thousand pages, which can’t be skimmed through but must be read with much leisure, it is presumably not accessible to more than a few people today, and for this reason I don’t know if I ought to recommend it to you.” But eventually he overcame his reluctance and recommended it to his parents, Bethge, and Maria, who loved it, writing to him that it “gets more and more beautiful right up to the end. I quite understand why you couldn’t help liking the book; if I had read it first, I’d have sent it to you. It reminds me of you somehow. That’s why I can’t help liking it too, even though it’s very different from anything I’ve read in the past.”
So what made Witiko different, and why did it matter so much to Bonhoeffer? Witiko is a knight who rides out of Bavaria in the year 1138 into Bohemia, his ancestral land. The last of what was once a powerful family, Witiko has come to seek his fortune, a search he intends to carry out with wise diligence, learning everything he can from whomever he meets, nobleman or peasant, weighing all matters carefully before deciding on a course of action. Witiko is handsome, with golden hair and blue eyes, but he does not call attention to himself. There is neither insignia on his breastplate nor a feather in his helmet. His armor is made of elk leather, weather-damaged and gouged. Yet it is of the highest quality, easily the match for metal in its ability to withstand a sword blow.
Just as the value of the armor is in its strength, not its appearance, so also the gray charger that Witiko rides is not a beautiful horse. What matters is its thorough training and steady temperament in battle. These attributes are not obvious to onlookers because Witiko walks the horse as much as possible to reserve its strength until required. He always takes care of the horse before he takes care of himself, feeding it the best provender he can find. Likewise, Witiko is ready for action but will not take action until it is essential, at which point there will be no holding back.
Riding to Prague, Witiko meets a band of young knights who are galloping their horses hard for no reason but for fun, something he would never do. They are well dressed but careless in appearance, and their sole purpose in life is merrymaking. Unknown to Witiko, the band’s leader, the scarlet knight, is the son of the former duke of Bohemia and the nephew of the present duke. When Witiko finds out his identity, having walked, not galloped (at his insistence) with the band for some distance, he tells the scarlet knight that if he is who he says he is, then he should be more serious—a comment that will echo back to Witiko when the scarlet knight becomes duke in two years’ time.
The election of a new duke places Witiko in an ethical quandary. There are two candidates, and his loyalty is not to the scarlet knight, whose name is Wladislaw. It is unclear who is the best man to lead the country. There is right and wrong on both sides. Promises have been made that must be kept or broken. No matter how the vote comes out, blood will be shed. When Wladislaw wins the election in the great council in Prague, Witiko chooses not to oppose him, but neither does he agree to serve him. During a recess in the council, one of the knights accuses Witiko of being stubborn and not giving in. Witiko asks the knight if he himself gives in. “Everyone does if he has to,” replies the knight. Witiko retorts, “except that ‘has to’ is less for one man than for another.” Following the election, Witiko returns to his forest home to ponder what he should do, seeking the advice of experienced men. The upshot is that he realizes his loyalty is misplaced and that the man he wanted to be duke is not worthy because he does not care about the welfare of Bohemia but only about his own aggrandizement. Recognizing that the new duke has changed for the better since his wastrel days as the scarlet knight, Witiko admits his mistake, gives the duke his loyalty, and goes to war against the renegades who are trying to overthrow him.
Witiko cares deeply about the forest folk, listening to them and joining in communal activities such as hunting wolves. Considering their well-being his responsibility, he makes decisions accordingly. In Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrote that history arises from accepting responsibility for other human beings, even entire communities. “Individuals do not act merely for themselves alone; each individual incorporates the selves of several people, perhaps even a very large number.” However, in the chapter “Natural Life,” which Bonhoeffer wrote in strong opposition to sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, and genocide, he made clear that in supporting the right of the community, the natural right of the individual should never be lost. Similarly, Witiko upholds each man’s right to decide for himself whether to go into battle, weighing his own good against the common good.
Another ethical dilemma that resonates powerfully in Bonhoeffer’s life occurs as Witiko is returning to Prague with troops to lift the siege of the city. He and his men are under the leadership of Odolen when they come upon the rebel leaders. Witiko decides on his own that it would be better to let the rebel leaders escape so that they can carry back to their troops the news of advancing superior forces, bringing about a bloodless retreat from Prague, thereby preserving innocent lives. Disobeying orders, Witiko allows them to escape. Then he takes full responsibility for breaking military law, immediately surrenders his command, and offers to hand over his sword. When he is brought before the duke, he explains his actions calmly: “I have transgressed against military law and our noble duke and await his punishment.” Fortunately his punishment is a slap on the wrist, because as he had foreseen, the escaped rebels have hastened back to Prague and lifted the siege.
The idea of taking responsibility, making a decision, acting on it, and then boldly bearing the consequences, including the guilt, appears repeatedly in Ethics: “To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom—to decide, to act, and to answer for the consequences of this particular action myself without the support of other people or principles. Responsibility presupposes ultimate freedom in assessing a given situation, in choosing, and in acting.” A person must renounce self-justification “in daring to do the good.” It is almost as if Bonhoeffer is thinking of Witiko’s actions when he states, “Precisely because we are dealing with a deed that arises from freedom, the one who acts is not torn apart by destructive conflict, but instead can with confidence and inner integrity do the unspeakable, namely in the very act of breaking the law to sanctify it.”
The rest of the story is about the unification of Bohemia. By the end, Witiko has gained honor, built a castle, and won the hand of the maiden Bertha. Yet the issue of succession is never resolved, and the rise of the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa leaves Bohemian autonomy in question. As in many of Stifter’s stories, he subtly undercuts the order that he has imposed.
There is another noteworthy aspect of Witiko: it opened a path to greater understanding between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer; for if Maria saw him as Witiko, he saw her as Bertha, who loyally waits for six years while Witiko fights his battles. At the time of their engagement, Bonhoeffer was far worldlier than Maria and had inordinately high expectations of the relationship. He agonized over their inability to achieve a meeting of the minds—an inability that was no one’s fault. Maria’s letters were often wise and funny. But she was a teenager who loved to hike and ride and whose landed aristocratic background differed from his, which was urban intelligentsia. These differences could have been overcome had the circumstances been less extreme. What is remarkable in their correspondence (published as Love Letters from Cell 92) is the degree of understanding they achieved, although they often expressed frustration about their inability to say what needed to be said.
Bonhoeffer first met Maria through her grandmother, Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, a strong-willed woman who was opposed to Nazism. She had a home in the Baltic seaport of Stettin, where Finkenwalde Seminary was located, and occasionally attended services there and provided support when the seminary ran short of food and supplies. She also invited Bonhoeffer to spend his vacations at her estate so that he could pursue his writing in solitude.
When Bonhoeffer met Maria again at her grandmother’s home in June 1942, something sparked between them, despite the eighteen-year age difference. The relationship did not immediately blossom because of the demands on his time, hesitancy about the age gap, and two tragedies: in 1942, Maria’s father and brother, who were in the German army, were killed within two months of each other near Stalingrad. So great was the blow that her mother implored Bonhoeffer not to contact Maria in order to allow her time to recover. Although the couple prevailed in their desire to become engaged, they had little opportunity to be together before his arrest, after which they were never alone again.
From then on, Stifter’s books became important to them both. Maria gave him Rock Crystal for Christmas in 1943. Then, at the start of 1944, she read Witiko, writing that the language was “clear, simple, lucid, powerful, and honest.” Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer’s response, which Maria declared to be beautiful, has been lost, but it is possible to glean what he may have written from a letter to Bethge. He began by saying that Maria was everything he could hope for and that he was pleased that the reading of Witiko had enabled them to say “decisive things” to each other. Then his tone turned plaintive: “You see, we actually hardly know each other, and for me—could it be my age, or my nature, or the many questions occupying me these days?—what I would call a truly exclusive and great love can only grow from knowing the other person fully, or at least from intense togetherness with her. I’m quite certain that would happen if Maria and I could be together.” He then mentioned the enormous rush of problems that prior to the war could be dealt with one at a time. To deal with problems separately was no longer possible; even so, Christians must not allow their lives to be split apart but must stay whole. Then, as he had done in his lecture at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer referred to Witiko going out into the world “to do the whole thing,” trying to find his way to “real life,” not alone but together with others.
Witiko was also illuminating on truth, a subject that disturbed Bonhoeffer greatly because of the necessity of seeming to be what he was not and of lying to protect others, a necessity the knight also had to face. Bonhoeffer expressed the searing difficulty in a letter dated December 15, 1943: “I often wonder who I really am: the one always cringing in disgust, going to pieces at these hideous experiences here, or the one who whips himself into shape, who on the outside [and even to himself] appears calm, cheerful, serene, superior, and lets himself be applauded for this charade—or is it real? What does ‘poise’ mean, actually? In short, one knows less about oneself than ever and is no longer interested in it, weary with psychology and thoroughly averse to any analysis of the soul…. More important matters are at stake than self-knowledge.” He reiterated these feelings in a poem titled “Who Am I?” written in July 1944, just before the failed attempt to kill Hitler with a bomb hidden in a satchel. After that, Bonhoeffer’s life and the lives of many others were forfeit. The Gestapo had all the evidence they needed to execute them.
I and my family—most of all, my son—know well about trying to appear calm, cheerful, serene, superior, and about being “applauded for this charade.” Cancer exudes a strange darkness that by its very name repels many people, even those who in other circumstances would be supportive. Cancer survivors—and Marc is now one of them—know the upheaval that the disease causes in relationships. Old friends back off, new friends appear, and help comes from unexpected sources. When someone asked me a few months ago how Marc was doing, part of me wanted to say, “He has been throwing up for forty-eight hours, and his legs are cramping so badly he is having trouble walking,” but I didn’t. I said that chemo was difficult but that he was doing okay. If asked again under similar circumstances, I would say the same thing. But each situation is different, as is each person who stands before me and asks. There are times to say more and times to say less, and it is hard to decide which is correct.
Bonhoeffer knew that, too. He also knew he was truthful even when he hid the truth. He wrote his last letter to his parents on January 17, 1945, from a Gestapo prison. “I’m doing well. You two just see that you stay healthy. I thank you for everything.” He also requested several items, among them coffee beans, toothpaste, and a book by Plutarch, the first-century Greek historian. That he received the book is clear because he carried it with him when he was transported to Flossenbürg concentration camp, located near the Czech border in the forests where the historical Witiko had grown up and trained as a knight. Stopping on the way at a schoolhouse on April 6, Bonhoeffer wrote his name in the book in pencil in three places, and then intentionally left it behind as a sign to anyone who might try to retrace his last steps. At the schoolhouse, he held a worship service for his fellow prisoners, as always more concerned for their welfare than his own. Then he was transported to Flossenbürg. On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged and his body burned. On the same day, his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi was executed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. On April 22, his brother Klaus and brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher were shot near a train station. And on April 30, Hitler committed suicide.
It would be immoral to end this essay with an uplifting statement of shallow piety. Bonhoeffer hated religiosity. He liked concrete facts, no matter how hard, writing, “Whatever human weaknesses, miscalculations, and guilt there are in what precedes the facts, God is in the facts themselves.” And so to facts: I did not start out to write an essay on Witiko and Bonhoeffer. I started out to investigate how his ideas on science and religion were shaped by The World View of Physics. I turned to Witiko because of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. On the surface, it might have been wiser for me to set the entire project aside and instead do a crossword puzzle while I waited. But once I began, I kept going, because although Bonhoeffer’s situation in prison was far more extreme than my son’s, there were emotional and spiritual similarities with what he was going through, not least of which was the entanglement of sorrow and fear, serious setbacks, and teeth-gritting resolve. In one of my letters to Wendell Frye, I wrote about both Bonhoeffer and Witiko being in this world and concluded, “For me personally, it has been a rough summer to think about all this, but then perhaps only a rough summer will suffice.”
My son is gaining strength, his hair is growing back, and everyone looks to the future with great hopefulness. But we go forward knowing that we are—and must be—in this world, attempting to “do the whole thing,” even when we fail, and that as Bonhoeffer wrote, “God is not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.