Our Lady of Stalingrad

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How does Mary come into a Protestant Church? An Ecumenical Reflection for Reformation Day  

written on 31 October 2014

reuber kl

Christmas 1942 in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Russia, during the Battle of Stalingrad was a lonely time and a cold one for the German soldiers. They had very little to eat, and ammunition was coming to an end. They were surrounded by the Soviet Army, waiting for the inevitable: the final surrender to the Russian troops.  A German soldier, the physician and Protestant pastor Dr. Kurt Reuber, spent these weeks together with some comrades. And he decided to paint a picture:

“Christmas week has come and gone. It has been a week of watching and waiting, of deliberate resignation and confidence. The days were filled with the noise of battle and there were many wounded to be attended to. I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my madonna, and how much it means to me.”

HOPE in the middle of Despair – this was their Christmas Eve, looking at the picture of the Mother holding her Child, the Light of the World. The text reads: Licht, Leben, Liebe – Light, Life, Love; Weihnachten im Kessel 1942-  Christmas at the Siege 1942; Festung Stalingrad  – Fortress Stalingrad.

Dr. Reuber was taken captive in February 1943 and died in early 1944. The Madonna was flown out of Stalingrad on the last transport plane to leave the encircled German army. The Madonna and a number of letters from Reuber were delivered to his family. In 1983, Reuber’s children donated the work to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

This opens another chapter of Germany’s history. This Church  – as the the whole city of Berlin – was highly bombarded during WWII. Only the spire of this old Protestant Church remained and a new church building in pentagon shape, all in blue glass was built next to it, together with a new tower to contain the bells. Today, the Memorial Church today is a famous landmark of western Berlin.

And in this new church, you will find Our Lady of Stalingrad. Every time when I come to Berlin, I pay her a visit, I am not the only Catholic doing so. Usually, Protestant churches seldom get visits by Catholics, but this is an exception. And many Protestant are kind of surprised and start reading the history of the picture and stand in awe.  She is beautiful, isn’t she?

Today is Reformation day. We cannot turn back the wheels of history. I am not as convinced as my Protestant friends are that Luther’s 95 theses and following turmoil were a good thing, but I concede that the Catholic Church – especially in our countries – was in real bad shape at that time and we owe to Martin Luther the wonderful music of Johannes Sebastian Bach, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and most importantly – the Council of Trent.

Happy Reformation Day to all my Protestant friends!

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