Tag Archives: Germany

St. Norbert, Bishop

June 3, 2016



Norbert was born in 1080 in Xanten, a town in western Germany.   His father was Count Heribert of Gennep, his mother Hedwig of Guise.  His family was both nobility and Christian.  As a young man he was ordained a subdeacon, not because of his faith, but to gain the advantage of clerical position and a financial subsidy from the church.  He became a spiritual advisor to Emperor Henry V in Cologne, and he reveled in a life of political influence, luxury, and wealth.

Norbert accompanied Henry V to Rome in 1114 for a contentious meeting with Pope Paschal II over lay investiture, the appointment of bishops by secular rulers.  Norbert was moved by the Pope’s firm adherence to spiritual principles, and it proved to be the beginning of his conversion.  A year later Norbert was riding his horse, caught in a thunderstorm, struck by lightning, and thrown from his mount.  Spared, he experienced a conversion like St. Paul.

Norbert resigned his position with the Emperor and withdrew to the Benedictine Abbey of Siegberg outside of Cologne for a period of penance, fasting, and prayer.  At the end of his seclusion, he was ordained a priest in 1115, and to prove the genuineness of his vocation, he sold all of his land and material possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor.

Filled with zeal, Norbert returned to Xanten, but the local clergy were lax, not enamored with his call to holiness, and ostracized him.  Norbert departed for France, barefoot over snowy roads, to meet with Pope Gelasius II who had fled from Rome.   The Pope commissioned Norbert to be a missionary preacher, and for the next several years he traveled throughout northern France preaching Jesus, the gospel, and repentance, and he performed a number of miracles.

In 1120 the new Pope, Callistus II, sent Norbert to Laon to lead a spiritual renewal of the Canons of St. Martin.  Again, he encountered bitter resistance, and unable to lead a reform, he was given permission to found his own community, which he did on Christmas Day, 1120, with thirteen members, at Premontre in northern France.  The new community was called the Canons Regular of Premontre, or simply, the Premonstratensians, today called the Norbertines.  Norbert adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, and implemented some of the practices of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians regarding simplicity of life.  He combined the contemplative spirituality of monastic living with the active spirituality of outside ministry.

Norbert was appointed the Archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany, in 1126.  He instituted a clergy reform that enforced celibacy, eliminated corruption, and ended absenteeism.  Opposition was so intense that several assassination attempts were made on his life, and he fled Magdeburg briefly.

Pope Honorius II died in 1130, and two cardinals were elected separately, one legitimately, Innocent II, and one falsely, Anacletus II, the antipope, which caused a schism.  Norbert went to Rome in an attempt to support Innocent II and resolve the conflict.  Unsuccessful, he returned to Magdeburg, fell ill, and died on June 6, 1134.

Norbert was canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.  He is the patron saint of Magdeburg, Bohemia, and the Premonstratensian Order.  His symbol is a monstrance because he vigorously upheld the doctrine of the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in his preaching.

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‘My Battle Against Hitler’

April 21, 2015

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My-Battle-Against-Hitler-Denied a professorship in Munich because of his stand against National Socialism, Dietrich von Hildebrand fled Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was tipped that his arrest was imminent.

The Catholic philosopher subsequently narrowly escaped Vienna with a death threat over his head as the Nazis took over Austria. The SS missed him by four hours.

He went first to Switzerland and later to France, only to once again have to run for his life when German tanks rolled into France.

Considered by Hitler one of National Socialism’s greatest obstacles, von Hildebrand found his way to the United States in 1940 and taught for 20 years at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.

What he stood for and why he had to flee come to life some three-quarters of a century later in a translation of von Hildebrand’s memoir from those turbulent times, “My Battle Against Hitler.”

John Henry Crosby — with the assistance of his father, John F. Crosby — translated and edited the Image book, which is subtitled “Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.”

By late 1921 von Hildebrand was already finding the political philosophy of National Socialism at odds with Catholicism — and earning the ire of some Germans, including German Catholic clergy, who saw it as a bulwark against communism.

By 1933, while Hitler was being appointed chancellor, the Reichstag being burned, the rule of law being disregarded by the government and Jews being arrested and hauled away, von Hildebrand was writing that one could not be both Catholic and a supporter of the Nazis.

“It was clear to me,” he wrote about that timeframe, “that I could no longer teach in a National Socialist country because I was convinced that I would be forced to make compromises, and that I would either have to keep silent about the injustices that would come or else risk the concentration camp.”

Compromise was something von Hildebrand couldn’t do when it came to what his Catholic faith taught. Nor could he be silent.

“His struggle against Hitler,” the authors note, “was above all carried out on the battlefield of conscience.”

Early on von Hildebrand warned those who thought Catholics could influence National Socialism for the better that that would not happen.

He warned Catholics, too, not to believe Hitler’s promises to respect Christian churches and to work with them, a warning that proved prescient when priests began being arrested and sent to concentration camps.

He railed against Catholics who put up with Nazi atrocities as long as the Catholic Church was not victimized.

Once safely in Vienna he launched a periodical that took on the Nazis from a Catholic intellectual perspective. It was a safety that was short-lived.

The last third of the book includes essays the von Hildebrand wrote for that Austrian journal he founded and led between 1934 and 1937, “Der christliche Standestaat” (“The Christian Corporate Standard”).

These are the persuasive writings of a philosopher who fought “at the level of first principles,” the authors explain. He argues for ethical choices and decisions, and goes point by point comparing the core principles of the Nazis against the teachings of Christ and the Church. In his writing:

• He calls nationalism the greatest heresy of the 18th and 19th centuries, justaposing it with patriotism, which he terms a love of one’s nation that acknowledges that every other nation is valuable and has rights, too.

• He lists Nazi sins, including racism, anti-semitism, the persecution and death of Jews, sterilization, regulating marriage, trumped up charges, “pharisaical trials,” defamation of individuals and murders, and warns against becoming “used to” or morally blind to them.

• Rather than politicizing Catholicism, “one must Catholicize politics,” he writes, and calls Catholics not to be silent or apolitical but to act, asking, “Are you for Christ or against him?”

In sum, von Hildebrand terms Nazism so unChristian and so unsound that it cannot be corrected or reformed, but must be destoyed.

His defense of the teachings of the Catholic faith is matched in this memoir only by his defense of Jewish people.

He defends Jews as a people of God, writing in 1937 with a Catholic heart in the very best sense:

“Above all, Catholics must all perceive the present-day attack against the Jews as something that directly threatens them. Did not Christ the Lord say, ‘What you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me?’

“Is not the defamation and degradation of the Jews a direct attack against the incarnate God, against human nature sanctified by the Incarnation? Indeed, what is happening today is not the special concern of a particular people. No, true for us all are the words, ‘Tua res agitur!’ — This concerns you!”

Bob Zyskowski writes the bobzbookreviews blog on

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The First Baby “Snowman”

December 18, 2012

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Saints Peter and Paul Church in Rustenfelde, Germany

A mother’s selfless love

(Based on information from a German newspaper article. This is how I envisioned the story happening…)

Large snowflakes planted themselves like kisses on the bundle a mother held in her arms. It was a hard winter that year of 1726 in Rustenfelde, Thuringen of central Germany. The mother was thankful she had swaddled her infant in a woolen blanket.

The woman willed her feet forward as she ambled along the cobblestones. The snow lay twinkling like Stern on the ground and was starting to accumulate, so she tread carefully. Her destination was the Catholic Kirche in the middle of the town. It was named after two strong disciples: Saints Peter and Paul, and she yearned for some of their strength at that moment. When the mother came to a large, stone wall she knew she was almost there. She pressed the child closer to her chest and trudged forward. Wiping a tear from her eye, she whispered to the sleeping babe, “I love you, mein Leibling. That is why I am doing this.”

Perched high on the church grounds, the young Mutter paused to take in the view and bide more time. The timber-framed homes in the village were constructed from wattle and daub and were topped with thatched roofs. Candles glowing in the windows gave a sense of warmth to the scene. Tufts of smoke rising from the chimnyes created a feeling of hominess, for which the mother craved. The farmlands and woodlands beyond were beautiful even at dusk. To her right, at the outskirts of town, she saw a deer family foraging in the wheat field near the treeline. On the distant mound, the castle called Rusteberg loomed like a protective fortress. This was where counts and knight crusaders often lived during the past 500 years. Hanstein Castle, granted to the Archbishop of Mainz in 1209, still sat atop the hill above the Werra River. “It will be a safe place,” she whispered to the baby.

The mother turned to face the impressive Kirche. All was calm, all was bright–except for her heart. Votives were lit witinin, near the altar. Seeing them pacified the mother.

Someone hustled on the road below. The woman lowered her head and put her cheek to the baby’s. When the man had passed them, she made sure nobody was around to see what she had to do out of love for her little Leibling. After one last embrace the mother tenderly placed the baby on the front step of Saints Peter and Paul and then knocked on the wooden door. Fleeing to an enclave nearby, she watched from the shadows.  She felt like Miriam must have while serving as sentinel to the baby Moses adrift in his basket until his adoptive mother found him.

The young  Mutter whispered to the Blessed Mother: “You were alone and frightened, too, weren’t you Mary? Will you wrap your shielding mantel around my baby and safeguard him, bitte? Just like you did the Christkindl?”  The door was opened by a holy man. A light from inside the church poured onto the stoop illuminating the wrapped gift. An expression of surprise and joy crossed the priest’s face as he looked down. Bending, he picked up the Bundel; the child fit perfectly into the crook of his arm. He hastened outside and spent a moment looking around, but he didn’t see anyone. With his right hand, the man dusted away the white fluffs of Schnee which had collected upon the swaddling. The woman saw a smile on the priest’s face before he closed the door.

Geh mit Gott, meine Engel,” the birthmother said from the shadows. “Go with God, my angel.”

The foundling is named

The priest brought the baby into the sanctuary of the church and unwrapped das Bundel. The infant was no bigger than a doll. He awoke, displaying luminous blue eyes for just a brief moment.  Das kleiner Junge licked his lips and mewled. The man comforted the child and told him not to cry: “Hab keine Angst.”

There arose the question as to what he should call the baby boy. The holy man must have had a sense of humor, so he gave him a name that recalled how the child was covered with white Schnee on the church’s doorstep.

The priest decided to name the baby Schneemann (the surname of my husband’s family). We are told it is not a usual name in Germany–just as you wouldn’t find ‘Snowman’ used as a surname in this country.

Baby Schneemann is adopted

Eventually, the babe was adopted, but we do not know by whom. Perhaps the priest himself took the child in, or maybe he was raised by a couple living in the area of Rustenfelde. All we know is that he was christened Ambrosius Schneemann. He may have possibly been named after the 4th-century theologian and doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose. The name is Latin, taken from the Greek word “ambrosia” which is known as the food of the gods. It also has other meanings: “immortal,” “undying,” or “divine.” Maybe the child’s Christain name was chosen because the name-giver was challenged, as my husband and I were, by the question: What works with the last name ‘Schneeman’?

This baby was indeed created–as all babies are– from the breath of God. They are a blessings bestowed to mortals. Likewise, Ambrosius Schneemann’s birthmother was accessing God’s grace when she chose for her baby the gift of life. And wasn’t the newborn blessed because she did so? She could have left him in an unsafe place like the Werra River, a dark alley, a trash heap, the woods, or one of the nearby culverts, canals, channels or wells. But the desparate Mutti made two unselfish decisions: She willed her baby to live even though he was born in some sort of crisis, and she allowed another woman to call him “meine Sohn” through the gift of adoption.  For he truly was a “treasure.”

And the first Baby Schneemann bestowed a gift to the world, too–which was his undying lineage.

“Baby Boxes”

All babies–planned and unplanned–are gifts, and deserve to live. Throughout Germany today, there are nearly 100 warm incubators built into hospital walls. They serve as “safe places” for mothers to leave children whom they wish to place anonymously for adoption. These “baby boxes” receive considerable public support because they save little ones from infanticide.

“They are a revival of the medieval ‘foundling wheels,’ where infants were left in revolving church doors. In recent years, there has been an increase in these contraptions –also called hatches, windows, or slots in some countries–and at least 11 European nations now have them [Germany has by far the most–Poland and The Czech Republic are next, and they have more than 40], according to United Nations figures.” (Associated Press, December of 2012)

Sadly, some human rights advocates think these boxes are  bad for the children. That they avoid dealing with the problems that led the baby to be abandoned. But how, pray tell, can saving the life of the baby be a negative thing? Hundreds of babies in Europe have been placed in these boxes in the last 10 years. It is estimated that one or two infants are placed in each “safe place” every year.

According to the Associated Press article, Germany’s Health Ministry is considering other options. “We want to replace the necessity for the baby boxes by implementing a rule to allow women to give birth anonymously that will allow them to [place their] child for adoption,” said Christopher Steegmans for the ministry. (This sounds like our Safe Place for Newborns campaigne here in the States.)

Schneemann Baby’s ripples

In the summer of 1947, a couple named Wilma and Kurt Schneemann of Köln, Germany were married. A family tree fell into their hands. The newlyweds did some research in Rustenfelde and found the story of the Schneemann family beginnings in the church records there. “This child is the forefather of all Schneemanns” wrote a joyful relative to our cousin back in 1999 at Christmastime.

Ambrosius Schneemann obviously had had at least one child, and that child went on to produce more offspring. And so on, and so on, and so on. I like to think that Ambrosius’  birthmother continued to watch him from a distance. Maybe she also witnessed her grandchildren thriving. Today, many descendants are living in America, and the name was Americanized to ‘Schneeman.’ She’d be happy to know there are successful artists, musicians, students, architects, business managers, doctors, nurses, military leaders, teachers and lawyers, to name a few. One descendant went to Germany to play professional football in 2012, and some kin have returned as tourists; unable to resist the pull of their heritage.

Today, Rustenfelde has a population of about 500. Two Schneemanns sit on the city council under the Bürgermeister Ulrich Hesse.

What a ripple (er, snowball?) effect  one baby–and one choice–can make in this Odyssey called Life.  If we are open to God’s gifts, even during the Schneesturms (snowstorms) of our journey, He will give us so many graces in return.

Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!

(Danke to my Mutti, Cecelia MacDonald, for editing this blog. She also corrected my German and taught me that ALL nouns in the German language are capitalized. And a big Danke to the birthmother of that first Schneemann baby!)

Hanstein Castle in the 1600s

Hanstein Castle in the 1600s




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If only FDR had listened about Hitler

July 1, 2011


Are you a World War II junkie?

Love history and politics?

Here’s a great read for you.

As Adolph Hitler was gearing up his Nazi steamroller, American diplomat William Dodd tried to warn the U.S. government.

The Holocaust and World War II are evidence that Ambassador Dodd failed.

“In the Garden of Beasts” tells how and why Dodd couldn’t convince either Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the president who appointed him — or the high-society members of the U.S. Foreign Service that Hitler shouldn’t be treated like the leaders of other countries.

The four short years of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador to Germany come alive in Erik Larson’s latest superb nonfiction work. The brutality of Hitler and his Nazi brethren is palpable. The internal politics of 1933-37  Germany are ruthless and bloody.

And the snooty wealthy class that populated U.S. consulates at the time played no small part in enabling Ambassador Dodd’s cautions to go unheeded.

Unlikely and disliked

Plucked out of the history department of the University of Chicago, Dodd may have been a third or fourth choice for the post in Berlin, an appointment FDR made under pressure of a deadline. Naive enough to have his family Chevrolet shipped to Germany when the world’s ambassador class generally used limos and chauffeurs, Dodd’s middle-class values put him at odds with the consulate staff in Berlin, made him the source of German leaders’ ridicule, and worst of all caused his reports to be disrespected by those in Washington who should have been listening to his warning cries.

Don’t be put off by the nonfiction character of “In the Garden of Beasts.” Larson has done amazing research here, but the way he fashions the change in Dodd and Dodd’s daughter Martha, too, from being lovers of all things German (Martha in more ways than one!) to a critical analyst of that country’s leadership and people is brilliant and makes for meaty reading.

As you’re reading, try to be aware of parallels in the social culture of 1930s Germany and some aspects of 21st century life. A word to the wise?– bz

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Do you know where you came from?

December 12, 2008



by Hugo Hamilton

What’s your earliest memory?

You’ve heard from parents and extended family stories from that part of your life for which you have no memory because you were just too young to remember.

But what if you discovered that maybe you hadn’t been told the complete truth about those early years?

What if there was evidence that the people who call themselves your parents may not be your parents at all?

Hugo Hamilton gets inside the mind of a character in that very scenario. It’s a novel that traps you into reading to the end.

Who are we, really?

The setting is Germany, and the story starts during World War II and flips back and forth between the generations and decades after the war and 50 some years later. Hamilton offers us a wonderful sense of place in every one of the locales he takes us to.

And as much as “Disguise” offers plot as a main device, it’s really character that is in the spotlight, and not just for the family whose story is drawing us in.

How is who we are and where we come from — and who we come from — important to what we become?

What impact is there on our psyche in knowing our ancestry, or, more to the point, of not knowing? What does it do to you when you can’t trust — or don’t know if you can trust — your own parents? If you don’t belong in a place, where do you belong?

How do you know when you’re home?

No formulaic ending

“Disguise” isn’t a book I’d jump up and down to recommend. By grade, maybe it’s a “B+” thanks to the absolute beauty of the prose.

But I do recommend this Harper title (www.HarperCollins.com).

We need to read literature that doesn’t have the formulaic endings of best-selling novels where you know before you start that the hero will conquer evil. — bz

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