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The importance of the Barmen Declaration for the congregation in Wuppertal-Barmen today.

When groups of visitors come to the Gemarker Church in Wuppertal Barmen, we are sometimes asked "What is the importance of the Barmen Declaration for the congregation today?" We are happy to answer by taking our visitors next door to the church hall to look through the large window there. Just a few metres from the church the view is completely filled by the back wall of the new Bergisch Synagogue, on land that once belonged to the Gemarker congregation. (The Bergisch region is the name given to the area around Wuppertal.) For security reasons the two are surrounded by the same fence. Interconnected as a community sharing both life and risks, it is today part of an inseparable entity with the church in which on 31 May 1934 the Barmen Dedaration was agreed.

Between the Gemarker Church and the Bergisch Synagogue is an inner courtyard which can be reached as easily from the Protestant church as from the synagogue. In October a booth is put up there (for Sukkot) and we can hear the songs and celebrations of our Jewish neighbours. In the words of the late Praises of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, Peter Baier, we like to say that, "the missing seventh Barmen Thesis stands here built in stone".

We could also answer the question about the importance of the Barmen Declaration for the Gemarker congregation today by saying that the congregation sees the meaning of the Declaration in the fact that we share our living space with the Jewish religious congregation. Following the lack of solidarity and the destruction of all Jewish life in Germany, the fact that next door to the Germarker Church Jewish life is once more developing is the re-writing of the Barmen Declaration for our time.

How Did This Come About? 31 May 1934 and 9 November 1938

Those who gathered in Barmen in 1934 found no words against the putting into place of the persecution of the Jews. Karl Barth, one of the "fathers" of the Barmen Declaration, later confessed that it was a sin to not have made the Jewish question a decisive issue for the Kirchenkampf, or at least to not have done so publicly.

On 9 November 1938 early in the morning between 7 and 8 a.m. fire blazed through the roof of the Barmen synagogue in Scheurenstasse. That evening the chapels at the Jewish cemeteries in Hugostrasse and Weinberg were also ablaze. In the city centre shop windows were smashed, shops destroyed and stock was looted. The complete contents of flats were thrown into the street. In their homes and on the streets, under the eyes of the police, Jews were abused and mistreated.

Heinrich Albertz wrote about the service in the Gemarker Church on the Sunday after the pogrom:
 Pastor Karl Immer stood before the congregation--not wearing his
 cassock--and said that a few hundred metres away from the Gemarker
 Church God's word had been burned. He was referring to the
 destruction and burning of the Barmen Sheurenstrasse Synagogue.
 Because of that he said he neither could nor would preach. He
 simply wanted to read two Bible texts. And he read the ten
 commandments in their original form and the parable of the Good
 Samaritan, prayed the Lord's Prayer and said, "Those who have
 understood the meaning of these texts are invited to join me in the
 choir vestry afterwards." There were about 40 to 50 members of the
 congregation. With forged passports we did then manage to get a
 number of Jewish citizens out of Germany. (1)

Under the terror of National Socialist rule there was evidence of individual courage and a clear witness for Jews around the Gemarker congregation. This does not, however, compensate for the fact that those who signed the Barmen Declaration found no courageous word to say when the apple of God's eye was touched.

Eberhard Bethge--Barmen and the Jews--the Missing Thesis in the Barmen Declaration

During the jubilee celebrations in the Gemarker Church in 1984, Eberhard Bethge raised the issue of "the unwritten Barmen thesis on the relationship of the Confessing Church to the Jews". (2) That was the first time that the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland and the Evangelical Church in Germany had "officially raised and posed the decidedly critical question of the gulf between Christians and Jews". In his lecture Bethge outlined a dual task. First, there was the "historical investigation", a reappraisal of the reasons why no clear statement was made in the Barmen Declaration on the issue of the persecution of the Jews. The second task was to find "a contemporary sequel, i.e. a reception today of the Barmen Declaration with a contemporary taking forward of the issue to make good the omission, following confessing insights". Such a contemporary taking up of the Barmen Declaration demanded, according to Bethge, "daring to enter into encounter with Jews". At the end of his lecture he returned to the subject and said under the heading "Contents of the Contemporary Taking Forward of the Barmen Declaration":
 This contemporary taking forward of the issue will be not only an
 exchange of views but an actual act of encounter. It will be an act
 of encounter on the part of those called by Christ as the heirs of
 Barmen 1934 with those with whom they are confronted and towards
 whom we bear a heavy burden of guilt. An act of encounter between
 those who are sadly divided in dispute over the First Commandment,
 but who are even more bound together by the gift and task of that
 commandment, and wish to remain so, or again become so. (3)

It is highly promising that such an act of encounter has, since 2002, again been taking place with the construction of the new synagogue for the Bergisch region next door to the Gemarker Church. That is a sign of God's grace, and it places on us a continuing obligation.

Peter Beier: it is not possible for this land to be sold

The United Evangelical congregation owned a plot of land in central Barmen, occupied by the Gemarker Church, the Gemarker church hall and a minister's house, in which the marriage and counselling centre of the Barmen Church District had been since 1978. In the mid-1990s the congregation was in the process of planning a development of the site to accommodate the Church District administrative offices in close proximity to the city centre. Such a building, according to the Germarker Church elders' meeting, was "urgently necessary for the presence of the church in the city". (4)

In the autumn of 1995 an important element was added to the concept of the development of the site. In the course of a ceremony on 9 November, the President of the Jewish congregation, Leonid Goldberg, appealed to the city council and citizens of Wuppertal to assist in the construction of a synagogue in Wuppertal. Because of the growing influx of Jewish migrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Jewish community had grown in a few years from about 70 to 400, and that trend was continuing.

The Wuppertal municipality and the Gemarker Church elders' meeting responded to the Jewish community's request for help. Initially it was individuals who saw the possibility of constructing a synagogue next door to the Gemarker Church as a unique opportunity. On 15 April 1996 the Gemarker Church presbytery responded to the interest of the Jewish community to build a new synagogue next to the church by entering into negotiations. It is of particular interest to note that the Jewish community had expressed a preference for the site next to the Gemarker Church, not only because it was convenient for transport, but also particularly because of its proximity to the church. The governing body of the Gemarker Evangelical Church congregation was also aware from the beginning of the theological and historical aspect of the project. The minutes of 15 April 1996 read:
 Close cooperation with the Jewish community is desirable on
 historical grounds (as a natural consequence to the Barmen
 Declaration and the close proximity to the former Barmen synagogue,
 as suggested by the decision of the synod of the Evangelical Church
 of the Rhineland in 1980). (5)

In the ensuing negotiations between the Jewish congregation and the presbytery it quickly became clear that the Jewish partners were concerned to find an "irreversible solution". That meant that the Gemarker Church had to consider the idea of selling their centrally located site. From the beginning it was clear to all participants that it would be possible to sell the site, thus arriving at an irreversible solution, only at the current market value. That would create no situation of dependency.

In the early stages it was clear to the elders' meeting that the project would have implications for the work of the Gemarker Church congregation. In the minutes of their meeting of 26 August 1996, it is stated: "The congregation requires support for its joint Christian/Jewish work." (6) In the following year there were several meetings of groups from various Barmen church congregations and congregational groups from the Jewish community, musical events with the Jewish community and lectures enabling people to learn something of Jewish life. From the beginning the project led to greater awareness of Jewish life in the Bergisch region.

On 10 September 1996 a public meeting was held to present the plans for the construction of a Bergisch region synagogue next to the Gemarker Church. The president of the Barmen presbytery, Pfarrer Flackner, outlined a vision of how the dissociation of Christians from their Jewish fellow citizens during the Nazi dictatorship could be transformed into a new neighbourliness. "Here the past and the future are a reminder to us of our duty, for the Jewish community needs space and accommodation. They need a place of their own, which they did have for many years in our city, and to which they are entitled." And he added its theological significance: "A sign of reconciliation ... that would add to the Barmen Declaration." At that presentation Leonid Goldberg spoke of the basic significance that a synagogue would have for the development of Jewish life in the Bergisches Land. "A synagogue is the religious, cultural and social centre of Jewish life." He quoted a sentence from Johannes Rau, who all his life had felt an affinity with his home community of Gemarke and who at the dedication of the Aachen synagogue had said, "The person who builds a house intends to stay." And Goldberg added, "The days are past when the Jews sat on their packed suitcases. We intend to stay and live and work here."

No one, however, had an answer to the question: how could the "irreversible solution" hoped for by the Jewish congregation be implemented? In the presentation, Praises Peter Beier, who was supporting the construction of the new synagogue with all the authority at his disposal, recalled the link between what was being conceived and what had happened in 1934 at the same spot.
 This kind of vision, which can, most possibly, rapidly become a
 reality, makes it appropriate for me on this occasion not simply to
 pledge my personal and official support, because more needs to be
 said ... I will simply recall that, when our forebears met here to
 produce the Barmen Declaration, there was no mention in it of the
 situation and plight of the Jews in Germany. That is a serious
 defect in the Barmen Declaration. For that reason it is so amazing
 and impressive that here on this site Jews and Christians could
 come together to live side by side. (7)

He also ventured to address the question of funding for the purchase of the plot of land for the synagogue.
 I am convinced that this site--I am speaking now of the plot of
 land--for the construction of a place of worship, a synagogue,
 cannot, after all that has happened in Germany and in this city, be
 sold, but it is my wish that another way be found. I am firmly
 convinced that this other way can be found ... This place, where
 after that night, Karl Immer, that immensely courageous man in the
 conditions of that time--said, "over there the Word of God went up
 in flames"--I cannot sell it; it must be done differently. (8)

Prases Beier did not live to see the construction of the synagogue that he had so set his heart on. The Evangelical Church in the Rhineland took up his initiative and donated that part of the plot on which the synagogue building now stands to the Jewish congregation, as distinct from the other premises for the community work of the Jewish congregation. In a press release on 25 September 1997 the Wuppertal Jewish community stated publicly:
 Praises Manfred Kock, at the reception to mark the Jewish new year
 5758, will take the opportunity to present the Wuppertal
 congregation with a cheque as a contribution to the planned new
 synagogue in Paul Humburg Strasse ... The leaders of the
 Evangelical Church of the Rhineland have taken the decision to
 provide the Jewish community with the funding for the purchase of
 the site (510 square metres) for the construction of the synagogue.

The corresponding press release of the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland dated 30 September 1997 states: "Praises Kock regards support for the construction of the new synagogue as a symbol of the renewal of relationships between Christians and Jews." The rest of the site was purchased by the Jewish congregation.

In the meantime, the Barmen church district cancelled its plans to include church offices in the development of the site with the synagogue and the church. As a result there now stands on the former site of the Gemarker congregation in central Barmen the new Bergisch region synagogue directly next door to the Gemarker Church, an arrangement that is unique in the world.

On 9 November 1998, exactly 60 years after the Kristallnacht, the foundations of the new synagogue were begun. Out of nine designs submitted, the Jewish congregation selected the one it preferred. Goedeking, the architect, describes in this way the task given him to design the Jewish community centre and synagogue immediately adjoining the Gemarker Church:
 Over the entrance of the Barmen synagogue that was set light to and
 destroyed on 9 November 1938, there stood the inscription "My house
 shall be called a house of prayer for all nations". The plans for
 the new synagogue must again express this offer of welcome and this
 duty, not only in the form of words but also in its architecture
 ... Because the large church is its immediate neighbour, it is all
 the more necessary for the synagogue to have its own architectural
 identity. An arrangement whereby the building would be subordinate
 to the church, either by respectfully keeping its distance or by
 stressing common features, such as a green courtyard, is excluded.

From the beginning police security measures had an important role in the building of the synagogue. It is still the case that Jewish life in Germany requires special security procedures. Thus, for example, the elders' meeting of the Gemarker congregation and the Jewish congregation had to consider the question of how the exact boundary of the plot belonging to the synagogue could be determined. Only such a clear boundary would give the police the legal authority to take action against anyone trespassing on the plot of the Jewish congregation. Should the synagogue have a boundary fence? That would have meant erecting a dividing wall between the synagogue and the church. The congregation and their Jewish partners were totally against such a dividing wall. As a result the whole site of both church and synagogue was enclosed and a notice set up: "Any damage done to the synagogue is now also damage done to us."

On 8 December 2002 the new synagogue for the Bergisch region was dedicated in the presence of the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, and the Federal President, Johannes Rau. It was the first time that the highest representative of the state of Israel had participated in the opening of a synagogue outside his own country. His participation in Wuppertal was thus an important indication of solidarity with the Jews who had decided to remain in Germany.


Eberhard Bethge had called for encounters, not an exchange of views, as the contemporary taking up of the issue of the Barmen Declaration with its missing seventh thesis. Such encounters between Jews and Christians have been taking place for more than six years, centred on the Gemarker Church.

A woman elder of the Gemarker congregation often says, "In Wuppertal we live in shared accommodation with our Jewish neighbours," and that is in fact the case. There are, first of all, contacts between neighbours, conversations in the street, people greeting one another and making enquiries after one another's health, plans and experiences. Greetings in the form of Shalom are heard. Jewish life takes place all around the Gemarker Church and here, finally, there is once again familiarity with Jewish beliefs. It was like that everywhere in Germany before the holocaust. Even the small things that have to be done together every day take on a basic significance: the workers in the two cafes--both the Gemarker Church and the synagogue have had an extension built for a cafe--help one another with material and everyday items. They use the same refuse bins, and the putting out of the rubbish has to be organized. "Keep your own rubbish to yourself" is no longer the case for either side.

Having a common perimeter fence means that we are exposed to the same risks. When a group of youths threw stones at the synagogue building from the roof of the Protestant church hall, it was the church congregation that initiated the subsequent police action. We look after each other. When we take school groups on guided tours of the church and tell them about the Confessing Church and from the church hall look out with them to the rear of the synagogue building, they sometimes say, referring to the security cameras on the walls of the Jewish community centre, "they must feel nervous". In that way Wuppertal school students are becoming aware of the constant threats to everyday Jewish life in our city.

In many cases adult groups visiting the Gemarker Church to have a conducted tour of the building come to us straight from the synagogue where they have also been having a tour or, after visiting the Gemarker Church, they move on to the neighbouring building, the synagogue. Through the close association of church and synagogue many people from Wuppertal church congregations are made aware of the growing Jewish presence in our city. However, in some conversations in the Gemarker Church in connection with a synagogue visit, we also still find much ignorance, unawareness of the facts concerning the history of the Jews in our country, and also suspicion towards the flourishing Jewish life in our country. There is here still much work to be done to educate and encourage.

From the beginning, the new synagogue's circle of friends has arranged encounters between many Wuppertal citizens with our Jewish fellow citizens. Special mention should be made of their successful efforts to create a new Jewish cemetery. Now Jews in the Bergisch region can not only again live in peace; they can also die in peace.

Encounters also include neighbourliness and fellowship in our celebrations. In everyday church life, Christians are aware of the festivals and feast days of their Jewish neighbours. In the inner courtyard, clearly visible from the church hall, there are the booths during the Feast of Tabernacles. There is then a whole week of celebrating, singing and eating. Everyone entering or leaving the Protestant church hall becomes aware of their neighbours' religious life. The church staff workers are asked for information, giving rise to conversations about that part of the Bible that we have in common with our Jewish neighbours. Inviting each other, either to the Jewish new year festival or to a choir concert of the Jewish congregation, or participation in a celebration in the Gemarker Church, provides further opportunities for encounter. This year once again there is a joint celebration of the church congregation and the Jewish congregation in both church and synagogue. Out of our planning and working together comes celebrating together. We want to join in each other's celebrations.

Everyone is expressly invited to worship in the synagogue. Individuals, and also from time to time Christian groups, happily attend synagogue worship on Friday evening to greet the Sabbath, and many say that they gain much from the rabbi's sermons. However, conversely, some of our Jewish neighbours find shared worship between Jews and Christians in the Gemarker Church difficult. These are part of the encounter programme; their hesitations must be understood but we are determined that it will not drive a wedge between us.

However, when individual Jewish neighbours decline to enter the Gemarker Church, that by no means puts an end to our dialogue, but becomes an occasion for further listening to and learning from one another. Only recently, I had an open and lively discussion on the person of Jesus with the president of the Jewish congregation, after which we parted good friends. In the context of public encounters it is often very possible to pinpoint differences, respect one another and maintain good relations.

Of course, being in proximity to the synagogue means that the issue of the government of Israel's policy is constantly being discussed. Even here, the fact that we are able to meet and have conversations as neighbours increases our awareness. Some of our Jewish neighbours who have personal links with Israel told us a few weeks ago, during the violent conflict in the Gaza strip, of the views of many people in Israel and of the threat that they have been under for years, which they felt we had not accurately perceived. I myself heard there a viewpoint that I had hitherto been hardly aware of. But a contrary view is also possible, when the justified concerns of Palestinians for space and opportunities for living do not seem to be sufficiently perceived by some of our Jewish neighbours. Our fellowship as we share accommodation, experiences, risks and celebrations is stronger than those differences.

In June 2007 the Gemarker Church was the first church in the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland to become a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails. This membership originated mainly out of the relation between church and synagogue and showed external appreciation of this particular sign of reconciliation. In particular, the presence of Paul Oestreicher, with his own Jewish/Christian background, gave a special dimension to that fesuval service.

What Does it Mean to Preach as a Christian Minister Next Door to the Synagogue?

Here I would like to relate only a few very personal experiences. For myself, I feel it a particular responsibility, but also a joy, when I stand in the pulpit of the Gemarker Church and, as minister of a Protestant congregation, preach with the synagogue next door. First of all, it is important for me that the New Testament message is rooted in the Old--or as I have become accustomed to saying--the First Testament. As a theological student I did, of course, learn to understand Jesus as a Jew and never to separate him from his roots, and to conceive Jesus' message of the kingdom of God against the background of the beliefs of Israel but, in the proximity of the synagogue, the foundations of my belief become particularly important to me. We must never detach Jesus the Jew from his people.

We are, of course, aware that for our Jewish neighbours Jesus Christ has a different significance from ours as Christians. In the course of a tour of the synagogue the president of the Jewish congregation, Leonid Goldberg, said, "You Christians believe that the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus. We Jews believe that the Messiah is still to come and, when he comes, we shall see which of us is right." I wish to preach Christ as Lord in such a way that this openness to our neighbours in the synagogue can be maintained. That means that I will not preach Christ in such a way as to call in question the unity of the Godhead. I cling to the hope for a new heaven and a new earth that we share with Israel.

In tours of the synagogue, our Jewish neighbours are sometimes asked what they think about the relationship between the Christians of the Gemarker congregation and the Jewish congregation. Leonid Goldberg usually says in reply, "Over there in the Gemarker Church there is a glass frieze depicting the church's history. One of the panels in the frieze shows the dedication of the synagogue as part of the history of the Gemarker Church. That says it all."

Translated from the German, Language Service, World Council of Churches

(1) Albertz, Heinrich (1976) Dagegen gelebt--von den Schwierigkeiten, ein potitischer Christ zu sein : Gesprache mit Gerhard Rein/Heinrich Albertz, Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg.

(2) Bethge, Eberhard (1986) Barmen und die Juden--eine nicht geschriebene These? In: H.-U. Stephan (ed.), Das eine Wort fur alle. Barmen 1934-1984: Eine Dokumentation, Neukirchen-Vluyn, Neukirchener, pp.114-133, p.115.

(3) Bethge (1986) p.133.

(4) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

(5) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

(6) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

(7) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

(8) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

(9) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

(10) Wuppertal-Barmen Gemarker Church archives.

Walter Lang leads the Barmen City Church project of the Wuppertal church district and the Gemarker congregation. He is also minister of the Hatzfeld congregation in Wuppertal.
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Author:Lang, Walter
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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