April 8, 1945, was Low Sunday – the first Sunday after Easter. Bonhoeffer found himself with a group of other prominent prisoners in a disused schoolhouse in Schönberg, Lower Bavaria. They were being transported south, through a corridor between the advancing fronts of the Soviets to the east and the Allies to the west. Not for their own safety, it should be added. The Nazis only wanted to keep them alive so that they could be used as bargaining chips in any eventual ceasefire negotiations.
It being the Lord’s Day, one of Bonhoeffer’s fellow prisoners had an idea: Bonhoeffer should hold a service. Bonhoeffer, however, was reluctant to do so. Most of the captives were Catholics, whereas he was a Protestant. Besides, there was also the little matter of the Soviet air force officer Vasyli Kokorin. “A delightful young man,” as the British Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Hugh Falconer described him. “Although an atheist.” (Bethge, 1994, p. 1033)
Out of respect for the young Russian’s beliefs – or lack of them – Bonhoeffer declined the request to perform a religious ceremony. Kokorin himself, though, was in favor of his doing so. As a result, Bonhoeffer’s final act as a pastor was to preside over a service delivered to a ragtag collection of international, multi-denominational prisoners, at least one of whom was an atheist. Among prayers, a reading, and an interpretation of 1 Peter 1:3, he also expounded on Isiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (NIV) Here, Squadron Leader Falconer relates what Bonhoeffer said in his last sermon:
“[He] described the comfort and security which he himself found in complete faith in the righteousness of the will of God and the effectiveness of prayer. We must not, he explained, pray to God for what we want because we cannot possibly know what is best. We must only pray to God to do with us what He wishes for us, even if that leads to our destruction. That is how God is, through us, best served.” (Falconer, 2018, p.125)
Having finished the service, Bonhoeffer was asked to perform another for a further set of prisoners being held separately on the first floor of the schoolhouse. However, before he could do so, the door flew open, and a voice barked, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer! Get ready and come with us!” (Bethge, 1994, p. 1037)
That was a formulation which could mean only one thing: not only had Bonhoeffer’s career as a pastor reached its end, but so too had his life.
Bethge, E. (1994). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eine Biographie (blog author's translation)
Falconer, H.M. (2018). The Gestapo’s Most Improbable Hostage
Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash