At the height of World War II, a small band of students in Munich, Germany, calling themselves the White Rose, exposed the Nazi régime’s murderous atrocities and called for its overthrow. Among them was Alexander Schmorell, a talented young man of Russian descent who, deeply inspired by his Orthodox Christian faith, was willing to sacrifice his life as a testimony to his faith in God that had taught him to love beauty and freedom, both of which the Nazis sought to destroy.
Arrested and convicted of treason, Alexander and several compatriots were confined in Stadelheim Prison to await their execution. The prison, then, became Alexander’s “Golgotha”. For three months, he prepared himself and his family for the inevitable end. A Catholic priest who visited the prisoners remarked that Alexander had “set a course for heaven.”
As Alexander languished in prison, his inner peace unfolded further, contrasting sharply with the mood expressed in letters he had written during the winter prior to his arrest, complaining that “bleakness and sadness have become my constant companions,” and that “dreadful disquiet is the prevailing characteristic of my life,” with no respite of calm. Now, after having spent over four months in prison, and almost three months on death row, he was moved to write the following letter to his sister.
July 2, 1943
My dear, dear Natasha:
You have surely read the letters I have written to our parents, so that you are fairly well posted. You will perhaps be surprised when I tell you that I am day by day becoming calmer inwardly, even joyous and glad, and that my mood is nearly always better than it used to be when I was free! How does this happen? I’ll tell you at once. This whole terrible “misfortune” has been necessary to show me the right way—and therefore it has actually not been a misfortune at all. Above all, I am glad, and grateful to God for it, that it has been granted to me to understand this sign from Him, and thereby to find the right way. For what did I know before this of faith, of true, deep faith, of truth, of the ultimate and only truth of God? Very little!
But now I have progressed so far that I am happy and calm and confident even in my present situation—come what may. I hope that you have experienced a similar development and that you too, after the deep sorrow of separation, have reached the point of thanking God for everything. This misfortune was necessary; it opened my eyes—not only my eyes but also the eyes of all those whom it has befallen, our family included.
I hope that all of you have likewise understood correctly this sign from God. My sincerest greetings to all, but greetings especially to you from
During her imprisonment by the Gestapo, Natasha had nearly lost sight in one eye as a result of a retinal detachment. Having received news of this, Alexander asked for permission to write a letter home without waiting for the requisite number of weeks to elapse. In a short note dated July 11, ever solicitous of the welfare of others, he urged his parents to make sure that his sister received the best of care. He cautioned against going to the medical clinic at the university—“I know how they work there”—and expressed hope that Natasha is being treated by Professor Wessely: “He is the best eye specialist.” Alexander advised Natasha to follow her doctor’s prescribed treatment exactly to make sure that it is successful.
A few days earlier, on July 8, unbeknownst to Alexander, the senior prosecutor in Munich had advised the chief prosecutor of the People’s Court in Berlin that the day of the executions of Alexander Schmorell and Professor Kurt Huber was set for Tuesday, July 13. Willi Graf, however, was still required for further questioning, and his execution was postponed.
Early on the morning of July 13, Alexander received the official order of execution. It was to take place at 5 p.m. that afternoon, with Alexander going first, followed by Professor Huber. Alexander picked up his pen one last time to write his loved ones a letter of farewell.
Dear Mother and Father,
It was indeed not to be otherwise, and by the will of God I am to conclude my earthly life today, in order to enter upon a new life that will never end, and in which we shall all meet again. May this reunion be your comfort and your hope. Unfortunately, this blow is harder to bear for you than for me, for I leave this life with the knowledge that I have served my deepest conviction and the truth. All this permits me to face the approaching hour of death with a calm conscience.
Think of the millions of young men who are giving up their lives on the battlefield—their fate is also mine. Greet all those who are dear to my heart most affectionately! But especially Natasha, Erich, Nyanya, Aunt Toni, Maria, Alionushka and Andrey.
In a few hours I shall be in the better world, with my mother; I shall not forget you, and shall intercede with God for your solace and peace. And I shall wait for you. One thing above all I urge upon you:1In German, the phrase is Eins vor allem lege ich Euch ans Herz, more literally translated as “One thing above all I entrust to your hearts.”do not forget God!!!
With me goes Professor Huber, who also sends his heartfelt greetings!
At midday, Fr Alexander (Lovchii), who had been summoned by Siegfried Deisinger, came to hear Alexander’s last confession and to administer Holy Communion.2It is providential that Fr Alexander (Lovchii) was assigned full-time rector of St Nicholas’s in August 1942. Prior to that date, it is doubtful that he, or any other Orthodox clergyman, would have been able to commune Alexander on such short notice. Not long after, when Deisinger entered the cell, Alexander met him almost joyfully. “In the death cell,” wrote Deisinger,
I encountered one who had just received the last comforting gifts of his religion3In the original—“Die letzte Tröstungen,” literally “the last comforts or consolation,” a phrase used to refer to the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church.and who had already cast from himself all earthly things. Unforgettable are the words he spoke serenely to me: “You will be surprised that I am so calm at such a moment. But I can tell you that even if you told me right now that someone else had offered to die in my place—for instance, my prison guard—I would nonetheless choose to die. I am convinced that my life must end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my mission in life, and I cannot imagine what else I would do in this world if I were set free right now.”4Siegfried Deisinger, eyewitness account in Scholl, Die Weisse Rose, 192
Then it was time for Deisinger to leave the cell, as the hour of death was drawing near and the final preparations for the execution had begun. “Firmly and courageously Alexander bid farewell to me. His final greeting was for his family. There emanated from him such a true and profound son’s and brother’s love, which completely filled him.”5Ibid.
There was one final delay. As 5 p.m. drew near, three SS officers arrived unexpectedly at Stadelheim bearing papers that gave them permission to be present at the execution (a highly irregular occurrence). They had hoped to witness a hanging to determine how long it took for a man to strangle to death, and whether the process could be shortened or prolonged at will. Disappointed by the fact that there was to be a beheading instead, they requested that they be shown the workings of the guillotine. Their visit, and the detailed explanation they received, delayed the execution.
To Deisinger, this macabre episode underlined the stark contrast between Alexander and the surrounding abomination. “On the one side was idealism and the moral stature of a young man prepared to die for it. On the other side were those subhuman types with their obscene desire to watch death being inflicted upon a defenseless victim.”6Deisinger as quoted in Hanser, Noble Treason, 276 (translation amended —EP)
The delay, however, did not cause Alexander to falter. With dignity he walked across the prison courtyard to a small barrack containing the guillotine that had claimed his friends’ lives and was about to claim his.7This instrument of Alexander’s martyric death is still in existence—a rare instance in the history of Christian martyrdom. The guillotine that was used for executions in Stadelheim Prison during the Nazi era was found and identified as such in early 2014. See Alison Smale, “A Guillotine in Storage Bears Signs of Role in Silencing Nazis’ Critics”, New York Times, January 10, 2014Firmly and loudly resounded his “Yes” in the gloomy death chamber when the prosecutor on duty asked him whether he was Alexander Schmorell. Seconds later, he passed over into that “new life, the glorious and everlasting life” which he so fervently spoke of in his letters and of which, throughout his last weeks on earth, he “had been persuaded, and which he had embraced,” having come to feel himself “a stranger and pilgrim on the earth.”8Heb. 11:13 [Paraphrased—EP
He was followed several minutes later by Professor Huber.
The day was July 13, the feast day of the Holy Apostles, most of whom had suffered martyric deaths.9Nearly twenty-six years earlier, Alexander’s life in Christ had begun at his baptism in a church dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. The funeral was conducted by Fr Alexander on the evening of the next day. Only a close circle of family members was permitted to be present. Alexander was laid to rest in the cemetery at Perlacher Forst, not far from Hans, Sophie, and Christoph.
Nikolai Hamazaspian watched from a distance. On his way to the cemetery he had passed a poster announcing the execution of the “traitors Professor Huber and Alexander Schmorell.” Across the poster, in bold letters, someone had written: “Their spirit lives!”10Reminiscences of Alexander Schmorell by Nikolai Hamazaspian, Munich, 1989, as quoted here
About the Author
A life-long educator, Matushka Elena Perekrestov teaches at Saints Cyrill and Methodius High School (San Francisco, CA) and the Summer School of Liturgical Music at Holy Trinity Seminary (Jordanville, NY). Her husband, Archpriest Peter, is dean of the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco.