Silence as an Answer: Dead Ends as Progress
It is a rare privilege to interview a leader of a living religious community, the historical roots of which one has been researching. I had such a privilege in June, 2010, when my wife and I had tea with Sister Verita of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany.
My research concerned the formation and early years of the sisterhood. I had many questions. How were its founders shaped by their experience of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich? To what extent had the sisterhood’s message and mission developed since its formal founding in 1946? What do the living sisters remember from those early years? And has the sisterhood maintained any sort of archive?
Sister Verita had few answers to my specific questions, though she filled us with crackers and Cup o’ Soup, for which I was extremely grateful, with an athlete’s appetite on a grad student’s budget.
Beyond what Mother Basilea herself had written in her published works, there was little to say about the early years. The girls who would become the first sisters were members of a Bible study led by the future founding mothers. They begged God to forgive them and their country on the night of the Allied bombing of their city on September 11, 1944. This moment became cemented into the sisterhood’s founding narrative.
The sisterhood’s message did develop over time, with an increasing emphasis on reconciliation and repentance toward Jewish people by the mid-1950s. These insights were amply recorded by Mother Basilea and there was little that current sisters could do, beyond confirming what she had already said.
The first generation of sisters was passing. Those still living had all been fairly young during the war. None were available for comment, infirm but well-cared for by the younger sisters.
No, an archive did not exist.
I came seeking personal insight in vivid detail. Mid-conversation, I realized that my remaining questions were irrelevant, not in terms of my research but in terms of the current community.
I was concerned with the past. For answers to my questions, I needed to turn to regional church archives and to the national library (where, Gott sei Dank, everything Basilea ever published is on file, including many early works that are now out-of-print, even at the sisters’ self-run publishing house).
The sisters are now and have always been concerned with the present and the future. Since the mid-1940s, they have been preaching that God’s judgment looms on the horizon. With such an imminent expectation, what would be the purpose of keeping detailed records? Of recording minutiae?
Even those elements of the sisters’ mission that seem backward facing have either a present application or a future orientation. They repent for Christians’ sins against Jewish people, including those of Germans in the Holocaust, in order to divert God’s wrath now and to secure their rightful place at his side when Christ returns.
The sisters’ silence about the past spoke volumes about their identity in the present. That was all the answer I needed. Few ends are truly dead.