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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Families

My mother, that incomparably lovely lady, gave me a book when she came down for a visit a few months back. It's taken me a while to get moving on it, largely because it so, well, large. But when I woke up early last Sunday morning, there was for some reason little hesitation as to what I should do with my extra time. Read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of course. An incredibly talented individual, he decided when he was thirteen that he should be a theologian, despite his family's belief that he should make a career out of his notably remarkable musical abilities. He finished his doctorate when he was 21, and during his short life (about which I've yet to learn many details), did incredible work. He was killed in a concentration camp in 1945 when he was 39 years old, after working against Hitler's regime from the inside out.

So far, this is the sort of book that fills me with the desire to go out and do something big and wild and impressive and wonderful, because that's the sort of life that Dietrich and all of his family seem to have had. Of course, I don't know what, but gosh, it makes me want to do something. I'll get back to you about that. And, in the meantime, the description of his family and childhood home is entrancing in a My Antonia conclusion sort of way:
All of the Bonhoeffer children were born in Breslau, where Karl Bonhoeffer held the chair in psychiatry and neurology at the university, and was director of the hospital for nervous diseases. On New Year's Eve the year Susanne was born, he wrote in his diary, "Despite having eight children -- which seems an enormous number in times like these -- we have the impression that there are not too many of them! The house is big, the children develop normally, we parents are not too old, and so we endeavor not to spoil them, and to make their young years enjoyable."
And that is precisely what my own parents did.
Their house was a gigantic, rambling three-story affair with gabled roofs, numerous chimneys, a screened porch, and a large balcony overlooking the spacious garden where the children played. They dug caves and climbed trees and put up tents. 
Despite his busy schedule, Karl Bonhoeffer took much joy in his children. "In winter," he wrote, "we poured water on an old tennis court with an asphalt surface, so that the two oldest children could try skating for the first time. We had a big outbuilding meant to hold a carriage. We didn't have a carriage or horses, but we did use this outbuilding to keep all kinds of animals." There were animals in the house proper as well. One room in the house became a zoo for the children's pets, which included rabbits, guinea pigs, turtledoves, squirrels, lizards, and snakes, and a natural history museum for their collections of birds' eggs and mounted beetles and butterflies. The two eldest girls had another room set up as a dolls' house, and on the first floor the three eldest boys had a workshop, complete with carpenter's bench.  
Paul's Barn: The domain of my first pet, a cat with his own mind.
Paula Bonhoeffer had memorized an impressive repertoire of poems, hymns, and folk songs, which she taught her children, who remembered them into their old age. The children enjoyed dressing up and performing plays for each other and for the adults. There was also a family puppet theater, and every year on December 30 -- her birthday -- Paula Bonhoeffer put on a performance of "Little Red Riding Hood." This continued into her old age, when she did it for her grandchildren. One of them, Renate Bethge, said, "She was the soul and spirit of the house.
The three elder brothers were dark like their father. Klaus, the youngest of Dietrich's brothers, was five years older than Dietrich. So his three brothers and two older sisters formed a natural quintet, while Dietrich found himself grouped with Sabine and their little sister, Susi, as the "three little ones." In this trio, Dietrich enjoyed his role as the strong and chivalrous protector. "I shall never forget Dietrich's sweetness of character," Sabine later wrote, "which showed when we gathered berries on the hot summer slopes. He would fill my little pitcher with the raspberries on the hot summer slopes. He would fill my little pitcher with the raspberries he had toiled to collect, so that I would not have less than he, or share his drink with me." 
Big brother Philip helps us girls carry the veggies.
His chivalrous bent went beyond his sisters. He adored Fraulein Kathe van Horn, their governess from infancy, and "of his own free will he assumed the role of her good spirit who helped and served her. He told her: 'When I am grown up I shall marry you, then you will always be with us.'"
Sabine also remembered when, at about age six, her brother marveled at the sight of a dragonfly hovering above a stream. Wide-eyed, he whispered to his mother: "Look! There is a creature over the water! But don't be afraid, I will protect you!" (8-11)
Okay, I'll be honest. In case you haven't picked up on this yet, part of me loves this description because it reminds me of my own family. Not that our parents let us have a natural history museum in the living room, but there was a time that we had a snake and a caterpillar living in the laundry room. Needless to say, the snake ate the caterpillar. I think, at long last, I can forgive my older brother for his wicked creature's cruel nature. We put on plays for tolerant parents. We also had a natural division between the older and younger children in our family (also of eight children), a division that included the nomenclature: "The Three Little Boys," for my three younger brothers:

The Three Little Boys, circa Great Depression 

And yes, my little sister declared at one point that she would marry, not a governess (we weren't that sort of family), but my brother Charlie, ten years her senior, and her clear favorite, likely because she was his clear favorite. And, as much as I did grow up in any one place, the house we grew up in was a large, rambling affair with three stories and winding hallways and a great number of old house inconveniences. Dear siblings, I miss you.

Cleaning the kitchen has never been more fun.


  1. As Bonhoeffers catch fire, Dietriches draw flame,
    As hov’ring over stream in flowing rills
    The dragonflies descended from the hills
    To let the young knight-errant earn his name,
    And berries to his flowing pitcher came
    To grant Sabine her fair sororal fill;
    Look!—goes his self, alight with knightly will:
    The serpent lurks, but puts us not to shame.

    I say more: the looming laundry-snake
    That feasted on the caterpillar’s bones,
    Potentially a wicked fiery drake,
    Became the herald of a happy home—
    Because of the occasion he did make
    For sisterly forgiveness to be shown.

    1. You never fail to delight. Thank you for your poem, friend.