Following my ordination in the Disciples of Christ (Christian Churches) in 1967, I applied for a position as a “Fraternal Worker,” a program for ordained ministers, who agreed to work for peace and reconciliation abroad for a period of two years. My stated preference was to serve in Vietnam, but because a significant portion of my theological education had been in (West) Berlin, at the Kirchliche Hochschule and the Freie Universitat, I was sent back to Berlin to work with Aktion Suehnezeichen. I was recommended by my colleague from Yale Divinity School, Alton Beaver, who had also served with the same organization, and I was immediately preceded by another Yale friend, Phil Smith, who was at the time serving with the same organization in Berlin.
Even with my experience as a student in Berlin, my German language facility was still marginal when I arrived in the “Frankenalle,” where I became an assistant to Franz von Hammerstein, the first director of ASF part time, remaining as the director of the Berlin Youth Bureau, known as the street in which it was located, “Frankenalle.”
Franz greeted me with a rather casual introduction as if he had forgotten about my arrival, finding a small closet in Frankenalle where I could stay until he found a more suitable living situation. Soon I found myself serving as the live-in “Haus Pastor” at the Evangelische Akademie Berlin am Wahnsee.
My duties there were minimal, and I continued to work for Franz von Hammerstein as Aktion Suehnezeichen Friedensdienste (ASF) grew in popularity and significance in post-War Berlin. Since ASF was recently separated by the Berlin Wall, one of my responsibilities was to cross into East Berlin each week to carry verbal messages from the West Berlin office to the East Berlin office.
One experience remains deeply imprinted in my mind: Franz asked me to drive him to Terezin, Czechoslovakia to meet the director of the Concentration Camp, Terezin, who, much to his surprise, had received a visa from the Czech and East German authorities to visit West Berlin to meet with representatives of Aktion Suehnezeichen to plan for future visits to Terezin by West Berlin youth. This trip would involve nighttime driving, and Franz was not willing to drive at night due to his visual limitations. I remember the emotional tension as we crossed into East Germany, then into Czechoslovakia, a young American driver, and a West Berliner. We arrived at the Concentration Camp Terezin, also known in German as Theresianstadt, long after dark, picked up the new director, and immediately turned back toward Berlin.
I was driving, and Franz and the director, whose name I have long since forgotten, engaged immediately in an intense conversation, since they had not met prior to this experience together. I listened intensely, spellbound as they discovered they had both been child inmates of Auschwitz, and had both survived the horrific forced march of Auschwitz inmates west, during the final days of the Nazi occupation of Europe. [As had Elie Wiesel, as I learned years later, reading his first and most famous book, Night.]
Many more such memories seem to surface as I grow older. Before my period of service was complete, I was nominated for a full-time pastorate in the Ananias Geminde in Neu Koeln, a position I held for three years while continuing to volunteer with Aktion Suehnezeichen. I returned to the U.S., reentered the academic world, received my doctorate and am now a Professor Emeritus, looking back on an academic career deeply influenced by this formative experience with ASF in its formative years.
Victor P. Ehly, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Union Institute &University
Instructor, Community College of Vermont