Burchartz, Alfred 1923-2009
A Giant for Jewish Evangelism in Spite of the Holocaust
Alfred Burchartz was born on September 21st, 1923, the child of a family who, in his own words, ‘had to live through and endure the whole drama of Jewish suffering.’ The first autobiographical details about which we possess some records written by himself describe how he experienced the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), and how he came to faith in Christ. I quote in excerpts:
“If ever you travel into the Far East of Germany you might come to the city of Weißwasser. This is where, aged 15, I experienced the Kristallnacht in the night from November 10th to November 11th, 1938. We were just having supper when we heard a marching step on the cobblestones of Bismarck street. After that, a deafening crash: the door of the house was broken open. They didn’t ask to be let in by ringing the bell – they were showing who they were and what they wanted. The same thing was repeated at the flat door; and when they had finished destroying the apartment and my uncle’s medical practice, they once more gathered in the street, lined up, lifted their arm, yelling, ‘Adolf Hitler, Sieg, Heil! Juda verrecke!’ (Adolf Hitler, Victory, Hail! Judah, kick the bucket!)
That night, for the first time, I saw a man crying desperately. This picture has remained unforgettable for me – the tears running over his wrinkled countenance, into his white beard, while he, like a broken record, kept on repeating the words, ‘If He exists, God, the Righteous One, why?’ A special pain to him was the fact that among those in brown uniforms were young people whom he had treated free of charge when they had been children and their parents had been unemployed. Now they were doing such things to him.
‘If He does exist, God, the Righteous One, why’? Not finding any answer to this question, he staggered into fatal despair on which his faith and courage for life broke. He swallowed poison, and we buried him …
From this point onwards, my uncle’s question never let go of me. It pursued me many years of my life, springing on me like a beast which cannot let its prey go. God, why? Why do You allow all that to happen – all that suffering men are doing to men whom You have created? Why this madness in the world, all that hatred and torment of those suffering? Why do You keep silent – being called a God of Love, and Keeper of Israel? Where do You care, where do You love, and where is Your love being lived? Where are You, anywhere, if you do exist? …
Years passed before I had to realise that this searching for a righteous God was my own search and that it is true when the Old Testament says, ‘When you look for me with all your heart, you will find me’ (Jer 29,13).”
In order to survive, the Jewish teenager changed his name to Alfred Burchartz. Thanks to his new identity he succeeded in escaping from the persecutors. As he told me himself, he was even drafted into the Deutsche Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces, Hitler’s Army) and got to be taken into French war captivity.
However, his sufferings were by no means over then. He was regarded as an ordinary German soldier. Having belonged to a company which had to deposit glass mines, the French army now tried, by means of brute force, to make him tell where they had done that and to force him and his mates to remove this mines, risking their lives.
Thus one of the darkest hours in the life of Alfred Burchartz arrived. He came to the verge of death, yet at the same time he also found the answer to his urgent questions. He himself says about this experience:
“My finding occurred in that hellish time in which Germany and Europe sank into darkness. Through torture and maltreatment my skull was beat in; and due to the severe bleedings in the brain I was blind for quite some time, as well as paralysed for six years. And therefore I feel like a brother towards a man who lived very long ago, and who also had to be blinded before he learnt to see – the Apostle Paul.
In that night of my life – I didn’t even know who I was any more, I didn’t know my name, where I come from, where I go to – nothing, nothing at all existed any more. In that darkness a picture would ever appear before my soul: the head of the Crucified One. Maybe I had once seen this picture by Albrecht Dürer when I was a boy – that head with the crown of thorns and those big dark eyes which would always look at me; and I would always hear a voice, saying, ‘Commit your ways unto the Lord …’
I found it with this man on the Cross of Calvary, tormented and tortured, lost and deserted and rejected – with Him against whom the severe ‘No’ of the pious of His people is directed today. With Him, among all, I found the answer to all my questions, to all my searching … And thus I became a follower of Jesus, of my Messiah, Who is also the Messiah of my people … Through the question where God was I found the answer to the question how God is.”
From then on, Alfred Burchartz took the words in Psalm 22:22-25 as personal commission: “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you. You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honour him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfil my vows.”
After his release from the prisoner-of-war camp and some relative recovery, personal friends – aided by the Evangelische Landeskirche in Württemberg (Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg) – gave him the opportunity to study and become a protestant religious instruction teacher. As such, he worked for seven years in the north of Stuttgart, and further seven years in Nürtingen (approx. 20 miles south of Stuttgart) at grammar school.
After a stand-in service he held in Neuffen (close to Nürtingen, at the foot of the Swabian Hills), Rev. Henry Poms, who worked with the former Schweizerische Evangelische Judenmission (Swiss Evangelical Jewish Mission), addressed him, saying, “I, too, am of the people of Israel. I listened attentively to your sermon, and I am convinced that you belong into our ministry. You’ve been in education long enough.”
To begin with, Alfred Burchartz contradicted him passionately. He regarded himself as a true school teacher, having a pleasantly good contact with his pupils, and thought himself at the right place with his gifts, his calling, and his Christianity. But Henry Poms would keep on appearing at his door, the one question in his eyes which Alfred Burchartz was unwilling to answer.
One day, finally, the time had come. He felt he couldn’t go on teaching his pupils what it means to follow Jesus while, at the same time, he was trying to avoid the calling to serve his own people. From now on, giving lessons became difficult for him. He lost part of his freedom and gladness. Finally, he had no choice. He said “Yes”, and in 1964 he began his full-time ministry at the Schweizerische Evangelische Judenmission.
In 1971, the death of the former chairman – Rev. Robert Brunner – triggered a personnel and conceptional crisis in the ministry. His successors, a three-person committee consisting of one protestant and one catholic professor of theology and one close colleague of the late director, gave an entirely new direction to the ministry. They changed the working basis away from evangelism and towards dialogue with Judaism and working in the churches towards the understanding of the Jewish faith. In 1973, this led to the Schweizerische Evangelische Judenmission (SEJ) being changed into the Stiftung für Kirche und Judentum (SKJ – Foundation for Church and Judaism), which decisively rejects any Jewish evangelism.
Since Alfred Burchartz could not and would not condone this new course, he was fired. In order to allow him to continue his ministry among the Jewish people and the Christian churches, some friends from Württemberg – supported by the Evangelische Landeskirche in Württemberg – founded the Evangeliumsdienst für Israel (edi – Israel Gospel Ministry) in December 1971.
As director of the edi, Alfred Burchartz developed a rich activity proclaiming the Gospel among the Jewish people, speaking or preaching at conferences and in Christian churches, teaching at Bible schools, writing numerous essays and articles as well as several books and leaflets on the Jewish faith and Jewish evangelism until his retirement late in 1988, and much further. If his ministry and conviction would ever and anon encounter resistance (partly strong resistance), also and especially from Christian theologians, this pained him; it did not, however, make him doubt his calling.
The last years of his life were characterised by physical weakness. On January 12th, 2009, God relieved him from all need, calling him home into His eternal glory.
I will close with an excerpt from an article Alfred Burchartz wrote in 1985 for a Christian magazine:
“I cannot describe the hour in which I was allowed to realise. In those places where man is unwilling to look, when death appears senseless to him, this is where I found the answer which led me into life. In Him who was despised on the Cross I recognised the God suffering from us – the God of Israel and all the world, Who is suffering from His human children, from their lost state, their unrighteousness and suffering which they commit towards one another and towards Him. It is He Who also suffers from my unrighteousness I do to those I should love according to God’s will.
And yet – this God, suffering from us, has never given us up. He is still waiting for us in immeasurable patience and love, that we may find Him and come to Him. Yet those hands which want to receive and embrace us in love are pierced hands which suffered on our behalf.
‘Merciful, patient, and loving is He, much more than a Father could be,’ as a chorus says. When I realised this, I knew about the meaning of my life. I was able to confess to belonging to Him; and since then, I have not, even for an hour, regretted to live under the eyes of my Lord.
But I also know that this finding must not be true for me alone. Oh, what I would give if I had been able to show those findings to my uncle back then – the answer for his despair, for his need, not being able to see God for all the suffering.
Where is God? Where was He in Auschwitz? Why does He keep hidden? Those questions will not cease; I continue to meet them among those who stumbled into faithlessness through suffering.
And I know that the answer can ultimately be found only with the Man on Calvary, where Jewish people – and most Christians as well – don’t want to go. Yet what could we do but continue to point to Him, whom we have been allowed to find, to speak of ‘what we have seen and heard?’ Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews!”