Yearning for redemption

[At left: the Herrnhuter Stern or Moravian Star, a central European symbol of Advent]

Advent, the season that inaugurates the Christian church year and accompanies the preparation for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, begins Sunday in the western churches and continues until Christmas. It is a season of penitence, but the liturgy can include the Alleluia, something that’s always intrigued me — the possibility of finding ways to rejoice during the fast, so to speak — and made me like it slightly better than Lent. Many readers will be familiar with the tradition of the Advent calendar, the Advent wreath (the tradition my family followed), or the much more recent Jesse Tree, which seems to have caught in evangelical Protestant circles in much of the U.S. Of course, I’m blogging about Advent having now been a Jew for more than half my life, which may seem a little strange to some people. Bear with me, both Jews and Christians, as I’m telling a Christian-Jewish story, here. So no tension over syncretism, ok? And, of course, people who could care less about religion: I’ll be back to salacious and serious discussion of Richard Armitage again tomorrow.

BUT, FOR ALL READERS: In honor of the beginning season, and because Chanukkah starts relatively late this year, I’m starting my appeal for donations to Armitage’s charities with the beginning of the holiday season. From the 1st day of Advent to the last day of Chanukkah, in thankfulness for the myriad gifts Richard Armitage has brought to my life, and in sincere appreciation of his acknowledgement in various messages of the ways that we are connected to the people around us whose suffering we may not normally notice, I’m blogging in honor of Armitage and his favorite charities. As in the past, I do not ask you to stint the charities you favor at a point at which many people are suffering greatly, or to give against your inclination, but if you have a little extra to give, are happy to give it, and you have enjoyed this blog, I ask you to donate what seems appropriate to a charity that Richard Armitage has endorsed. JustGiving allows you to give as little as £5 (a little less than $8 US) through its pages: I hope as many readers as possible will find the effort worthwhile. Links can be found at the end of this post.


[At right: Jochen Klepper]

Something I’ve realized through dealing with Armitagemania and the breakthrough of blogging is how badly I was yearning for redemption, all those years when I was suffering, hoping that something would change, hoping that someone, anyone, would help me figure out how to free myself from the swamp I was in. What appeals to me the most about Advent, I think, and a reason why I remain moved by it despite my not insubstantial disagreements with Christianity, is the idea that the world is still badly in need of, yearning for, and ripe for, redemption. This sentiment comes to expression most clearly on the first Sunday of the holidays, which is connoted with “hope” and with “prophecy.” One of the texts associated with the season comes from the prophet, Isaiah, and Christians borrowed it from their Jewish predecessors and gave it a messianic reading: “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.”

The problem, I suppose, is what happens when one feels that redemption has not come, or may never come. For anyone who suffers from the holidays rather than rejoicing over them, and I am one of those people, this problem may be even more severe. We all know, as the days shorten, that eventually the equinox will be reached, and the days will lengthen. But in the larger sense, many of us wonder: What if the light never comes?

For some people, it does not. One of the favorite hymns I learned for this season while I was living in Germany is called “Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen” (Night is pressing onward). It is a story of redemption told by someone who did not experience redemption on earth.

[At left: the 1937 edition of Klepper’s most well-known work.]

The author of the text of the hymn was an unlikely fellow named Jochen Klepper. The son of a Lutheran pastor, he studied theology before deciding to pursue a career in writing. He kept the sentiments of the piety of his youth, it seems, despite severe conflicts with his father, who was also a pastor, but Klepper eventually fell in love with and married a Jewish widow, Johanna (Hanni) Stein; she brought two daughters with her to their family. Klepper was beginning to establish a respectable career as a poet, writer, and radio critic when his permission to work was revoked by the responsible government agency in the summer of 1933 (the Nazi Party assumed power in January of that year) because of his party affiliation. He was able to receive permission to work again; however, his publication of a novel (Der Vater [1937]) that was read as regime-critical for its discussion of the Prussian monarchs led to his renewed exclusion from permission to publish or speak in the media.

Meanwhile, the situation for the Jews of Germany had become increasingly difficult. His marriage protected Stein from deportation, but the two daughters were subject to all the chicaneries of the racist state. Klepper was drafted and served in the German Army in 1940-1, but was discharged as unfit due to his “mixed” marriage. He and Stein managed an escape to Sweden for their elder daughter, but in 1942, a similar attempt on behalf of the younger daughter failed, so that she was faced with the threat of immediate deportation, and rumors that “mixed” marriages would be dissolved by the state and the Jewish partners deported to the East were everywhere in the city. Klepper made an unsuccessful personal appeal to Goebbels himself on behalf of his stepdaughter and also tried to negotiate with the bureaucrats responsible for the decision with no result. On the night of December 10, 1942, Klepper, his wife, and their daughter took their lives together. His last diary entry includes these words: “In the afternoon, the negotiation at the SD. We will die now — ach, even that lies in G-d’s disposition. We’ll go tonight into death together. Over us in these last hours stands the image of the blessing Christ, who will fight for us. In his gaze, our life ends.”

[At right: the last page of Klepper’s diaries.]

In the winter of 2006-7, while I was living in Berlin, I read the sections of his diaries that have been published as Unter den Schatten seiner Flügel (much of this material remains in unpublished manuscript and is not available to researchers because members of the Klepper family and their descendants are still alive — so the whole story has undoubtedly not been told yet). They’re tremendously moving, though they tell a sad story. Time after time Klepper and his family developed hope for an escape that failed; first, they believed the Nazis would not come to power; then, that they would not stay in power; then, that Germany would lose the war quickly enough for them to be saved; then, that Jochen would find some way to continue publishing; then, that their marriage would be able to shield them and their children; then, that they would get both the girls out of Germany. In 1938, Hanni was baptized and had a church wedding to seal their civil marriage, though it was entirely clear to them at this point that these steps would have no effect on the legal disposition of their situation. It was also a step of hope — a hope that there would be an afterwards for them all. All these hopes were futile. And yet, even at the end, even when Klepper had decided to undertake an act that must have been highly repugnant to him, he did not stop believing in at least the possibility of redemption.

[At left: Jochen Klepper, Johanna Stein, and Renate, who died at their own hands in December, 1942.]

As a historian, I read these memoirs and find them typical of so many aspects of German experiences of the 1930s among the victims of the Nazi regime: the belief that the NSDAP was not as bad as it sounded on the surface (there’s a German proverb: “nichts wird so heiß gegessen wie gekocht”; literally, “nothing’s eaten at the temperature it’s cooked at” or “things aren’t so bad as they seem”); the belief that one could preserve a private sphere for oneself that would not be overtaken by the Nazis; the possibility that the government would change; the belief that the government could not seriously mean to do all the terrible things that it threatened and then ultimately did; the belief that there was no hurry for the persecuted to leave, that they’d still be able to leave a little bit later; the belief that arrangements could be made. The historian Servetus says: an example of the history of a delusion. The only people who ended up entirely safe from the horrors of the regime were those extraordinarily politically astute individuals who held their fingers to the wind in the early 1930s and left right before or just as the Nazis assumed power. People who hung on as long as the Kleppers did were practically doomed. Almost no one got out of Germany after the war started. Those who survived without the protection of the law did so mostly because they found ways to live illicitly.

A terrible story. No tale of redemption, this, at least not for the historian.

But the blogger Servetus, who thinks about the yearning for redemption, ends up wondering about the way that Klepper hoped, and kept hoping, and kept believing, even as he was killing himself. She wonders where he got that strength to sustain himself and his family all that time. And she wonders where he got the courage to believe that G-d would find a way to understand, that Christ would fight for them, even as he and his family took their lives so that his wife and daughter could escape deportation.

The point, I’m starting to think, is quite the possibly the redemption for yearning as a mode in itself. It’s the force that keeps us getting up every day, doing what is in our power, and acting and speaking to both ourselves and others in ways that let us believe that there will be a tomorrow. This is the power of the Advent message: that redemption is possible, that it is potentially at hand if we continue to yearn and strive for it. I do not share the source of Klepper’s faith any longer; but I believe in redemption and more importantly, the force of the desire for redemption. I share, deeply, the growing conviction that only faith will get us through hard times — wherever we are able to draw that faith from — and that sharing its fruits — energy, charity, compassion, kindness — with others is the way to help ourselves through times when we all share the need for redemption.

Here’s the hymn. Klepper wrote the text in 1937, shortly before his exclusion from the media, and published it in a book of poems called Kyrie; a haunting tune was written for it in 1938 by Johannes Petzold. Klepper survives in our memories today as the most well-represented modern author in the German Lutheran hymnals. I couldn’t find a nice choral version of the song, but Petzold was heavily influenced by the folk music movement of the early twentieth century in Germany, so it’s unlikely he’d have objected to either of these alternatives:

Guitar version, for the melody:

Voice version, a bit poppy, with German lyrics:

My rough translation:

The night is pressing onward, daybreak is not far.
So let the bright morning star be praised in song.
Even those who’ve cried at night should sing along.
The morning star shines on your fear and suffering, too.

The one whom all angels serve now becomes a child and a servant.
G-d himself has appeared as atonement for his law.
Who’s guilty on earth, let him not hide his face
He will be redeemed if he believes in the child.

The night’s already fading, get on the way to the stable!
You’ll find salvation there, promised throughout time,
From the beginning, since your guilt took place.
The elected one of G-d has bound himself to you.

The sun will keep on setting on human suffering and sin.
But now the star of divine grace journeys with everyone
Illuminated by its light, darkness will not hold you
Salvation came to you from G-d’s countenance.

God wants to dwell in darkness but he has illuminated it,
He judges the world, as if he wanted to recompense it.
The one who made earth’s orbit does not abandon the sinner.
All who trust the Son here will escape judgment there.

even as I yearn for redemption, can I act as someone else’s redemption today?


It’s that time of year again: a point at which we think about the needs of others in the midst of gratitude for the gifts we have received. Here’s a link to Mr. Armitage’s recommended charities at JustGiving and a link to Act!onAid, a child sponsorship organization for which he recorded a voiceover in December 2010. In 2011, Mr. Armitage also participated in fundraising efforts for Christchurch Earthquake Appeal. You can also generate a donation by doing any or Book Depository shopping that you do for the holidays via, or or shopping via, as these fansites both donate earned commission to charities that Armitage has endorsed. Fans have also donated in honor of Armitage to Oxfam International.

~ by Servetus on November 27, 2011.

18 Responses to “Yearning for redemption”

  1. The reminders about the charity organizations are always helpful. I have been making any Amazon purchases through the link on and have recommended that friends and family do the same.


  2. I make a lot of purchases on Amazon, so I’m very happy that each time I do so, a small contribution goes to Richard’s charities. For this reason I have told my husband that I will see to buying the Kindle that he wants to give me for Christmas!! 😉


  3. Does anyone know if charitable donations to JustGiving are tax deductible for Americans? Donations to Oxfam International definitely are tax deductible, so Americans who are going to deduct their donations might be safer giving to Oxfam in honor of RA.


    • Cardinal Fang, I don’t know (because I haven’t itemized the last few years, I have never checked). Honestly, I think you could give to anyone in honor of Richard Armitage and send him a copy of the receipt with a note of thanks if you wanted him to be aware of it. One of his charities is Salvation Army, and almost every place has one of those, too.


  4. Hi Serv,

    Advent is indeed a season of hope and joy. It is also a time to turn to our friends–near and far–who might be left lonely on the holidays but for our friendship. The elderly might especially keenly feel isolation during the holidays due to their families being far away–or their families being caught up in their own worlds. My hubby and I always shared our holidays with dear Emma from church who passed away this year at 84 years young. So, we have an extra “place at the table” that we will fill with another of our friends.

    And,I love the guitar rendition of the Klepper hymn–very lovely.

    With Bccmee’s reminder on my blog earlier this morning, I also added the RANet Amazon Associate page link to my blog.
    That and the Just Giving link–which I had earlier listed–are easy and painless ways to give. And though it’s nice to have the tax deduction, I hope no US folks will refrain from donating to Just Giving because their charitable deduction status for Yanks is unclear. I’ve donated via Just Giving and plan to do so again.

    Cheers! Grati ;-> (A Yankette)


    • I think every reminder to give is an important one. I worked once for a university foundation as a fundraiser, and probably the most important thing I learned from that experience is that the number one reason people give to anything is that someone asks them! So I plan to ask a lot, and I hope others will ask, too.

      On the point of the destination of the donation, just to clarify: everyone should donate in the way s/he thinks best. I wrote a long post about this in August but I don’t want to reiterate it every single time, so it’s linked in this post. Everyone has his or her particular needs and boundaries and I feel we should respect those. If the charitable deduction is important to someone, they should find a way to accommodate that, and as Cardinal Fang points out, there is a way to do that. Some people might not want to use JustGiving because it does take a small piece for its overhead — so those people might want to give directly to the charities involved. JustGiving happens to be convenient for me because I don’t want to go through the work of an international bank transfer or money order. On the same note, I’m always a bit unsure about urging people, e.g., to give to the UK Salvation Army when we have our own needy in our own towns. I’m not certain, if I were in a position to endorse a charity myself, that I’d pick the Salvation Army. And so on.

      The point for me is that people think about giving — not how much, or to whom. In the particular case of Armitage, too, I think there’s a value in giving even a very small donation in his honor to a place that he might notice — because it’s a gift that he’s asked for and thus it’s a way of saying thanks to him.


  5. I love the advent, we need these christmas lights craziness in Iceland, in the darkness. It is also such a great time to meditate and think about what is important in life and how to give back.


    • The light in the darkness theme is really important, I think, for people whose days get very short at this point of the year.

      Another Advent tradition I love although it is not ecologically sound: the citrus fruit. When my mother was a kid they got an orange for Christmas. One orange. It was a huge thrill for them. When I put a juicy slice of tangerine in my mouth, I always think of that along with the tang that cheers me up.


  6. This post is so moving, and so meaningful. I’ve been thinking about similar things (although, characteristically, my thoughts have less religious inflection) — about what it means to acknowledge, and also move beyond, the soul-crushing difficulties of a formative period of your life. About what it takes to take into account how petty those tormentors were, and yet how much their tormenting affected you.

    Whether there are concrete things one can do to make things better, or whether it’s just a matter of time. I wonder how much I’ve got the power to push along this process.

    Reading this makes me wish the Advent had meaning for me as a ritual of moving through that process. And it reminds me of one of my favorite expressions (and the title of a great novel): coming through slaughter.

    Many thanks, Servetus.


    • Thanks, Didion. I think it’s a risky move to claim that anything about a suicide can be understood as redemptive, or even as an index of redemption. Klepper did something that hundreds, maybe thousands of Berliners were doing in those years (it’s a fact that’s well known but interestingly it’s something no monograph has touched yet).

      And yet he kept on yearning, and died in the belief that he would be redeemed. He chose to kill himself in the hopes that in the end he would be reborn.

      I suppose a better historical parallel for your problem would be the experience of the refugees who returned to their homes after the war to try to put the pieces back together / and or emigrated and built new lives elsewhere. The other risky piece of this post for me was implying that my suffering was anything like that of the war years — it was terrible for me, and I firmly believe that you can’t / shouldn’t compare suffering — but obviously no one was threatening to kill me.

      Maybe it’s that because he kept believing there was redemption that eventually it came (albeit in a distressing form). You’re a great example of believing (or at least acting as if) there is another shore to be reached. I didn’t have the faith that you had last year.


    • and if you’ll forgive me, one more comment: rereading this post I wonder whether I’m now reaffirming my resolution of September 2010 — that I could only continue in that job on the condition that I understood it as my obligation to be as kind as possible.

      If that’s true, there’s a certain irony to that, as I was convinced in June 2011 that that had been the wrong strategy, that it had cost me way too much.


      • I didn’t take your post as meaning that suicide is redemptive, nor that you were comparing your suffering to Klepper’s. Heavens!

        It’s so helpful to witness other people’s struggles against tyranny and trauma — and the helpfulness of those words and images can work on those of us who’ve experienced far lesser kinds of oppression. Part of our struggle is coming to grips with its brutality without trying to take some part of the blame or feeling ashamed by the extent of its emotional costs. Looking at Klepper’s case is helpful because his case was so much worse, so much more clear-cut.


        • yeah, I didn’t think you would take it that way, but some people might. It’s a sort of ongoing problem in Holocaust exegesis 🙂

          I think you’re right about the clearcut aspects of the case — the Renaissance really would have approved of Klepper as a potential exemplum — it’s the challenge of the modern interpreter, I suppose, to insist that the meaning of the exemplum remain open.


  7. That’s such an awful story. Bad enough that the family had to split for at least one of them to be free; but for the remaining members to be driven to suicide to stop the wife and remaining daughter being deported and likely murdered.

    It’s just horrible. Another writer like little Anne Frank deprived of what they might have written in the future.

    At the same time I admire anyone that stood up in any way to what the Nazi’s were doing.
    One daughter they got to safety and then they took their own lives, dying in their own terms not the Nazi’s.

    The idea of him seeking redemption by coming back grips me especially.
    As a pagan I believe very much in the possibility of reincarnation.
    Perhaps he and Anne Frank have had the chance to write in one of their future lives.


    • yes, it’s sad — and hard to seek redemption in suffering — but I think that’s what they must have been doing. As to their reincarnation? We’ll find out, in the fullness of time.


  8. […] anyone?) and still remain firmly for Advent, even as a Jewish adult. Advent accompanies the yearning for redemption, something I pray for every day as a Jew, !במהירה בימינו. Christmas was usually a […]


  9. […] theme of the human yearning for redemption. I have written a few posts about Advent music: one on a famous German advent hymn from the war years; and one about my favorite Advent hymns from childhood and their modern […]


  10. […] not to emigrate, were somehow impacted by Arbeitsverbot during the Nazi period. Jochen Klepper, whom I’ve written about before, spent much of the latter part of his life trying to figure out how to get around this problem. […]


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