Theologian, City Vicar, Concentration Camp Prisoner
In the church of St Mary Magdalena I stumbled across a stone slab on the wall with an inscription:
In memoriam Katharina Staritz (1903 – 1953), protestant theologian and city vicar of Breslau. In words and deeds she proved Christian love and care to the persecuted brothers and sisters of Jewish descendency during the years of the Nazi regime and was thus herself persecuted.
The name rang a bell. Somehow I must have come across this name during my student years in Marburg. So I started researching. And indeed…
Katharina was born in Breslau in 1903. Her father, a high school teacher, saw to it that both Katharina and her younger sister Charlotte got the best possible education at school and later university – which was not yet too common in those times. Katharina first studied philology in Breslau but then changed to Marburg University to study theology. In 1928 she passed the theological exam and, soon after, finished her promotion. Only one year earlier the churches in Prussia and Silesia had admitted women as theologians. They were not granted the full office and status of a parson, though. Women were only employed as „vicars“ (in the German sense of the word: a vicar is less than a parson or pastor). They were allowed to preach and care for women and children, but they were neither allowed to lead full church services nor administer the sacraments. They were not allowed to marry, unlike their male colleagues.
In 1933 Katharina was employed as vicar for the city of Breslau. In 1938 she received her ordination and was introduced as „Stadtvikarin“ (City Vicar“) in the church of St Mary Magdalena. She worked with children, who called her „Aunt Pastor“, and she had to do the lessons for non-Christian people who wanted to be baptized. Many of these were of Jewish origins. So she was directly confronted with their problems, with the increasing pressure they experienced under the Nazi regime.
Brave and intelligent Katharina was not d’accord with the Nazi regime at all. Like many of her male colleagues in Breslau she joined the „Bekennende Kirche“, the resistance movement within the protestant churches. In order to help fellow Christians with „non-arian“ background, she worked with a church centre in Berlin that organized emigrations, which was still possible until 1939. About 120 persons owe their escape to her efforts.
Then the war began and the situation tightened even more. In 1941 a new law obliged all people of Jewish descendency to wear the yellow star on their clothes. Katharina sat down and wrote a letter to her colleagues in Breslau, asking them to take care of these people and support them instead of excluding them.
Neither the Nazi authorities nor the leaders of the Silesian church were amused. Katharina was immediately dismissed from her office and ordered to leave the city. She returned to Marburg, where she had support from her professor Hans von Soden, and dedicated herself to further theological studies. However, Nazi propaganda continued to diffame her. In March 1942 she was arrested, and brought to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück, a camp for women. Her sister Charlotte and a couple of other friends fought for her release. After more than one year Charlotte was finally successful. Katharina was released in May 1943. She returned to Breslau but was closely supervised and forbidden to work in public. In early 1945 the Staritz family had to flee together with the whole German population of Breslau. The two sisters, their mother and aunt made it to Marburg.
The house where the Staritz family had lived in Breslau is still standing. They inhabited a large apartment in a house in the suburb with the funny name of Leerbeutel (translates to „empty bag“) in the eastern parts of the city. The address was then Richard-Wagner-Straße, now ul. Karola Szymanowskiego. There is no hint on the house, one has to know the address. Leerbeutel is a quarter with large villas from the late 19th and early 20th century that survived the war relatively unharmed. The vicinity to the big Scheitnitzer Park (park Szczytnicki) made this an upscale residential quarter.
In Hessen, there was more than enough work for Katharina. Many parsons were still at war or imprisoned as POW’s. She worked as substitute in various parish communities, but as soon as the original parson returned, she had to leave, even if the community wanted to keep her. She constantly fought with the churches of Hessen to be granted at least the status as a civil servant and ordinated theologian that she had already had in Breslau. In 1949 she was offered a position in Frankfurt in the parish of Katharinenkirche. She worked there for hardly more than two years, though. Katharina died of cancer on Good Friday, April 3, 1953.
Source from which I assembled information for this brief summary:
Gerlind Schwöbel: Ich aber vertraue. Katharina Staritz: eine Theologin im Widerstand. Evangelischer Regionalverband 1990.