Johannes was the son of Heinrich Lesser, a Jewish bookseller from Halle who converted to Christianity in 1864, three years before Johannes was born on 17 February 1867. For most of his life this did not affect his career or ministry, but when the Nazi Party came to power, he was forced to retire early, denied a pension, and died on May 1st, 1948.
Johannes studied theology in Halle and Berlin, and was ordained in 1894 in the Lutheran church. He was a pastor in Wegenstedt (1894-1899), Höhnstedt (1899-1908), Müchlein (1908-10), and from 1910-1933 in Luckenwalde, an industrial area near Berlin, until 1933, when he was forced to retire as a “half-Jew”.
Luckenwalde was an industrial city. In the Weimar Republic, more than 90 percent of the approximately 26,000 inhabitants were politically left-wing, and the majority of the workers were also unionized. 63% were Protestant and 26.2% were non-denominational. In 1926, 5000 parishioners left the church. That was astonishingly high at the time. The anti-church free thinker movement had a considerable influence.
Lesser was a conservative politically and a liberal theologically, but above all a faithful servant of church and nation, an archetypal Prussian nationalist. His manner and style were forceful, authoritative and commanding. Yet when the Nuremberg Laws were passed (1935) forbidding those with Jewish ancestry from serving in the professions, his popularity waned and he became an embarrassment to friends, colleagues and ecclesiastical authorities. Despite being the district superintendent for churches in the Luckenwalde region, the rise to power of the National Socialists and the accompanying growth in influence of the German Christians who supported Hitler meant that he could no longer serve as a minister.
At first Lesser tried to keep the peace between the German Christians and those who would become the “Confessing Church”, following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller and Karl Barth. The Barmen Declaration (1934) affirmed that no civil leader or authority could usurp the authority of God. He took the oath of loyalty to the State Commissioner August Jäger on 27 June 1933 adding in his own handwriting “I sign this declaration in the expectation that nothing will be expected from me that is contrary to my vow of ordination.”
Now at the age of sixty-six and having served nearly 40 years in ministry, he had been suffering from health problems for some time and was only able to carry out his office sporadically. He asked to retire early, and the fact that Lesser was “half-Jewish” contributed to this decision. On September 21, 1933, he took part in the meeting of the parish church council for the last time. The chairman, Pastor Gleiniger, thanked him for his work. Lesser declined later invitations in order to save the congregation from having to face difficulties. He moved away from Luckenwalde where he had been known and respected, to live with one of his sons in Weinböhla near Dresden. In what became East Germany he received no pension after the war, and died on May 1, 1948.
Reflection and prayer.
A long and active life in ministry shortened by the rise to power of the National Socialists, Lesser escaped arrest and deportation – probably by going under the radar away from where he was well-known. We know little of this man’s inner soul, his faith perspective, and it seems he had little regard for his Jewish identity until it put him in danger. Yet his life and ministry bear witness to the faithfulness of God in the midst of the difficult times and circumstances in which he lived. May his name be and memory be for a blessing!
Psalm 8 For the director of music. According to gittith.  A psalm of David.
1 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.
6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet:
7 all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Source: Evangelish Getauft – als “Juden” Verfolgt [Baptised as Protestants, Persecuted as “Jews”], Theologen jüdischer Herkunft in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus – Ein Gedenkbuch. Eds. Hartmut Ludwig/Eberhard RöhmCalwer, 2014
eds. Hartmut Ludwig/Eberhard Röhm