It was October 1914. The First World War had just started. On the western front French and German armies were already locked in fierce battles. Werner Simonson was one of a group of fifty German soldiers from the 4th Guards regiment involved in the Battle of Diksmuide in Belgium. They had just taken prisoner over thirty French soldiers. The man Simonson had captured had been a schoolmaster before being called up. He seemed particularly distressed at the turn of events, so Simonson spoke kindly to him in French and shared some of his rations with the unhappy man.
As daylight came and the early morning mist cleared, the fifty German soldiers, with their prisoners, found that they were trapped between two French trenches. The French immediately opened fire. Within a few minutes most of the Germans were killed or wounded. The two officers in charge of the Germans, a major and a captain, were killed right next to Simonson. He survived by lying down in a small hollow in the ground. The firing stopped. Fifteen Germans remained alive.
The French now came out of their trenches to deal with the fifteen Germans who were left. In a victorious mood the French took their prisoners. Then the attitude of the victors changed dramatically. The French were outraged to discover that some of the Frenchmen previously captured by the Germans had been killed in the confusion. The Germans were wrongly accused of having shot them deliberately. As a reprisal, five Germans, including Simonson, were lined up for execution.
Just as the French officer was about to shout, ‘Fire!’ the former schoolmaster came forward and said something to the officer in charge of the firing party. As a result, Simonson and one other German were led away and saved from death. The other three German soldiers were shot. The schoolmaster who had saved Simonson’s life did not even wait around to be thanked.
Werner Simonson recorded this story in his memoirs – The Last Judgment – to show the importance of small acts of kindness. In later life he became known for them. He realized how often very small things can have unforeseen effects, either for good or evil. What he did not record was that he was awarded the Iron Cross. It was given for the bravery and good conduct he displayed during the fighting in Flanders.
During that comparatively minor battle two thirds of Simonson’s battalion were killed in a single night. Most were young students from Berlin. Whenever Simonson subsequently referred to the Battle of Diksmuide, he called it the ‘slaughter of Berlin’s youth’.
So Werner Simonson became a prisoner of the French. He was not to know that his imprisonment was to last for over five long years. Considering the enormous casualty figures among infantry soldiers on both sides in the First World War, his capture may well have saved his life. For most of the time he was forced to work on farms in the south of France. Even though he was not treated cruelly, he found life as a prisoner both hard and tedious.
He longed to see his father, mother and two sisters – Ilse, the eldest and Maggie who was younger. His father was an important Supreme Court judge in Berlin. Werner had been brought up in an atmosphere of high culture, appreciating music, painting and an aristocratic lifestyle. If only he could go home and resume his university studies to become a lawyer!
He now began to believe that he had given these studies up too quickly in the excitement of the early months of the war. Knowing only what the censored German newspapers told them, he and his friends had rushed to join the army in case the war ended before they had a chance to fight. They had been given six weeks of hurried training. Then they were issued with new grey uniforms and put on a train heading for Belgium and France. Somebody painted the words, ‘Holiday train to Paris,’ on the carriages packed with high-spirited German soldiers. He felt proud when civilians threw sweets and cigarettes to the departing troops. Enthusiastic crowds cheered them on their way to what seemed inevitable triumph. He recalled seeing a ‘victory’ parade in Berlin with large quantities of guns and military equipment that had been captured on the Russian front. Deep down he had the unpleasant feeling that it would have been better to wait until victory really was won. He had suppressed such thoughts at the time, carried along by enthusiastic propaganda and patriotism. If only he had not believed the Kaiser when he claimed falsely that Germany was being attacked! He thought about the Kaiser’s boast that he would eat his Christmas dinner in Buckingham Palace. Being a prisoner gave Simonson a different perspective. It all seemed so empty now.
The world suffered a disastrous influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Millions died from what the newspapers called ‘Spanish flu’. Six million people died in India, and tens of thousands in most other countries. More United States soldiers in Europe lost their lives because of influenza than were killed in action by the enemy. Simonson was struck down with it in the autumn of 1918, and was fortunate to survive. The family of the French farmer for whom he was working nursed him back to health. Even though he was one of the ‘enemy’, he was treated as part of the family. Nevertheless, many captive Germans and French villagers perished because of the flu epidemic. Understandably, not all German prisoners were treated as kindly as he was.
At 11.00 on a grey November morning in 1918, he was working in the fields of Provence as usual, when the bells of the village church began to peal. He could also hear the bells of churches in surrounding villagers. The First World War was over. The bloodshed had ended at last. The unconfined joy of the French was matched by the misery of the Germans who knew that they were defeated. News came through that the Kaiser had fled to neutral Holland seeking asylum.
At first Simonson and his friends thought that release would soon follow. In April 1919 they were escorted to a train. The German prisoners were excited. Surely this train would take them home? Slowly the train made its way from the beautiful Mediterranean coast to the north of France. After Dijon, it travelled through areas devastated by the war. From the window Simonson could see houses in ruins, trees cut down and laid waste. Then came disappointment. They would not be going home. They were split into groups to help with the restoration of the war-torn areas. It was not until early 1920 that Simonson was eventually released.
At the time he thought his five years in captivity were completely wasted. Later on he changed his mind. As life unfolded, he realized that he had learned lessons that moulded his character and taught him how to cope with difficult situations. In his words, ‘We all had to live together in conditions of hardship, accept our limitations and renounce any notions of self-importance.’ No experience in life is wasted, he concluded.
Simonson returned to his family in Leipzig, arriving late one night. Naturally, they wept with joy and surprise. Before many days had passed he noticed the obvious: he had come back to a land that was totally different from the one he had left more than five years earlier. People were bitter and disunited by the defeat. His father, who was an ardent monarchist, was greatly upset by the change from the autocratic Kaiser to a republican democracy. Germany was engulfed by political strife. Even in the streets of Leipzig there was totally unexpected shooting. There were also disturbances in many other German towns. Political parties accused one another of being responsible for the nation’s debacle in the recent war.
After a few weeks of recuperation, Simonson plunged into his interrupted university studies. He was a man with considerable ability. As a result, his progress was rapid. In 1921, at the age of thirty-one, he passed the examinations to become Doctor of Law. In 1925 he was appointed as a judge. By 1928 he was a high-court judge presiding over commercial law cases. Although qualified in both criminal and civil law, he always preferred dealing with civil cases. His income was increased by writings for legal periodicals. His name became well known in legal circles because of his authoritative contributions to a lawyer’s yearbook.
During this period of success and advancement, he married Leonie in July 1923. She too had an aristocratic background. Their only child, a son called Juergen, was born in 1924. Considerable financial security enabled them to travel and enjoy excellent holidays every year in the most luxurious surroundings – such as the Bavarian Alps, the Tyrol, Lake Lucerne, Zermatt and the Dolomites. There were few limits on their pleasures.
The Simonsons’ circumstances were so comfortable that their way of life appeared to be unaffected by Germany’s economic problems. From 1919 to 1933 Germany was ruled by a parliament called the National Assembly. This held its meetings at Weimar because Berlin was torn by political unrest. As a result the government became known as the Weimar Republic. The politicians had no experience of democracy, and Germany was in virtually constant political and economic turmoil.
Most Germans felt frustrated by the Treaty of Versailles that had been imposed on their delegates in Paris at the end of the war. A large number believed that Germany had been treated unfairly. People were ready to believe the myth that Germany had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the Jews and other traitors, and that the German army had not been beaten on the battlefield. Ordinary people did not feel that they had been beaten because the Allies had never occupied the country as conquerors. Dr Simonson was not particularly interested in these things. He did not like the instability in his country, but he made no attempt to change the direction of public affairs. Law was his sphere, not politics.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler was legally appointed Chancellor of Germany. On the day he took office a friend remarked to Simonson, ‘This is the end of Germany’s freedom. In future the Nazis will suppress all other views.’ Before long this was proved correct. All political groups other than the Nazi party were abolished. The parliament building was burnt down. Hitler became a dictator with all the levers of power in his control. At the end of March 1933 Simonson heard a radio broadcast by Hitler’s propaganda minister and leading spokesman, Goebbels. In it he called the Jews ‘sub-human monkeys’ and ‘the dregs of society’. Then came the news that the great Jewish conductor Bruno Walter had been forbidden to give a concert.
Windows of businesses owned by Jews were smashed. No Jew was allowed to hold public office. Because of this ruling, Nazi leaders went to all places of employment asking if there were any Jews working there. They interviewed Werner Simonson and found out that, although his parents had converted to Christianity and been baptized as Lutherans, all four of his grandparents were Jewish. Therefore, by race Simonson and his parents were Jewish, though they had no connections with any Jewish people.
The moment the Nazis found out his racial background, the fact that he had fought for Germany and had won the coveted Iron Cross for gallantry counted for nothing. His career as a judge was over. He was sacked there and then. That happened just as he was on the verge of appointment to a very senior job in the legal profession – judge in an appeal court.
Shortly afterwards, Simonson received letters from his publishers saying that, for obvious reasons, they were no longer able to publish books he had written. One of his works, a legal commentary, was even published under a false name. Overnight he became an outcast. People who had been eager to visit the family because of his social position now changed their minds. Some would walk on the other side of the street to avoid meeting him. It saddened him that highly educated people were quickly influenced by this prejudice. But as he said, ‘We learned who were our real friends.’
All his advantages vanished. He could not obtain work of any kind. Even the boys in his son’s class at school wrote on the blackboard, ‘We do not want a Jew in our form; the Jew must go.’ Simonson’s passport had a huge ‘J’ (for ‘Jew’) stamped on it. Theatres and hotels put up notices saying, ‘No admission to Jews.’
In 1938, under the strain of waiting to be arrested, Simonson’s health broke down. He had a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. The first doctor who was called refused to see him because Simonson was ‘Jewish’. Eventually, his friend Dr Schmoeger treated him, at the risk of losing his own job.
In the same year, when he was forty-nine years old, Simonson had an experience that was to change his life. In a gloomy mood, he went to Dresden to visit his married sister Maggie and her family. It was his niece’s confirmation service. This involved attending a local Lutheran church. At the time Werner Simonson thought Greek philosophy was more important than the Christian faith. He believed that the philosopher Socrates was a greater man than Jesus. Why? His explanation was that ‘Jesus had died expecting to rise again, but Socrates had given his life for his convictions without expecting any reward. I did not believe in a personal God, nor in a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus.’
During the service the preacher spoke about some men who need to reach a kind of abyss, when they can go neither forward nor back, where they are completely at the end of all hope, before they can discover the way to God. Simonson wrote, ‘He pictured this situation so vividly, as though he knew exactly my state of mind, my frustration, and was preaching just for me. It was as if God spoke to me and called me by name, as if he said, “I have a new way for you, a new life, if you will respond.”
He could not resist God’s call. ‘In the utter darkness that had engulfed my life I saw a new light. I met God, not only as the God of nature, not as the unapproachable God, far too great to be accessible to man, but now as a personal God in a “You – I” relationship, as a completely new experience. He in his mercy had revealed himself to me through the preacher’s words. God had touched my heart. It was more than an emotional effect.’ It was the beginning of a new era in his life.
He returned to his wife and son with a new hope and with faith in his heart. Praying, reading the Bible and going to church with his family became regular parts of his life. The church was in a small village near Forst, south of Berlin. It was Lutheran, and its leader, Pastor Jacob, preached only from the Bible and supported the Confessing Church. Simonson’s ideas began to change. He recorded: ‘From the Gospels I saw that my ideas about Jesus were wrong. I came to the conclusion that either Jesus was the Son of God, as he had claimed to be, or he was a deceiver or self-deceived. No Old Testament prophets had dared to forgive sins, because they knew that God alone could do it. Jesus forgave sin. The prophets spoke in the name of God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”; “I am the light of the world”; I am the bread of life”; “I am the good shepherd”; I am the door”; I am the resurrection and the life”; I and the Father are one”; “Before Abraham was I am”.’
Werner Simonson began to understand for the first time that Jesus’ death on the cross was ‘God’s act of love, his power to overrule man’s will, forgiving sin, and drawing people to the Father’. He wrote, ‘We cannot come to God in our own strength, or by what we do, but by what Jesus has done to forgive sin by faith in him. The more I read the Bible, the more God’s Spirit entered into me. Through God I came to Christ and in Jesus I found the truth of God. In this connection, another thought came to me: if the gospel is not true, if God does not exist, then human life is accidental, without purpose and not worth living.’
He came to believe that godlessness was one of the causes of Nazism in Germany, a country so long full of criticism of the Bible. Simonson’s memoir says, ‘The evil in this world results from man’s separation from God. It is not the fault of God.’
He was now not only a marked man because he was ‘Jewish,’ but because he associated with the Confessing Church, composed of both Lutherans and Reformed Christians, all of whom openly opposed Hitler. Members of the Confessing Church particularly rejected those who called themselves ‘German Christians’ for adopting Nazi beliefs. Simonson knew that the cross had been removed from some of these ‘churches’ and replaced by a picture of Hitler. The Nazis had appointed one of this group, Mueller, as a bishop, with the aim of controlling the ‘German Christians’.
It would only be a matter of time before the Gestapo, the sate secret police, arrested Simonson. His wife was safe because she was not Jewish in any way. One woman asked his wife why he didn’t commit suicide to make life easier for her! Leonie started to urge him strongly to escape from Germany.
With the help of Dr. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, and other English friends, Simonson obtained a visa from the British consulate. Even with this he had to be interviewed by the Gestapo to procure a passport as an emigrant. He and his wife had to report to a Gestapo building. On entering, non-Jews could walk on the carpet in the centre and sit down. Jews had to stand on the stone floor by the wall until they were called. So his wife was allowed to sit, while he had to stand. Leonie decided she would stand with him. When he was called it was made clear that if he ever returned from England he would be immediately sent to a concentration camp.
On 7 March 1939, when he was nearly fifty, Simonson arrived in Southampton ‘and took a deep breath of freedom’. He could speak only broken English, although he was fluent in French and understood Latin and Greek. The German authorities had only allowed him to take ten marks out of the country (a trifling sum). Though virtually penniless, he had something the Nazis could not take away – his faith in God through Jesus Christ. His plan at this time was to be in a position to support his wife and son, and then send for them.
The clouds on the political horizon darkened. People everywhere in Europe were restless and uneasy. It was evident to most people who were alive at the time that Europe was about to explode into the flames of the Second World War.
The moment that war started, an ‘iron curtain’ came down between Britain and Germany. Simonson’s parents, sister, wife and son were all in Germany. What was he to do? The only possible answer was the one he offered in his memoirs: ‘I trusted in God and his guidance.’ His English friends understood the predicament in which he found himself. Here was a man cut off from his family through no fault of his own. Most of them shook him by the hand to show that they cared and understood.
As he grew in grace and understanding, he experienced the Lord’s call to serve in the Christian ministry. Travelling in England he found sympathy, kindness and Christian fellowship. As his English improved, he started to study. In 1940 the only college prepared to teach him theology and how to preach was the evangelical Anglican college Ridley Hall in Cambridge. There were no fees to pay. The age gap between him and the other students was significant: most of them could have been his sons. He was well past middle-age when converted to faith in Christ and, as with many older converts, he was anxious to make the most of what life was left to him.
Suddenly there came a shock. All Germans in Britain were to be rounded up and interned in case they were spies. With Britain under threat of invasion in 1940, the decision to classify all German nationals was understandable. Simonson was put on a train and taken to a newly built housing estate at Huyton near Liverpool. From there he was shipped to Douglas on the Isle of Man, where hotels had been requisitioned.
It took the British authorities some time to sort out which of their German internees were friendly and innocent. Simonson shared a house with other Christians who had escaped from Germany. He discovered that strict Orthodox Jews occupied the hotel next door. He and his friends had discussions with them. The Jews kept up their rituals based on the law. Simonson recorded: ‘They were still waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We knew that the Messiah had come, that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus lived with us and in us. They missed this inner assurance that gave us so much strength during our internment.’ There was no place in Judaism for such a personal knowledge of God. As a result of their discussions, several Jews became Christians and were baptized in the hotel by a Lutheran pastor. After six months, Simonson was released and returned to Ridley Hall.
From this time onwards tragic news started to come from Germany. His father had died. His eighty-four-year-old mother was murdered in a concentration camp and his sister Ilse was gassed in Auschwitz. His non-Jewish wife and son, however, were spared, along with his sister Maggie, who was married to a non-Jew. Simonson was devastated. For some days he was overwhelmed by darkness and grief. He wrestled with God about it until the Lord’s compassion restored the light and joy of his salvation.
In the summer of 1942 his time at Ridley Hall came to an end. Even though he was now fifty-two, the call to the ministry was very strong. But would any English church want a German citizen as its minister? The legal authorities of the Church of England wanted proof that he really was a Doctor of Law since he had no documents. Somebody suggested asking the British Museum. Sure enough, it had a record of his thesis dated 17 March 1921, complete with its full title in German.
On 27 September 1942 Simonson was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. British newspapers were full of the amazing story of a German citizen becoming a Church of England minister in the middle of a very serious war against Germany. A typical headline announced: ‘Ex-German Judge to be Curate in London.’
At his first charge, Christ Church, Fulham, he maintained a programme of study and prayer in the mornings and four or five evangelistic visits in an afternoon, or twenty-five to thirty every week. He believed that, to sustain his ministry, it was necessary to study the Word of God daily. ‘We need to read God’s Word as spiritual food as much as we need our daily bread,’ was how he expressed his strong conviction on the matter.
One day he heard the sad news that the son of a church member had been killed while flying in the RAF over Germany. Thinking that they would not want to see a German in their grief, he was prepared to be turned away, but when he visited the home, the father and mother were waiting for him. ‘We had a wonderful time of fellowship and prayer together,’ Simonson later recalled.
In 1944 Werner Simonson received the exciting news that his son, Juergen, now twenty-one, was still alive. He was being used as a slave labourer by the Nazi Todt organization. However, he survived the ordeal, came to England, became a Christian and, like his father, entered the Church of England ministry.
More joy was to come: Leonie, his wife, was the first German civilian to be allowed into England once the war ended in 1945. She proved to be remarkably calm on finding the husband she had last known as a judge had been ‘transformed’ into a Christian minister. Two years later Dr and Mrs Simonson became British citizens.
After seven years at Fulham, he became vicar of St Mark’s, Dalston, also in London. While at Dalston he was asked to return to Germany. The new democratic West German government was genuinely short of judges who were not contaminated by Nazi ideas. Would he be a judge? If not, would he accept a pension for the post he had held before the Nazis had sacked him? It must have seemed an attractive offer. His income at the time was well below the average. He had no car. A bicycle was used for all his visiting. To Werner Simonson the decision was obvious. ‘Had I returned,’ he wrote, ‘I would have been appointed to a high position in the legal profession, yet I could not consider this offer for a moment. I could not exchange service in the ministry of God for service in the administering of man-made law; accepting this offer would have meant abandoning God’s call to me, and this I could not do.
At the age of sixty-five, he moved to St Luke’s Church, Hampstead, where he stayed for over nine years. There were many Jewish people living in Hampstead and during his ministry there ten Jewish people came to faith in Christ and were baptized by Simonson.
By the time he was nearly seventy he was beginning to find cycling on his pastoral visits tiring, so he invested in a motor-cycle. He had it for one day, fell off and went back to the bicycle! At the age of seventy-five he retired and was succeeded by Bible scholar and preacher Alec Motyer.
Werner Simonson lived to be 101, dying in February 1991. Those who knew him commented on his godliness, prayerfulness and the favourable impression that he made on people from all walks of life. He was a humble, self-effacing man who learnt from all the experiences of his varied life. After all, he had been a soldier, a prisoner, a student, a lawyer, a judge, a husband, a father, an author, a persecuted nobody, a refugee, a theology student and, last but not least, the evangelistic minister of three parish churches.
He continued to preach in weakness until a few weeks before his death, still witnessing the blessing of God. Because of his ministry, there are many in heaven today. Though virtually blind, he wrote to the author encouraging the use of his writings, photographs and correspondence to convey this testimony to any who would listen to or read it.
If Werner Simonson could speak from the grave, he would doubtless be calling on all who have no relationship with God to be reconciled to their Creator by repentance and faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the benefits of which come directly to the individual soul by the sovereign grace of the Holy Spirit.
His little book of Memories, The Last Judgment, sets out at the beginning his motive for writing: ‘I have written this small book to show that God can change lives.’ It is hard to argue with that in the face of Werner Simonson’s experience.
From WAR AND GRACE – Short biographies from the World Wars, by Don Stephens, published by Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England