Marked for Life: an interview with Hildegard Goss-Mayr

Hildegard Goss-Mayr (Graz)
Hildegard Goss-Mayr

[published in the November 1988 issue of Reconciliation International, journal of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation]

During the past four decades, Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr have served the International Fellowship of Reconciliation as Travelling Secretaries, Vice Presidents and now, since the meeting of the IFOR Council in Assisi earlier this year, as Honorary Presidents. Several times they have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by others who have been awarded that honor.

In the nomination statement of Mairead Corrigan Maguire, leader of the Peace People movement in Northern Ireland, she writes: “Peace work has been a team effort for this French/Austrian couple since their marriage in 1958. The Goss-Mayrs are well known and admired for their courage, persistence and vision as they initiate and participate in nonviolence work. They have given nonviolence seminars in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and more recently in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Their lives and personal commitment to nonviolence are an inspiring example and a light of hope in a world where violence and militarism continue to sap the energy and hope of many. With their own lives, dedicated as they are to active nonviolence, they are planting the seeds which will someday create the disarmed, reconciled world so yearned for by millions in our world today.”

In 1986 I interviewed Hildegard in Alkmaar. The section that follows concerns crucial early experiences that contributed to the formation of her values. She is, in her own words, a person “marked for life,” both by the senseless destruction of war and by her father’s deeply-held pacifist convictions. (There is a book-length conversation with Hildegard and Jean conducted by Gerard Houver, Nonviolence: c’est la vie. It has been published in France, Italy, Austria and Brazil. In December, an English translation will be available in Britain from Marshalls.

—Jim Forest

Please tell me about your parents.

My father, Kasper Mayr, was born in 1892 in a village near Salzburg on the German side of the Austrian border. His father was a peasant farmer. When my father was ten, he left the farm to begin studies. At that time if you came from a village and you wanted to study, it was either to become a medical doctor or a priest—for my father the latter. After secondary school he began theological studies. When the First World War broke out, he was drafted. Eventually he was sent to the front near Verdun where hundreds of thousands died in the trenches. He was taken prisoner by the French and didn’t return home until 1919. The experience, first in the trenches, then in prison, was a tremendous shock. It led him to realize that war was unacceptable for a Christian. While in prison he met Father Max Josef Metzger, one of the first Christian ecumenists on the Catholic side.

After his release, my father went to Graz, southeast Austria, to join Father Metzger’s Community of the White Cross. This community tried to live in the example of St. Francis. It was something truly remarkable at that time, a nonviolent community of priests and lay people, some of them married. It was here that my father decided to marry and to devote his life to peace work. He met my mother and they married in 1923. They remained part of the community. My brother Richard was born there in 1924. Then they moved to Switzerland. It was here that my father first heard about the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Father wrote to the international office in London. From this contact he was appointed IFOR General Secretary.

Our family was in London from 1925 to ’28. At that time there were few Catholics in IFOR, but from the beginning it was ecumenical. At the time this was revolutionary. There were many new Christian groups that sprang up after the war, but I think IFOR was the only one that had both an ecumenical basis and a commitment to the way of nonviolence. In IFOR there was the conviction that, whatever differences exist among us, we have a common basis in Jesus Christ and we can and must work together. This perspective attracted my father. What also attracted him was that people in IFOR combined theological reflection with the practice of their faith—living out the faith in situations of friction and violence. In this IFOR was unique.

How had IFOR come to London?

A few British people had gone through a radical change and were willing to make it possible for this young movement to have a start. Lillian Stevenson was one of these. She became a close friend of our family. Another leading figure in IFOR was Muriel Lester. She had been well off but had put everything at the disposal of this new movement.

What were IFOR’s priorities in those first years?

Even then one of them was East-West relations. At that time there was the strike between Germany and Poland. With the IFOR movement it was realized that unless these two countries were reconciled, the conflict could start a new war. It was because of this that in 1928, two years before I was born, IFOR moved its headquarters to Vienna where it could more easily direct its work towards the other eastern European countries. There was a leadership team. My father and Donald Grant were among them. My father’s main task was to work for German-Polish reconciliation. He took many trips building up contacts in both countries. The discussions he helped arrange were both theological and political—in the latter case, for example, about practical matters such as access to the Baltic Sea. IFOR had proposals for the shared use of the harbor at Gdansk which we felt would greatly reduce tension in the region. My father established contact with Cardinal Pacelli, then the Papal Nuncio in Berlin, later Pope Pius XII. Father hoped to open him to the necessity of working actively for friendship between Germany and Poland. Pacelli was not unresponsive. He was a person who tried to understand. But we still don’t know what result my father’s contact with Pacelli may have had.

What of IFOR’s work in Poland?

There were several conferences in Poland between 1929 and 1933. But the Depression had grave consequences for IFOR. In 1934 it was necessary to close the Vienna office. In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. That same year my father was stopped in Germany and his documents were taken away. He was on the “subversive” list—people that the Nazis did not like. The kind of work IFOR was doing in Poland was unacceptable. The Nazis insisted on viewing the Poles, and any people of “Slavic races,” as inferior, people to be annihilated.

Where did IFOR go after Vienna?

A small office in Paris with Henri Rosser as General Secretary. My father stayed in Austria working with the Catholic Action Movement. He was also a journalist with a religious-cultural periodical. It was an unstable time in Austria. The monarchy ended in 1919. The empire was gone and Austria was just a small country with a big capital. With the world economic crisis it became impossible. There was radicalization among the workers, many of whom were unemployed. At the same time the Christian Democrats came increasingly under fascist influence. The Nazis were actively infiltrating the government. In 1934 the Austrian Chancellor was assassinated. In 1938, there was a national election and Austria merged into the German Third Reich.

How well do you remember these events?

One of my first memories was the day of the assassination. I was standing under the veranda. Airplanes were flying overhead. There was an atmosphere of fear. I was four years old.

What was it like growing up in your family?

Because of my father, we always knew a great deal about politics. I can remember that we children made games out of political events, even the assassination of the Chancellor! And we played the Japanese-Chinese war! These were events being discussed in our home.

After the Austrian union with Germany, did your family have difficulties?

We were among those who were persecuted. Many friends died in concentration camps. It is astonishing that father wasn’t one of these. I vividly remember him saying to us, after the war started and all that terrible killing was going on, “We have the responsibility to strengthen those who are in the resistance against Hitler. We have to live the biblical shalom. We live that shalom with the people of God, which is to say, we live it with those who resist. We must try to strengthen and help each other.” He was giving us a theological formation.

There were always people in our house. My father was a stronghold for them, affirming everyone who stood against Hitler. But he insisted that resistance was not enough. He said that in a situation where everything is going to pieces, where so many are being killed, we have to give witness that God is the Father of us all. We must not only care for those who think as we do, but we must give witness to those who do not think as we do. How will the Nazis ever change if we do not give them a witness of truth and of respect? We must not respond with hatred to their hatred.

He showed us the oneness of all humanity. This oneness, he taught us, is God’s vision of us, but it cannot come into existence unless we live it. It was very difficult for us to live this, but this was the task he gave us—not to hate our colleagues or fellow students who were fascist, but to try to give a witness to them. Really, he asked us to love our enemy. We did not call it this at the time, but now I am very aware of this seed that he planted in our hearts. Our answer must never be hatred—it must be to challenge the adversary to become a new person.

We had to struggle hard with this because there was a great deal of bitterness within us. I remember we once did a solemn burning of a doll dressed in an SS uniform. We were careful that my father didn’t see it. It was natural for us to feel as we did; revenge is in the nature of every human being. But we knew my father’s conviction, with St. Paul, that the whole universe is awaiting salvation, that all human beings are included in the liberating act of Jesus, and that we must live this out ourselves. This really marked me. I had to grow, to undergo many ups and downs, but I was never able to give it up.

Did you ever see Hitler?

He came to Vienna when I was 12. All the students of the city were brought to one of the main roads to welcome him. I was one of those in that big crowd. The convoy of cars appeared and there was Hitler standing in one of them. Everyone around me was lifting their hands and shouting, “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” It was the first time that I felt that there really is a strength of evil, something that is stronger than any individual being. I experienced the fascination that came from Hitler, that manipulation of masses of people. Evil can have a tremendous attraction. I knew I was not allowed to lift my hand or to join in the shouting. I thought, “Even if they kill me, I am not going to lift up my hand.” It was extremely hard. It was a personal decision at that moment to stand against it. It was an important moment of struggle within myself, a struggle with violence, and a struggle with justice and truth and love.

It was a struggle that, in a way, wounded me. Not only that day but in the years that followed, this struggle continued with great intensity. When I was 17, I felt that I could not go on living if men behaved so terribly toward each other. It touched even my willingness to live. It marked my soul. From 17 until I was 19, I really had to struggle, to make a choice to go on living, to find the will to live. But then I could build on the little seed that my father had planted, his belief in the power of love, that God has given us the vision of the unity of life. But throughout my life I have been very sensitive to the force of evil and have had to struggle with despair. My temptation has been to despair.

What happened when the Russians took Vienna?

I left Vienna in September 1944. All the schools were evacuated. I went to my uncle’s farm, near a concentration prisoners. They came out to work and I saw them. I gave them news I had heard from the BBC.

When the Russians took over, my father and mother, along with one of my sisters and some friends who had sought refuge in our home, were still in Vienna. In April, 1945, there was a ten-day siege—German soldiers in the city, Russians around it, shooting from the other side of the Danube. Then the Russians moved in, taking one section after another, house by house. Our house is on the edge of the city. People in the city expected the worst. Here was a victorious army that would take revenge, that would rape its way to the center of the city. When the Russians approached and pounded on the door with their guns, father opened it and stood before them in a way they could not have expected. He pushed aside their rifles and gestured that they should come in. It was a gesture of hospitality. Of course a soldier’s attitude at such a moment is one of suspicion. He has seen six years of war and wants to survive. He is ready to shoot before he is shot. But they saw in my father’s gesture that perhaps their fear was not necessary. They looked in the house to see if it was a trap. They found it wasn’t. My father could see that they were relieved. They took off their rifles. And then my father called the others up from the basement. He was able to create an atmosphere of welcome, of trust, of love, of belonging. The soldiers could see how thin and hungry we were—the city had been cut off for quite some time. The soldiers shared their own food with our family and guests.

How different from what people usually do when they think they are in danger!

People often tell me that when you are attacked, you have to defend yourself. I agree, but then I point out that there are different ways to do that. I tell the story about what my father did. Without violence, without hatred, my father was able to protect everyone in the house. If he had used a weapon, the women in the house might have been raped and everyone killed. If my father had been armed, the Russian soldiers would have been affirmed in their fears. Instead, out of his inner strength and calm, he was able to affirm their humanity and to take them out of the terrible way of war. Nobody is an angel, and often war brings out the worst in people. My father’s approach made it more likely to bring out the best—but of course you can never know beforehand what will happen. Those soldiers might have acted violently no matter what my father did. Still, when you believe in the strength of truth and love, you must respond in this way no matter what the danger is. You have to prefer to be killed yourself rather than to kill another.

Another part of that story had to do with my brother, Richard, and the Russian icon that was on our wall. From the time Richard was six or seven, he had a great love of Russian culture and started to learn Russian when he was eight. He wanted to work for a closer unity between Christians of East and West. He was drafted and sent to the front in Russia. For Richard this was deadly. How could he fight against the Russians, whom he loved and whose language he knew? So he decided to desert. It was in 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad was over. The German retreat was underway. We don’t know how he was killed, whether he was shot for his desertion or if he was killed by partisans. He was 19 when he died. Before his death he managed to save a small icon of Mary and Jesus from a burning Russian house. It was sent to our home, and we hung it on the wall. When the Russian soldiers left that day, one of them stayed behind and prayed before the icon, bowing and crossing himself.

Your brother’s interests continue in you.

We were very close. I remember he used to say, “I will go and work for unity, and you will help me!” Later on, I was able to work for unity.

What came next for you?

I was still at the farm in Germany where we saw the last part of the German army break down. We lived between Salzburg and Munich where troops were passing in their retreat. It was the region of the last fighting. I remember American tanks on one side of us and German troops on the other. The German troops came out with the white flag, but the Americans thought it was a trick. They looked at everything with suspicion. I remember there was a boy on a neighboring farm who had been discharged from the army because of an injury but the Americans suspected him. They took him, and me because I was the only one who spoke English and so I became their translator. I was 14 or 15. An American officer accused him of having hidden weapons and he said, “Unless you give the weapons to us, I will shoot you.” I had to translate this to him! It was a long interrogation. Finally we were taken to a wood. They said that this was where they would shoot him, but in the end they released him. I succeeded in explaining to the officer the story of the boy. I remember that there was also an enlisted man, a Negro who was the officer’s driver. He must have noticed how upset I was, my fear about what was going to happen. The next day he came to our farm and gave me two bottles of wine!

Did you return to Vienna immediately after the American occupation began?

No. The Austrian frontier was reestablished so I had to wait from May until October until a transport of repatriated Austrian children was allowed. Finally I got home, went back to school, graduated high school in 1948, and went to the university. That is the part of your life when the child’s face is replaced by the adult face, and you have to undergo some real challenges. Together with many other young people, I was questioning the very sense of my life—because of all the destructive things I had witnessed. We had lived with death and a sense of complete powerlessness, just waiting for the bomb to fall which will kill you. This life-and-death struggle with the most fundamental questions is something that marks you for the rest of your life. It pointed me in the direction of active nonviolence and the work we have been doing within the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

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