Choosing Life: an interview with Hildegard Goss-Mayr

Hildegard Goss-Mayr

In nominating Hildegard Goss-Mayr and Jean Goss for the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire wrote: “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.”

A book-length conversation with them by Gerard Houver, Nonviolence: c’est la vie, first published in France, has since appeared in Italy, Germany, Austria, Brazil and England (A Nonviolent Lifestyle: Conversations with Jean & Hildegard Goss-Mayr). A biography of Hildegard Goos-Mayr, Marked for Life by Richard Deats, has been published by New City Press.

I taped the following interview with Hildegard in 1988 at the headquarters of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in Alkmaar, Holland. We discussed her family background and certain crucial early experiences that contributed to the formation of her values.

–Jim Forest

note: Jean Goss died in 1991.

Hildegard, please tell me about your parents.

My father, Kasper Mayr, was born in 1892 in a village not far from Saltzburg 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 his studies. Father was one of ten children. When he was ten he expressed his desire to study. At that time if you came from a village and you wanted to study, it was either to be a medical doctor or to become a priest. For my father it was the latter. After secondary school he began theological studies in the diocesan seminary. By the time the First World War broke out, he had done the philosophical section. He was drafted and was eventually sent to the front near Verdun where hundreds of thousands died in the trenches. My father 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 to him. It led him to realize that war was unacceptable for a Christian. It was while he was in prison that he met Father Max Josef Metzger, who was one of the first Christian ecumenists on the Catholic side.

After his release, my father went to Graz, in the southeast of 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 gave up the idea of returning to the seminary. He decided to marry and to devote his life to peace work. He met my mother and they married in 1923.

Until 1924 or ’25, 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. It was out of this contact that he was appointed to the leading team of IFOR.

Our family was in London from 1925 to ’28. At that time there were few Catholics in IFOR, but one of the striking things about IFOR from the very beginning was that 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 we must work together. It was this perspective that 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, mainly Anglicans and Quakers, had gone through a radical change and were willing to give in every way, including financially, 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 — by then there were three children! Another leading figure in IFOR was Muriel Lester. She was also had been quite well off but had put everything they had at the disposal of this new movement.

What were the priorities of IFOR in those first years?

Even then one of them was East-West relations. At that time there was the strife between Germany and Poland. With the IFOR movement it was realized that, unless there was a reconciliation between these two countries, the conflict here could become the starting point of a new war. It was because of this that, in 1928, two years before I was born, that IFOR moved its headquarters to Vienna. IFOR moved there so that it could more easily direct much of its work towards the other eastern European countries. There was a leadership team. My father was one of them and Donald Grant was another. 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 Gadansk which we felt would greatly reduce tension in the region. My father established contact with Cardinal Pacelli, then the Papal Nucio 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 then the effects of the Depression had grave consequences for IFOR. In 1934 it was necessary to close the Vienna office. It was in 1933 that Hitler came to power in Germany. That same year my father was stopped in Germany and the documents he had 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?

To a very small office in Paris. Henri Roser was appointed 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 a very unstable time in Austria. The monarchy was discontinued in 1919. The empire was gone and Austria was just a small country with a big capitol. 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. Finally, 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 the things we heard being discussed in our home.

Between the Austrian union with Germany and the end of the war, did you family have difficulties?

In that time, we were among those who were persecuted. Many friends died in concentration camps. It is really astonishing that father wasn’t one of these. I can 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.” Really, he was giving us a theological formation. There were always people in our house. I think my father was really a stronghold to them, affirming everyone who stood against Hitler. It was a moral affirmation. But he also insisted that resistance was not enough. He said that in a situation where everything in 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 is 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 unless we live it, it cannot come into existence. 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 very hard with this, because in fact there was a great deal of bitterness within us. I can 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 and 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 actually see Hitler?

Hitler came the last time to Vienna when I was 12. All the students of the city were brought out to one of the main roads to welcome him and I was one of those in that big crowd. And there I was, on my own. Then 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 to your family at the end of the war, when the Russians entered Vienna?

I left Vienna in September 1944. All the schools were evacuated. I went to the farm of my uncle. It was near a camp for sick war prisoners. They came out to work and I saw them. I was able to give them the news that I had heard over the BBC.

My father and mother, along with one of my sisters and some friends who had sought refuge in our home, were still in Vienna when the Russians took over. In April, 1945, there was a ten-day siege — German soldiers inside the city, the 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 he 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 against 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 as if they were guests. 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 with our family and guests from their own food. They could see how thin and hungry we were — the city had been cut off for quite some time.

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, he could not have done it. They might have been raped and even 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 had when he was eight he had started to learn Russian. He wanted to work for a closer unity between Christians of East and West. But when he was 19, he was drafted, and they sent him 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? It was in 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad was over. The German retreat was under way. Briefly after his arrival at the front he was wounded and a little later killed. 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 it was 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 have been able to work for unity.

What came next for you?

I was still at the farm in Germany where we experienced the breakdown of the last part of the German army. Our family farm was between Saltzburg and Munich, in the area where the troops were passing in their retreat. We were in the region of the last fighting of the war. I remember the American tanks one side of us, and German troops in the other — and then the German troops coming out with the white flag, but the Americans afraid 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 military 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, though I was only 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, and finally we were taken to a wood and they said that this was where they would shoot him. In the end they released him. I was finally able to explain 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. So 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 re-established so I had to wait from May until October until a transport of repatriated Austrian children was allowed. But finally I got home, went back to school, graduated high school in 1948, 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 been witnessed. We had lived with death and a sense of complete powerlessness, just waiting for the bomb to fall which will kill you. This is something that marks you for the rest of your life.

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September 9, 1988
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