The story of Renee Szanto-Felbermann, a Hungarian journalist raised in Germany and the first Hungarian Baha’i, is a heroic real-life tale of deep spiritual resistance to evil.
Szanto-Felbermann, living in Budapest, survived World War II but encountered many instances of oppression and near-death experiences, as enumerated in her memoir Rebirth.
During the war, Szanto-Felbermann narrowly avoided deportation and death marches to concentration camps multiple times, as many of her friends and family suffered those tragic fates.
Szanto-Felbermann described one such interaction with German SS officers in extensive detail in her memoir. Two German SS officers, inspecting her home, found her box of Baha’i prayer books and materials. With guns held to her head, they read some of the passages from the writings of Baha’u’llah, including this one:
They that are intoxicated by self-conceit have interposed themselves between it and the Divine and Infallible Physician. Witness how they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices.
The SS officer deemed passages like this “very suspicious.” Outraged, one of the SS officers told her, “In the morning you will be shot and thrown into the Danube, but first, the Gestapo will come and investigate.” He also ordered her elderly mother and young child to be shot alongside her.
Szanto-Felbermann, her mother, and her child fled their home undetected that night, but her dangerous and frightening encounter with the SS officers exemplifies the violent treatment Baha’is from Jewish families faced under the Nazi regime.
Lidia Zamenhof and Renee Szanto-Felbermann both underwent horrific persecution and oppression at the hands of the Nazis. While they had two different personal approaches to the terror and abuse they faced, with Zamenhof refusing to escape and Szanto-Felbermann attempting to conceal herself and her family, the stories of both women show an unwavering commitment to their faith and beliefs, just as Shoghi Effendi encouraged in his letters to the German Baha’is in the years prior to the outbreak of World War II.
In the days following World War II’s end, American Baha’i soldiers attempted to find and help reorganize the surviving German Baha’is, especially in Stuttgart. John C. Eichenauer, a Baha’i medic in the United States Army, arrived in Germany in 1945 and began driving through Stuttgart, asking strangers if they knew the Baha’i Faith. He eventually found the surviving Baha’i community in Stuttgart, consisting of about twenty members, and informed them of Baha’i-related news from around the world during the war, which they had missed due to the Nazis’ banning of the Faith.
After meeting with the remaining Baha’is in Stuttgart, Eichenhauer and two other American Baha’is, Bruce Davison and Henry Jarvis, stationed in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, searched for and found about one hundred and fifty Baha’is living in the American Zone. Eichenhauer worked tirelessly to establish the Baha’i Faith as a recognized religious community in the American Zone and ensured that they could resume their activities regarding the Faith.
Baha’is living in America organized support efforts, sent money, food, and literature, and offered aid in rebuilding the Baha’i National and Local Spiritual Assembly structures. In April of 1947, the Baha’is of Germany held their first national conference since Himmler’s proclamation in 1937, marking the removal of more than a decade of oppression and the establishment of a return to normalcy.
However, this freedom would not last long in the eastern part of Germany, as the newly-formed communist German Democratic Republic banned all Baha’i activities again in 1948. Baha’i activities were encouraged to continue in the Western Zone, under the new government now known as West Germany, where the building of a Baha’i House of Worship took place in Frankfurt in 1964. The ban on the Faith in the GDR would last for the entirety of the GDR, with the Faith not being officially recognized by the government until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. During this time, the Baha’is of Germany distributed Baha’u’llah’s messages of peace and unity throughout Eastern Europe.
The Baha’is in Nazi Germany exhibited incredible strength and uncompromising loyalty to their Faith. The Baha’i teachings and the guidance sent from Shoghi Effendi encouraged their pursuit of peace and a unified humanity, even when confronted with destruction, violence, and death. The Nazis’ legacy of mistreatment of the Baha’is has lingered in some places, but today the Baha’i Faith is active and thriving in Germany, hosting Baha’i international conferences, publishing Baha’i books and materials, and continuing to develop the House of Worship in Frankfurt. While the Nazis destroyed many possessions and documents during the war, the Baha’is of Germany have worked tirelessly to recover anything related to their history and to preserve the stories of the courageous Baha’is who lived in or helped those living in Nazi Germany.