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[Chalice] What it Means to Remember Norbert Čapek [Chalice]

Presented April 18, 2010, by our minister, the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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Many UU congregations in America today may be vaguely familiar with the name Norbert Čapek. We may know he is the creator and spiritual father of a spring ritual some UU congregations do called the flower communion. We may know he wrote hymns that are in our hymn book. We may know that he was the minister of a Unitarian church in Prague and that he ended up in the Nazi concentration camp named Dachau where he died. For most UUs that's about all we know, if we know even that.

This basic knowledge leads us, or should lead us, to ask some basic questions, and one thing we want to do this morning is address these basic questions in order to understand Norbert Čapek and why we should remember him and what we are remembering when we remember Norbert Čapek. These basic questions are pretty obvious ones and spring naturally from our minimal knowledge of this Unitarian minister who became a victim of Nazi persecution: Who was Norbert Čapek? Was he an American? How did he get to be a Unitarian minister? How did there come to be a Unitarian Church in Prague and what was this church like? How did the minister of this church, Norbert Čapek, end up in Dachau? Why was he sent there and what happened to him there?

Norbert Čapek was born as an ethnic Czech in 1870 in southern Bohemia. This was before there was an independent Czechoslovakia and so he was born as a native Czech into the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire, at that time ruled from Vienna by the last Hapsburg emperor, Franz Joseph. His parents baptized Čapek as a Roman Catholic, but his father had Protestant roots and Čapek's own Catholicism didn't last very long, partly because he was mistreated as a boy by parish priests. By the time he was 18 Norbert Čapek had converted to Protestantism and had become not only a Baptist but a Baptist missionary. Much later, when he wrote his autobiography, he described this as his evangelical period and said that at the time what moved him most was this question: "How can people who believe that salvation is assured to all those who accept that Jesus died for their sins also claim that those who do not so believe are damned to eternal hell, and yet simultaneously be indifferent toward the suffering of thousands of people without trying to bring them the good news of the love and mercy they claim could redeem such suffering" (Henry, p. 30). From 1888 to 1915 Čapek is a Baptist missionary and minister of various churches in Budapest, Bratislava, in Moravia and is actively involved in spreading evangelical Baptist Christianity to the Ukraine and Russia. Apparently during this time he is also becoming more liberal in his religious views and begins to doubt whether evangelical Christianity can be the unifying spiritual force the modern world needs. He attends the International Religious Congress in Berlin in 1910 and is deeply impressed with this gathering of various faith communities from all around the world. He is aware at the same time that the Baptist faith he is still preaching at that time would condemn all these interesting people from various faiths to hell. By 1915 the Baptists in Moravia are examining him and his preaching for heresy and he decides to take a position as a Baptist minister in Newark, New Jersey, a church with many Baptist and Slovak immigrants. His liberal slide away from evangelical Baptism continues and in 1919 he and his wife attend and join a Unitarian church in East Orange, New Jersey.

1919. That was also the first year without W.W. I, the year that saw the final demise of the gigantic, repressive, antiquated, Catholic Hapsburg Empire that was called in the last phases of its long existence the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was the time of revolution and new nations and long repressed ethnicities reaching out for recognition as independent nations. This is the time when Czechoslovakia and Romania and Lithuania and Poland and several other new nations either appeared or reappeared on the map of Europe. Čapek wrote about himself and about this time of great excitement for his native land in this way: "I cannot be a Baptist anymore, even in compromise. The fire of new worlds, new desires, is burning in me. I feel the revolutions and upheavals people are starting are taking place in me" (p. 112).

Of all the new, revolutionary countries on the European map, none was more revolutionary spiritually and religiously than Czechoslovakia. Nearly all of the religious revolution was happening in the Czech part of Czechoslavakia. The Slovaks remained staunchly Catholic, while the Czechs after independence left the Roman Catholic Church en masse to found their own Czechoslovak Church. Shortly after independence, nearly a million Czechs left the Catholic Church. Čapek knew this new Czech democracy needed a new spiritual foundation and a new church, one that would unite people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, not divide them against one another. He yearned to go back home and start a Unitarian movement in Prague. He sought and received aid from the AUA, the American Unitarian Association, to return to Prague and start a Unitarian community there. The Čapeks arrived back in Prague in July of 1921.

Less than a year later Čapek begins to hold Unitarian services in various places in Prague and to also conduct a Sunday School for children. In 1924 the Unitarian community in Prague participates for the first time in a ritual called the flower communion. Everyone brings a flower with them, puts it in a common vase and then each person takes a new flower back home with them. Čapek explained the flower communion ritual in this way: "Each person is to take one flower just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from or who it represents, to confess that we accept each other as brothers and sisters, without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everyone as our friend who is a human and wants to be good" (p. 144). In 1924 the Prague Unitarian community settled on a permanent residence in Prague, a medieval palace just off the Charles Bridge going to the Old Town. The building is still there and still reads Unitaria. It's hard to miss as you walk along and enjoy one of the most beautiful walks in Europe, across the Charles Bridge toward the Old Town Square.

The Unitarian Church in Prague quickly grew and attracted new families. By 1924 the Sunday school of the church had to serve and educate 200 children. Services were held on Sunday morning and again on Tuesday evening. And this main Unitarian church in central Prague was only part of the Unitarian presence in the new Czechoslovakia. Čapek, ever the missionary, founded 6 Unitarian fellowships in other major cities in Czechoslovakia. All were flourishing and were spiritually guided by Norbert Čapek. Čapek's main problems in the 20s and early to mid 30s were financial. He struggled to pay for renovations to the building just off the Charles Bridge and to repay the AUA or the mortgage.

Aside from these serious financial problems, the history of the Unitarian movement in the new Czechoslovakia is a happy one up until the Nazi occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. Neville Chamberlain, who was himself a Unitarian, assured Germany that he wouldn't start a war over a far away country. The president of Czechoslovakia, Benes, chose not to fight the hopeless war against the German military machine, surrendered, and then fled to London for the remainder of W. W. II. The Germans, when they occupied Czechoslovakia and turned it into a German protectorate, wanted the Czechs to be dominated and compliant. The Germans did not shut down Czech churches and in fact the main church in Prague and the 6 fellowships continued to operate fairly normally for the first 2 years of German occupation, though all services were monitored by the Gestapo.

Ironically, what might have led to Čapek's downfall was a gift from the Board of Trustees of his own church. In June of 1940 the church had a big celebration of Čapek's 70th birthday and the board gave him a short wave radio. The Nazis had declared that listening to foreign news broadcasts was illegal but Čapek once he had this radio listened to the BBC regularly. In March of 1941 Gestapo agents broke into the Čapek apartment in Prague and found the minister and one of his daughters listening to the BBC and arrested both of them. Čapek was in prison in Czechoslavakia and then in the German city of Dresden. Čapek was eventually put on trial in an SS court in Dresden accused both of treason for inciting the Czechs to rebel against their German occupiers in his sermons and for listening to foreign radio broadcasts. The SS court actually found him not guilty of the treason charge. "The accused did not, after all, through his sermons incite his listeners to treasonable acts," was the ruling of the Court (p. 255). The court did find him guilty of listening to foreign broadcasts and gave him a year sentence with time served, meaning that his sentence was nearly up since by this time he had been in Nazi prisons for 11 months.

The Čapek family back in Prague and the Unitarian church in Prague were obviously elated at this verdict and were excited at the prospect of having Čapek back with them soon. This is probably what would have happened, Čapek would have returned back to his family and to his ministerial duties in his church had not history intervened. The Czech government in exile in London hatched a plan to assassinate the new and very ruthless German overseer of Czechoslovakia, the SS Ubergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, a very high ranking Nazi SS officer who had been directing the program of mass shooting of Jews and very involved in the establishment of the death camps in Poland, Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz, which were at that point in the spring of 42 just beginning to operate. The Benes government in exile parachuted in a small unit into Czechoslovakia a small unit of Czech special forces to kill Heydrich. Heydrick just happened to share my love for convertibles and that is exactly how the Czech special forces were able to get to him. Every day Heydrich would be driven in his open car from his villa to the castle in Prague, and on May 27th of 1942 the Czech forces threw a bomb into his car and blew him up.

The German response to this assassination was brutal. They killed entire towns of Czech civilians, like the unfortunately famous village of Lidice, where all the men of the village were killed and all the women taken off to concentration and extermination camps. The Germans killed an estimated 40 to 50,000 Czechs in revenge for this assassination. In this climate, the Dresden court's not guilty verdict came back to Gestapo headquarters in Prague, and the Gestapo officer wrote across the court's report on Norbert Čapek: "Send this prisoner to Dachau; his return is unwanted."

This is how Čapek ends up in Dachau, arriving there on July 5, 1942. Dachau of course is just outside of Munich and was the first concentration camp set up by the Nazis in 1933 for political opponents of the regime. By 1942 Dachau is a very different place. The most salient facts about Čapek arriving in Dachau in July of 1942 are that in 1942 Čapek is 72 years old and Dachau is severely overcrowded. There is almost no chance than an older man can survive the hard labor of Dachau very long and certainly not the almost 3 years until it was liberated. Čapek was in Dachau for just 14 weeks. He was submitted to endless hard labor, with the days for the prisoners beginning at 4:00 AM and ending by standing at roll call, often for more than a hour, until often after 8 PM. Not much is known about his time in Dachau. We know he was in barracks 28, the barracks for non-German clergy. We have this account of what Čapek was like while in Dachau from Father Celestine, a Catholic monk who was also in barracks 28: p. 268

Whatever his exact situation while in Dachau, Čapek, this 72 year-old minister and intellectual, was within 14 weeks physically destroyed, in the language of the camps, kaput. The records at Dachau show that on October 12th he was sent on an invalid transport to Castle Hartheim near Linz, Austria. Castle Hartheim was one of 6 large hospitals or institutions the Nazis, starting in 1939, had turned into killing centers for mentally and physically handicapped people. It was at these large institutions that the Nazis first employed the method of closing people in large shower rooms and killing them by poison gas. By October of 1942 they had already killed by poison gas nearly all of the handicapped population deemed to be "life unworthy of life" in Germany and Austria. Norbert Čapek died this way as well, probably with his entire invalid transport and probably as soon as they arrived at Castle Hartheim.

This is how a Unitarian minister became a victim of Nazism, became simply one body out of millions of bodies that were physically destroyed through work, starvation, and eventual gassing and cremation. To reduce human beings simply to physical bodies was the goal of Nazi policy toward those they deemed racially inferior. As the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote about Nazi philosophy back in 1934 when it was first consolidating power in Germany, Nazism is devotion to a new conception of the human person, a biological conception. What the Nazis insist is that a person is not about culture, development, spirituality. The Nazis oppose this higher view of the person that comes from Greek philosophy, Judaism, Christiianity and continues through modern liberalism with a counter truth, that what people are is wholly determined by their biology, by their physical body. People's identities are chained to their bodies, and the entire spiritual adventure of the person is to accept and live out this biological destiny.

This is the Nazi view of the person of Norbert Čapek and of millions of other human beings who were reduced by the Nazis to mere biological life. This Nazi biological view of the human person Čapek opposed with his whole life. He believed that whatever your background, your ethnicity, your class, your gender, your race, you can grow spiritually and develop yourself and the live from the divine life within you. This spiritual life of the person will then enable you to love everyone and love the world in all its diversity. Even in tragic situations and physical calamities, Čapek said, the mind and spirit can transcend the limitations of the body. Even in such situations, Čapek wrote, " everything will calm down, thoughts seem to stop, and the spiritual cathedral of a great silence will open before one's mind. The body appears to have a spiritual substance and spreads to infinity-and calm quiet, God's peace, sacred silence, are everywhere. . . "

©2010 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob 2010. What it Means to Remember Norbert Čapek, /talks/20100418.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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