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Christian Hero: Magdalene Scholl

alec vanderboom

Scholl monument

Magdalene Scholl was an extraordinary mother of five who lived in Munich, Germany during WWII. Two of her children, Sophie Scholl (age 21) and Hans Scholl (age 23), were executed by the Nazis on the same day, February 22, 1943, for leading a non-violent student resistance group. “The White Rose” passed out six illegal leaflets that urged University of Munich students (most of the them on study breaks from their obligation to serve as officers in the German army) to withdraw from the Nazi party and oppose Hitler. The Nazi’s restrictions on free speech were so great during this time period that this tiny collection of leaflets is one of the only examples of internal dissent ever voice against Hitler during the entire war.

A medical student, Hans Scholl, founded the White Rose after becoming disillusioned during his service as a German army medic. Hans saw first hand the horror of the Jewish Ghetto in Poland. He was certain that once the German people knew the truth about the Nazi party that they would rise up in revolt against it.

Full of angst in 1943, Hans wrote a passionate appeal for German citizens to stand up against Hitler. He wrote the first four leaflets (or essays) with the help of his friend, Alexander Schmorell (a devoted Russian Orthodox). The two printed and passed out the leaflets in secrete. Han and Alex’s essays are wonderfully earnest and sensitive appeals to conscious, filled with quotes by Goethe, Aristotle, Ecclesiastes, and Lao-Tzu. Here is a brief quote:

“I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.” From Leaflet IV.

To read all six leaflets in their entirety go to to

As a responsible older brother, Hans kept his sister, Sophie, in the dark about the White Rose, not wishing to expose her to danger. Sophie sensed something was up and demanded that Hans tell her everything. Once she learned of their secrete mission she insisted on joining the group. As the only female member, she was incredibly useful because she was the least likely to arise suspicion. Sophie even helped get a contraband copying machine to expand the printing process.

On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie skipped class to stock the hallways with the sixth leaflet written by their beloved philosophy professor, Professor Huber. When the lectures were finished, some students paused to pick up the illegal leaflets on their way to lunch. After the storm of students passed, however, Hans and Sophie saw that many leaflets remained. Not wanting their hard work to be in vain, they decided to throw the remaining leaflets onto the floor of the main hallway. The two siblings carried the leaflets up to the third floor and Sophie flung them off the railing. A janitor saw the students and reported the incident to the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie were immediately arrested

On February 22, at 8 AM, the siblings were brought to trial for treason and faced the death penalty. (These events are faithfully captured on the film “Sophie Scholl: Final Days” available on Netflix.) Both siblings were incredibly brave and levelheaded. They insisted on taking the full blame of the group’s activities on themselves. The only time Sophie cried was in her cell when she realized that through hand-writing analysis the Gestapo traced and arrested a third member of the group. Christoph Probst was a beloved friend and a father of three children.

Sophie and Hans parents, Magdalene and Robert Scholl, reached the trial in Munich at 12:00 PM. The guards at the courtroom tried to bar their entrance. “But I’m the mother of two of the accused”, Magdalene cried. “Then you should have raised your children better!” was the Nazi guards reply.

Robert broke into the courtroom but was immediately tossed out after trying to intercede as a defense witness for his children. At 12:40, the Judge, who was infuriated that these children from “good German families and schools” had dared to oppose the Nazi Party sentence them to death. Robert and Magdalene then raced to various administrations trying to get a stay of execution. By 2:00 PM a friend in official office warned that it was hopeless and urged them to make a final visit immediately with their children.

This excerpt is from a first-hand account of Magdalene’s last visit with her daughter

“Then a woman prison guard brought in Sophie. . . . Her mother tentatively offered her some candy, which Hans had declined. “Gladly,” said Sophie, taking it. “After all, I haven't had any lunch!” She, too, looked somehow smaller, as if drawn together, but her face was clear and her smile was fresh and unforced, with something in it that her parents read as triumph. “Sophie, Sophie,” her mother murmured, as if to herself. “To think you'll never be coming through the door again!” Sophie's smile was gentle. “Ah, Mother,” she said. “Those few little years. . . .” Sophie Scholl looked at her parents and was strong in her pride and certainty. “We took everything upon ourselves,” she said. “What we did will cause waves.” Her mother spoke again: “Sophie,” she said softly, “Remember Jesus.” “Yes,” replied Sophie earnestly, almost commandingly, “but you, too.” She left them, her parents, Robert and Magdalene Scholl, with her face still lit by the smile they loved so well and would never see again. She was perfectly composed as she was led away. Robert Mohr [a Gestapo official], who had come out to the prison on business of his own, saw her in her cell immediately afterwards, and she was crying. It was the first time Robert Mohr had seen her in tears, and she apologized. “I have just said good-bye to my parents,” she said. “You understand . . .,” She had not cried before her parents. For them she had smiled.”
-taken from Jewish Holocaust archives at

This passage has caused a lump in my throat all week. “Remember Jesus.” “Yes, but you, too.” The last words between a mother and beloved daughter. Sophie would be executed by guillotine in front of her brother at 6:00 PM that night. The Gestapo guards were shocked at her calm demeanor. “Not a hair on her head turned” as she faced the gullitonine. Her final words were “God, you are my refuge into eternity.” Her friend, the father of three little children, Christoph was baptized as a Catholic just before his death by the priest that offered Sophie and Hans their last confession. He told the priest “now I can die with joy.” Hans had to watch a sister and friend die. His last words were “Long live freedom!”

We know so much about the type of mother Magdalene was from her actions. “Remember Jesus.” And her daughter offers her the same consolation. She raised her children to love each other and to be so connected to the Holy Spirit, that they alone, seemed to figure out that opposing Hitler- in this peaceful, non-violent way, was worth the risk. Times had changed so radically for Magdalene. When her son Hans was born, her husband was a celebrated mayor and the town they lived in fired a 21 gun salute in honor of his birth. Now the German state had just murdered her two children after a fake trial. How did she survive after that loss?

She survived using the same sacraments that I use as a mother. The Eucharist. The Stations of the Cross. Her children were united with the unfair condemnation of Jesus himself and suffered the same penalty.

Did their sacrifice seem worth it to her? When I first heard of this story in the National Holocaust museum I was a college student and felt thrilled about the siblings bravery. Rereading their words as a writer, I’m touched. As a mother, I’m also baffled. Suddenly the pain is so much more real. If I were visiting Alexei in the prison cell it would probably be less “Remember Jesus,” and more anxiety: “Why are you here? Why did you drag your little sister into this? Was a few words thrown from a school railing, worth it?’

At the time, Sophie was convinced that her death would cause the students to rise up and end the war. That didn’t happen. The war dragged on for two more years. Sophie and Hans’ younger brother died in Russia while serving the German army. The rest of the family was imprisoned until the Allies freed them in 1945. (Including older sister Ingrid, who heard about the White Rose and refused to join her siblings because that was such a dangerous idea!)

When we make the conscious effort to pass on the faith to our children all we can know for certain is that a strong Catholic faith insures “a good death.” We can hope this means a peaceful death at age 95 while holding the hands of loving children and grandchildren. But a “good death” can mean dying at age 21 at the hands of an evil tyrant. Sophie died in front of her brother and newly baptized friend. She had the graces of the sacrament of the sick imparted heroic virtue. I’m sure that her mother, Magdalene, played a large part of her children’s strong Catholic faith.

The Mass Reading from August 27, which we celebrated in the Columbus Cathedral, is a fitting conclusion.

The Reading is about the beheading of John the Baptist. Mark 6:17-29

“Since St. John the Baptist’s martyrdom to the present times, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and persecution at the hands of violent people. The blood of martyrs throughout the age’s bare witness to this fact. Their testimony to the truth, teachings and challenges of the gospel and their willingness to suffer and die for their faith prove victory rather than defeat for the kingdom of God. Through Christ’s victory on the cross they obtain the glorious crown of victory and everlasting life with Jesus Christ. What give us the power, boldness, and courage to witness to Jesus Christ and to the truth of the gospel? The Holy Spirit fills us with courage, love, and boldness to make Jesus Christ known and loved, She should never be fearful of those who oppose the gospel, those who challenge the teachings of Jesus Christ, because the love of Jesus Christ is stronger than fear and death itself. His love conquers all, even our fears and timidity in the face of opposition and persecution. We can trust in his grace and help at all times. Are you ready to make Christ known and loved, to stand up against the fad and trends of our society for what is right, true, and good according to Jesus Christ, and if necessary to suffer for his sake and the sake of the gospel? “

Handout from the Columbus Cathedral, Adapted form Irish Jesuits’ Sacred space

*In an ironic "vengence in mine, sayth the Lord", the Judge who treated Sophie and Hans so cruelly was killed on the bench by an Allied bomb attack. Eventually the air-raid sirens were heard. Everyone made it out of the courtroom. However, the Judge remembered that he had left out an important file and returned to his bench. He was killed while sitting at the bench by a Allied bomb.

Update: 9/22/07

My apologies for being a poor historian. Turns out that calling Sophie a Catholic, is a bit of a stretch. Her sister, Inge Scholl, described her siblings as being on the brink of becoming Catholic. Since Inge is a Catholic convert herself, that report could be a bit biased. Their mother was certainly not Catholic. I couldn't get a firm read on whether the priest that heard their final confession was a Catholic. Some sources said yes. However, the Scholl movie, which was otherwise extremely accurate showed the last priest as being Lutheran.

The real find during my "is she a Catholic or not?" web search, is this amazing find. A potential Catholic Saint was the person who most likely the one who inspired Sophie Scholl's actions. Sophie attended a service of Bishop Von Galen, nicknamed "the Lion of Munster." He directly challenged the Natzi's on their program of exterminating the mentally ill. Sophie had worked with mentally ill children during her work in "kinder care." She quotes Von Galen during her fiery defiance speech in the midst of her interragation.