When a Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic Freed a Jew from a Concentration Camp: Reflections on an Interfaith Model of Resistance and Faith Amidst Adversity
by Usama Malik, 2022 Seminary Fellow
This reflection is indebted to the research and writing of Marc David Baer, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specifically his article “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus.”1 For a more in-depth reading and research into the life of Hugo Marcus, as well as the dynamics, organization, and complexities of Muslims in Germany, particularly during Nazi rule, and relevant implications for interfaith relations, please refer to the aforementioned article as well as Baer’s book, German, Jew, Muslim, Gay: The Life and Times of Hugo Marcus.
An Imam, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant layperson walk into a Nazi concentration camp to negotiate the release of a Jewish convert to Islam—and succeed. Though this sounds entirely too good (or far-fetched) to be true, this was a real experience for Hugo Marcus, a Jewish convert to Islam detained in Barrack 18 at the Sachsenhausen/Oranienburg concentration camp, as well for his advocates, Imam Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, Father Georg of the Jesuit order, and Joachim Ungnad of the Confessing Church at the gates of the camp. Each of these individuals of different faith traditions and backgrounds became acquainted by attending various educational events and interfaith discussions at the Berlin Mosque.2 Yet, in their coming together in such a moment, we see that interreligious dialogue was not—nor is now—the end point of such cross-religious relationships, but rather the beginning of what can be transformative forces and movements in causes of justice and service to humanity.
As part of the 2022 FASPE program this past summer, I was humbled to walk onto the grounds of the very same Sachsenhausen camp where so many languished and died. While walking along its many paths, I came across a most inauspicious barrack marker at an inner corner of the camp: BARACKE 18. Here, Hugo Marcus was imprisoned. It was in this place where differences in faith led a group of individuals to coalesce, uniting in defense of the life of a fellow human being branded “other.”
This experience, seeing this place up close, led me to realize the value of Marcus’ story for interreligious work. In touching upon the singular life and faith journey of Hugo Marcus, as well as the responses by his community and fellow Muslims toward his situation, I hope, then, that we will discover lessons about strength in interfaith cooperation and faith-based activism relevant today. Additionally, we can see that despite the horror, an event like the negotiation at Sachsenhausen means, not only in that moment, but particularly for persons of faith in the 21st century oftentimes, finding ourselves unsure of the impact and power of our interconfessional alliances and coalitions. Furthermore, the events, reactions, and responses leading up to this moment—particularly those from various Muslim individuals and organizations—have implications for a world marred by sectarian and inter/intra-faith misconceptions and conflicts. By attending to the complicated nature of that time for all involved, the Sachsenhausen encounter offers hope not only for redemption, but for action in the face of what may seem like insurmountable fear.
“And hold firmly to the rope of God all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of God upon you—when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, siblings.”3
A picture of the site of Barrack 18 at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, where Hugo Marcus was held during his imprisonment in 1938. Marcus was imprisoned during the November Pogroms of that year, also known as Kristallnacht, but was released shortly afterward in mid- November. Marcus’ imprisonment, as well as that of thousands of others, served as a warning from the Nazi regime of what would await Jews should they choose to remain in Germany. Photo credit: Usama Malik.
Dr. Hugo Marcus: A Life on the Margins
The story of Hugo Marcus is defined by more than just that one moment. As a highly educated, gay, Jewish-born German and convert to Islam through the Lahore Ahmadiyya mission, Marcus’ intersectional identity only adds to not just the complexity of his life and the lessons we can take from it. It would, therefore, be a disservice not only to the memory of Marcus, but also to the lasting and significant implications for interfaith coalition building to not provide a brief insight into who this man, for whom three persons of faith risked their lives, was.
Hugo Marcus was born to a German Jewish industrialist in 1880, moving to Berlin in the early 20th century for higher education, where he also become involved in numerous gay rights initiatives. Marcus further added to his already complex identity by converting to Islam and adopting the name Hamid. In 1923, while still a doctoral student, Marcus was hired by the Ahmadi Muslim community in Berlin as editor of all of its German-language publications. After two years in this role, Marcus converted to Islam in 1925. The Ahmadi Community of Berlin constructed the first mosque in Berlin, known as the Berlin Mosque, between 1923-1926 in Wilmersdorf. Despite his conversion to Islam, Marcus maintained ties to the Jewish community, as well as with his friends working for gay rights. Marcus was the chief editor and contributor to the Berlin Mosque’s primary magazine, the Moslemische Revue, as well as the editor for the Ahmadi German Qur’an translation and commentary which was published in 1939. He later became the chairman of the associated German Muslim Society from 1930 to 1935 and was a prominent lecturer during various programs held at the mosque that were open to the public. Foremost of these were “Islam Evenings,” which served not only as eclectic educational spaces for attendees but would later fatefully serve as the intersection point for the very same Imam, Catholic priest, and Protestant layperson who would advocate for Marcus’ release. The community of Muslims at the Berlin Mosque and the Ahmadi Mission to Berlin stressed interreligious tolerance, the unity of humanity, and the commonality of the God of Abraham. In this way, the community educated many and won some converts, especially from the local Jewish community.4 Despite his conversion to Islam, Marcus maintained ties to his former faith community as well as with his friends working for gay rights, suggesting that he upheld and practiced these teachings on unity and commonality.
TOP: Photos of the exterior of the Berlin Mosque in the Wilmersdorf, inaugurated in 1926 by the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. The mosque was the first in Berlin, and during Nazi rule was the only mosque in the country, serving as the headquarters for the German Muslim Society, of which Hugo Marcus was the chairman until 1935. Photo credit: Usama Malik
BOTTOM: Hugo Marcus (center, seated) with fellow German and South Asian Muslims in front of the mission house attached to the Berlin Mosque, c. 1930. Dr. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah (1889–1956), the imam of the mosque, sits on Marcus’s left. Others in the photo include convert Fatima Beyer, the future wife of convert Hikmet (Fritz) Beyer; Conrad Giesel, who converted to Islam on October 1, Hugo Marcus (center, seated) with fellow German and South Asian Muslims in front of the mission house attached to the Berlin Mosque, c. 1930. Dr. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah (1889–1956), the imam of the mosque, sits on Marcus’s left. Others in the photo include convert Fatima Beyer, the future wife of convert Hikmet (Fritz) Beyer; Conrad Giesel, who converted to Islam on October 1, 1924 (top row, right); and assistant imam Dr. Azeez Mirza (1906–1937) (top row, with turban). Photographer unknown. Copyright MJB-Verlag & Mehr.
The Rise of Nazi Germany and Its Impact on the Muslim Community of Berlin
As the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Muslim community, like many others, were forced to react. The Moslemische Revue featured articles, expressing a similarity between Islam and Nazism. Among these so-called consonances was a low-grade anti-Semitism. Indeed, public tours of the mosque began to feature only positive things about the Nazis and Hitler. During this time, Marcus remained chairman of the German Muslim Society, resigning only in 1935. Despite mosque members joining the Party, increased surveillance, and the subsequent enacting of the Nuremberg Laws, Baer notes how the mosque leadership still advocated that Marcus be a lecturer for the “Islam Evenings” program.5 Though this likely never came to pass, it raises questions: what can resistance look like in what appear to be zero-sum situations? Can those with complicity remain close to those they are officially supposed to hate?
It was not, however, just the Nazi authorities whom the German Muslim Society and members of the Berlin Mosque community had to accommodate. Other non-Ahmadi Muslims sought control over Germany’s only mosque.6 Among these included the Islamic Community of Berlin, a competing Sunni Muslim organization that was unapologetically pro-Nazi in its rhetoric and stance. To achieve their goal, they claimed that the Ahmadis were a “Jewish Communist organization,” as well as British agents, and thus were “unworthy of any claim to the mosque.”7 Ultimately, surveillance increased.
Matters became more complicated upon the departure of the mosque’s founding imam, Sadr-ud-Din, who Baer describes as “the architect of its tolerant interreligious and interracial message.” Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah followed him in this role.8 Though we may recognize his name as the leader of the interfaith coalition who went to Sachsenhausen to free Marcus, the situation is more complex. Apart from providing internal lectures and mosque tours which integrated praise for various points of “connection” with Nazi principles, Abdullah was also proactive in reaching out to the Nazis. He was so successful that soon the Reich’s Foreign Ministry deemed him of no danger to the state.9 Why take this tack? As Baer aptly puts it, “Abdullah’s overtures may reflect a change in philosophical orientation, or a strategy for survival in the face of a totalitarian regime that brooked no dissent.”10 We don’t know. What we do know, however, is that some feature materials and rhetoric coming out of the mosque continued to advance complacent and harmful perspectives.11 It is at this juncture in the Berlin Muslim community’s history that the Nazis initiated the November Pogroms and Hugo Marcus was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen, leading us back to the fateful encounter with which we began.
Photos from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin in Oranienburg. Clockwise: main entrance and administrative building; entrance gate to the camp reading “Work sets you free”; foundation markers of former prisoner barracks; photo of an aerial photograph taken of Sachsenhausen. Barrack 18 is to the right of the main entrance, underneath the triangular boundaries of the original camp before additional barracks were made. Photo credit: Usama Malik
Muslim Resistance Inside Nazi Germany
“By the Glorious Morning Light, And by the Night when it is still,
Your Guardian-Lord hath not forsaken you, nor is He displeased with you.
And verily what will come after will be better for you than your present.
And soon will your Guardian-Lord give you which you seek and you shall be well-pleased.
Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter (and care)?
And He found you lost, and gave you guidance.
And He found you in need and made you independent.”12
Despite what the above might suggest about Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, his actions at Sachsenhausen—as well as his interactions with Hugo Marcus afterwards—show a complex man struggling in a difficult situation. The imam’s helping to get the former editor and mosque chairman out along with the latter’s continued trust in the former imply that relationships based on faith-based encounters can endure regardless of difficulties and differences.
Baer notes that a variety of factors could account for the imam’s shift from pro-Nazi to something more ambivalent. The shock to the November 9 pogrom—which left businesses and synagogues within view of the Berlin Mosque in flames—along with the incarceration of someone as influential and significant to the mosque’s history and works as Hugo Marcus, may have facilitated his change in outlook.13 Upon obtaining Marcus’ release from Sachsenhausen, Abdullah helped personally advocate for and assisted with a visa for Marcus to British India, where the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement was headquartered, and where Marcus was later personally invited to come and stay permanently.
This process, however, did not occur in a vacuum. Tensions began to rise as the nation not only inched closer to war and the Nazi regime ramped up its campaign of extermination. Thus, the Gestapo and Nazi police doubled down on their surveillance of the Berlin Mosque, the German Muslim Society, and Abdullah. To make matters even worse, other Islamic organizations like the Islam Institute spoke out in favor of the Party, urging the authorities to delegitimize the Ahmadis by labeling the German Muslim Society as an enemy of the Nazi state.14 As bad things were for the community, times were even tougher for Hugo Marcus, who, like other Jews in Germany at the time, was stripped of his passport, his assets and valuables, fingerprinted, and outwardly labeled “Jude.”15 Despite these horrors, Marcus and Abdullah decided to remain in Berlin to finish the work on editing the German translation and commentary of the Qur’an, regarding which Abdullah referred to Marcus as “indispensable.”16 Marcus had work to do on behalf of his faith and his community, even as life became unbearable.
Finally in August 1939, the translation was published. Though not explicitly referred to by name in the foreword—likely due to police surveillance of the mosque—Marcus is referred to as “a great German friend” whose “assistance was indispensable and invaluable,” and whose “love of Islam is boundless.” It even closes with a prayer asking that “May God bless and reward him.”17 Marcus’ contributions to the translation offer further insight to the resistance that the German Muslim Society employed at such a difficult time. For example, passages in the Qur’an and subsequent commentary emphasize religious tolerance, disdain for persecution, protecting houses of worship including synagogues, and stark warnings not to help oppressors, nor to obey nor blindly follow a Führer.18
With these lasting words in print, and with war imminent, Abdullah certified Marcus’ good character, allowing him to leave Germany, though not for India, but instead Switzerland. Old friends from “Islam Evenings,” like Dr. Max Jordan, a Catholic journalist and advocate for gay rights, facilitated his entry. Upon Marcus’ departure, Abdullah too was forced to leave after the outbreak of the war. Prior to pausing services that the mosque, one of the final sermons delivered spoke unapologetically about the need to appreciate human diversity and to respect each other’s differences. This message directly echoes un invocations from both the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad with respect to a Muslim’s obligation towards upholding justice and in combating injustice. Indeed, a tradition of the Prophet relates that when asked what was the best form of struggle or jihad, he responded, “A word of truth/justice to an oppressive/tyrannical authority.”19 What Hugo Marcus contributed in translation, what Sheikh Abdullah spoke at the gates of Sachsenhausen, and what the sermon in December in 1939 were just that—words of truth and justice directed at Nazi oppression and tyranny.
Reflection and Relevance
“You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.”20
This story is many things—moving, complicated, inspiring, and infuriating; it necessarily invokes a variety of emotional reactions from anger to gladness. The implications it has for us today, the relevance and timeliness it still holds, are no different. Exploring these, translating them from that horrible time to our own, is no easy task. And yet, it must be done. What can we learn from this convoluted story?
With respect to Marcus, in our present day and age, as much as in the early 20th century, many of these labels—“Muslim,” “Jew,” and “Gay”—often carry oversimplified assumptions and stereotypes. Hugo Marcus’ complex and intersectional identity challenges many of our preconceived notions. Further, his life warns us against attributing qualities to others based on these prejudices. Marcus’ example also stands out because of how people from one identity or faith might assume that something pertaining to another would not interest them. A Muslim may not directly connect with someone they know only as a Jewish person, for example. Yet, in Hugo Marcus, we have someone whose identities bring together so many who otherwise might emphasize only their differences. In a similar way, as humanity becomes increasingly connected, our identities are also becoming more nuanced than ever before, with respect to our races, religious affiliations, genders, sexual orientations, politics, nationalities, ethnicities, and so much more. It is thus paramount that we draw upon the example of a person like Hugo Marcus to understand how we can better coexist in our common humanity.
Hugo Marcus & the Berlin Mosque: A Model & Caution for Community-Building
In a similar way, the significance of Hugo Marcus’ intersectional identity extends to the community he clove to for so long. We, as faith leaders and members of religious congregations can learn much from this humble tenacity and willingness to live committed to one tradition while working with and respecting others. We can see in his story the necessity of building tolerance and acceptance into the foundational tenets of a community. Marcus was, after all, able to walk into a mosque as a gay, Jewish convert, and be accepted for who he was, eventually going on to become a major force and leader within the community. And he was not alone in this! From this fact, we can learn to model not just tolerance of differences, not merely building bridges between ourselves, but also going further and bringing all on the same side. Though these connections are helpful in establishing relationships and communication, so long as we solely value the bridge and not the person or people on the other side, we will remain apart. Without Hugo Marcus, there would be no German Qur’an translation and commentary released before World War II. Without the Berlin Mosque, Hugo Marcus would not have had the interfaith friendships that led to such a beautiful moment of solidarity at the gates of a concentration camp.
Beyond the establishment of an ecumenical community, we should also recognize Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah himself and his friendship with Hugo Marcus. As the imam and leader of a minority religious institution and community that was on the margins of German life, we can see that Imam Abdullah initially reacted in a way common across other religious communities. He made overtures to the Nazi authorities, even when the situation began to deteriorate for many at the mosque, including Hugo Marcus. We can make a variety of excuses for Abdullah: what he did was a survival strategy amidst increasing scrutiny and surveillance, doing what was best for the community as a whole. We can also look down from our positions of privilege and say that he could have and should have done more. Both can be true. These decisions, however, did not ultimately define who Abdullah was or who he chose to become when it mattered most. At a time when the Nazis ramped up their persecution of Jews, he stood by Hugo Marcus.
He did this even as his mosque faced animosity from other Muslims, an issue that continues for both the Ahmadiyya and other Muslim minority communities today. The inherent othering within the wider Muslim community, particularly among more fundamentalist Sunni groups and schools of thought are sometimes weaponized today, particularly in countries such as Pakistan, where groups like Shia, Ismailis, and Ahmadis are sometimes considered “non-Muslims.” In countries like the United States in many religious communities, there remains a distrust and a willingness to other groups based in deep-seated misunderstandings. The example of the Muslim community in Berlin at the height of these tensions should serve as a cautionary tale for all faiths. We see that fear, mistrust, and hatred of the religious “other” can lead not only to compromising and contradicting core beliefs but can also harm and bring trauma for generations to come. Let us heed their lesson now to avoid going down such a path.
We don’t know what may have caused a shift for Abdullah. Whether it was the normalization of violent pogroms against Jewish people, their property, and their synagogues, or the imprisonment of a Jewish friend whom he had come to know as a brother in faith, he felt compelled to journey 40 kilometers from Wilmersdorf to Oranienburg with a Catholic priest and Protestant to protest in the name of truth and justice. Yet, the freedom of his friend was not sufficient. Abdullah went a step further to do his due diligence based on his religious principles. He ensured Marcus would have a safe place to flee to, given the deteriorating conditions in Germany. Eventually, Marcus did escape. Shortly after Abdullah himself was forced to return to the UK.
What matters above all, however, is that he made his choice and helped his friend. As Baer astutely writes, “When it mattered most…even as their accommodation to Nazi ideology helped contribute to the antisemitic atmosphere in Berlin, they ultimately frustrated the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate the Jews of Europe, if only by saving one life.”22 The Qur’an teaches that “whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity.”23 Abdullah knew these words and acted on them.
The stories and experiences of Hugo Marcus, his interfaith liberation coalition, the Berlin Mosque, and the wider community serve as timely examples for the diverse, interconnected world we live in today. They challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones, to honor one another for our humanity, to reconcile our shortcomings, and to know that ultimately, we are accountable for the decisions we make. As the fourth Caliph of Islam, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, once related, “A person is either your sibling in faith, or your equal in humanity.”24 Therefore, whether as Muslims, Christians, Jews, or as people of another faith or of no faith at all, we all can learn from and teach each other. Particularly in times of adversity and trial, it is our standing together, reconciling our differences, and apologizing for our mistakes that allows us, to be harbingers of justice, truth, and tolerance. In this way, we can draw on the models of Imam Abdullah, Father Georg, and Joachim, who there for Hugo Marcus against all odds, united in our conviction to uphold the standards we believe respectively believe our faiths hold us to. As the imam who succeeded Abdullah after his departure, Dr. Ahmed Galwash, stated in closing one of the final sermons given in the mosque during World War II, may “‘the God of all people and nations’ fill the hearts of all people ‘with respect toward one another so that peace and well-being for all will yet remain on earth.’”25
“For each (religious tradition/community of belief) is a direction toward which
it faces. So strive together towards all that is good. Wherever you may be, God will
bring you forth all together. Indeed, God is Most Able to do all things.”26
Above: Stolpersteine or stumbling stones,27 give us a moment to pause, reflect, and consider what could have been the fate of Hugo Marcus, had he not had the faith community and interfaith connections that helped him gain his freedom, ultimately enabling him to emigrate safely from Germany. The Stolpersteine above commemorate individuals who shared Marcus’ name, offering a harrowing reminder of the fate that could have befallen him.
Usama Malik was a 2022 FASPE Seminary Fellow. He is the resident chaplain for Muslim Space, a local community organization, as well as for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Trinity University. Usama is also the Program Coordinator for the Office of Student Affairs and Vocation at Austin Seminary.
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp. 140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140.
- The Berlin Mosque was built by the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement (Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at-i-Islam Lahore) and completed in 1926, serving as the first mosque in Berlin. For more information about the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement and the Berlin Mosque, see www.berlin.ahmadiyya.org
- Qur’an 3:103. All translations from the Qur’an are personal translations with consistent reference to and incorporation of the following translators’ editions: Amatul Rahman Omar, Abdul Haleem, Sahih International, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and Dr. Mustafa Khattab
- For additional reading on Marcus, see German, Jew, Muslim, Gay: The Life and Times of Hugo Marcus by Marc David Baer
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp.140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140. pg. 160
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp. 140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140. pg. 161
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp.140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140. pg. 162
- Ibid. pg. 163
- Ibid., see “The New Germany According to a Muslim: Hitler Is the Appointed One” by Dr. Zeki Kiram, an employee of the Nazi state, in the August 1938 edition of the Moslemische Revue http://www.berlin.ahmadiyya.org/m-rev/aug38.pdf
- Qur’an 93:1-7
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp.140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140. pg. 164
- Ibid. pg. 165
- Ibid., pg. 167
- Ibid., pg. 168
- 19, Musnad Aḥmad 18449
- Qur’an 4:135
- Qur’an 49:13
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp.140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140. pg. 170
- Qur’an 5:32
- Nahjul Balagha, 53
- Marc David Baer, “Muslim Encounters with Nazism and the Holocaust: The Ahmadi of Berlin and Jewish Convert to Islam Hugo Marcus,” The American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (January 2015): pp.140-171, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/120.1.140. pg. 169
- Qur’an 2:148
- A Stolperstein (pl. Stolpersteine; literally “stumbling stone”) is a concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. The Stolpersteine project, initiated by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, aims to commemorate individuals at exactly a person’s last place of residency or work before they fell victim to the Reich. For more information on the Stolpersteine Project, see: https://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/