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The Spiritual Journey of Robert Friedmann

As we reflect on our Lenten journeys with Jesus, we remember the spiritual journey of Robert Friedmann.

At 10:30 p.m. on a warm July night in 1940, a middle-aged couple – refugees from Nazi Europe – disembarked at the Goshen train station. Waiting for them was a group of ten local residents including George Stoneback, the pastor of Eighth Street Mennonite Church, and Harold Bender, the academic dean of Goshen College.

“I still remember it as if it were yesterday,” recalled the weary traveler a quarter century later. “We had no idea of what Goshen [was].” Compared to Vienna, Austria, Goshen “was for us really the backwoods area … a real provincial place of nowhere.” And yet, what a wonderful welcome: a furnished home, a pantry full of food. “It was fantastic. We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

For Robert and Susi (Marting) Friedmann, Goshen represented the final stage in their flight from Hitler’s terror. The welcome from the church also made Goshen something of a spiritual homecoming for Robert.

Robert Friedmann has been born in Vienna in 1891 to a family that was well-to-do, ethnically Jewish, and religiously secular. Robert’s father, a noted physician, had urged his son to study physics and engineering, but although Robert succeeded academically his life took a bitter turn upon graduation from university. The end of his studies coincided with the outbreak of the First World War and he spent the next four years in the Austrian army on the Italian front. Like many others of his “lost generation,” the war shattered his dreams. The horrific death and destruction, strident nationalism, and rancorous “peace” that followed the war left him disillusioned and depressed.

Returning home he married but could not bring himself to return to civil engineering. What was the point of rebuilding cities if there was no larger purpose? He decided to return to school, enrolling in history and philosophy at the University of Vienna, seeking clues to the meaning life. Somewhat adrift as a student and knowing only that he wanted to avoid work that involved Latin (his Latin was rusty), he asked his professor for a research topic. The professor responded by giving him an obscure subject that no other student wanted: the devotional literature of sixteenth-century Anabaptists, a group Friedmann had never heard of.

A friend later joked that “it is highly probable that [Robert] is the only person ever converted to Christianity as the result of a research project assigned … at the University of Vienna!” In fact, Friedmann’s conversion was far from immediate. Yet that first research project sparked something in him. His study of Anabaptism (which became the focus of his dissertation, completed in 1924) propelled him on a journey that soon became more personal than academic. The Anabaptist sources offered an expression of faith as discipleship that stunned him and provoked more questions and further research. In a literature class Friedmann read Leo Tolstoy, which caused him to consider Jesus’ message and to read the New Testament for the first time.

Still, “it took me quite a while to go deeply into this whole area of Christian understanding,” he later explained, both because of the anti-Semitism he had experienced from Christians while growing up and also because he could not reconcile what he read in the Bible with the fact that Europe’s churches had blessed their societies descent into the horror of World War I. Yet Friedmann kept reading, writing, and asking questions. In 1934, at age 43, he publicly aligned his journey with the way of Jesus and was baptized in the Reformed Church.

In November 1938 as part of the Kristallnacht attacks on Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria, Friedmann was abruptly arrested and thrown into a concentration camp along with most of Vienna’s Jews. Although he was now a Christian and a noted teacher, his Jewish heritage marked him as “undesirable.” Then, twelve days into his imprisonment, for reasons that were never clear to him, he was suddenly released and told that he, Susi, and their two sons should flee Austria immediately. Thus began the long physical journey that would end in Goshen, a journey that included shelter and assistance from colleagues in England and at Yale University who respected Friedmann as a scholar. But it was in Goshen that Friedmann found a Christian community for whom Anabaptism was not just an academic subject but also a living faith.

Goshen College created a temporary job for Friedmann in the library and Eighth Street Mennonite Church provided the family with housing. Pastor Stoneback was about to leave for a year’s seminary study and the Freidmanns moved into the church’s parsonage. They soon became members of Eighth Street and Susi’s piano playing and musical gifts were especially appreciated in worship. Robert told a friend that the church impressed him with its “community, which is so rare in this world.”

Safe though it was, life in Goshen also had its share of difficulties. Though grateful for all the temporary assistance, Robert needed to find some permanent employment and during the war years no colleges were hiring, certainly not foreigners, so money became tight. And then, in November 1944, Susi became ill and died.

In 1945 Robert found a teaching job at Western Michigan University and remained there until retirement. During those years he wrote more than 200 articles for the Mennonite Encyclopedia and Mennonite Quarterly Review, often on the topic of discipleship. Later he moved to Kalamazoo but returned regularly to Goshen for research and worship. Shortly before his death, when a friend asked about his church he responded with characteristic bluntness: “I joined the Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen for good. So that’s it.”

And yet his faith journey had continued, shaped in part by Babette “Betty” Stern, whom he met and married after moving to Kalamazoo. Betty had also been raised in a Jewish home and later embraced Christianity, but she had a greater appreciation for contemplative worship and felt more at home in Kalamazoo’s Quaker Meeting. In his later years Robert increasingly joined her there.

After Robert died in 1970 Western Michigan named the building that houses the school’s history and economics departments Robert Friedmann Hall. But Friedmann himself had hoped that his legacy would be a continued quest for discipleship, or what he often called “existential Christianity,” on the part of all Christian but especially among the Mennonites who had welcomed him. Discipleship was the “essence of Anabaptism,” he said, since “faith has to be proven by evidence – evidence of living. Then faith is faith.”

—Steve Nolt