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The Baha’i Faith began in the mid-1800s in Persia, and spread rapidly around the world during the next 100 years. In little more than a century, it became the world’s second most-widespread Faith.
The Baha'i Faith is the only religion to have grown faster in every United Nations region over the past 100 years than the general population; Baha’i was thus the fastest-growing religion between 1910 and 2010, growing at least twice as fast as the population of almost every UN region. - The World's Religions in Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography, p. 59.
The first countries outside the Middle East with substantial communities of Baha’is – the United States, Great Britain, India and Germany – all got their start in the 1890s and early 1900s. The first German Baha’is – Alma Knobloch and Dr. Edwin Fischer, a dentist -- heard about the Faith as immigrants in New York, but returned to Stuttgart in the early 20th Century. Starting with those two individuals, the German Baha’i community grew rapidly.
In 1913, Abdu’l-Baha, the head of the Faith after his father Baha’u’llah’s passing, spent eight days visiting Esslingen, Stuttgart and Bad Mergntheim in Germany, speaking to large audiences and meeting the Baha’is. In 1916 the German Baha’is erected a public memorial commemorating Abdu’l-Baha’s historic visit to Bad Mergntheim.
Despite the travails and tribulations of the First World War and the rampant inflation during the Weimar period, the Baha’i community flourished in the teens and early twenties. By 1923 the German Baha’i community was sufficiently well-established that it formed one of the world’s first Baha’i National Spiritual Assemblies, the democratically-elected leadership body of the country’s Baha’is.
But then the Nazis took power.
When Heinrich Himmler banned the Baha’i Faith in Germany in 1937, he blamed it on the religion’s “international and pacifist tendencies.” The Nazi government increasingly targeted the Baha’is after Himmler’s edict, first by tearing down the public memorial to Abdu’l-Baha in Bad Mergntheim and then, in 1939, making mass arrests of the former members of the German Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly. Baha’is went to jail, some for very long periods, without charges. In 1942, more mass arrests occurred. Many of the Baha’is from Germany and the surrounding countries disappeared in the Nazi concentration camp system, and the details of their fates, like millions of others, will probably never be known.
Ironically, in May of 1944 – exactly a hundred years after the first beginnings of the Baha’i Faith -- the German government held a public trial of some of the jailed Baha’i leaders in Darmstadt. A prominent German Baha’i, Dr. Hermann Grossmann, was able to rise and speak in defense of the Faith at the trial, but everyone knew the verdict was pre-ordained. The government found the Baha’is guilty, levied large fines and banned all Baha’i institutions, ordering that they be immediately disbanded.
One of the most profound and moving books about the Nazi persecutions – Rebirth: The Memoirs of Renee Szanto-Felbermann, (published by the British Baha’i Publishing Trust in 1980, and now sadly out of print) – contains a harrowing account of those years.
Szanto-Felbermann, a Hungarian journalist brought up in Germany and Switzerland in the Jewish faith, became the first Hungarian Baha’i in 1937. She and her entire family were caught up in the persecutions of Jews and Baha’is by the Nazis in Budapest during the war, and Szanto-Felbermann barely escaped deportation and death marches to the camps on multiple occasions. Despite several arrests and close calls, her cleverness and courage kept her out of the camps, but many of her closest relatives and friends, both Jews and Baha’is, were not so lucky. Szanto-Felbermann starts telling her story this way:
Two German SS officers faced me, their revolvers aimed at my head. “What is in this box?” the Germans shouted. “Open it.”
“These are books and manuscripts about my religion, the Baha’i religion.” The officer who knelt before the box snatched one page and began to read. His eyes caught the following passage [from Baha’u’llah] translated into German:
“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,” he read aloud.
“This sounds very suspicious!” he shouted, “in the morning you will be shot and thrown into the Danube, but first the Gestapo will come and investigate.” Pointing at my mother, he shouted, “she will also be shot and thrown into the Danube! And the child, too!” – Rebirth, pp. 124-125.
Through a combination of pure luck, pluck and prayer, Renee escapes with her life and the life of her mother and child. Even her husband, who works with the Hungarian underground against the Nazis, and puts himself in great danger by trying to save others, manages somehow to avoid the terrible fate of his compatriots. Renee Szanto-Felbermann’s gripping journey, as a spiritual seeker, a writer, a Baha’i and a hunted Nazi target, makes every reader realize how gentleness and grace can sometimes overcome great evil.