I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.
— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.
I first saw a version of this quotation, with its remarkable attribution, in the program notes accompanying a performance of a choral work that uses the words as its text: Mark Miller’s choir-plus-piano piece “I Believe.” Here’s a video of a good performance of it.
Miller’s piece is beautiful, a moving expression of the quotation’s powerful statement of faith proclaimed in a time of despair. And the story behind the words certainly strengthens the emotional effect of the music.
A year or so later, I attended a workshop on designing effective worship. The workshop leader mentioned in passing that she had featured Mark Miller’s piece in one of her church’s Advent services. That’s when I first had a feeling that something was a little off. Here we have a story about a Jew’s faith while waiting out the Holocaust in a basement… Was it really appropriate to use this story during Advent, the time when Christians are waiting for the arrival of Christ? It felt to me that even though the identity of the author of those words is unknown, we should still respect their suffering, honor their story, and imagine what their wishes might be. Or is that being too scrupulous?
I’m a strong believer in attribution, and in understanding the context in which words were originally written or spoken. But with a story like this one — words found in the aftermath of war — it’s almost certain that there is no documentary evidence that can give us a better idea of the circumstances of the origin of the quotation.
I decided to see what I could find.
This post is the first in a series of four, in which I will tell you what I have learned. In this first post, I will describe the carelessness with which people have treated the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation, and the uncomfortable place that that carelessness leads to.
Not surprisingly, the quotation is most often used in religious or inspirational material, so the second post in the series will discuss the Christian history of the words and the story behind them. I found what is likely the earliest printed source of the quotation, but this source points back even further in a tantalizing direction. Furthermore, this early Christian telling complicates matters, because the version of the words on the wall that it gives is different, in an important way, from the quotation as I gave it above.
The third post will focus on the amazing history of the first written telling of the story in a Jewish context: as an epigraph to a work of Holocaust fiction that first appeared in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires in 1946. This early Jewish telling also complicates matters, because the short story to which the quotation is attached completely undermines the apparent message of the quotation.
The fourth and final post will talk about how we might still use these words, given what we will have learned about them — and why it is important to care about how we use them.
Before we dive in, let me explain the subtitle of this post: “Look away.” This year, Netflix released an adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book series by Lemony Snicket nominally written for children. The opening credits of each episode are accompanied by a song that encourages the viewer to look away, because the story will not be a happy one. I feel as though I should give a similar warning: If you like the words and music whose history I will be tracing, and if you would like to keep an uncomplicated view of them, look away. As Thomas Gray writes: where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.
But if you are willing to look, let’s begin.
When I began to search online for more information about the “I believe in the sun” quotation and the story behind it, I found something striking: There are several different versions of the story. The cellar in Cologne is sometimes the setting, but the details, and the city, and even the time period change from telling to telling.
The televangelist Robert H. Schuller, in his book The Be Happy Attitudes (1997)1, neglects to mention a city when writes that “[s]crawled in the basement of a German home was a Star of David next to these words […]”
Many sources speak of the wartime cellar in Cologne, but add that the Jews were being sheltered there by Roman Catholics. In some sources, the friendly shelter is transformed into something darker. For instance, David Adam, in the introduction to Clouds and Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year A (2001), writes: “It was a Jew, but I know it could only be a person of prayer, who wrote the following on the wall of a prison cell in Cologne as they awaited persecution or death […]” Michael Mayne, too, in the third sermon in God’s Consoling Love: Sermons and Addresses (2013), writes that the words were “written by a Jewish prisoner on a wall in a prison in Cologne.”
Once the cellar has turned into a prison, there is no need to keep it in Cologne. Tim Baker, in Jesus Is for Liars: A Hypocrite’s Guide to Authenticity (2009), writes of “the Jewish prisoner who wrote these words on the wall of his Auschwitz prison camp” (p. 146). Likewise, Monsignor William McCarthy, in The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest (2010), writes that the words were “[on] one of the walls of the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland” (p. 267).
At some point, some tellers of the story must have thought it would be more effective to replace the anonymous writer of the quotation with someone that everyone has heard of. Lenya Heitzig and Penny Pierce Rose, the authors of Pathway to Living Faith (2002), go so far as to attribute the quotation to Anne Frank (p. 263).
Still others move the time period forward nearly half a century. Peter Sidebotham, in Growing Up to Be a Child (2014), notes that the words were “allegedly found somewhere in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 65). The source Mr. Sidebotham cites for this is www.searchquotes.com.
Rev. Gerald Kennedy, formerly the United Methodist bishop of Los Angeles, is responsible for spreading a particularly irresponsible version of the story. On page 56 of the December 1970 issue of Pulpit Digest, he writes2:
A young Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto managed to escape over the wall and hide in a cave. She died there shortly before the Allied Army broke out the ghetto. Before she died, she had scratched on the wall three things. First: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” The second thing she wrote was: “I believe in love, even when feeling it not.” The third thing she wrote was: “I believe in God, even when he is silent.”
I hate to break it to Rev. Kennedy, because it makes his story slightly less poignant, but the Allied Army never liberated the Warsaw ghetto. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from the ghetto had already been shipped to the Treblinka death camp by the time the ghetto was completely destroyed by the Nazis in April and May of 1943. The final destruction was delayed by heroic resistance, but in the end more than 56 thousand Jews who were present at the final battle were either killed on the spot or sent to concentration camps.
The seed cast by Rev. Kennedy fell on fertile ground. Lightly modified, the Pulpit Digest version of the story appears on page 74 of Stephen W. Plunkett’s This We Believe: Eight Truths Presbyterians Affirm (2002); on page 279 of Holman Old Testament Commentary Volume 10 – Job (2004), written by Steven Lawson and edited by Max Anders; in chapter 33 of Maxie Dunnam’s3 The Grace-Filled Life: 52 Devotions to Warm Your Heart and Guide Your Path (2010); and in chapter 10 of Dr. David Jeremiah’s The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy (2010).
And at the beginning of Chapter 4 of E. Carver McGriff’s book Hope for Tomorrow: What Jesus Would Say Today (1999), we find the logical endpoint of this game of telephone:
I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when feeling it not.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.
— Words scratched on the wall of a cave, next to the body of a Jewish girl who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto.
In this relentless progression, we see an ugly aspect of the urge in Christians to retell this story. The words of faith start out as something written by a Jew who survives the war by hiding in a cellar. But apparently the story becomes stronger and the words more significant if we can say that the Jew who wrote the words died in the war — so the story is retold, and now we find the words in a prison cell, or in Auschwitz. But it’s not good enough to have the reader imagine who this Jew might be — after all, we might imagine someone who complicates the story — so next we find out that the author was a girl — an innocent young girl. (One version even specifies that she is 12.) But the story would tug at our hearts even more if the girl had died but had only just missed being rescued — “If only she could have held out a bit longer!” — so we ignore the historical fact of the hundreds of thousands from the Warsaw ghetto who actually died, in order to dramatize the death of our imaginary 12-year-old girl. And finally, finally, we reach the conclusion: the story won’t be good enough, the point won’t be made well enough, the statement of faith won’t move us enough — unless, right there next to the inspirational words on the wall, we see the body of a dead Jewish girl.
I don’t think that these changes happened purposefully, intentionally. The problem is more subtle than that. The problem is that many of the people spreading the story did not care about the actual facts. I’m sure if you were to ask them whether they cared about the truth, they would say that they did; but their actions show that they did not care about it enough to go through the trouble of giving a reference or finding a source.4 And sometimes, when they did not bother to check what they half-remembered about a story they had once heard, they changed a detail, or added a bit of color, in a way that made the account better match their unconscious prejudices. And so we end up with E. Carver McGriff’s vision of Jews as innocent; passive; able to flee and hide but not strong enough to fight; long-suffering; and dead.
“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” When we tell the story of these words, when we think of the person who wrote them, do we think of an actual person? Do we think of a living, breathing human? A person with strengths and with flaws, someone who has done wrong to others and who has been wronged themself? Someone who has fallen in love, someone whose heart has been broken, someone who has broken the hearts of others? Someone who has sometimes stayed up too late drinking with friends, but who has also done mitzvahs for friends and strangers? Someone with thoughts, and hopes, and dreams? Someone whose life has been ripped apart, whose friends have been killed, whose property has been stolen, and who has been living in a cellar for months? Someone who may have fought on the way to the cellar? Someone who may have supported the resistance? Someone who might care about the words they were inspired to write, and who might care how we use them?
Maybe that’s too hard. Maybe it would be easier to erase that actual human, and replace them with an idealized, pure, 12-year-old girl, whose life was cut tragically short, whose faith in God was uncomplicated, and who certainly won’t complain if we use her words for our own purposes.
So what do we do, if we want to get closer to the truth of the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation? There are so many variations on the story — how can we tell which one to believe? Or indeed, how can we tell whether any of them is true?
The first step is to trace back, as best we can, the origin of the story. In the next post in this series, we will go back to London in 1945, and we will hear, surprisingly, the words of a German prisoner of war, as translated by a Quaker woman who was later honored as a British Hero of the Holocaust.
Image credit: Annular eclipse “ring of fire” by Kevin Baird. Original here. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
- I found the example in Schuller’s book, and most of the examples cited in the next few paragraphs, by searching Google books; I do not have full copies of the books I cite. Where possible I have given page numbers, but for some sources I was only able to identify the chapter in which the quotation appears. ↩
- The Pulpit Digest is not available online. Beth Kumar, a reference librarian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, went to the stacks and photographed Rev. Kennedy’s article for me while I was far away in San Diego. Thank you, Beth! ↩
- Maxie Dunnam was the only one of these authors to give any sort of reference for the story; she cites the Pulpit Digest (although she gives the wrong page number). It was through her citation that I found Gerald Kennedy’s article. ↩
- As I noted earlier, the one exception in the examples I gave above is Maxie Dunnam, whose citation of the Pulpit Digest I greatly appreciate. Peter Sidebotham’s citation of searchquotes.com does not count; it’s about as trustworthy as citing a Facebook meme. ↩