Widow of famed German theologian dies at Doylestown home

Sybille Sarah von Sell Niemöller, the widow of famed German theologian Martin Niemöller who resisted the Nazis before and during World War II, died Sunday morning at her home in Doylestown. She was 99.

A foe of the Nazi regime herself, she was born in 1923 into German nobility dating back to Charlemagne and was the goddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor who abdicated at the end of World War I. But in her childhood and throughout her long life, she had Jewish friends and converted to Judaism in 1990 following the death of her husband in 1984. She changed her name to Sarah.

Her life's story is depicted in her autobiography, "Crowns, Crosses and Stars: My Youth in Prussia, Surviving Hitler and a Life Beyond," published by the Purdue University Press.

Sybille Sarah von Sell Niemoller
Sybille Sarah von Sell Niemoller

"The title reflects a story of three parts: 'Crowns,' the world of nobility in which the author was raised; 'Crosses,' her life with Martin Niemöller and his battles with the Third Reich; and 'Stars,' the spiritual journey that brought her to Judaism," Purdue University Press said about the book it published.

In an oral interview, Niemöller said that her young mother was not a warm person, having grown up with an authoritarian father in her own childhood, so the young Sybille found comfort visiting the loving family of a dear Jewish playmate.  "They had a regular Jewish family life — wonderful," she said.

Sybille Sarah von Sell Niemoller as she appeared in 1943.
Sybille Sarah von Sell Niemoller as she appeared in 1943.

Her own father, who had worked as a financial advisor to the kaiser, had resisted the Nazis but, as a member of the German aristocracy, died of malnutrition in November 1945 in an internment camp set up by the Russians in the aftermath of World War II.

Niemöller worked for British intelligence during and after the war and later came to America to keep a promise to her father. She brought her young son, Ulrich, from her first marriage and mother with her and worked in television out of New York, where she married again.

When that marriage faltered she returned to Germany and married Niemöller, her third husband and a widower with several children who was 31 years older. He had served as her pastor during her childhood and later gained international renown after having been imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis for several years. He later became head of the World Council of Churches and became a pacifist, having visited Russia during the Cold War and meeting with Pope Paul VI. He believed that Christians needed to take responsibility for their roles in allowing the Holocaust to happen.

He is famous for the saying:  First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me."

After his death in 1984, his wife returned to the United States permanently, and settled in Bucks County in 1998 to be near her only child, her son, Dr. Ulrich M. Niemöller whom the pastor had adopted.

Having converted to Judaism, Niemöller attended an event in which Martin Niemöller was discussed by Rabbi Eliott Perlstein of Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro. The rabbi recalled Niemöller's famous quote but a woman in the audience stood up and told him he misquoted the theologian.

"And then she said who she was — 'I am his widow.' We began a very warm relationship that developed over the years," Perlstein said. "We offered her a lifetime honorary membership of our synagogue."

She regularly attended services there.

Services will take place at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home, 310 2nd Street Pike, Southampton. Internment will be private.

To contact Peg Quann, email mquann@couriertimes.com.

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Widow of German theologian who resisted Nazis dies at Doylestown home