Tuesday, January 8, 2008

In Memory of Professor Eberhard von Waldow

From Warrior to Peacemaker:
In memory of Professor Eberhard von Waldow

He never called me by my first name. He only used my last name, “Krieger.” When he said my name, he exaggerated his deep German accent. The first day of the first class I had with von Waldow, he called out my name as he was scanning down the class list. “Krieger,” he called out now scanning the class to identify me. As usual I was sitting in the front row. I politely responded, “Yes, sir.” Do you know that your name “Krieger” in German means “warrior”? Then with one of the classic von Waldow rhetorical questions he muttered quietly, but loud enough for the whole class to hear, “Why are they letting warriors into this seminary?” No one laughed, no one responded, we were still unsure how to respond to his air of superiority. I smiled to myself. I had already learned of von Waldow’s penchant for sarcasm and cynicism from my upper class friends. I was proud that I was his first victim in this class.
After our Hebrew class one day, Professor von Waldow asked if he might have word with me. He invited me to his office. He explained that he was organizing a major, academic conference to be held in the year 1984 in commemoration of George Orwell’s famous book 1984. He asked me if I would work for him to help with the planning of this conference. I would be paid. It was one of the joys of my seminary career to work closely with von Waldow, behind the scenes, in preparation for the Orwell conference. The conference was a huge success. The auditorium was packed full for the keynote speaker. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a special commemoration of Orwell’s book promoting the conference.
In the mystery of God’s providence and blessing, this harsh, proudly German, Old Testament professor and I became close. We were not really friends; his was the teacher and I was an eager disciple. I count him as one of my most influential professors during my time at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. But his influence on me was not really academic or biblical, his area of expertise. His influence was personal and visceral. I see grace and transformation in the story of his life. He was a Nazi tank commander who now taught Hebrew and was a powerful voice for peace. I sat in the front row of Professor von Waldow’s Hebrew class for a whole school year. I never missed class, any class. For von Waldow’s class I was always early because then I could always hear his daily editorial comments on the world with which he started each class.
By the time I started my years at the seminary, von Waldow was already approaching retirement age. Many students had perceived, as I did, that his heart was not much interested in teaching Hebrew language any longer, as he had done for a long career. His teaching was rote and routine; he had done it all before. But throughout each class were interspersed his little, thoughtful editorial comments which always caught my attention. Sometimes they were points of preaching, looking at a particular Old Testament passage; sometimes they were points of politics and social commentary about our world; sometimes they were discussions of history; and, now and again, there were the personal stories about his life which quickly morphed into the von Waldow folklore among the student body. Beneath all his wandering reflections which were always spontaneous, unorganized and random, there was a deep commitment to peace, a desire for the church to be more and do more to transform our world and bring peace, and a deep concern about current events.
When I was at Pittsburgh Seminary during the mid-1980s there was a comprehensive commitment to peacemaking emerging. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program was a new emphasis at the General Assembly. There was a call to focus on peacemaking in the seminary curriculum. The world was caught up in a cold war with the Soviet Union which the Reagan administration was heating up. Professor Ron Stone was asking if we are now called to resistance. Professor Don Gowan was thinking about shalom in the Old Testament and wrote an influential Bible study in the Kerygma series on that topic. Ulrich Mauser, who was the Dean at that time, was writing about peace in the New Testament. Professors von Waldow and Doug Hare team taught a course titled “Peace in Theological Studies.” Unlike his more lackadaisical teaching of Hebrew, in this class on “Peace” von Waldow was motivated, passionate and very engaged. They invited many other faculty to lecture. My mind and heart were captivated by this conversation, and, once again, I was in the front row, never missing a class. It was a joy to simply listen in as the faculty talked with one another about peace in theological studies.
Importantly, a beautiful, young woman who was a student at the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh cross-registered and took our course on Peace in Theological Studies. Since her Dad was a pastor, she was comfortable in the theological context. Kris and I met in that class, chatted about peace in the hallway after class, and soon had a dinner date together. The next year we were married.
As a senior I asked von Waldow if I he would lead an independent study for me on the topic of peacemaking. It was this personal time with von Waldow which really blessed me. I sat quietly with him in his small office and listened to his meandering thoughts. I received a glimpse of the character of this man. I heard a little of his story. Like a whole generation of Americans, World War Two was a formative experience for von Waldow. Of course, he was then our enemy. He told me two personal stories from the war which I will never forgot. I still wonder if these stories are completely accurate. Von Waldow had a gift for embellishment and exaggeration. Nonetheless these are great stories:
After von Waldow was first drafted as a teenager into the German army, he was soon in a training program for a Panzer division. One day his unit was out in the training field learning to operate the new, state-of-the-art German tank. It was his turn to drive the tank around a course set up in the large field. A group of officers stood nearby evaluating each young soldier. As von Waldow was driving the tank, he made a mistake, the tank veered up the side a little bank. He overcorrected his mistake, and the tank rolled completely over. Von Waldow used an escape hatch to climb out of the now, up-side-down tank. He was not hurt. He crawled out and stood up next to the up-side-down, completely disabled tank. He impulsively burst out laughing. As von Waldow told this story, I remember the glimmer of laughter in his eye and voice. He thought that it was hilarious that he had rolled over, and completely disabled this huge tank. A very high ranking commander walked over to him and questioned him. Then, immediately on the spot, von Waldow was promoted to a tank commander, a rank he held for the remainder of the war.
Von Waldow told me another World War Two story which has also deeply touched me. In 1945 the war was essentially over. He was serving on the German western front as the British and American armies were relentlessly pushing toward Berlin and victory. Since there was no fuel available the German tanks were abandoned. Von Waldow was put in command of ground unit of new recruits. I remember the sadness in his voice as he told of very young boys and very old men who were now being forced to serve on the front lines. There was not enough ammunition, and many of the new recruits had no training, and some did not even have weapons. Von Waldow was supposed to use these recruits to stop the oncoming allied forces! As they were on the very front lines waiting for the attack, von Waldow walked up and down his line commanding that no one shoot until his command. His troops were to wait a long a possible as the allied forces advanced until he personally gave the command to attack. Finally, their unit could see the British troops advancing toward them; von Waldow was screaming orders for his men to hold their fire until his command. The Brits kept advancing toward their line. Before any of his men fired their weapons, with the British forces in sight, von Waldow personally stood up, raised his hands and surrendered himself and his whole unit to the British. As he told this story I remember the pain in his voice, but also the pride that he had not caused the inevitable death of those young boys and old men who were under his command.
I graduated with my M.Div. in 1985 and started serving a small church in Kiskiminetas Presbytery. I asked Professor von Waldow to preach at my ordination service. My friend, John White, the director of admissions at the seminary and moderator of Pittsburgh Presbytery, led my ordination commission. Professor George Kehm also was on my ordination commission. My home church, the Verona Presbyterian Church, where my family was very involved and where I was a favorite son was filled on the occasion of my ordination on September 8, 1985. Von Waldow preached beautifully from the First Letter to Timothy. I remember his word to me. He said in essence, “I hear all the time in our churches people saying, “We love our pastor. Our pastor is wonderful. We have such a great pastor, I hope our pastor will stay forever.” These comments make me sick. I ask myself what is wrong with our pastors when everyone in the church loves them. Are they really preaching the gospel? Where is the word of the prophets? Where is the call to transform our society? Where is call of the cross of Jesus Christ. We need pastors today who are not concerned with making everyone happy and comfortable, but with being faithful and obedient to the Gospel.”
Thanks be to God for the life, ministry and prophetic witness of Professor Eberhard von Waldow. May he rest in peace.


  1. Mark--thank you so much for sharing the story of Professor von Waldow. I had not heard of him, prior to reading this, and am most impressed--what a great man he must have been.
    Donna Wenger

  2. Professor von Waldow is not someone of whom I've heard. He must have been fascinating, as was this particular post. You gave me fond memories of my German teacher Herr Kruger, who taught us not just language, but history, culture, philosophy, and theology. Thanks for sharing. Suzi

  3. I am very saddened to learn of Dr. Von Waldow's passing. I had him for both Hebrew and Old Testament during the early 80's. While I first genuinely disliked the man, I can honestly say he was one of the few professors in seminary for whom I have any respect. If there is a god, may he welcome Hans into his kingdom for a "viskey" or two.