The Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest and longest of the Second World War. Late in 1942 the German Sixth Army reached the pivotal city of Stalingrad. Winter was setting in. Hitler declared it must be taken, whatever the cost. Stalin declared it must be held, whatever the cost. The war in Europe seemed to hinge on the fate of Stalingrad. By November the German army had been surrounded, the siege had begun.
Dr Kurt Reuber was a German military surgeon with the 6th Army. He was also a Lutheran Pastor and a gifted artist. He was deeply opposed to the Nazi regime. He had a great love of the Russian people and was wholly at odds with what Hitler’s forces were doing to them.
On Christmas Eve 1942, while working round the clock in a field operating theatre somewhere in Stalingrad, he gathered a group of soldiers to hold a Christmas service in an underground bunker: no cross, no tree, no candles. But on the back of a captured Soviet military map he had drawn an icon, the picture of a Russian Mother, a Russian Mary and her Child: the Stalingrad Madonna. It was fastened to an earthen wall. This Russian Mother, like Mary, was sheltering the vulnerable Christ child in the midst of a world of suffering.
A few weeks later the 90,000 German soldiers left alive surrendered. Field Marshal Paulus had disobeyed Hitler’s orders. In captivity he survived and joined a group of officers opposing Hitler. Two thirds of the 90,000, Kurt Reuber among them, died in Soviet captivity.
But the Stalingrad Madonna survived. A Red Cross nurse on the last ambulance to fly out of the besieged city took the Madonna back to Germany. It became a national icon and eventually found its place in West Berlin’s famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which, like Coventry Cathedral, was destroyed by bombing. Its ruins were preserved and a new church was built beside them. This became closely linked to Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation and a Cross of Nails Partner.
In 1990, West Berlin’s Bishop, Martin Kruse, wanted to make a special gesture of reconciliation on the 50th anniversary of the Coventry Blitz. He brought this replica of the Stalingrad Madonna to Coventry and it was dedicated by the Russian Orthodox Archbishop of Volgograd and by the Bishops of West Berlin and of Coventry.
The following words are written in German. On the left side: “Christmas in the cauldron 1942”. On the right side: “Light Life Love”. And at the bottom: “Fortress Stalingrad”.
The original drawing is now in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Another copy exists in Volgograd, the new name for Stalingrad.