Monday, December 3, 2012

Lives of Conscience—A Family Tradition

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
by Elisabeth Fuchs-Kittowski

By Heidi Noroozy

Activism, our topic this week, is something of a tradition in my family. Our clan is filled with people who’ve dedicated their lives to social change, fighting oppression, and improving the lot of those less fortunate, sometimes sacrificing everything for their ideals. But while others may want to put a label on this kind of life journey, for us it’s all about following your conscience.

Our family tradition began with my grandfather, Emil Fuchs, a German theologian who became politicized as a young man while working with the desperately poor and dispossessed in the slums of London. He later joined the religious socialists, a group of faith-based activities who emphasized the social justice tradition in Christianity and its role in bringing about social change. I’ve been told that this philosophy, including some of my grandfather’s writings, formed the basis for liberation theology, which has swept Latin America in recent decades and interprets Christian faith as a movement to liberate the poor and oppressed.

During the 1930’s, when fascism rose in Germany, Emil held strong opinions about the evils of Nazism and didn’t hesitate to express them publicly. In 1933, he was dismissed from his professorship at Kiel University, imprisoned, and later kept under Gestapo surveillance.

After the war, when he chose to live in East Germany, my grandfather was equally outspoken about what he considered wrong-footed policies adopted by the new socialist state. Unlike the Nazis, though, the Communists listened to him, and he was able to influence some of their decisions. Due to his efforts, Christian churches were tolerated, if not supported, by the atheist regime.

Emil’s kids followed their father’s example, although without the Christian faith. My mother’s three older siblings, Gerhard, Elisabeth, and Klaus, all joined the Communist underground during their student days.

Elisabeth, an artist, worked with an underground cell and used her talents to create anti-fascist, political posters. One of her drawings depicts the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing the ominous spread of fascism in the form of the Nazi party. She died in 1938 under circumstances that are still debated within our family. The facts are sparse: On a trip home from a secret meeting, she fell, jumped, or was pushed off a moving train. Officially, her death was ruled a suicide, and many of my relatives accept that conclusion. My mother never believed it, partly on the grounds that Elisabeth could surely have found a less horrible way to end her life.

A cousin and I once speculated on a version of the story that accommodates both sides. Perhaps she knew the Gestapo was on to her and threw herself off the train to avoid arrest. Some years earlier, she’d spent time in a Nazi prison and had seen first hand the brutal methods employed to extract information from prisoners. Death might have seemed a more acceptable alternative.

I blogged about my Uncle Klaus earlier this year, (you can read the post here). Most of the world knows him as Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy, because he passed secret information about the American and British work on the first atom bomb to the Russians while working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. His actions were prompted by conscience not greed—he felt that if both superpowers had the bomb, fear of mutually assured destruction would prevent them from using it.

My mother, Christel, the youngest of the Fuchs siblings, never joined the Communists, although her political leanings were always far to the left. When I was a child during the Vietnam War, she’d drag me to antiwar demonstrations, especially the silent vigils organized by the Quakers on Boston Common. What I remember most is being bored out of my skull as we walked, stopped, and walked again around the square. At ten, I had only a vague notion of what it was all about.

Decades later, she talked me into joining her on a march from Washington to Moscow to protest the nuclear arms race. No, not that Washington nor that Moscow, but two towns with the same names in Vermont. The march covered a distance of about 40 miles and took three days. We camped in fields at night and attended rallies along the way. I could barely walk in the end, my feet were so sore, but I’ll never forget the experience.

In her eighties, my mother spent five months in war-torn Nicaragua helping establish a book bindery in Matagalpa. She’d learned bookbinding as a young woman in Germany and later worked in my father’s bindery in Boston, so she had a skill she could contribute. As supporter of the Marxist Sandinistas, who had wrested control of the country from an oppressive dictator, she felt the new regime was the Nicaraguan people’s best hope for ending eternal cycles of poverty, and she wanted to help out.

It’s a tall order to live up to this family legacy. And I have to admit the strength of conviction that propelled my aunt and uncles to follow their consciences lost much of its power by the time it reached me. It’s true that I live in less extreme times—and does any of us know how we will react in such situations? I like to think I’d follow in my relatives’ footsteps and stand up for my beliefs. But the coward in me would rather find a safe hole somewhere and wait until the danger is over.

With luck, I’ll never have to find out which option I’d choose. But after growing up in this family of activists, with a lifetime of listening to their stories, I have a lot of respect for people who follow their hearts and do what they feel is right, no matter the consequences. A life of conscience is a life well lived.


  1. What a great post! I'm not sure I have what it takes to be hero either but you'll never knew unless you're pushed to the limits.

    1. Thanks, Gerhard. You're right, we don't know what we're capable of until we're put to the test. And there's a difference between risking your life because someone you care about is in danger and doing it for an ideal or to fight oppression of a whole society. The latter takes a great deal of conviction.

  2. Heidi, thanks for sharing your family's story. Have you ever thought of writing a family history? It sounds like you've got a worthy subject here!