German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was remembered Thursday, the 70th anniversary of his execution by the Nazis, as a man who courageously sacrificed what could have been a comfortable life at a New York seminary to return to Germany and confront Hitler's killing machine.
Bonhoeffer, 39, a Lutheran pastor and noted anti-Nazi dissident, was hanged in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, two weeks before Allied forces liberated it at the end of World War II in Europe.
"The saints, the prophets, the heroes of our traditions stand forever as role models for us," Bonhoeffer among them, said the Rev. Jonathan Linman of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"And we need such role models, such mentors to give us the courage to carry the torch of truth and goodness today, now in the 21st century," Linman told about 75 people who gathered for the commemoration, held at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage Restoration Village.
The interfaith event attracted elected officials, clergy and members of the public who said Bonhoeffer was an inspiration to them.
"He's one of my heroes," said Henry Fuhrman, 31, pastor of the nondenominational CenterPoint Church in Massapequa. "If I could live my life like he did, it would be a life well-lived."
Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned before his eventual transfer to concentration camps, including Flossenburg. The Nazis accused him of participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and after a brief trial he was hanged.
He could have avoided Nazi Germany during World War II completely, Linman and others said. Born in Breslau, which then was part of Germany, he studied at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in 1930 and was invited back to teach in 1939.
"Professor Reinhold Niebuhr sought to bring him back not only for his theological genius, but also to save his life," said Terry Krueger, a student at the seminary who is nearing ordination as a Lutheran minister.
Bonhoeffer accepted the post and moved to New York, but returned to Germany a month later, Krueger said. "He realized he could not remain in America in good conscience, knowing all the terrible things that were happening in his homeland," Krueger said.
Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray called Bonhoeffer a "brave and inspirational man who stood up against the tyranny and oppression of his time."
She said his own words were the most powerful: "Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset said Bonhoeffer's words are often quoted at religious services during important Jewish holy days.
"The Jewish people so admire and respect his guts and his courage," Rank said.