Emmi Delbrück

“By Gracious Powers…” - The story of Emmi Delbrück – one of Max’s sisters

When I recently attended a silver wedding anniversary celebration at the Catholic parish church Mater Dolorosa in Berlin’s Buch district, the service included the deeply emotional hymn “By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered.” The original German text is a poem written by Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in December 1944, just a few months before he was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp for his resistance to the Nazis. As I listened to the song, I had the idea of telling something of the Delbrück family’s complex history – one that is fascinating, and also very topical. There was, after all, an important link between the Bonhoeffer family and Max Delbrück, the namesake of our institution.

In what follows, I will go beyond Delbrück’s scientific achievements to take a look at the personal history of his family, specifically his sister Emilie. On May 13, 2015 the indomitable “Emmi” would have turned 110.

The Delbrücks came from the town of Alfeld an der Leine in the state of Lower Saxony. The family was very influential throughout the 19th century – in Prussia and subsequently in the German Empire.

Emilie was about a year older than Max. Their parents were historian and Reichstag parliamentarian Hans Delbrück (1848-1929) and his wife Carolina Delbrück, née Thiersch (1864-1943). “Lina,” as she was known, was a granddaughter of renowned chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) and daughter-in-law of theologian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), considered a spiritual father of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Lina’s father was the famous surgeon Carl Thiersch (1822-1895), who conducted some of the first-ever skin transplants in 1886 and whose research focused on how cholera is transmitted. The Delbrücks had seven children in all: Waldemar (1892-1917, fell in WWI); Justus (1902-1945); Hanni; Lene; Emilie (1905-1991) and Max (1906-1981).


Emmi Delbrück & Klaus Bonhoeffer from: Christian Gremmels / Renate Bethge (Ed.), Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Bilder eines Lebens © 2005, Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh, in the Random House GmbH

Emilie grew up in a family of high-ranking Prussian administrators, scholars and pastors. Her upbringing was based on tradition, altruism, dedication to duty, and self-discipline.[1] In September 1930 Emmi married lawyer Klaus Bonhoeffer, the third oldest of the eight Bonhoeffer siblings. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the above-mentioned hymn, was thus her brother-in-law. Emmi’s father-in-law Karl Ludwig Bonhoeffer was a well-known psychiatrist and neurologist, professor at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin and at the Charité.

During the Third Reich, Klaus Bonhoeffer had contacts with various groups who opposed Hitler. It was primarily through his brother Dietrich that he learned about the resistance being mounted by Christian groups. He also had numerous connections to the military resistance movement through his brothers-in-law Justus Delbrück, Hans von Dohnanyi, and Rüdiger Schleicher. He had insider knowledge about the plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the government that was planned for July 20, 1944. Through his wife’s cousin Ernst von Harnack, Klaus was also connected to the social democratic opposition. He used his freedom to travel to help build the network of resistance. He was executed on April 23, 1945. The profound and emotional farewell letter that he wrote to his children from prison was carefully preserved by his wife Emmi and later published.

Emmi had worked tirelessly to assist her husband, passing on messages and carrying out other tasks. After his death she fled to Schleswig-Holstein with her children. Later she lived in Frankfurt am Main and spent the last 20 years of her life in Düsseldorf, close to her daughter’s family. She had a close relationship with her three grandsons, to whom she offered loving advice, especially as far as education and career were concerned. Throughout her life, Emmi Delbrück promoted the causes of peace and justice, for example setting up an aid organization for people who were suffering in East Germany. She put together and distributed thousands of packages of donated money and goods to private addresses in the East. In the 1960s she supported witnesses in the Auschwitz trials, as we know from her correspondence at that time.[2] Later, she worked for Amnesty International and opposed the deployment of missiles in Germany – participating in protest vigils even at an advanced age. She also became known for her wise and passionate talks about Germany’s past at schools and numerous public events.[3]

The Bonhoeffer, Delbrück, Harnack and Dohnanyi families were undoubtedly unusual, even for their day. In their childhood they played rounders and went ice-skating together. They were also keen musicians who regularly performed together. They had normal, natural relations with their Jewish neighbors, friends and colleagues – which gave them a heightened sense of the Nazi injustices from an early stage. The story of these Berlin neighbors, who became friends and then spouses, demonstrates how shared trust and support can give individuals the courage to oppose wrongs even in the face of calamity and loss.

In summer 1989, two years before her death, Emmi Delbrück was asked about her hopes for the future. Her answer: “I would like people to realize that the age of power politics is over. It is only by working together that we can save the world from destruction. It is not through a sense of entitlement that we can avert disaster, but through moderation and humility.”[4]

The exemplary life of Emilie Bonhoeffer should give pause for thought to anyone who ̶- for whatever reason ̶ demonstrates against foreigners and refugees or opposes the coexistence of different cultures and religions.

[1] Grabner 2005, p. 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cf. Grabner 2005

[4] Grabner 2005, p. 11

Grabner, Sigrid: Emmi Bonhoeffer – Essay, Gespräch, Erinnerung. Berlin 2005 [https://books.google.de/]