“Germany will be my grave.”
I shall say Mass for George on November 24, the feast of our father St. John of the Cross. On that day, I am leaving to minister to the French prisoners interned in Germany. French priests who wished to go were refused permits. I felt I could not refuse this mission, since Jesus says to those he rejects, “I was in prison and you did not visit me.” People think I am suited to the work because I have relatives in Germany. So I am setting out under the protection of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I am looking forward to bringing some consolation to these prisoners who are in such great need.
Hermann Cohen to his sister, writing from Montreux, Switzerland
Late November 1870
When Cohen arrived in Berlin, he took up the chaplaincy of Spandau prisoner of war camp, about nine miles from the capital. There were 5,300 French prisoners in the camp. While ministering to their spiritual needs, he also didn’t overlook their material ones. He would arrive at the camp armed with parcels of clothes and linen, which he distributed to those in need during the bitter Berlin winter.
I am at Spandau where you made your First Communion in the sacristy. I vest in this sacristy every day to say Mass and preach to the French prisoners. About 500 of them are ill with typhus and dysentery. About 400 attend Mass every day, and I preach to them. Then I visit the hospital to minister to the sick; and in the afternoon, I visit the barracks to see those who are well. Pray earnestly for their conversion; many of the healthy have not been to confession yet.
Hermann Cohen to his sister, writing from Spandau
Early December 1870
A last fragment of a letter from Hermann Cohen has survived. His beloved nephew George Raunheim has noted on it, “N.B. End of a letter written on 11 December in Spandau, twenty days before his death.”
Let us love Jesus more every day! Father Augustine. An unworthy sinner who wishes to be converted for the new year that is beginning. Amen.
On January 9, Cohen contracted smallpox while anointing two of its victims. His family afterward believed that he did not have the spatula with him with which he usually anointed the sick. He had a scratch on his finger through which he contracted the disease. A Capuchin friar in Spandau gave an account of his last days in January 1871..
On Friday, the 13, Father Hermann was ill. We went to his room, and his eldest brother Albert had come from Montreux. He was being looked after by a Sister of Charity. “Well Father, I need you,” he said to me. “I have smallpox and shall be in bed for three or four weeks. I shall be unhappy if the work I have begun is not continued. Besides, the Lord can take me. You will be there to take my place.” “Father,” I said, “I hope God will leave you still longer in your ministry.” But he looked at his crucifix and said, “No, I don’t think so, I hope the Lord will take me this time.”
On January 15, he grew worse; and after a seizure, the parish priest of Spandau decided to give him the last rites. Cohen accepted them with joy and peace, which impressed everyone present. Then he renewed his Carmelite vows. He joined in the Te Deum, the Salve Regina, and the De Profundis. Then he saw his brothers Albert and Louis for the last time and asked Louis to see that he was buried in the vaults of the Cathedral of St. Hedwig in Berlin.
Two days later, his condition deteriorated. On January 19, the sister asked if he wanted her to call a priest. Cohen replied,
So I am going to die. May God’s holy will be done; besides, if I were cured, I would have to witness distressful things.
Cohen’s last hours do remind us of what St. John of the Cross wrote in his “Spiritual Canticle”:
Death cannot be bitter to the soul who loves, who finds in her all sweetness, delights of love. The soul looks upon death as her friend and spouse, and thinking of her, rejoices as on the day of her espousals. She desires the day and hour when death will come, more than the kings of this earth desire their kingdoms.
He gave a last blessing to those around him at their request—his attendants, the Sister of Charity who looked after him, and a Jesuit coworker. Cohen survived the night and died quietly the next morning at about ten o’clock. He was forty-nine years of age. It was a truly heroic end to a life that, after conversion, was completely dedicated to Christian and Carmelite ministry. He was indeed a martyr of charity.
And so on a frosty morning in the course of a Berlin winter, January 20, 1871, Hermann Cohen yielded his generous soul into the arms of eternal love.
Timothy Tierney, O.C.D.
A Life of Hermann Cohen: From Franz Liszt to John of the Cross
Chapter 13: Final Mission, 1870-1871 (excerpts)
The official website for the cause of the beatification of the Servant of God Augustine-Mary of the Blessed Sacrament is maintained by the vice-postulator of the cause in the Discalced Carmelite Friars’ province of Avignon-Aquitaine, the Carmes de Midi. You can access the cause’s official website here; it is in published only in French. The Discalced Carmelite General Postulator in Rome also has an official website with pages and links dedicated to Father Augustine-Mary. You can access the website’s links to Hermann Cohen here; it is published only in Italian. You can find the English translation of the Prayer for the Beatification of the Servant of God Augustine-Mary of the Blessed Sacrament here. You can view our previous blog posts about Hermann Cohen here.
Tierney, T 2017, A Life of Hermann Cohen: From Franz Liszt to John of the Cross, Balboa Press, Bloomington, IN