Remembering Professor von Waldow

“You have a great opportunity here,” Professor Eberhard von Waldow said on the opening day of class. “You get to learn the language of God in a German accent.” And then, pointing the stick he always brought into class at me, he continued, “And you even get to learn it with a Southern accent.” 

“Was that how they spoke in Judea?” I asked sarcastically. He grinned and continued telling us about the richness of the Hebrew language and how the New Testament was just an appendix to the Old. 

This was in the fall of 1987. There were seven of us in the class and we sat around a long oak table in a conference room at Pittsburgh Seminary. All of us were nervous. With his Prussian roots, von Waldow had a reputation for being verbally abusive to the unprepared. But I signed up for his class because I knew it would be small. I would receive individual attention. In addition, the fear of having him humiliate you was enough to make sure I would do the required work. Throughout the academic year, until May, we met in that classroom. Sadly, today, I remember more of his stories than I do about the language. 

As a young man, “Waldo,” as some of us called him behind his back (in person you always addressed him as either Professor or Doctor) had been a tank commander in the German army. Most of the time he spent on the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians. Wounded in 1944, he returned to Germany to recuperate. He ended the war on the Western front. With a rag-tag army of kids and old men, his orders were to to help stop the advance of the Allies. Realizing the absurdity of this, he surrendered to the British.

After the war, he became a pacifist and finished his university studies. Like his father before him, he became a Lutheran pastor and scholar. He would teach at Pittsburgh for over thirty years. Living in a neighbor that had many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, he had to confront his past. He made friends among the Jewish people. In November 1988, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, an event in which violence against the Jews broke out across Germany, he spoke in a local synagogue. 

I couldn’t attend his Kristallnacht talk because I was serving First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada as a student pastor at the time. However, we occasionally corresponded and he sent me his manuscript (which, over the years, I’ve lost). In it, he describes being in the school at the time when fire fighters stood back and let Jewish synagogues and businesses burn. His father became upset about what was happening. His father would be twice arrested by the Gestapo, but it was a Russian soldier killed him at the end of the war. In his later years, Von Waldow wanted it known that there were Germans who hated all that the Third Reich stood for. Sadly, as a young man out of high school, he had no choice but to report to duty when drafted. 

Eberhard von Waldow occasionally told stories about the war. As an academic, his methodology was steeped in German higher criticism, which many condemn for discounting miracles and divine providence. When asked about his position on miracles, von Waldow told about riding in a tank that had a 500 bomb detonate on the top of the tank’s turret. “I said, “ah, shit” and then couldn’t hear for a few weeks. “But I survived,” he continued. “Some might say it was Krupp armor that saved me, but I know better. Had that bomb landed elsewhere except on the very top of the turret, I wouldn’t be here.”

One day, I wore a pink shirt to class. We were learning about Hebrew vowel points and how certain ones would soften a letter. As a teacher, Von Waldow was quick to come up with illustrations. He pointed to my shirt and said, “Look, Jeff put this white shirt in the wash with a red one and now he has a pink shirt.” I’m sure his conservative Prussian background meant he couldn’t understand a man wearing pink.  

Another time, I made some kind of quip about the German composer Wagner. I knew von Waldow was a classical music lover and a big supporter of public radio, but this didn’t get me any extra points. He went off on a tangent about Wagner. The Third Reich had adopted the music of Wagner and he’d heard enough of this music during the war that he never wanted to hear it again. Now, I wonder if the music might have caused him post-traumatic stress.

The room in which we met had a life-sized portrait of a faculty member from either late in the 19th or early 20th century. Oddly, because this wasn’t really a Presbyterian thing, the guy in the portrait wore a clergy collar. One day, out of the blue, von Waldow came into class and began to berate this portrait for wearing a collar. At this time, several of the Lutheran students at the seminary were wearing collars when they preached or worked in church positions. But von Waldow was too conservative for collars. As a Southerner, I sympathized with von Waldow. Collars were too formal for me. I’ve never worn one. 

Around campus, everyone knew that von Waldow was working on his magus opus, a commentary on the prophet Jeremiah. I took a survey class of Hebrew prophets, taught by Dr. Donald Gowan, another Old Testament professor and prolific author. At the opening of each lecture on a different prophet, Gowan provided a list of commentaries he recommended. The day he lectured on Jeremiah, he confessed he had problems with every commentary available at the time. Then, this man whom I had never heard say anything bad about anyone, said, “When my colleague Eberhard publishes his commentary, I’ll have one to recommend.” He paused and then in almost a whisper continued, “Of course, we’ll all be dead by then.” Sadly, von Waldow never finished his commentary and most of his published writings available today are in German.  

In my second year of seminary, at the time I was studying Hebrew, there was campus debate over how frequently to have communion in chapel. Things became comically heated. As a semi-Calvinist, who leaned toward Zwingli, I found this debate to be fodder for satire. But the seminary President became concern and decided it should be discussed. He called for a community townhall. Faculty were ordered to attend. While von Waldow wasn’t happy about it, he followed orders. 

The day after the long campus meeting, von Waldow marched into Hebrew class, dropped his books on the table, and launched into a tirade about the spectacle. 

“That meeting yesterday was the damnest thing I’ve seen.” Then, contradicting himself, he continued, drawing on his war experiences. “I haven’t seen anything like that since the war. Imagine having a 25-ton tank stuck? We had one buried in mud up to the top of the tracks. You’ve never seen such a mess. But we had the Russians shooting at us and had to do something pretty damn fast. The was the only difference between that meeting yesterday and the war was the shooting. We needed someone shooting to have forced a decision so we could all go home.” 

Eberhard von Waldow would continue to teach at the seminary for a few years after I graduated. He died in 2007 at the age of 83. I’m glad to have known him and while I moved theologically away from his higher Biblical criticism as the only way to approach scripture, I am indebted to his teaching. I probably learned as much about preaching in his Hebrew exegesis class as I did in homiletics. I am also in debt to his story, for it could have gone another way. A man of war became a man of peace. I wish he was here to discuss what’s going on in Ukraine, for there was a time in the 1940s, when he commanded 12 tanks across that terrain. 

Looking back, it’s interesting that von Waldow wasn’t the only faculty member to have served in the German army. Dr. Mauser, our dean, served for a brief period in the German army and I should at some point write about my experiences with him. 

Professor von Walton from clips.substack.com

While the memories above are from me, I found these articles on the internet to be useful and insightful:

Bill Steigerward, “The Nazi Take Commander who became an American Peacenik” (this article originally appeared in Pittsburgh newspaper in June, 1994).

Mark J. Englund-Kriger, “In Memory of Professor Eberhard von Waldow”. A blog post from January 8, 2008.

A letter in Horizons in Biblical Theology.  January 1993, this letter was written at the time of von Waldow’s retirement. 

Obituary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 2007

25 thoughts on “Remembering Professor von Waldow”

  1. Thanks, Jeff, I enjoyed reading about Herr Professor. I also enjoyed all the comments and remembrances of your friends and fellow students. Professor Von Walton served in the German military during a terrible time but amazingly came out, possibly, the better for it. Amazing Grace.
    Diane

  2. It sounds like you were lucky to have a man like him teach you. I had a violin teacher who your stories remind me of–firm, demanding, brilliant, unforgiving, and believed I could do anything on the violin so why not try? To this day, I remember his lessons.

    Thanks for sharing this man with us.

  3. He sounds like a real character. Germans’ demeanor is often harsh through our American lenses.

  4. Jeff, I too remember Professor Van Waldo. I vividly remember my very first day of seminary in his class. Just moments into the class he slammed his stick down on a front row student’s desk and yelled in his German voice, “There arrr no angels!” I was definitely on my toes in his class but I learned so much and learned to adore this man. We had the greatest OT professors, didn’t we? I agree with you on another point you made: I leaned as much about preaching from an OT prof (Dr. Gowan in my case), than I learned in homiletics class. These guys were one of a kind and so good at what they did for us!!!

    • I learned a lot from Gowan. On my student pastor year, I read his book on Preaching on the Old Testament. While we had great OT professors (we can’t forget Dr. Jackson) there were good New Testament profs too.

  5. What an interesting life. I think he would have terrified me in a small class that would allow him to call on me far too frequently. I would have exhausted myself, over-preparing in order to avoid being humiliated. I’m imagining his stern expression as he quipped about his students’ opportunity to learn God’s language in a German accent with a southern one as well.

    Obviously, he was a good man caught up in a terrible time.

  6. Your ability to relate to our professors is admirable; their back stories are fascinating and enlightening. I also appreciate clarification of the tank story: I had heard that all of the soldiers were killed except him and while some considered it to be miracle, Waldo assured them his survival was due to him being a commander and therefore situated in a more fortified place in the tank. Miracle or providence or just plain luck?
    Funny story you’ll appreciate: I volunteered to read the minutes from the first day of class to which he responded, “You remind me of Lake Wobegan where the men are handsome and the women are strong.” (Southern Israel – good one, Jeff!)

    • I forgot about his reading of minutes… He didn’t do that in Hebrews, but did do it Hebrew exegesis. While I don’t remember him talking about Lake Wobegon, he was a big NPR supporter and his car radio was always tuned in

  7. A very fascinating story. I’m glad you included the picture at the end because it wasn’t at all what I had imagined while reading it.

    • I thought about suggesting he had the look of Col. Klink (of Hogan’s Heroes) for he was tall and lanky, too. The big difference was that his accent wasn’t fake. Somewhere I have a couple of photos of him, but they are still boxed after my move in late 2020.

  8. Thank you for sharing your memories of Professor von Waldow, Jeff. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about him. His comments on the faculty meeting had me laughing. I know the feeling. Waldow sounds like a fascinating person!

    I’ve always believed that you get out of a course what you put into it. I always loved my small undergraduate classes around a seminar table where there was nowhere to hide. I had my share of large undergraduate classes too, but the small ones were the best.

    • Actually, for a few years I would translate Hebrew passages I was preaching on, but that was over 30 years ago and gradually I lost my skill and gave it up. I agree, the smaller classes are the best.

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