Albert Schweitzer: Le Grand Docteur

Chapter 1
Change of Circumstance

Icy rain fell as Albert Schweitzer trudged on. Following orders, he and his wife, Hélène, were walking from the Port of the Moon in the heart of Bordeaux, France, two miles south to a building on a narrow road. Albert’s hands were burning from the string wrapped around the package of important books he was carrying. But he was more concerned about his wife. They both wore thin linen clothing suitable for Equatorial Africa, but the temperature in Bordeaux was 45 degrees Fahrenheit and Hélène shivered uncontrollably. As they walked, passersby jeered at them. At one point Hélène collapsed from exhaustion, or at least Albert hoped it was only exhaustion. He helped her up, wanting to believe they would be able to rest and recover and change into warm clothing when they got to their destination.

At last they arrived at the gate in front of a two-story white stone structure. A guard told them it was to be their temporary prison until they were transferred elsewhere. The wrought-iron gate slammed hard behind them as they walked up to the door of the building. After stepping inside, Albert’s shoulders slumped. He and Hélène were taken to a drafty room with bare stone walls and floors and no heating. Accustomed to the heat and humidity of living just below the equator, Albert felt as though they’d been dumped into a freezer.

As days passed in the frigid conditions, Hélène’s cough grew worse. Albert could hear the telltale symptoms of tuberculosis. Then they both fell ill with dysentery, something Albert had taken great pains to avoid during his four and a half years in Africa. Languishing in their cold room, Albert wondered where he and his wife would be transferred. Would they be separated? Sent deeper into France? Or worse, shipped to the rumored holding camp for enemy aliens in Egypt? He didn’t know—he just hoped and prayed he and Hélène could stay together.

Sitting with his back against the wall and shivering, Albert reflected on his change of circumstance. He’d been a respected doctor sent out by a reputable French missionary society to work in Africa. Now he and his wife were detained enemy aliens in France. What madness had overtaken the world that led to his being held prisoner as an enemy of the country he loved? The one place Albert loved more than any other was Alsace, and he wondered if he would ever see his homeland again. Slowly his mind drifted to memories of life growing up there.

Chapter 2

For probably the first time in his four years of life, Albert stood still while Gretel, the Schweitzer family’s maid, brushed his wiry black hair. He didn’t want to jeopardize the promise that he could attend church this morning like a big boy. So he didn’t wiggle and complain as he usually did, even though having his hair brushed was one of the biggest trials of Albert’s day. Gretel smeared oil on his hair and dragged the brush through it over and over again until she sighed and dredged up a part with a wooden pick. Her efforts hardly made a difference. Albert knew that within an hour his unruly hair would be as wild as before. The maid was right. Albert’s hair was impossible to tame.

Albert looked at his older sister, Louisa, whose hair hung in two perfectly formed braids, just as it always did.

“Now for the bow tie,” Albert heard Gretel say as she reached around to loop a silk tie behind his neck. “Remember, your papa says you’re old enough for church now, but you must sit quietly and watch what the others do. If they stand, you stand. If they sit, you sit. No daydreaming.”

Albert nodded. Almost every day Gretel and his mother told him to stop daydreaming, whether he was rocking his baby sister Emma’s cradle or standing on a stool stirring a pot of lentils on the woodstove.

Adele Schweitzer, Albert’s mother, walked into the room and spoke to Louisa. “Mind you sit up straight and listen to every word your papa says. And make sure Albert does the same. I expect a good report from Gretel on the both of you.”

Five-year-old Louisa nodded.

Even though the Lutheran church that Albert’s father pastored was just a few doors from the Schweitzer home, Albert felt the thrill of a new adventure. He was finally old enough to go to a church service. Of course, he’d been there many times when the congregation wasn’t present. His father, the Reverend Louis Schweitzer, often let Albert sit at the back of the church and listen as Father Iltis practiced the weekly hymns on the pipe organ in the loft above. Albert loved those times when the organ echoed off the stone walls and sunlight shone through the church’s stained-glass windows and danced on the floor.

Albert waved to his mother as he stepped outside. Adele was staying home to look after the baby. Emma was sickly, and Adele often stayed indoors to watch her. His two other sisters, two-year-old Marguerite and three-year-old Adele, clung to their mother’s long blue skirt. Albert smiled. He was finally going somewhere with Louisa and leaving his three younger sisters behind. Louisa took Albert’s hand, and together they walked down the cobblestone street and up the slope to the church.

A feeling of pride flooded Albert as he saw his father standing at the open door of the church, wearing his cassock and preaching bands. He smiled as he shook Albert’s hands. “Be good in church and do what Gretel tells you to,” he said.

Albert and Louisa settled into a pew near the front, on the women’s side of the church. Gretel slid in beside them. As the congregation stood to sing a hymn, Albert looked around and listened closely to the sound of the pipe organ. He’d heard Father Iltis play the instrument many times before, but there was something special in hearing the notes carry loud and clear above the congregation’s singing.

After the hymns had been sung, Albert’s father climbed the stairs to the ornately carved pulpit that towered above the pews and began delivering the morning homily. He preached in German, though like most of their neighbors, the Schweitzers spoke Alsatian at home and sometimes French. It had been like that since before Albert was born, and it seemed perfectly natural for him to understand and speak all three languages.

Albert listened to the sermon for a few minutes and then turned his attention to the stained-glass windows. He’d overheard his father talking to his grandfather about how most Lutheran churches did not have such ornate windows. But the church in the village of Gunsbach, on the banks of the River Fecht, was different from others. It stood in the Alsace Valley between the beautiful Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east.

Once, when Albert found a piece of flint in the garden of their home, his father had explained that it was from Roman times, and that for over a thousand years the Alsace Valley had been a battleground for control of the region. The stained-glass windows represented part of that struggle. In 1639 the French gained control of the Alsace region. Several years later, King Louis XIV of France, who was Catholic, decreed that the German-style Lutherans could stay in their church buildings if they agreed to share them with Catholics. Along with this came a decree to install Catholic stained-glass windows in the churches and place a golden cross on the altar with statues of Mary and Joseph on either side. And that was how the front of the Gunsbach church remained laid out over two hundred years later.

Despite his young age, Albert had heard stories of how some Lutheran and Catholic clergy fought over church buildings. He remembered a funny story his father had told about how, long ago, a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic priest had both set the same time for their Sunday services. Since neither would back down, the priest and the pastor preached at the same time, trying to shout over each other.

No such thing happened in Gunsbach, however. Albert’s father was a peace-loving man who gladly shared his church with Catholics, despite the fact that eight years earlier, Alsace had been annexed by the kingdom of Prussia after France had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, and the old French edict about sharing churches was no longer enforced. On the occasions when the Catholic priest was out of the village, Albert’s father even visited sick parishioners for him.

Since he behaved so well during the service, Albert got to go to church every Sunday and also attend the missionary meetings his father held once a month. These meetings astonished Albert. He especially loved it when his father read stories from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society’s magazine. Many of them were about missionaries in Africa, and as his father read the stories aloud, Albert tried hard to imagine African people living among lions and elephants.

Not long afterward, Albert’s mother took him to visit his great-aunt in Colmar, ten miles to the east. It was a Thursday—market day—and after Aunt Julie had purchased some vegetables, the family strolled down Kleberstrausse to the Champ de Mars memorial garden for war heroes. Albert looked up to see a tall bronze statue of Admiral Armand Joseph Bruat, commander of the French fleet during the Crimean War from 1853–1856. Around the bottom of the statue were four stone figures representing the four corners of the world. Albert walked around the base of the statue and studied each figure. He stopped for a long time in front of the statue of the African man with his head bent in surrender.

“Ah, you appreciate a great statue,” Aunt Julie said. “This represents two famous men from Colmar: Admiral Bruat, and the sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. We can walk back past the house Bartholdi grew up in if you like.”

Albert nodded, though it was hard for him to leave the statue of the African man. Something about the man’s expression captivated Albert.

Another incident in Colmar also left a deep impression on Albert. On the way back to his great-aunt’s house, he saw an injured horse. One man was dragging the animal by its bridle while another whipped its back and cursed. As soon as Albert asked his mother why they were mistreating the horse, he wished he hadn’t. His mother explained that the horse was on its way to the slaughterhouse.

That night when Adele Schweitzer came in to say prayers with Albert, he added a silent prayer. “Dear God, please protect and bless all things that breathe, keep all evil from them, and let them sleep in peace.” Even so, for weeks Albert couldn’t stop thinking about the needless cruelty he had witnessed. He could not understand why anyone had to make an innocent animal suffer a beating.

Soon after Albert returned from the visit to Colmar, his father sat him down at the old upright piano in the living room. Albert knew it had belonged to his grandfather, Pastor Johann Schillinger, his mother’s father. His parents had inherited the instrument before Albert was born, when his grandfather died. The piano didn’t make the same impressive, swelling sound as the church organ, but most evenings after dinner Louis Schweitzer played hymns and songs on it for the children. From the time Albert could stand up and reach the keys, he’d enjoyed pretending to play the piano. By now he could pick out simple tunes with his right hand. His father told him he’d decided it was time to show Albert how to use his left hand to make chords on the keyboard. Louis sat down beside his son and patiently explained how he would have to learn which groups of notes sounded good together. Part of that meant playing scales. Once he could play scales, he could use them to pick out the chords with his left hand while playing the melody with his right. It wasn’t difficult. Albert hadn’t expected it to be. After all, he came from a long line of organ players on both sides of his family. Within a few weeks, Albert could play many hymns with both hands. He also dreamed of playing the church organ one day.

In the fall of 1880, Albert began attending school, something he’d dreaded. He couldn’t think of anything worse than being crammed into one room five days a week, staring at a slate and trying to produce letters and numbers on it with a piece of chalk. Louisa brought her slate home every night, and Albert’s mother often complimented her on how round and regular her letters were. Albert had a gloomy feeling he wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as his sister.