Regarding the Lutherans Emmanuel and Helen Gitlin

Returning to the Dreams of the Fathers


Emmanuel Gitlin represents a remarkable mixture of faiths and nationalities.  Dr. Gitlin is both a Lutheran professor of theology and a pensioned Methodist minister.  Though he grew up as a Baptist, he is of Jewish heritage.  Both of his parents were Russian Jews, he was born and raised in Poland, then educated in England and the United States.


Emmanuel and his wife, Helen, are now serving in the formerly Yugoslav province of Croatia under the auspices of a Mennonite service agency, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).  The Gitlins joined MCC because they could not locate a Lutheran program for Bible teachers in Eastern Europe.  The Mennonites "were congenial and quite willing to send us as Lutherans," emphasizes Emmanuel.  Helen was sent to Croatia to teach English and music; Emmanuel, to teach Old Testament and Hebrew.


The Gitlin tradition of ecumenism is continuing on Croatian soil: The Lutheran World Federation's John Wood, a Catholic, and Mennonite Central Committee's Emmanuel Gitlin are cooperating in the restoration of Osijek's recently-damaged Lutheran church.  Since coming to Croatia in 1990, Emmanuel has been working primarily for Pentecostal and Jewish institutions.


Both the Lutherans and Jews of Osijek were scattered by the frightful events of World War II.  After the War, native Croatians disqualified local Lutherans as Germans.  Even today, the city government refuses to contribute funding for the restoration of the Lutheran church.  "They see us as enemy territory," explains Helen.  Matti and Tuula Korpiaho, missionaries from Finland, spent eight years, beginning in 1982, regathering the Lutheran flock of Osijek.  Other Lutherans, the Gitlins, namely, have since then helped to regather the Jewish flock, instructing Jews on the basics of their faith.  "Besides teaching them Hebrew, we tried to give their festival and memorial services a spiritual connotation, which they did not have before," Emmanuel states.  "I talked to them on an intellectual level about the meaningfulness of God and prayer."


Last Fall [10/92], Emmanuel began teaching part-time at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Zagreb.  Even this was a breakthrough:  Lutheran leadership in Croatia has for decades refused to cooperate with any agencies or persons supporting the Pentecostal and conservative-evangelical "Evangelical Theological Faculty" (ETF) in Osijek.  Emmanuel is now teaching for both, while studying at Zagreb's Catholic seminary.  The Gitlins are indeed able to combine the unconnectable.


Helen's father was a teacher and professor; she grew up in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida.  Raised as a Presbyterian, she is a radiant example of Southern gentility and hospitality.  But the upringing of Emmanuel, the Russian Jew, and Helen also shows similarities.  Helen points out that both of them "stem from Christian homes with warm, loving family members."


Both she and Emmanuel became Lutherans 30 years ago when they were attracted to an inviting Lutheran congregation in Gainesville, Florida.  Emmanuel adds though, that during his school years in Britain just before the outset of World War II, he had "encountered Anglican-style worship, fallen in love with the Book of Common Prayers, and with the popular Cambridge Bible commentaries.  This led me eventually into the Lutheran church."  While in Gainesville, the Gitlins accepted a position at Lenoir Rhyne College and moved to Hickory, North Carolina.  They have been members of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church there since 1969.



Emmanuel and Helen Gitlin's retirement is hardly a conventional one.  Emmanuel blames the decision to leave the wooded hills of Western North Carolina on the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy.  From his father, who accepted Tolstoy's pacifist and vegetarian convictions, Emmanuel inherited a distaste for all forms of hunting and fishing.  As a non-athlete, he remains unattracted by golf.  So, according to the aging professor himself, there was no option left other than to continue his teaching career.


After a short vacation in the U.S., the Gitlins returned to Osijek in July 1991 to begin their second year of service.  They arrived just in time to witness the beginning of the siege of Osijek by Serb forces.  The city was to remain the object of continual Serb bombings and shellings for the next eight months.  Helen explains simply:  "We thought that if the [seminary] students should be there, then we should be there, too."


The dramatic weeks in Osijek during the bombardment were a very special time for Gitlins and their neighbors.  A communion service, which Emmanuel held above-ground in the Lutheran church on New Year's Day, 1992, during an all-clear period, remains one of their most cherished memories.  Church services held in basements were of necessity ecumenical events involving both Serbs and Croats.


Helen adds jokingly that Lutheran rejection of a teetotaller position proved to be a blessing during the siege:  Most of the basements used for shelter were actually wine cellars.  Therefore, "Catholics and Lutherans fared better than Methodists and Baptists."


The Gitlins were forced to move from Osijek in August 1991, but they returned many times for pastoral visits.  After fleeing Osijek, the Gitlins continued to spend time in the basements of Zagreb. In Zagreb, they resided very near a Yugoslav army barracks under attack by Croat forces.  The Osijek school was forced to spend the 1991-92 school year in northern Slovenia near the Austrian border, but it returned to Osijek for sessions beginning in the Fall of 1992.  The Gitlins moved along with ETF to Slovenia, but returned to Zagreb in February, 1992.


Even before the siege and move, ETF had been the scene of remarkable improvisation.  During the Gitlin's first year, they had needed to function without textbooks.  Thanks to the presence of a photocopier donated by an American friend of the Gitlins, the school was able to supply basic study materials in writing.  Instruction at ETF, which hosted students from numerous Eastern European and African countries, was held in both Serbo-Croatian and English.  But during that first year, ETF also boasted 25 students from the Soviet Union, many of whom understood neither language.  For them, Emmanuel's ability to speak Russian proved a godsend.


The years of Croatian "retirement" have not been blessed with excellent health.  Emmanuel, who had been operated for the removal of a tumor in his bladder, spent his recovery period listening to shells falling outside the apartment in Osijek.  Emmanuel believes the tumor to have been benign:  The paperwork on his operation was destroyed along with a large section of the Osijek hospital.



Emmanuel Gitlin's case could be used as evidence to prove that old men do indeed return to the dreams of their fathers.  His Jewish parents, Moses and Clara, both grew up in a village near Odessa.  Both were influenced by the teachings of socialism and of Tolstoy.  The singing of the Stundists, an evangelical, revivalist movement, changed the course of history for the Gitlin clan:  Their music led to Moses' conversion in May 1912.  He left for theological studies in the U.S. shortly thereafter.  A graduate of Chicago's Moody Bible Institute and an ordained Baptist minister, Moses returned to Poland in 1921.  Three days after smuggling Clara across the border into Poland on a sleigh, Moses and Clara were married.  Emmanuel and his twin sister were born in November 1922, very near the town of Rovno, which was then in Poland, but is now located in the Western Ukraine.  According to Emmanuel, Rovno is now perhaps the most Baptist of Ukrainian cities.


Denied permission to evangelize within the Soviet Union, Moses founded a Bible school in Poland to which Ukrainian and White Russian converts could be brought for theological training. Emmanuel consequently spent his first years within a Russian and Ukrainian subculture based in Poland.


After being subjected to vicious hazing from classmates because of his Jewish and Baptist connections, Emmanuel was sent to a church school in Britain in 1935.  In the face of a new world war, the entire family was forced to move to the United States four years later.  After attending Columbia Bible College in South Carolina, Emmanuel found a spiritual and theological home at Duke University in North Carolina.  He graduated with a Ph.D. in theology in 1953.


Despite decades of absence, Moses Gitlin never forgot his dreams for Russian evangelization.  Moses' White Russian Bible translation was finally published in 1972, three years after his death.


In April 1993, Moses' oldest son will be teaching during a two-and-a-half week session at the German-language Lutheran seminary in Sibiu, Romania.  These courses, which are being offered for pastors from Russia, are held in both Sibiu and Riga, Latvia.  Roughly 30 Lutheran pastors usually attend.


Though the Lutheran church of the former Soviet Union is still called the "German Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Republics of the East," Emmanuel believes it must soon become a Russian entity.  "Hopefully the Lutheran church in Russia will become a truly Russian church," he states.  "Otherwise, it will become a ghetto in which concern for the survival of German culture will be badly confused with the task of promulgating the Gospel."  In a session at Sibiu recently, Emmanuel was saddened to observe a professor who refused to allow time for his lectures to be translated into Russian, arguing that members of a German church should be expected to understand German.  According to Gitlin, only half of the students from Russia understand any German.


Thanks to the efforts of Professor Gerhard Kroedel of Gettysburg Seminary, and others, property for a future seminary has been purchased at Retkido, 80 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia.  This project finds Emmanuel's wholehearted approval.


Emmanuel is also delighted that the small Baptist church of Poland is constructing new headquarters and a theological school on a property in Radosc near Warsaw, which had been initially purchased by Moses Gitlin nearly 70 years ago.


In recent years, Emmanuel Gitlin taught study courses on Bible topics in churches around Hickory.  "This is what my father had been doing in Europe," he says.  Emmanuel himself is now involved in very similar projects in southeastern Europe.  In his old age, Emmanuel Gitlin is mimicking the activities of his father during his youth.  Seventy years after the request, Moses Gitlin's plea to the Russian government is finally being answered positively.  A few old men are returning to the dreams of their fathers.


Dr. Bill Yoder

Berlin, November 8, 1992


Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 1,690 words


Note from November 2020: Emmanuel Gitlin, born in Poland in 1922, died in Hickory, North Carolina in 2017. Helen Edmiston Gitlin had passed away in Hickory in 2008. She was born in 1927.