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Diaries, letters, and photos access times past and enable researchers to ferret out their dark secrets. Publication of such materials makes present and up-close experiences of the human family from which we benefit, if we have the courage.

Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945 (2016) is one such narrative. Its Polish American author Sophie Hodorowicz Knab undertook this challenge to honor her mother Jozefa, enslaved in 1943 within the munitions factory in Ulmstead, not far from Hanover, until the end of the war. She was thirty-two years old when taken from her Krakow home in her house slippers. Upon the right breast of her clothing was the hated purple P upon a yellow patch, stitched there following the 1939 occupation of Poland; its people were considered racially subhuman and expendable.

Her mother’s reticence to speak of her experiences later prodded Knab to comb the Archives in the United States, Poland, Germany, and England for evidence of the plight of forced civilian women in Nazi Germany: such only appeared in the 1980s. Her research uncovered records of their conscription, their divided families, filthy transit camps and cattle cars, abject poverty, extreme weather conditions, multiple diseases, malnutrition, starvation, forced abortions, crippling humiliations, 12-hour work days in agricultural and industrial settings, and newborns left to starve.

What fueled Knab’s research was the discovery of diaries, letters, and photos taken by these women. Interweaving them with the bitter facts of their enslavement added an indescribable poignancy to this scholarly work.

Indeed, the words and faces of these 105 women still tell their story.

 

 

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Recently, a single red balloon found its way into my backyard, its bottom booted by trickster winds under brooding skies; its redness plummeted me within the experience of Pascal, the kindergartner in the Academy-Award winning short, The Red Balloon (1956) by Albert Lamorisse. Filmed in the run-down Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris, still recovering from the war’s devastation, the mood is somber, its grayness pervasive. Spare is the dialogue amidst the noise of street life.

On the way to school Pascal happens upon a red helium balloon snared within the crook of a streetlamp, frees, then, tames it: its brightness emboldens his fragile sensitivity, easily bruised by the crimped world of adults and hooligans around him; it becomes his confidante. A playful lei-motif traces their developing relationship, with its pranks, foolishness, joys, and grief.

But The Red Balloon is not just an ordinary movie. Its opening scene engages our imagination and plunges us into the world of symbols; some of the following are notable: grey clothing: mourning; the Cosmic Suffering Christ: red balloon; wetness: cleansing; the Divine Child: innocence; stone stairs: heights and depths; and redemption: the cluster balloon ride—thereby imprinting this story upon viewers for decades.

Even today, eyes quicken with smiles whenever the story of Pascal and his red balloon is shared.

Do treat yourself. Both the book and the short are still available on Amazon—even a freebie on YouTube.

 

Ahead of me, cars and trucks inched up the exit ramp curving to the left, onto North Kingshighway Boulevard, site of the sprawling Barnes-Jewish Hospital and clinics. The afternoon sun wilted long grasses along the pavement; the air, sticky with humidity. City pigeons scrounged for seeds.

And yes, there was someone near the stoplight: short, stocky, walking with a limp. A slouch hat covered his head; a graying beard, his square jaw. Safety pins fastened his wrinkled khaki shirt. Around his neck hung three white plastic rosaries of varying lengths and a cardboard sign scrawled with words in black letters. Behind him, stood a battered shopping cart, filled with bags and opened boxes, their contents spilling over its side.

Missing was the City’s ordinance against panhandling, usually posted near the stoplight.

Upon seeing me wave, he hurried to my car, his dark eyes glinting in the sun, his wide mouth grinning, revealing missing teeth. He reminded me of a fun-loving grandpa, full of stories; of an old laborer with a broken body.

“God blesses you!” he repeated over and over, welcoming me into his home. No longer invisible, someone had seen him and he knew it. I was humbled.

Long ago, a friend had taught me that nothing is as it seems.

 

 

Available on Amazon

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