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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.

 

 

Most families have one significant story that would hearten many if it were known. Happily for us, the American author Olivia Hawker picked up one around her husband’s dining room table and enfleshed Anton Starzmann within the pages of her historical novel, The Ragged Edge of Night (2018). A humble man, Anton lays bare his conflicted soul, enters fully into the challenges that beset him, laughs and cries from the core of his being: overtures that endear him to the reader.

And yes, this is another story oozing from the wound of World War II, from 1942 to 1945, set in a backwater hamlet, 40 kilometers from bomb-strafed Stuttgart, Germany. From the opening paragraphs, tensions chilled this reader: Anton’s selflessness as former Franciscan friar, husband to Elisabeth, stepfather to her children, and the scrutiny of Herr Franke, the hamlet’s collaborator; the innocence of developmentally challenged children and their killers; the “normalcy” of the hamlet’s lifestyle within bombing range of nearby Stuttgart; Anton and the pastor’s covert resistance with the Red Orchestra that plots the death of Hitler.

Within these tensions, Anton and Elisabeth skirt the edges of their marital and parental responsibilities within their deepening relationship.

Offsetting these tensions, however, are the bronze bells ringing from the belfry of St. Kolumban’s Church—hope infusing the evil that gags them.

Two salient points emerge from this reading: the farmers’ frequent laments of not having resisted Hitler’s menace, rendering them passive and horrified. And through bartering homegrown produce and livestock at their weekly market, no one starved.

Should hard times befall us, I shudder.

 

Orphans, in real life or within literature and film, evoke squeamish feelings. Blistered by abandonment, the fabric of their known world unravels around their muddied shoes—if they have them. Nothing works. But there are exceptions.

One of these unfolds within the historical novel, The Girl from the Train (2015) written by South African, Irma Joubert. From the first page, the plight of Gretl, a German Jew, alarms us. What will become of this thin waif, sole survivor of the open cattle cars packed with hundreds of Jews enroute to Auschwitz?

I’m not afraid, Gretl thinks… I’m brave…” She rolls into a ball upon the forest floor and waits until daylight. Yes, think about other things, she adds. That’s what Oma used to say.

With pluck, she sets out for the creek, the sun warming her back. She listens. She waits for the next development. Then she’ll know what to do.

A chance meeting with the Polish metallurgist Jacob quickens her heart; he becomes “family,” the support she needs to continue engaging the world around her. Her resiliency and groundedness, enhanced by her fluency in German and Polish and Russian, endear her to many.

Such stories serve as correctives for our own childhood abandonment, never far from consciousness; its wound spirits us toward deeper compassion for our humanness, within the grace of a merciful God. Psychic growth abounds. That’s why we’re here …

 

 

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