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A-7713—The tattoo on his left forearm catapulted this teenager, shy, frail of stature, and prone to migraines, into hell-flames. It was March 1944, Auschwitz.

His crime: He was a Jew.

No longer did the religious fabric of his Rumanian village afford him the felt presence of God through daily studies of the Talmud and the Kabala, the observance of Shabbat and other holy days. Evil’s usurpation of the Sacred broke his spirit. Torn from his mother and three sisters he feared dead, he trembled within the crosshairs of machine guns, endured whippings in silence, and agonized over his failure to aid his father, also savagely abused.

While barely surviving on stale bread and gruel and hiding out among prisoners forced to work in the warehouse, his mystic soul absorbed the atrocities around him until the camp’s liberation by the U. S. Army in April 1945. He would tell this story, somehow.

Still carrying “the burning luminous scar of the holocaust” within his psyche, he went on to become a foreign correspondent, author, teacher, world lecturer, peace activist, husband, and father. His words, printed or spoken, disturbed deeply, and still do, with their the moral imperative to witness to evil in its seductive and blatant ruses. For his lifelong efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

The first of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1994), contains an overview of his experiences, seasoned by delightful humor, even his year-long convalescence after being hit by a taxi in Manhattan in 1956.

This witness to unvarnished truth was Elie Wiesel. (1928 – 2016)

He still teaches for those willing to listen.

 

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It happened in a split second—Just as the white-coated doctor wrenched the seventeen-year old’s face, the tattooist pressured her forearm to quell her screaming lest she be selected for one his brutal experiments. No matter their shaved heads, their dirty ill-fitting uniforms and wooden shoes, their enslavement at Auchwitz-Birkeneu, their dark eyes, with flitting smiles, found refuge in each other.

It was April 1942, the beginning of the three-year courtship, of sorts, between Gita Furnam and twenty-six year old Lale Sokolov, both Slovakian Jews, both determined to survive their rifle-toting tormentors with violent eyes.

Starvation, typhus, harsh weather, stray bullets, and the gas chambers sharpened the couple’s vigilance and heightened the urgency of their sporadic Sunday meetings behind the administration building. Both brought exceptional gifts to this relationship: Lale’s fluency in six languages and his position as tattooist in the camp that afforded him access to information and extra rations he liberally shared with others; Gita’s robust constitution and passion for life.

Fortunately for students of Holocaust literature, the widower Lale approached screenwriter Heather Morris with his story, three years before his death in 2006. While still decrying the injury he inflicted upon fellow prisoners and burdened by his collaborator status with the Nazis, he wanted the world to know what had happened in Auschwitz. Thus began another unusual relationship. Slowly, through long afternoons in his Melbourne apartment, Heather sifted these events through her imagination until the historical novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz emerged in 2018.

Again, we are deeply moved.

 

Tikkun olam, a centuries-old Hebrew mandate to repair the world through practices of truth and loving kindness, breathes on every page of David R. Gillham’s historical novel, Annelies (January 2019). Such motivates Anne Frank, also called Annelies, and her family living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and its aftermath. Their moral rectitude is rife with lessons for us.

For six years Gillham researched three versions of Anne’s diary, numerous biographies of her, transcripts of those who knew the Franks, and Holocaust histories. Twice, he visited Amsterdam and walked in her footsteps, even to Westerbork, their first internment camp in the north. Thus equipped, he plunges us into the crassness, the betrayals, the smells, the heartbreak, and the staggering hardships blistering the Netherlands. The chapters burn with unrelenting tension.

Instead of Anne perishing in Bergen Belsen, however, Gillham has her return to family friends on Jekerstraat 65 where she meets her father Pim who also survived the camps. What follow is an admixture of historical fact and the author’s imaginative rendering of this spirited young woman; her adolescence torn asunder, she rages against Pim and his decision to move on with his life, rather deal with the brutality both had experienced. Her fury even entrains the emaciated ghost of her sister Margot who spars with her as she did when living. Only Anne’s diary and notes from her twenty-five months spent in the Annex finally restore her identity as a writer, her way of practicing Tikkun olam into adulthood.

Through Annelies, Gillham also honors the young who perished in the camps, thereby impoverishing generations of their talents.

There’s much to learn here.

 

 

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