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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.

 

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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 …

 

 

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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