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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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Like poets and priests, storytellers bridge the gap between the seen and unseen worlds. A Presence hovers over their tales, one that disturbs listeners. It’s all about conversion of life.

One such storyteller is Min Jin Lee, Korean American author of Pachinko, a finalist in the 2017 National Book Awards competition. For thirty years, she toiled over this novel that addresses the plight of Koreans living in Japan that began with Japan’s 1910 annexation. Stripped of their heritage, taxed and abused into starvation, their language trivialized into a dialect, their natural resources exploited, Koreans groveled for existence. To survive, many immigrated to Japan for work. After World War II they watched the continued psychic and physical dissolution of their homeland under the Soviet Union and America.

Against this backdrop of atrocities, Min Jun Lee places Yangjin and her daughter Sunja, peasants living outside the port city of Busan, Korea (South Korea today). These intrepid women, undeterred by the meanest toil and filth, inspire their families for four generations, from 1911 to 1989 as they eke out their existence in Osaka and other cities in Japan. Decades of accommodation fail to deter their spirits.

The more I reflect upon the selflessness of Yangjin and Sunja, the sweeter they become. Their portrayal by Min Jin Lee challenges my narrow understanding of woman and my prejudice/uneasiness around third world people. There’s much to learn in this gripping story.

 

“No! Not that! No way! I’ve no time for this! I’m outa here!”

Most squirm in the face of suffering as denial stomps with one-hundred-pound boots. Heart racing, breathing labored, shoulders tensed, the escape into palliatives, of whatever kind, is underway, until the distress is dulled within a soporific. Few are the individuals who explore their setbacks and learn from them.

One of these is Karen Armstrong, British author, world lecturer, and winner of the 2008 TED Prize. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (2004) weaves thirteen years of daunting reversals within the first verse of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday:” it reveals the paradox of progress from circular stairs that appear to go nowhere.

What seemed like missteps in Karen’s beginnings—leaving the convent, failing her doctoral orals at Oxford, researching and writing scripts on Christianity and Islam and interviewing notables for BBC television in the Holy Land, teaching college and high school students, flipping out with an undiagnosed frontal lobe epilepsy—were, in fact, priming her psyche toward compassion, a discovery that wrought her conversion to the God of her understanding. It became the lens through which she viewed her God, inherent within all religions.

So she took to her writing desk and produced A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1993). Its publication changed her life. Her clipped voice, heard in lecture halls and YouTube, still carries the incisive ring for God’s compassion in our world. The question remains, is anyone listening?

 

Available on Amazon

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