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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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Wrapping story around horrific events disseminates their skeletal outlines into bite-sized pieces for readers’ assimilation and learning.

 

Such an event occurred the night of January 30, 1945, during a freezing snowstorm upon the Baltic Sea. The Soviet submarine S-13 torpedoed the German transport ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, nine hours into its passage. On board were 10,000 refugees fleeing from the Russian and Allied offensive. Only one thousand survived.

For three years the author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee from World War II, researched this disaster until, in her imagination, Salt to the Sea (2016) was conceived. The story unfolds, piecemeal, through four characters: Joanna, a twenty-one-year old Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a seventeen-year old East Prussian preservationist and restorer of works of art; Emilia fifteen-years old, Polish and eight months pregnant; and Alfred, a seventeen-year old delusional German seaman assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Like a skilled minimalist painter, Sepetys reveals more by what she leaves out. Her precise words have dropped depth charges upon this reader’s psyche, its rumble evoking a slow burn and profound feelings for the characters.

Salt to the Sea, an historical novel, also leaves me with questions. In seventy years, will anyone be writing of today’s refugees caught within the crosshairs of greedy global politics? Since when has it been all right to minimize the losses of the poor, even their lives?

All of this cries out to God.

 

 

 

From my reflection upon the evil splicing the Brett Kavanagh confirmation hearings, together with the media flimflam in its wake, have emerged an ancient liturgical ritual and a story, both from the Bible.

In Leviticus 16: 7–10, we learn of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the most holy day of worship in the Jewish calendar; its intent was to purify the Israelites’ sinfulness that impeded their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. The High Priest cast their guilt and shame upon the head of a goat and then beat it into the desert, never to be seen again. The Israelites felt better, but remained ignorant of the flawed depths within their unconscious, still unknown to them.

Unfortunately, this practice of scapegoating continues, despite the ongoing explorations around the globe in the depth psychology of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

And in the gospel of John 8: 1-11, we watch how Jesus dealt with the scribes and Pharisees, bent upon stoning the adulterous woman in their keep. He looks at them, says nothing, then leans over and begins writing in the sand. Infuriated by his silence, they badger him further and remind him of the penalty in the Mosaic Law for such crimes. Then comes his measured response: “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” Then he resumes writing. And we remember what followed.

Both passages speak to the human condition with its minefields littering our inner landscapes. Shrouded in impenetrable darkness lay deadly energies that kill or maim: anger, greed, lust, sloth, pride, gluttony, and envy. I know. I have all of them. Only when trip-wired do we experience them, either in others or ourselves.

That happened during the media bedlam of last Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and its aftermath: frenzy inflated egos, unleashed inhibitions, and wounded spirits, perhaps irreparably.

Evil flaunted its poison. The challenge is to be wary of our own and drop the rock.

 

 

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