Remembering

(Christian Courier column, Nov. 23, 2015)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906 - 1945], Deutscher evangelischer Theologe, Mitglied der Bekennenden Kirche, 1945 hingerichtetAufnahmedatum: 1924Inventar-Nr.: Nachl. 299 (D. Bonhoeffer)Systematik: Personen / Religiöse Persönlichkeiten / Bonhoeffer / Porträts

Recently I read, back to back, three very different books about WWII: Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, All the Light We Cannot See.

Although credible reviewers have scolded Metaxas for “evangelicalizing” Bonhoeffer’s theology and minimizing its Barthian influence, the biography has been generally well-received. Metaxas authenticates Bonhoeffer as an extraordinary Christian — not only a gifted academic, but a thoughtful activist. Although he was safely overseas, Bonhoeffer chose to return to his homeland, not flinching from the gritty work of shepherding his family, students, colleagues and the broader Christian church in the crisis that was Nazi Germany. He prompted national and international conversations about Hitler’s anti-Christian platform and was among the first to name and resist the anti-Semitism fanned by the National Socialists.

Today Bonhoeffer’s convictions and actions hold up as uniquely perceptive and courageous in a muddled time. Also distinctive was his participation in an unsuccessful assassination plot against Hitler. His involvement in the conspiracy was eventually uncovered and he was hung by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is dense but inspirational reading. The last few weeks of Bonhoeffer’s life reveal the consistency of his character and the integrity of his faith. He was imprisoned alongside Dr. Rascher, a Nazi scientist fallen out of favour, a man who had supervised the construction of gas chambers, and who, as chief medical officer at Dachau, had victimized numerous prisoners in horrific experiments. Nearing their inexorable end, Bonhoeffer behaved pastorally to all his fellow-inmates, including even this enemy. He spent his final days comforting Wassily Kokorin, a young Soviet atheist. Hours before his death, he led a church service, preaching on Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 1:3. He spent his final minutes in prayer.

unbroken2[1]Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is the remarkable biography of Louis Zamperini, American Olympian and WWII pilot. The story is told with raw simplicity. Zamperini’s plane was shot down and he survived a harrowing ordeal lost at sea. He was subsequently captured by the Japanese and endured unspeakable deprivation and torture. After the war, Zamperini struggled to find equilibrium, succumbing to alcoholism and other post-traumatic stress symptoms. Eventually he was led to Christ and, in time, was able to forgive his captors, even the brutal commander who had targeted him for relentless punishments designed to break his will. A sobering read, this book broadened my understanding of the Pacific theatre.

81TRTuHJSnL[1]All the Light We Cannot See deserves the high praise it has received. In the young lives of a blind French girl and a talented German radio operator, Doerr spans WWII in a cohesive way that is sufficiently elastic to encompass the eastern and western fronts and fragments of all the absurdity in between. Nonetheless, Doerr’s war-torn setting is backlit with a gentle hopefulness that counters despair. Like the sightless Marie-Laure and orphaned Werner, we too are often unaware of the light beyond our own cataclysms, but tenacious acts of love ground out in the midst of chaos confirm its existence.

Doerr’s novel took ten years to complete. Its liquid narrative flow is the result of that painstaking workmanship. Details establishing the historicity of the tale are never forced. Like similar examples of our very best art – Picasso’s “Guernica” or the Canadian National Vimy Memorial – All the Light We Cannot See takes human wartime experience to a cathartic place, where appalling truth and redemptive beauty mesh.

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Each year, when Remembrance Day rolls around, I’m overcome afresh at the staggering cost in human lives, the monumental destruction of culture, the massive topographical upheaval, the myriad individual stories of gallantry and infamy that emerge from the World Wars and other global conflicts. As I watch documentary footage of Hitler or Mussolini, I sense the yawning distance of the intervening decades, how caricaturish these leaders seem in all their demagoguery. How easy and convenient it would be to dismiss such evil as rooted in isolated 20th century events or to attribute a lack of sophistication to the combatants, a “sound and fury” from which we’ve progressed.

These books situate me in WWII’s present. They convince me of the need for literacy, libraries, historians, journalists. They caution me to resist the crushing digital obsession with “what’s happening right now.” They also cause me to turn to God. Only in him do I find the solace to bear being human. In his light I see light.

 

When freedom came

(Christian Courier column, May 25, 2015)

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Last month CC marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Holland with articles by Lloyd Rang and Dick Kronemeyer. As a subscriber to CanadaRemembers on Facebook, informative reminders of this event have crossed my newsfeed regularly. I knew about the annual gift of tulips to Canada from the Netherlands, but I didn’t know that many Dutch citizens had painted “Thank you, Canadians” on their roofs for the food air-drops. I also learned about the Liberation Forest in Groningen — 30,000 maple trees planted in honour of Canadian soldiers. Did you know that in Apeldoorn there is a street called Canada Lane and each house comes complete with a Canadian flag?

As I’ve shared before, the Liberation and its legacy comprise my historical DNA. https://cathysmith001.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/war-children/. Both my mom and dad lived through the Occupation. My mom recalls the end of the war with a vivid emotion that slices through the fog of long ago and far away:

“The last year of the war was the worst for not having electricity or enough heat. The winter was bitterly cold. My classroom was heated with bean straw. We took turns keeping the fire going, sitting in front of the stove.

Sometimes oranges came in crates from the government. We would be so happy. They were so good! We never went hungry like in some parts of Holland. When we came home from school, we had a slice of turnip. My parents would eat an egg after we went to bed. Dad had to work and Mom was diabetic, so they needed to keep up their strength. My aunt and uncle took in two girls from Rotterdam, Audrey and Annie Dikken, because of the starvation there.

One of my friends was an only child. Sometimes after school her mother would butter some crackers and sprinkle them with sugar as a snack. That was better than a slice of turnip! Jealous, I longed to be an only child! A lot of families, including ours, had to deal with scurvy and lice. There was no soap. Near the end of the war, our school was closed for a time.

I remember all these things because I saw the fear in my parents’ eyes. More and more I realize how hard life was for them back then. No electricity and an 8:00 o’clock curfew at night. Just a little oil lamp. When it got dark, we would sing or play word games or just go to bed.

During the war I learned to spin. That was a smelly job because the wool came dirty off the sheep. My mother would wind the wool around jars and wash it that way and then we had to knit socks and underwear. Yes, knitted underwear! Itchy!

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Blown-up bridge.

On April 15th, 1945 we saw weary Germans walking by on their way to Delfzyl, the most northern part of Holland. The next day they blew up the bridge over Damsterdiep canal. The explosion destroyed my uncle’s boat which was moored behind my grandmother’s house. Her windows were blown out by the blast. We fled into the fields. That night we slept on straw bales in a barn outside our village.

In the morning, we saw lines of Canadian soldiers walking towards Ten Post. A man on a bike rode toward them with a white flag to let them know it was safe. As we watched them approach, an amazing thing happened. Spontaneously, we all started singing the Dutch national anthem.

Later that day we returned home. The next day was a celebration. The flags came out and we wore orange. Canadian tanks rumbled by. We saw captured Germans and Dutch collaborators with their hands behind their necks. It was an unbelievable feeling of freedom. Finally that part of life was over. I was 13.”

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Impromptu parade.

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Collaborators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many CC readers share similar memories and hold them dear. Personal and honest stories of the war and its aftermath. The past reverberating and rolling into the present. Influencing the next generation.

Mom’s wartime experiences molded her, manifesting their impact even 70 years later. An abhorrence for wasting food. A robust thriftiness. Vigorous faith. Appreciation of freedom and recognition of its responsibilities. National pride. Respect for the sacrifices of the Canadian military. But also a deep-seated anxiety and need for control. Security as a base value.

Here’s what troubles me. I share my mom’s WWII story with unmistakable empathy for the truth of her experiences. Her story is uniquely precious to me. But am I prepared to accord the same respect to the stories of others? Can I set myself and my own heritage aside long enough to listen with deference to the equally unique and precious stories of other ethnicities, other races, other orientations ?

This week I read a moving piece in Salon ( http://www.salon.com/writer/julia_blount/ ). Julia Blount, a bi-racial middle school teacher, begs for white America to listen to her story. She relates how racial prejudice is still a comprehensive reality in her life though she is educated, affluent and privileged in many ways. How much worse, she concludes, are the systemic disadvantages of those who are black, poor, and ill-educated? As I read, I knew I was guilty of some of the knee-jerk conclusions that Blount decries about the riots in Baltimore. Remarkably, at the conclusion of her article, she expresses gratitude to the reader who, like me, stuck with her to the end of her story. She believes the listening will make a difference. She was right.

Listening respectfully to another’s story is simply this: love. As I was drafting this column, a friend sent me this excerpt about the power of language (from Stone upon Stone, Wieslaw Mysliwski):

Words lead the way of their own accord. Words bring everything out on to the surface. Words take everything that hurts and whines and they drag it all out from the deepest depths. Words let blood, and you feel better right away. And not just with outsiders, with your brothers also words can help you find each other, like brothers again. However far they’ve gone, words will bring them back to the one life they came from, like from a spring. Because words are a great grace. When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words? Either way, there’s a great silence waiting for us in the end, and we’ll have our fill of silence. Maybe we’ll find ourselves scratching at the walls for the sake of the least little word. And every word we didn’t say to each other in this world we’ll regret like a sin. Except it’ll be too late. And how many of those unsaid words stay in each person and die with him, and rot with him, and they aren’t any use to him either in his suffering, or in his memory?

Words are a great grace, a reaching for the other, a stretching beyond self. The Word-Become-Flesh authenticates an even greater grace, a grace beyond human definition, a divine freedom to be embraced. New life from ashes …. It happened in Holland. It can happen in Baltimore. It can happen in my soul. And yours.

 

 

 

War Children

(Christian Courier column, November 12, 2012)

My husband Mark and I are war children, although not in the traditional sense.

 
My mom was a teenager during WWII in Ten Post, Groningen. It was a tense adolescence. Familiar faces went missing. Her dad was forced to work for the Germans in Delfzijl, biking the 14 km distance twice daily. Details are sketchy, but he helped the Dutch Underground while he was there to get false documents stamped.

 
It was a time of deprivation. School was cancelled. There was no wood for the stove. There were no teachers. Mom did not go hungry as so many others did, but a boiled egg was a mouth-watering treat reserved for Christmas. She has vivid recollections of rationing. She would be sent by her mother to stand in line on behalf of elderly neighbours with coupons for a bit of pork or a packet of sugar.

 
Mom experienced fear. At night she heard the drone of Allied planes heading to Germany, an incessant apprehension. Once a damaged plane did, in fact, drop its load about a kilometre away. Everything fell off the shelves, the children flying downstairs. In the morning they went out to survey five giant holes in the ground. Decades later at a fireworks display on Canada Day, Mom was still unnerved by the whistling rockets and popping blasts, the colourful explosions inevitably triggering her past. 

 
Mom also knew real terror. A number of German soldiers were staying in a house just a few doors down. Near the end of the war, as the Canadians approached, Mom’s family was warned (it’s never been clear to her by whom) to run away into the fields. They heard gunfire behind them as they fled. German soldiers ran with them, seeking to shield themselves, a melee of confusion and panic. Mark and I have walked those fields with her, where she ran for her life, her emotion palpable as she recounted the event. Her gratitude toward the liberating Canadians can’t be conveyed in ordinary terms. It needs big words … undying, fervent, seminal.

 
Mark’s dad, Bill Smith, now deceased, was among the Canadian Armed Forces who liberated Holland. He came from a Nova Scotia family with a long record of military service. His uncle Thomas was a stretcher bearer at Passchendaele. He died heroically, assisting an injured soldier in a trench, one of three Canadians struck by the same whiz-bang. Mark and I visited his grave at La Targette Cemetery in France, the first to do so in the Smith family. The three soldiers lie buried beside one another, a trinity of ultimate sacrifice, each headstone dated October 15, 1917. Bill’s father served in England with the Canadian Forestry Corps in WWI and as a guard at a POW camp in Quebec during WWII. Bill’s older brother Arthur enlisted, and, soon after, so did 17 year old Bill, lying about his age. He never said goodbye to his family so they couldn’t prevent him from going. His mother was livid.

William Howard Smith (a)

 
Bill was assigned to the Algonquin Regiment. Because of his youth, the older guys tried to watch out for him, especially the scout, who treated him like a son. Later in life, like so many other veterans, Bill didn’t talk much about the war, but two stories stand out, a funny one and a sad one.

 
Soldiers were not allowed to fraternize with civilians, but Bill and a buddy met two girls and couldn’t resist chatting them up over coffee. Their sergeant angrily meted out a harsh punishment. The boys were ordered to go out that night and put together a cut telephone line. This was a dangerous task. The Germans cut the lines specifically to pick off whoever was sent to fix them. Bill and his friend weren’t given tools or instructions. Upon reaching their objective, flummoxed, they simply tied the two ends in a knot. It wasn’t fixed, but it was put together! 

 
The sad story is that one night the scout disappeared. When the regiment pulled out the next day, they found him lying dead in a ditch. They never discovered what had happened. When Bill told us that story, he shook his head silently, sorrow ghosting over his face. 

William Howard Smith (b)
We will remember them
I’ve stood proudly next to Bill at the cenotaph on November 11, an old man with impeccable posture and medals pinned to his Legion jacket – the France and Germany Star, Volunteer Medal, NATO Medal and Canadian Decoration Medal. When he died, his Legion friends came and paid their respects with solemn dignity, filing past his casket, each placing a poppy inside.

 
Mark and I have visited Wierden and viewed the plaque at City Hall honouring the Algonquin Regiment for liberating the city. Even the big words aren’t enough to retrieve all the history trailing behind us and stretched between us, but the legacy is embodied in our very being. And so, we remember.  

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“Freedom Is Not Free”

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This past week, as I prepared our church bulletin, I included a couple of photos I had taken at Holten Cemetery in The Netherlands. Many of our seniors were born in Holland and have personal memories of the Liberation. They would appreciate the homage to Remembrance Day. But I also hoped the photos would catch the attention of the kids in the congregation, a visual catalyst for a teachable moment. One picture highlights a single stunning yellow rose at the foot of a white headstone. If you look carefully, the partially-hidden inscription says, “At the going down of the sun… we will remember them.” The other photo is a wide-angled shot of several rows of white headstones, each with a maple leaf prominently displayed in the centre of a circle. Vibrant red roses wave their billowy colour in the foreground offering a perpetual salute to the fallen.

I needed a caption, so I typed: “Freedom is not free”.  I had to think for a moment where the phrase originated. Then I remembered – The Korean Veterans War Memorial in Washington, DC.  Mark and I toured the National Mall last year and spent some time viewing the War Memorials there. The WWII Memorial is a pristine white circle, appropriately symbolic of its global impact. The Freedom Wall within the Memorial is embedded with 4048 gold stars, each one representing 100 American service personnel who died in WWII or are listed as missing. The Memorial has a classical elegance with the bubbly sounds of the spraying fountain muting extraneous noises.  

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 The Viet Nam Memorial evokes a sombre mood with its sinuous low profile and dark polish. A hushed respect was palpable as you moved closer to this monument.  The bits and pieces of ribbon, medals, and notes left on the ground were telling… this conflict was not so long ago.                      

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The Korean War Memorial was the one that has stayed with me, though. I didn’t even know it existed. No preconceptions meant I was completely open to its power. My first sight of the memorial was a low wall of shimmering stone with the words “Freedom Is Not Free” strongly cut and visible from a distance. Sunlight reflected from a pool of water beside the wall. The curt truth seemed lit from all angles.     

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As you walk closer to the Memorial, mature trees both screen and enclose a mound. You enter the space and suddenly you are on a small rise of land in Korea. Your comrades are with you, leaning forward, moving grimly up the hill. The nineteen statues are life-sized and the faces are exquisitely rendered with fatigue, determination, and courage. One of the soldiers is positioned so that he looks directly at you, willing you to go on with him, wordlessly promising that he will be at your side.   

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The Memorial also features a second glossy granite wall with faces shimmering on the surface. I have absolutely no idea how the artist achieved this stunning holographic effect.  As you look at the wall, hundreds of faces seem to rise up out of the stone, and look directly at you. As you look at the faces, it suddenly dawns on you again that you are there, too, with them. Your own face is reflected back at you, and blends in, just one of the many. 

The genius of that particular memorial was the way it pulled you into that time and place so effortlessly. I was on the battlefield. I was forging ahead with my comrades.  I was one of the many whose lives were jettisoned out of the ordinary into war. For the briefest moment the cost of freedom was personal. I was there.

A concrete retaining wall encircles the Korean War Memorial inscribed with the names of countries who offered their soldiers and their hearts to the cause of freedom. Even that unassuming wall of bricks touched me. Countries like Canada and Belgium and Australia banded together, not one greater than another, each name uniformly engraved with the same size and lettering. On another stone these words: “Our nation honours her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.  1950 -1953.”

Fast forward to the present. Like so many churches in communities everywhere, our local church has a sign which seeks to reach out with a pithy comment to passing motorists. My mom and stepfather are the volunteers in charge of the sign. When my mom asked me if I had any suggestion for Remembrance Day, my response was immediate: “Freedom Is Not Free.”

On a church sign, doubly profound.