EB Pool at Bethesdaa

The pool of Bethesda by Edward Burra. Copyright Estate of the Artist, c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London.

Biographies and autobiographies have always interested me. I enjoy entering into the lives of others. Maybe it’s because I wanted to escape my own life from an early age. My situation as a child wasn’t always envious; some on the estate in which I lived may have thought so; after all, I seemed to have all I needed, materially that is, including plenty of pets, books, drawing materials and all the stuff any 1960s boy could have wanted. This included three Action Men no less, even the snow suit with snow shoes! But bereavement at such a tender age left me fragile and wondering what my life would have been like had things started out differently.

As I grew up, and especially after I sensed my vocation, I became happier in myself; I could be me without wanting to emulate others. Nevertheless, I remained keenly interested in the lives of those about me. This fascination moved beyond the immediate circles in which I moved as I delved into the lives of great people. Coretta Scott King’s biography of her husband Dr Martin Luther King Junior (1) moved me to tears, Janet Wallach’s portrayal of the life and achievements of Gertrude Bell (2) inspired me to devote even more time to understanding the complexities of the Middle East. My English teacher at school, Mr Day, had introduced me to the poetry of Wilfred Owen. It stirred me like nothing else; I came to regard Owen as Britain’s finest poet. But it was only through reading a biography of him (3) that I realised what had really been lost to us, and to those who knew and loved him, including his mother, of course, who received the telegram notifying her of his death as she heard the bells of Shrewsbury ringing out signalling the end of war.

Unlike the strategist James Carville’s infamous phrase when he worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, for me it’s the people, stupid. Hopefully the present crisis will turn us away from prioritising the economy, important though it is, to the impact of that economy on the people. It’s the lives, stupid. It’s those brief years that come out of nothing and are over too soon, often before many even realise it.

Today is Passion Sunday when many Christian denominations consider the Passion of Christ, the suffering of Jesus at the hands of ruthless rulers. For me that suffering includes more than rejection and death, it also incorporates the compassion of Jesus towards those about him. His suffering is greater because he empathises with people at a level unknown in previous lives or since.

The Methodist Church is proud to be the custodians of a fine collection of modern religious art. There are many works of art that inspire me, some raise my spirits and some grip me with a sense of awe that even poetry and prose have difficulty in achieving. One of the works in the Methodist Collection that draws me in is Edward Burra’s The Pool at Bethesda. I have written more extensively elsewhere on this fine work and you can find it online (4) . The pain and anguish on the starkly contorted and mesmerising face of Jesus is as great as that from any depiction of the crucifixion. This is not a crucified Christ; this is a human being so filled with compassion that he feels the depth of acute pain in each agonised person gathered at the pool to which they have come for healing. The enormity of the task seems to have dawned upon the despairing Jesus. This is far from the Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild image that troubled my imagination as a child growing up. How could such an idealised image in white, set in what looks like the Cumbrian Lake District with Disney-type animals gathered at his feet, speak to me while I sifted for coal in a disused canal basin as a 12 year-old during the Miner’s Strike of 1972? It was only when I came to see Jesus as a human being facing the trauma and desperation of poverty in Galilee that I found him in my own location. Or, indeed, as I began to work in more urban spaces and minister in deprived communities could I recognise him in stench-ridden streets and jostled in the crowded city. It was here that he and many were ignored by the indifferent to the potential in their midst. But indifference is never a feature one can attribute to Jesus. He is there and here, amongst the suffering people, exhausted by his empathy and weakened by his care. But it is in such exhaustion and weakness that is found the power and strength to convey something far greater than this world has imagined possible.

Twenty-five years ago, as I slowly recovered from a breakdown with many days spent alone at home trying to regain the confidence to step out of the door, I discovered a book that revealed new truths to me. It was Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (5). When I had purchased it, in a Welsh junk shop whilst on holiday a few months earlier, it had promised little: old Readers Union edition from 1949, worn out cover with no dust wrapper, bleached spine and a writer I had never heard of. But, at £2 with an interesting title, I thought I’d take it home with me, as much to support the shop owner as anything else to be honest. I didn’t pick it up again for months. It gathered dust on the bookshelf waiting for its secrets to be disclosed. Then as I sat in my lounge, still concerned about the day ahead and wondering how I would get through it unscathed, I took it down and began reading. I was transported to a place I had never been to: southern Italy and a culture I could hardly imagine bar the few references in previous books and films. Levi commented: “The title of the book comes from an expression by the people of ‘Gagliano’ who say of themselves, ‘Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli’ which means, in effect, that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience.” But Levi arrives there in exile, banished because of his views deemed dangerous to the fascist regime. He is an artist and writer having earlier begun studying medicine at university. He is educated and sophisticated, but now a stranger in a strange land, one of the poorest in Italy with little regard for anything beyond the immediate and highly mistrusting of the outsider. However, he is soon able to endear himself to the people. His knowledge of medicine, little though it is, is sufficient to go some way to helping his neighbours suffering from malaria. Although lives are still lost, some are comforted and even rescued. Levi becomes a saviour to a people so often overlooked and dismissed by the northern urban elite. It was their togetherness that impressed Levi so much and it was his empathy that in turn impressed them.

This passive brotherliness (sic), this sympathy in the original sense of the word, as suffering together, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in common, a bond made by nature rather than religion. (6)

There is a conviction that they are players in a little-known drama, unable to write the script or direct the play.

They live submerged in a world that rolls on independent of their will, where man (sic) is in no way separate from his sun, his beast, his malaria, where there can be neither happiness, as literary devotees of the land conceive it, nor hope, because these two are adjuncts of personality and here is the only the grim passivity of a sorrowful Nature.

But in all of this the people make the most of their situation with their odd traditions and are able to experience life even in all its fatalism and brevity.

They have a lively human feeling for the common fate of mankind and its common acceptance. This is strictly a feeling rather than an act of will; they do not express it in words but they carry it with them at every moment and in every motion of their lives, through all the unbroken days that pass over these wastes.

As the lockdown continues across the UK and much of Europe, the situation we find ourselves in could be seen as one of utter hopelessness: how long will this go on? When will I be able to meet up with friends or family again? Will I succumb to the virus? What happens if I do? So many questions assail our thoughts and threaten to limit, or even damage, our confidence. But hope remains, of this I am certain. There are few things that I would claim to be certain of, but this is one: that whatever befalls us we are not alone, we are together, we are experiencing similar, if not the very same, fears and anxieties with kindred hopes and dreams.

In recent days we have witnessed far more good in the response of those about us than bad. The stockpiling has proven to be pointless. Steadier, more resolute approaches are being taken towards the care of one another. Those who distance themselves on a walk or in the shops do so not just for their own sake but for others too, a reassurance of concern for their welfare. Maybe there is a new graciousness developing across our society, a much-needed discovery in what has been an otherwise self-centred world. This is not to readily or lightly dismiss that which is still wrong in the behaviour of some, but it is to recognise that good will rise to the top, it has always done so and always will.

In one of the readings set for today God brings life to where there was none, breathes upon the slain and even restores dry bones to movement (7). For those feeling lifeless at this time, or have succumbed to illness, whose very bones ache, new breath will come from the One who shares in such anguish like no other can. In this then there is even more than hope, there is a faith that can never be extinguished. For we know that we are not alone, others travelled this way before, the world recovered, and great things came from the worst of scenarios. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you (8).

  1. King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King Jnr.
  2. Wallach, Janet. Desert Queen, the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell, 1996
  3. Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen, a new biography. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002.
  4. https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/7232/btonebfinalscriptmar2018.pdf
  5. Levi, Carlo. Christ Stopped at Eboli, Readers Union, 1949
  6. Ibid p76f
  7. Ezekiel 37.1-14
  8. Romans 8.11.

 

As we approach the end of the first week of near complete lockdown in these island nations, for some of us time itself is beginning to take on newer meanings. For those whose life had been a frenetic dash from one thing to the next, with multiple places to go over the course of a day, to now be at home, in one place from rising to the laying down again, it is far from easy. For them, the discordant rhythm of life had a kind of pattern to it, a ritual of crescendos and brief pauses; but now there may be a minimalist approach that leaves them a little lost on the page. Then there are those who, for some years, had become accustomed to sitting still and finding some sort of reason in the inactivity that had come upon them. But few, if any, can find this new way of being easy. For those whose diaries were overflowing with appointments the cancellations and postponements can be wholly disorientating. For those who had been used to waiting long hours till the next visit from a District Nurse or relative, the punctuated life has now become exhaustingly empty and endless.

There are many occasions in the Gospel accounts when people had waited for something to happen to them. Mary and Elizabeth were able to share their experience of unexpected pregnancy (i); Luke’s sole intention may have been to indicate that the two unborn children would remain inextricably linked so that the course of human history would be forever changed, but we have also long found that there is a degree of solidarity between the two women. The news may have come upon each with a swiftness that took their breath away, for Mary probably thought this would be far off while Elizabeth may have already given up hope of such a possibility. Like the days of old, miracles began with the conception in highly unusual circumstances. The months of waiting till the birth would probably have been different for each of the two women: one young and excited, the other, with long experience of life, might have had a greater worry, that after all these waiting years she was about to experience something she thought would never be.

But Elizabeth is not alone in her waiting for something to happen. The Gospel accounts include the prophet Ann who had clearly waited many years in the Temple forecourts for a sign that God would redeem the people (ii), a man who had sat for no less than 38 years at the Pool of Bethesda waiting for someone to help him into the healing waters (iii) and a woman who had suffered for 12 years reached out through the crowd to touch the tallit of Jesus (iv) . Time was clearly important to the Gospel writers, as it had been for those who had compiled the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The books of history that account for the emergence of the People who came to be known as Israel and Judah are punctuated with references to the passing of time, far too many to begin referencing. Time is important.

Time is indeed important, perhaps the most precious gift of all. For many people this present crisis will be the first occasion they have noticed that it is possible for their lives to be suddenly upended, what was once taken for granted has now been taken from them, not just window shopping or a visit to the cinema or pub, but even life itself is now recognised as highly fragile and genuinely brief. To abruptly stop and look back on a familiar past with an uncertain future ahead is disconcerting to say the least.
There are, of course, long periods when next to nothing happens, but then there are occasions when much occurs over just a few days or even hours. Most will know this to be so. Consider how long it took for us as children to wait for Christmas to arrive, or when we have sat in a waiting room for the consultant to tell us the results, but how quickly it all passed. In this sense, time is a mystery waiting to be explored, reflected upon and with the present deeply intense for good or ill.
This week the Revd Richard Coles posted on Twitter a poem by Welsh priest RS Thomas:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you. (v)

Finding the pearl of great price in an otherwise undervalued field, something wonderful where and when you least expected it, is one of the ways in which God is revealed. It is also a disclosure of something beyond our earlier imagining, something we may not have even thought possible.

When Brian Keenan decided to leave his native Belfast in 1985, for a change of scenery, he could never have anticipated what lay before him in Beirut. When he was kidnapped, by fundamentalist Shi’ite militia, he would spend the next four and a half years in captivity, much of the time in solitary confinement with no natural light. When he was joined by a fellow kidnap victim, the journalist John McCarthy, the two began to share their experiences of what it was like to find themselves in a seemingly hopeless situation with little or no prospect of getting out alive.

At times God had seemed so real and so intimately close. We talked not of a God in the Christian tradition but some force more primitive, more immediate and more vital, a presence rather than a set of beliefs. Our frankness underlined the reality of our feelings. We were still trying to deal with the force and weight of them. (vi)

For the lapsed Catholic, Keenan began to experience something, someone, beyond the dogma that would help see him through.

We prayed unashamedly, making no outward sign. We simply knew that each of us did pray and would on occasion remind each other to say a prayer for someone in particular among our families and lovers.

The shared experience of praying became a means by which they not only connected with one another but also with those far from them.

In its own way our isolation had expanded the heart, not to reach out to a detached God but to find and become part of whatever ‘God’ might be.

In this time of disconnectedness and isolation, with no certainty of the duration, we may wait and wait for God to be revealed, yet who has been present with us all along. It may take time to notice, but for sure, God is with us in our predicament. Like RS Thomas who, only sometime after witnessing it, stumbled on the realisation that the sun itself, a long accepted and overlooked ever presence, now casting its light and shadow across a field, is suddenly that which drew him closer to God and the need to seize that very moment should it come his way again. Or like Keenan and McCarthy, in the filth and deprivation of a cell far from home, forlorn and in their minds utterly abandoned to their fate, find something so deep that is beyond words.

It is often the case that only in the extremities of the human condition can we find a more acute awareness of the God who shares in our experience, the highs and lows that accompany our journey. Who would have guessed just a few weeks ago that we would be so palpably connected with the world’s suffering peoples? For many, what we now experience has been their trial for years. This may bring little comfort to us, but it is a humbling and salutary message. I often recall the words of Fr Michael Campbell-Johnson in a radio interview many years ago, when he was Provincial of the Jesuit Order and reflecting on his time ministering in a very deprived community, ‘The poor’, he said, ‘know how to party.’ We may not feel like partying right now, but our faith teaches us to hope in a better day, a time when together we can rejoice in each other’s company and celebrate all that God has done for us.

i Luke 1.39ff
ii Luke 2.36-38
iii John 5.2ff
iv Matthew 9.20-22
v R.S. Thomas. “R. S. Thomas: Everyman Poetry: Everyman’s Poetry”, p.96, Hachette UK, 2012
vi Brian Keenan. “An Evil Cradling”, p.99, Ted Smart, 1993

The term ‘living in strange times’ has been used frequently of late, indeed we do live in strange times, circumstances few of us have ever known. Today will seem very strange for those whose practice it is to leave our homes for a place of worship where we would join with others to praise God, make our confession, hear the reading of scripture, reflect upon its meaning for today and pray for our world and the peoples of the world. It is strange for us to not be able to do this in the physical presence of others. Now is the time to draw upon our experience and habit of prayer and reflection on God’s Holy Word by praying and reflecting more than ever in our own homes. This will seem a curious, and maybe even lonely, experience. Curious indeed, but we are joined by millions around the globe who are doing just as we are. Nor must we forget that our worship is in unison with that great company in heaven whose voices once proclaimed God’s praise on earth but now do so with all the saints.

There comes a time, for every single one of us, for many on numerous occasions, when we are reminded of our fragility and even mortality. Today our world is experiencing that awareness on a collective scale, it is a shared experience, none of us are immune to such an outcome. And this is where our more immediate hope lies, we are not alone, we are not alone in facing this plight, we are not alone in our suffering. These things are common to us all: a billion people have been confined to their homes across India; New York, the city that never sleeps, is quieter than it has been for many, many years; the places where we would normally congregate to share our stories and receive mutual support are closed.

This is not an easy time for the vast majority of us, we have never known anything like it and our experience is limited to hearing from how our ancestors coped with such a time. But that knowledge can be helpful; we get to know that the world came through, it did not end in itself. Some carried the message of goodwill into the next generation, with a renewed resilience to evil, a desire to do what is right, rooted in acts of selfless love and an unflinching hope in the future.

One of my favourite writers is Vasily Grossman. Grossman was a Soviet journalist on the front line of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War and what we call the Second World War. He was present at Stalingrad and the great tank battle of Kursk; he was with the first troops to arrive at the death camp Treblinka and he entered Berlin as it finally fell. Grossman witnessed much horror, as did so many of his generation. In his much-acclaimed novel Life and Fate he does what Tolstoy was unable to do in War and Peace, to get alongside the ordinary people in the crumbling buildings just yards from the enemy and he manages to capture the ongoing life, with the not inconsequential anxieties and fears, of those at home. At one point in the novel Grossman explores what human kindness is:

Today I can see the true power of evil. The heavens are empty. Man (sic) is alone on Earth. How can the flame of evil be put out? With small drops of living kindness? No, not even the waters of all the clouds and seas can extinguish that flame – let alone a handful of dew gathered from the time of the Gospels to the iron present….
I have seen that it is not man (sic) who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man (sic). The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it…this dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

It is this belief that enables me to know that we will come through this present crisis renewed as a society, we will have greater humility about our place in the world, we will be more committed as a people to attain the common good, more honest about the plight of our planet and more caring and compassionate toward one another. This is not the hope that is wishful thinking on my part, but a foundational belief and it is unshakeable in my soul. I believe that the human spirit is such that far more will want to help others than take from them, far more will rise to the seriousness of that which lies ahead for us, far more will come through this as better people rather than unchanged.

Today is Mothering Sunday, Grossman had much to write about the mothering relationship, not just those who were actual mothers to children but also those who acted in a motherly way to those in need of mothering.

Albert Camus in The Plague wrote of the shock many had when the city’s gates were unexpectedly and suddenly closed due to an epidemic. Included in his reflections was the sense of injustice the people, especially mothers, felt having not had chance to say a proper farewell to their loved ones when they last parted, not realising that it may be some time before they were to see one another again, if at all. He described it as ‘this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it.’ They had been ‘duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by (their) leave-taking.’

Grossman never got to say goodbye to his mother as the Nazi forces swept through Belarus, for he was living in Moscow at the time, so it is a recurring motif in his writings.

Today my heart goes out to all who feel far from those whom they love, it is not going to be easy. But may we see in our neighbours those who mother us and those whom we might mother. May we appreciate that the measures of social distancing and self-isolation are not an imposition but a temporary and absolutely necessary period of hurt to help get the world through to the other side as well as we can. In this we can all play our part, this is our time to rise to the challenge we face, as did our forebears in times past. So we will be resolute, ‘steadfast and sure’ to use the words of the old hymn and know that we will be ‘more than conquerors’ to draw on a letter of Paul, and ‘consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us’ . (Romans 8)

A little reflection

20 March 2020

These are uncertain and strange times. Just a month or two ago, few, if any, of us would have expected anything like the present crisis happening in our lifetime; but it is and we will rise to the challenge, God’s People always do, whatever the cost and however long the emergency, that is our nature, that is our calling as disciples of Jesus.

Some think of the situation as unprecedented, regrettably it is not; global conflagrations and pandemics have happened before and they have devastated the communities that experienced them. It is just that we cannot believe it is happening here and now.

But even in the midst of this fear and anxiety as to what the future may bring, we may yet find hope. Those in history whom I hold in high esteem lived and ministered in challenging times; they found within themselves something that most others in a time of peace and plenty overlook or dismiss. For every person who stockpiles unnecessarily we find someone offering to help their neighbour, neighbours they may not have spoken to for some time. Social media has a lot to answer for in helping to create panic buying and conspiracy theories; but is also a means by which we can stay in touch, and connect with those who are unable to get out at the moment.

I believe that society cannot remain unchanged once we get through this and I hope there will be changes. I believe we could learn much about ourselves and our world. I believe that we can become more empathetic and understanding, compassionate and caring. So, I am hopeful, concerned but not beaten.

The writer of the Second letter to the Corinthians has much to offer us at such a time (2 Corinthians 4 NRSV):

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

It is deeply regrettable that worship in our churches has been suspended until better days, but this is a necessary measure to slow down the transmission of the virus. If we are able to slow the contagion down, then our NHS will have a better chance of coping with the inevitable increase in treating those who are in need of medical attention. This will save lives, though many will be lost, sooner than we had expected. So we have to be vigilant for the sake of the greater good. It is easy to criticise those in positions of authority and those elected to govern at such a time, but so long as they continue to work for the benefit of all we must adhere to their advice; we may not like it but that is an integral part of working together in pursuit of a common objective. This is not a time for disunity but a time to serve our neighbours and the nations of humanity.

I would commend to you the creation of a little sacred space in your homes, somewhere you can place your Bible or prayer book, a cross, icon, candle or flower, whatever it is that you find speaks to you of the One beyond us and beside us. The Russians have poustinia, prayer cabins in the woods, a sort of hermitage. Its literal translation is desert or wilderness. I would suggest that we can create a poustinia in our homes, a place to where we might retreat and pray, to reflect upon the world, the crisis we face and our own place within it. It doesn’t need to be another room, or anything grand, just a small table or shelf, or part of a shelf that we set aside to be sacred for us. You will find links on the Methodist Church website for suggestions of how to pray and what to pray. I believe that when we do this at set times each day, maybe after breakfast and at least a drink, or lunchtime or before we go to sleep, we begin to find a poustinia in our hearts, a sacred desert or wilderness in which only God can be found.

Compassionate God, Eternal One, Absolute Truth,
You care for your creation and weep over our misuse of it.
You are above and beyond all that is
And you teach us the Way you would have us travel in life.

We are troubled today by the fear that sweeps across the nations,
So You are the One to whom we turn, for You who have been with your children in every time of crisis, you rescued your people in the storm, freed them from oppression, journeyed with them through the wilderness and brought them to rest in a land of plenty.

We are united in our prayer for the world and each other.
We especially pray for those engaged in medical support and the caring professions, that they may know of our appreciation and be strengthened in their tasks today.
For the weak and vulnerable, for the sick, sad and frightened, that they may be calmed and healed by a network of support.
For those who keep essential supplies of food and other services available during this crisis, that they may be given their due reward.
For those who teach and oversee the care of our children, that they may be provided with all they need to fulfil their vital roles
For those who take decisions on our behalf, may their judgments be filled with wisdom.

Lift the morale of the anxious, raise the hopes of the downcast and clear our cloudy vision.
That we may walk with one another out of the confines of darkness into a world of glorious light, where wholeness is valued above possession, love goes deep between us all and peace and justice are restored.

Amen.

Eva 3

 

To be in the presence of Eva Geiringer-Schloss is an immense privilege. It is also to be in the presence of a deep and rich beauty that runs to the very soul of this wonderful person. Her smile, shining eyes and calmness of spirit belies the horrors she has witnessed. For to be in the presence of Eva is to be in the midst of history, the darkest days of the Holocaust and the stupefying acts of a regime and individuals beyond sense or imagination.

This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January) falls on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. With each passing year there are fewer and fewer people who can tell us something of the depravity to which human beings had sunk in orchestrating the mass murder of Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe. Before 1939 there were 9.5 million Jews; almost two-thirds, slightly under 6 million were systematically killed in an attempt to eradicate the race. The killings took place in villages as whole families were herded into synagogues before the building was set ablaze, or in forests and quarries where those about to be shot were forced to dig mass graves and of course in the death camps; Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most infamous in the minds of even those who dwell very little on the events of those days. 250,000 people with disabilities, 200,000 Roma and 1,900 Jehovah’s witnesses and an unknown number of gay men were also murdered during the Third Reich.

By the time Soviet forces arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau the Nazis had almost emptied the camp network of prisoners. Only the very sick and dying had been left behind, it was not thought worthwhile to attempt marching them back into Germany for further slave labour. The gas chambers and crematoria had already been blown up to remove some of the evidence of the most industrialised genocide in human history. On the night of the last Nazi roll call when the walking skeletons were called from their huts to begin what would become known as the Death March Eva and her mother, Elfriede, refused to leave their bunk. It was what Eva would describe as a ‘fateful decision’.

“The camp was deserted. There were just a few hundred in a few barracks and everyone was so weak. Throughout the whole night the guards were shouting ‘Raus! Raus! Out! Out!’ I never intended to remain in the camp when they were clearing it of prisoners. It was just luck that I slept through the last roll call. It was just one more miracle that saved me and my Mother. We wouldn’t have survived without miracles.”

1.1 million Jews murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, only 2,000 were to be found by the Soviet forces on their arrival at the various camps in the area in late January 1945. Many of those would die in the following days. So whilst there remains a number of people who passed through the camp and some who survived the Death March Eva is one of the last to have witnessed the liberation.

“When I woke up the morning after the last Nazi guards left and went out of the barracks there was complete silence. It had snowed heavily, so any sound was muffled by it. And the surprising thing was that all the gates were open. The camp seemed empty. It was eerie. Some Polish prisoners left straight away because they could speak the language with local people. But around 500 of us remained in Birkenau over such a huge area, so it was as if it was deserted. We were on our own for about 10 days scratching around water and food. So many died during that time. One morning I was putting bodies behind the barracks when what looked like a huge creature appeared at the gate. It wasn’t quite light and he look like a bear. He was in fact a Russian scout to check to see if there was any German resistance remaining. I couldn’t speak to him and he couldn’t speak to me. He looked shocked and he could not understand what was going on. When the main force arrived we discovered that they had never encountered anything like this before. Later of course we were to find out that many other Russians would liberate other camps but this particular group had never seen anything like it before.”

Over the coming years there would be a very long, hard path to some form of recovery for Eva and her mother. It would begin with meeting Otto, Anne Frank’s father, the only surviving member of the Frank Family.

“A few days after the Russians arrived at Birkenau I went in search of the other main camp, Auschwitz 1, to see if my brother and father were there. It was a very difficult journey because there was snow and still spasmodic fighting. Several bullets passed over my head. Once I got to Auschwitz I realised that there was just a few hundred left and one happened to be Otto Frank. I thought I recognised him but I couldn’t be quite sure. Otto Frank said ‘I think I know you, you’re a friend of my daughter Anne.’ It was extraordinary because he hadn’t seen me for two-and-a-half years since our time in Amsterdam. I asked him if he had seen my father and brother but he was to tell me that they had already left with the Nazis. He then asked if I had seen his wife and daughters and I had to tell him that sadly not. We were both to discover later of course that all of them we’d asked about had been killed. Sometime later after my mother and I had returned to Amsterdam Otto was staying with Miep Gies, one of those who had helped the Frank family in hiding. She lived in a small apartment and Otto always went out each day to meet people and share experiences. When he came to our house I was so full of hate and miserable at what had happened to us. But Otto tried to help everyone and he taught me not to hate; he had no hate in him whatsoever, this I could not understand.”

Otto Frank had lost his family, Eva had lost her Father and brother Heinz, her only sibling. Heinz was a gifted musician, artist and poet. During his time in hiding he had painted a number of works and hidden them under the floorboards of a house. Heinz and his Father were in hiding together and Eva and their mother were elsewhere in hiding. All four were brought together after being discovered. It was then that Heinz would tell Eva about the paintings and where they were. Sometime after her liberation from Auschwitz and return to the Netherlands Eva turned up at the house where her brother and father had been hiding and managed to persuade the owners to allow her to look under the floorboards. The paintings were there as Heinz had said. The paintings now grace an exhibition on Eva’s story in the Jewish Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. This is just one way in which Eva’s story has been told. It has been turned into a play that has been performed in numerous countries across the world. Eva herself has been almost relentlessly ‘on tour’ for many years recounting her experiences to audiences. It is impossible to know how many people have heard Eva speak, it must be well into 7 figures by now. She is in her 91st year and remains a frequent visitor to the United States where she holds thousands spellbound by her recollections. Eva will be in Hong Kong in the coming weeks where her message is said to be badly needed by the organisers of her visit.

“For many years I didn’t want to talk about my experiences. It was only in 1986 when the Anne Frank exhibition came from Amsterdam to London for the first time that I began to share what had happened to me. The exhibition had been organised by Ken Livingstone. Otto her died 6 years before and my mother was staying with myself and my husband Zvi. Ken Livingstone invited me to sit at the top table and several important people spoke. He then announced that I too would speak. I have never done so before. I was very shy and I had no idea what to say. Suddenly everything that I had suppressed for so long poured out. It was a very important moment for me. I then went on to open Anne Frank exhibitions around the country, speaking to various audiences including many schools. I then wrote my experiences down in the book ‘Eva’s Story’. Since then more than 30 years I have spoken to so many people. On a single tour of the United States alone I will speak to more than 100000 people in total. And the US tours have been going on now for a number of years. A play was written about me and my family in hiding. And this has been performed throughout the world.”

Eva appears tireless in her travels and is rarely still or found at home. She remains as committed as ever to impact upon the lives of those she encounters.

“After Auschwitz they said never again. But the world hasn’t learnt this lesson. There seems more racism again, not just against Jews but against anyone who is different. It is a terrible crime: to treat people as inferior or different simply because of their religion or colour, it is so wrong. I’m disappointed how the world has developed over these just last few years. How discrimination has increased. Attitudes have become so horrible. What I hope to do is change people’s attitudes. The inequality that is growing, especially in rich countries, and the way in which the hungry and homeless are treated is so intolerable. I just hope that by speaking as I do and sharing my story that people are changed in some way and go on to change the lives of others.”

 

This interview was first published in the Methodist Recorder on 24th January 2020

Eva’s latest book @After Auschwitz, a story of heartbreak and survival by the stepsister of Anne Frank’ is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

The Wall cover

The Wall (John Lanchester, Faber & Faber, 2019) is an unnerving account of the near future, bleak and all the more so because it is so believable. Unlike those dystopian novels that are so far removed from present reality, the society in which The Wall is set is so close to our own that we can wholly relate to the laws that have come into being as a consequence of ‘The Change’. It becomes clear that ‘The Change’ was a sudden climate shift rendering sea levels to rise. As much to keep the foreign poor out of this protected and privileged island nation, as it is high tides from further damaging the fragile land, the Wall has been constructed along our shoreline, all 15,000 miles of it. And like Hadrian’s Wall two millennia ago this one too is guarded day and night with lookout posts at set intervals and barracks at regular stretches along it. Staffed by those who have been conscripted for two years to the task, the novel raises not only the timeless dilemmas of relationship, attraction and commitment, it also addresses issues not unfamiliar to 2020: what it is to be in or out, a native citizen or incomer, refuge seeker, economic and climate migrant. We become aware of the fact that to those seeking to breach the Wall in search of a better life ‘The Change’ is known as ‘The End.’

Cobra, the drama on Sky TV at the moment, seeks to portray a United Kingdom in the wake of a solar flare that has taken out our power supply leading to anarchy, but doesn’t quite get the social dynamics or the gripping tension that The Wall manages to achieve so well. I can’t help feeling that Cobra and so many other attempts at the dystopian genre, both in literature and film, play too heavily on the fear factor. For The Wall the circumstances of the context are natural, they have come about as a consequence of that which we can readily appreciate, it’s not that far off the truth as we know it, it is wholly believable.

And what does this teach us? That we can readily adapt to change, however drastic, so that we might seek to live as contented a life as we can; that we can fall in with a newly-adopted system, no matter how authoritarian it is, in order to protect our way of life; that we will do all we can to keep others from taking from us that which they do not experience; that we can quickly turn against even those on our own side who might render us vulnerable by their actions or views; and how quickly our fortunes can change. The spotlight from the Wall seeking out migrants approaching on boats and rafts soon becomes a spotlight on our own willingness to comply; there is a reminder from history here as much as a lesson from a futuristic novel.

This is what is so unnerving about The Wall. It isn’t like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Picador 2006), brilliant though that is, or similar works, that place us in a world so radically different from our own, where society has completely broken down and all that is left are marauding gangs preying on the lone travellers, it is different in that it is worryingly similar to the world in which we live, with characters expressing views we increasingly hear on our streets, in our offices and GP’s waiting rooms. I can’t help feeling that the first readers of Orwell’s 1984 would have had a similar sense of connection: fresh from the horrors of the Second World War and a new war looming between two towering ideologies, with one a recent ally now the enemy, they would have connected with the prophetic imagination and warnings of a man who had experienced what he had and therefore knew what he was talking about. Similarly, the writer of The Wall, John Lanchester, hasn’t had to conjure up a world which requires too great a leap of imagination, it is just a step or two from where we are now.

I read The Wall shortly after I’d been informed that if present trends are allowed to continue and the world does not deal with the devastating impact of climate change on our planet, then 30-40% of the county in which I live, Lincolnshire, is predicted by the Environmental Agency to be under water by 2050. The Wall may not be fantasy after all, but prophesy, in the sense that the prophet sees not a different world to the rest of us, but just happens to see the same world differently, let the reader understand.

Korczak

‘Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong,
be prepared every day to try and do some good.’

Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from Nazi-Occupied Europe

 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
This sentence is familiar to both Jews and Christians alike.
It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to consider the possibility that many who were herded into a Belarusian forest or marched into the gas chambers of Auschwitz recited this verse from Psalm 22.
And for those who follow the teachings of Jesus they will have pondered these words spoken by Jesus on the Roman cross.
It is ironic that many of those who lamented the abandonment of Jesus should themselves in turn abandon their neighbours, colleagues, pupils, employees and employers during the Nazi persecution and attempted destruction of European Jewry. And on occasion throughout earlier centuries Church goers would pour out of a Good Friday service, having heard these words, to attack those whom they were to falsely blame for the death of Jesus.
This year’s HMD theme is Stand Together; the polar opposite to abandoning a neighbour in need.

The image on the cover of tonight’s programme is of Janusz Korczak. Korczak was a children’s author who became Director of a Warsaw Orphanage. Before the orphanage was relocated to the ghetto Korczak had a number of opportunities to escape but chose to stay with the children. When the ghetto was emptied Korczak travelled with the children. Knowing the likely destination to be a death camp Korczak reassured the children that they would be going for a ride in the country. It’s likely that he and every one of the 192 children with him were gassed on arrival at Treblinka.

The quote is from Sir Nicholas Winton, a British humanitarian who chose to visit Prague in December 1938 to help a friend work alongside refugees. Winton arranged for 669 Jewish children to travel to safety in the UK. The vast majority of their parents and other family members perished in the Holocaust.
There are one or two people here tonight who are actually the children of those whom Winton rescued. They owe their existence to this extraordinary man.

Both Korczak and Winton were brave, truly great men. We laud them and rightly so.
Korczak was a Polish Jew. Winton was the child of German Jews who had emigrated to Britain.
They stood beside the children in their desperate hour of need.

It was not always the case of course.
It is estimated that 9 out of 10 Jewish children across Europe were murdered during the Holocaust.
The Christian Church has a very poor record when it comes to standing alongside Jewish communities, then, before and to a certain degree since.
In fact, the evidence is such that anti-Jewish teaching and practice in the Christian Church over 2,000 years not only permitted but promoted the hatred that led to the murder of 6 million Jews during the darkest episode of human history.

For those that were killed there was no Korczak nor Winton at the last. Even less likely were there non-Jewish saviours, or as Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, would term the Righteous Amongst the Nations. Those Righteous, non-Jews who saved Jews from the Holocaust, without reward and at great risk to their lives and the lives of their families, stood beside their neighbours in need.

Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust survivor and the world’s per-eminent Holocaust historian once told me of one such incident. He recorded it in his 1978 book The Holocaust in Historical Perspective (Sheldon Press), from which I shall now read:
On my kibbutz there lives a man whom we shall call here Tolek. All he knows about himself is his name. He was born near Krakow, or near Krakow, prior to World War II, and he was 3 when the war broke out. He was in an orphanage, probably because his father had died and his mother could not support him. A Polish woman took this circumcised man-child to her home and raised him there during the Nazi occupation, in alliance with the Catholic parish priest. When the Nazis came searching Polish homes for hidden Jews, the woman used to hand over Tolek to the priest. Tolek still remembers how, at the age of five and six, he used to assist the priest at Mass, swinging the incense around, walking behind the priest through the Church. They survived the war and when liberation came, the woman took Tolek to a Jewish children’s home and said, this is a Jewish child I have kept him throughout the war, he belongs to your people, take him and look after him. Tolek does not know the name of the Polish woman, nor does he know the name of the priest. There are not very many such women, and there are not very many such priests, and therefore then or not a great any Toleks around. But there are some of each.

There is a reason why the Jewish community is so tiny, and there are ongoing reasons why Jews need a safe haven in our world today.

The job of those of us here tonight is whether, in the present climate of rising hostility toward minority groups, not just Jews, but especially Jews and Muslims, refugees and those who are simply different, we are to be the woman or the priest in the story.
It’s not only true that evil succeeds when good people do nothing, evil also succeeds when people make the wrong choices.
Our choice in the coming days is to either stand by or stand alongside.
To stand by as people are laughed at, discriminated against and persecuted, or to stand alongside and recognise that an attack on another human being is an attack on my sister or brother.
To stand by as evil mutates, manifesting itself in different ways and in different places, but is still the same evil, or to take a stand against it.
To stand by as people flee their homeland because of war, poverty and oppression or stand alongside those long refugee children desperately trying to reach these shores today to be reunited with family members.
Are we to stand by or take a stand?

Thank God that there are some women like that Polish woman and some men like that Polish priest; they did not stand by, but took a stand to be alongside and save a boy who became a man.
We do not know their names but we know their story.

Who will write our story?
And what will that story be?
One where we stood by?
Or will it record that we stood up to that which is wrong in our world today?

A few weeks ago, when visiting friends in London, I was leaving a tube station when I noticed a man sleeping under a few old blankets. He had taken shelter at the foot of the stairs because it was cold and raining outside, the ground around him was itself damp from the feet of those who had passed him. A scribbled message on a piece of cardboard stated that he was homeless and hungry and he needed help. A few small coins were placed next to the message. Now I had treasured the apple in my bag all the way from Lincoln the day before – I was saving it for the end of my visit and the journey home. It was a Cox’s apple, to many that would be immaterial, but I love a fresh Cox’s apple, their season is all too brief but all the special for it. Nevertheless, I placed the apple next to the man’s plea for help. I won’t say it was with reluctance but nor was the apple given lightly.

An hour later, after my visit to an old friend, I returned to the tube station.
The man was still there, fast asleep. My apple was still there too, untouched.
But beside it now were sandwiches, a banana, a small cake and two bottles of pop and water.

It had been a small gesture. But small gestures build a better world.

When Malcolm Muggeridge observed Mother, now St Teresa working amongst the poor and destitute of Calcutta he asked if she felt that what she was doing was merely a drop in the ocean, she replied that the ocean is made up of many drops.

So often we are made to feel as if we are utterly powerless in a world that has no interest in us as individual human beings. We are tempted to believe that what we do is of little or no significance. So why should we bother to even attempt an act of kindness?

There is the familiar story of a boy throwing starfish into the sea that had been left on the beach as the tide went out. A man came by and asked what he was doing. The boy said that if he didn’t do this the starfish would dry out and die. Noticing that the beach was littered with thousands of starfish the man scolded the boy with the comment ‘and what good will that do?’ To which the boy, picking up another starfish, responded ‘To this starfish it will make a world of difference.’

Over the last year Greta Thunberg has become a household name. The young teenager once sat on her school steps in protest one Friday at the lack of action in dealing with the global climate crisis. What good would her solo one-day school strike do? Today millions support her, millions have also come out on strike for the climate, today there is a growing awareness that we cannot, we simply cannot, allow inaction on the climate to continue. 2020 is forecast to be the hottest year on record. What good can we do in the face of such a massive issue.? Well we can do a great deal. To make seemingly small and incremental changes allows us to get used to the changing lifestyle so necessary to rescue our world. And just as importantly – others will see our action and hopefully imitate it.

A bit like those who must have seen my apple next to the sleeping homeless man in a London Tube Station and contributed other items of food and drink.

When my colleague Alison heard about this particular incident she told me of an occasion when she was travelling through Preston Railway Station en route to Manchester. At Preston many people joined the train after a day out in Blackpool. The carriage became overcrowded with families of all ages standing in the passageway and even in the aisles. There was a lot of grumbling and the atmosphere was poor to say the least. Then Alison overheard a man of senior years say to someone with whom he was travelling that he would not be able to stand for the whole journey. Alison being Alison stood up and offered him her seat. Within a very short space of time, having seen this act of kindness, someone else stood and offered their seat to another standing passenger, and another and another. Soon many people have exchanged places. The atmosphere changed considerably: instead of the tension that had been present shortly after they had left Preston station there was now a sense of togetherness with complete strangers talking to one another.

At the beginning of a whole new year we are tempted to think that there will be plenty of time to correct that which has bene wrong in our lives. New Year’s resolutions are now a form of joke these days but the truth is that we need to act and act now.

The 18th century Quaker Etienne de Grellet once wrote: I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. I expect to pass through this world but once.

A man went to his rabbi one day to ask when he must put himself right before God and his neighbour. The rabbi replied, ‘not until a moment before you die.’
‘But’ said the man ‘I don’t know when I will die.’
‘Exactly’ said the rabbi ‘so do it now.’

Even a cox’s apple can turn into a full blown meal when others add to it.

Every blessing on whatever time you have in the coming year to lay down an apple or throw a starfish into the sea.

May hope rise

24 December 2019

 

 

20191025_181011

May hope rise through Christmas cheer
And bring better days in the coming new year.
For if hope could rise, here just once more :
in the sombre and doleful, and mourning widow,
in casualty stench and stifling home,
through forceful exchange and tones of woe,
it will rise in lives so long forlorn.
Let it rise in the chilled hearts and cossetted minds
of commuting stranger and hasty shopper.
Let hope rise for good and for ever,
that never more we have need to meet the needs
of those on the streets and metaphorical gutter.
The glitter and gloss of cards and trees
mask the shadow and the dark,
the grim marks of heartsache and lingering pain.
We looked for hope, we wanted it to be,
and in the dawning of reality
some truth illumined the lie.
So, if hope could rise,
may it shed piercing light
upon the coming hours
when no more shall beggar’s bowl
be placed on broken slabs,
through cold wind and unrelenting shower.
May hope rise,
so no more tired young nurse shall have need
to force smile after smile through gritted teeth.
Hope beyond hope
that squinting eyes and ear splitting cry,
shall no more in deafened silence
be made by homeless, starving child.
Cling to the hope that it may yet rise
for rise it will,
through striking bell and determined will.
BT Dec 19