She deserves a pass if you think her anti-Semitic. She’s already received a pass from the Israeli government for saving Dutch Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. There’s a tree planted in her honor as a “righteous Gentile” at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial and Museum. What she told me may well seem racist, but, good Lord, she isn’t.
She was, back then, delivering food and ration cards to Dutch families who were hiding Jews. And this needs to be said, too. When, originally, she (and others) placed Jews with daring families out in the country, no one—not Jews or Christians—no one in Holland ever expected that the war—and the occupation—would go for four long years. No one imagined such a thing.
It was Mark Twain, I believe, who said once upon a time that fish and guests both stink after three days. What about four years? And then, let’s not forget, the hosts and their long-time guests weren’t exactly woven from the same yarn. Mostly, the Dutch Jews she hid were with country folk, farmers, many of them devotedly orthodox Protestant—that’s right, Calvinists. The Jews were often citified and highly educated. The only thing—I mean the only thing—linking those housemates (for four long years in many cases) were their shared humanity.
I say all of that because what she told me, this Dutch Resistance fighter, was that once the Jewish people were successfully hidden, once she’d become a kind of surreptitious circuit rider, once no one else came to her with requests to hide another family or two little sisters, or old folks—once that was over, she had to keep them all supplied with food. Those farmers were in the squeezed fist of the Nazis and NSB-ers, their Dutch cohorts. Anyone who hid Jews was subject to the same penalty the Jews would receive—a trip to some German or Polish camp, a trip from which they might never return.
Here’s the line. I’m not sure of how she said it exactly, but this is the way it came out, full of humanity.
It was never easy, she told me. Sooner or later the Jews would want more or they wouldn’t like their surroundings or they couldn’t stand the people. They complained and complained and complained—just like the Israelites in the desert for all those years before the promised land. Just grumbled and grumbled some more. Constant grumbling.
What makes that line come back to me now is that last week, in church, our preacher referred to manna, that gift of God to his beloved people in the desert—and then proceeded to absolve the Israelites of their constant grumbling. After all, who wouldn’t get sick to death of hard tack in a soft shell cover, or whatever manna was? Everybody would.
But when our preacher said that—the Israelites were grumbling—I saw them in my imagination, maybe for the first time. I saw them because I saw those Jewish folks locked up in Calvinist homes hither and yon throughout rural Holland. The biblical story became real to me because of an image given to me in a story, a true story, a story I could see clearly.
I’m no theologian, but the Israelites’ grumbling about manna became, maybe for the first time in my life, a real story because in my imagination there exists a kind of template that made them-- the ancient Israelites—real. Not just a Bible story, something from the Sunday School canon, but a real story about real people.
I must have heard the story of the Israelites 40-year sojourn in the desert a hundred times—even wrote a book of meditations about it long ago. But suddenly last Sunday, I saw them, heard their grumbling, felt their discontent, because even though I wasn’t there myself, I’d listened to a similar story told by a woman who was there and who did hear it at a time when her life was very much on the line, working underground against the Nazis. I heard that sound through her ears by way of her story.
Tons of theologians have thought this through far more substantially than I ever have, but the phenomenon I experienced last Sunday in church made me think that we own the bible’s marvelous stories most fully when our imaginations can create the images we need to see or hear or feel out of own experience—or our “felt” experience by way of someone else’s story.
Originally, she wanted me to see those Jewish folks she was supporting with food and ration cards by way of my understanding of those grumbling Israelites in the desert. But the comparison worked the opposite way too—I understand the desert Israelites because I know something about those poor locked-up grumblers hidden in the neighbor’s barn for four long years.
Bible stories become more whole if we bring something of our own to them—that’s what I’m thinking. I understand the story of the Israelites far more fully having heard about Dutch Jews.
What I don’t know is why I’m such a slow learner.