Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Swan Song XXXV--The Righteous
Once upon a time in occupied Holland, Diet Eman found herself heavily burdened with two little Jewish girls whose parents thankfullly gave them up rather than face deportation and death at Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Dachau. They were just children, innocent children, and she needed to find a place for them to hide, someone to keep them until the war was over. It was, I think, 1943.
Late at night, she knocked on the door of a preacher, a staunch, powerful man much beloved and renowned for his moral leadership, and she begged him to take the children. He said he couldn't. She begged harder. He shook his head. Then she raged, telling him it was his duty under God to save the lives of the innocent. He told her no. She told him that if he didn't, he was nothing but a fraud, a man who wouldn't put his faith to the test, a man who stood in the pulpit and lied. Still, he told her no.
When she left, she told me she swore at that preacher--that's how angry she was.
After the war, after the Germans were defeated and the Jewish refugees could come out from hiding, Diet Eman discovered the real story. That preacher already had a house full of Jews. He could take no more. To take on two little girls in addition to what he'd already had would have put his whole operation into jeopardy.
But he couldn't tell her any of that on the night she bloodily berated him for refusing two innocent girls, sisters. There were things he simply couldn't say because how was he to know that this young woman maligning him for his hypocrisy wasn't herself a Nazi sympathizer, someone interested in exposing him for hiding those Jews he and his family already hid. There were things he couldn't say.
Last night I watched The Reckoning again, a film about the Dutch Resistance movement during the occupation of the Netherlands because an ex-student of mine asked me to come to her school to talk about life in occupied Holland during the war. I was born here, in 1948. I have no first-hand knowledge of all of that, but 20 years ago I sat in Diet Eman's Michigan apartment and listened to her tell her story, a story which was published in 1994 as Things We Couldn't Say.
Back then, it was fifty years since the end of the war, fifty years since liberation in Holland, fifty years since American and GI forces stumbled into Nazi death camps all over Europe. There was a hunger for such stories, and Diet Eman's story was as powerful as any, a love story set up against the backdrop of horrible human tragedy. That young woman was, just before the war, engaged to be married; but she and her fiance got involved in the Dutch underground. Both were arrested, and the man she loved was shipped to Dachau, where he died, starved, in January, 1945, with so many of the Jews he tried to save.
I used to say that the most powerful story of the entire 20th century was the story of the Second World War. Embedded in that story was the most powerful Christian story of the 20th century, the story of the Rescuers, people--often Christians--who took on house guests who stayed dangerously hidden in their midst for four long years, house guests they didn't know and often didn't even like, house guests who stayed with them only because to refuse them, good Christian people reasoned, would have been to refuse Jesus Christ himself--"when I was hungry. . ."
Last night I watched the Eman story again. I'd almost forgotten--not the story. I'll never forget the story. When I heard her tell it two decades ago, her story was lodged in my mind and heart for as long as I live. The story never left. I know it better, I suppose, than anyone else in the world, except for her.
But I'd forgotten the testimony. I'd forgotten the commitment, the ever-frantic danger, the horrible loss, the ultimate triumph of selflessness. What I'd not thought about for a long, long time, really, was righteousness.
Righteousness, someone told me, is a word that has fallen out of usage. It's the root of another word that gets thrown around quite regularly--self-righteous. Self-righteous is a word that gets used quite a bit, I'm told; but righteousness itself, for the most part, stays between the covers of the dictionary. Think of it this way: even the most ardent fans of Sen. Rick Santorum might be hesitant to call him truly righteous.
Maybe that's the way it should be. None of us are righteous, no not one; after all, we all have sinned and fallen short. That's Paul the apostle.
Still, it was good for my soul to walk through that story again last night, to be reminded not of what I'd forgotten, but of what had simply fallen back out into a corner of my consciousness. It was good for me, for my heart and my soul and my mind, once again, to bear witness to righteousness.