Tuesday, June 21, 2016
My story of her story (i)
Really, what did I know?
But I'd been thoroughly worked over by hearing her story. She'd told it, laughing and crying and celebrating while standing behind the podium of the college chapel in front of an audience of hundreds.
It was 1991, a quarter century ago. We'd planned the conference for a year. We wanted to draw people who had similar "old country" experiences during the war, people who, out of conscience and commitment to justice, had risked their lives and even the lives of their families because they felt it imperative to come to the aid of Holland's Jewish population, who'd become the targets of Nazi horrors few of them even understood in 1940 or 1941.
Among our college constituency, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of those who worked in the Dutch resistance, then immigrated to North America after the war. Research made clear that the only group of Netherlanders more dedicated to resistance work was the Marxists, sworn enemies of the fascists. Second, came those people sociologists and historians labeled "orthodox Protestants," which translated roughly into Gereformeerde or its North American first cousin, the Christian Reformed.
We'd asked her to speak because the Resistance worker the Dutch government had offered us, a woman from California, took ill at the last minute, leaving a blank space in our conference program. Diet Eman (deet a'-maan) had spoken in the chapel earlier when a local businessman had funded her speech after hearing her tell something of her story when the two of them were in some Central American country on a medical mission. The story she told had been incredible, the local paper said. I hadn't heard it myself.
Incredible is what she was that night at the conference. I'd never heard her before, but it was clear to me that her story--a tender love story against the stark horror of great human conflict--was beyond doubt one of the greatest stories I'd ever heard.
What did I know about writing such things? Nothing, really. I'd interviewed people and written their stories before, but never anything longer than a few hundred words.
But that night at the chapel, when I ended up in the food line just behind her, not by design but by sheer happenstance, I opened my big mouth because I was so deeply taken. "Did you ever think of getting a writer to help you write all of that?" I asked her after saying well-meant gracious things about what we'd all just heard.
She shook her head with considerable decisiveness. She told me she'd already had six people ask, but she didn't want it to be a book, she said, would rather not go in that direction at all.
Six months later, after church on a Sunday night, she called me. "Turn in the Psalter Hymnal to number 345"--she said--(I don't remember the number)--and read verse two." I stood right there, pulled the book from our library, and found it. The line had to do with parents telling their children the works of the Lord. "I want to write the story and I want you to help me," she said.
Suddenly I had a job I hadn't planned on.
A few more months passed. Summer arrived. I bought a ticket for Grand Rapids, rented a car, found her address, an retirement apartment in a new complex.
And I had a plan. I'd plotted out some questions I wanted to ask. I'd considered that what the book should look like would be something in the line of The Hiding Place, the Corrie Ten Boom story. So when we started talking that Sunday night, when my little tape recorder sat there on the table between us, the red light on, I was the first one to speak.
"Tell me what he was like," I said, or something to that effect. "In a group, would Hein be the first one to talk, or the last one, or the one with the best story?" How would I know him if he was just one of the men in the room here with us?"
What she said immediately thereafter became the readers theater version of a story that would become Things We Couldn't Say.
In essence, the reader's theater production is my story of her story, and should you be anywhere in the vicinity of Orange City, Iowa this weekend--Friday or Saturday--it will play at the Knight Center at Unity Christian, starting at 7:30.
What Diet Eman told me at that moment, how she answered my first question, a question I'd worked over myself time after time, trying to be professional, changed the direction of things completely and became itself a story.
More of that story tomorrow.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:08 AM