April 2015 Archives


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"Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in Cuba" by USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

Today, Sunday 26th April, German president Joachim Gauck donned a black velvet yarmulke to speak and shed heartfelt tears at a ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Germany has accepted full responsibility for all the atrocities perpetrated in the name of the German people. But what about the rest of us? We like to see ourselves as the heroic liberators, the defeaters of Nazism, saviours of freedom and the rule of law. But In July of 1938, where were we? Where was our humanity at the time of the notorious conference at Évian-les-Bains?

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Survivor Maria Gniatczyk, German president Joachim Gauck and the Duke of Gloucester, front from left, listen to a survivor's speech during a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Bergen, northern Germany, Sunday, April 26, 2015.. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) (The Associated Press)

At this conference, convened to address the plight of escalating numbers of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, both the USA and Britain refused to accept any substantial number of refugees. The rest of the thirty-two countries at the conference followed suit--with the exception of the Dominican Republic, which offered to accept 100,000 Jews--although only about 700 actually succeeded in making the hazardous journey.

No story could be more pitiful than that of the so-called 'Ship of Fools'--the voyage of the MS St Louis to bring almost a thousand Jews across the Atlantic to safety. The refugees were refused entry to Cuba, their original destination. According to authors Rabbi Ted Falcon & David Blatner, "America not only refused their entry but even fired a warning shot to keep them away from Florida's shores." Canada likewise refused the refugees and the St Louis turned back. (It is not known why the ship did not go to the Dominican Republic). Britain accepted only a few and the rest returned to Europe to meet their fate. Many died in internment camps or were murdered in Auschwitz.

Today there are many 'ships of fools'--desperate refugees from Syria, people fleeing conflict zones in Africa, as well as those unable to find a decent life in their homeland. The misery they are fleeing is so appalling that it seems worthwhile to leave everything they have ever known and risk their lives in flimsy vessels on the Mediterranean. Those we see as 'economic migrants' --and thereby illegitimized--are in fact victims of converging and mutually exacerbating stressors that include global economic disparities, international financial policies, post-colonialism and climate change.

While we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, paradoxically, we allow thousands of refugees to drown--viewing their plight more as a security issue than a humanitarian one. Just yesterday a thousand people took ship from Yemen to the comparative safety of Somalia. Can you imagine being in such danger and misery that Somalia seems like a better option than your ancestral home?

We in the Western countries lead comparatively safe and comfortable lives. But we have our own difficulties. Why should we let in people who will take our jobs, depend upon our welfare systems, overwhelm our charities? Why--because we are all human.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

One version of a quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller.

With all the uncertainties created by climate change, we should remember the Pastor's words. I live a great, if simple life here in Boulder. We have space to grow our own vegetables and I don't need a car because I can walk everywhere. But in 2013 I became a climate change victim myself during the Boulder Flood Disaster. As sea levels rise, as arid regions dry and resource-based conflicts increase, none of us knows if we will be the next to be displaced.

It's important that we commemorate the Holocaust. The millions who died--my own relatives among them--should never be forgotten. We should also not let them die in vain. Let us fertilize the seeds of humanity and compassion with their ashes and water them with our tears. We cannot change the past, but we can and must show humanity today and create a brighter future for all.

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Remembering Vietnam

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In 1975, I was living as a postulant in the Convent of the Assumption, Kensington Square in West London. Here I had two close friends, Sister Evelyn, from Bavaria and Sister Emmanuel Bac, from Vietnam. Each of us was barely five feet tall and, as well as our mutual passion for a life of prayer and service, we shared the camaraderie of being able to converse at eye level and walk comfortably arm-in-arm. Evelyn was quiet, soft-spoken and serious, burdened by the atrocities that had taken place in her country shortly before she was born. I was enthusiastic and intensely creative, yet grappling with the appalling death of my relatives in the Holocaust. And Emmanuel Bac was naturally joyous and light-hearted, but faced the daily horror of the Vietnam War. Bac was the name of her native village. Upon entering religious life, she took the name Emmanuel Bac, meaning, 'God dwells with us in Bac.' Emmanuel and I looked up to Evelyn, who was approaching her final vows. So despite her quiet nature, Evelyn was the leader. She taught us to 'share' by sitting in a circle and expressing our deepest feelings and aspirations.

I was in medical school, while Evelyn and Emmanuel were busy with their religious studies leading to their vows, but we spent every possible moment together. We studied together at wooden desks beneath the attic roof of the juniorate. We sat together in the corner and shared. We strolled in the garden together. We sang together in choir--Emmanuel and I in unison with our soaring soprano voices while Evelyn sweetly sang the alto line.

Easter was early that year. The next day, 31st March, I brought Emmanuel Bac to see the Easter Monday parade, something I had always enjoyed as a child. Hand in hand, we wormed our way to the front of the crown to enjoy the glittering sight of Pearly Kings and Queens, their costumes adorned with mother-of pearl buttons. When my parents came to London to visit me, soon after Easter, they we thrilled to meet both Sister Evelyn and Sister Emmanuel Bac. Meanwhile, Emmanuel introduced me to London's Vietnamese community, who voted me an honorary Vietnamese--an oriental in a white body. Always quite shy, I enjoyed the welcome I found among my Vietnamese friends. I even learnt a little Vietnamese, a language so musical it is almost sung rather than merely spoken.

Only a month after the Easter Parade, I came home from the hospital one Wednesday to find Emmanuel Bac sitting in Mother Provincal's office, white and shaken and the whole convent in a state of shock. While I was tending to children on the leukaemia ward, she had received the news of the fall of Saigon. Tense days passed as we waited for word of her family. When the news did come, it was not good news. Her brother had been killed. And now I learnt something new about my friend. Outside our tender 'sharing' circles, she did not reveal her feelings. There was always a smile on her face, even when she was crying inside.

The months flowed on. Sister Evelyn took her final vows and left the Juniorate. Emmanuel Bac got leave of absence to connect with surviving family members who had escaped Vietnam. I graduated medical school and began working at West Suffolk Hospital. Our different adult lives pulled Evelyn, Emmanuel Bac and I into different locations, even though our hearts remained united. Today, forty years on from the Fall of Saigon, I know that I will never forget my friend and the rest of London's Vietnamese community. The sorrow of that war remains with me in an intimate way, because I shared a heart with someone who was so deeply impacted by it.

The war ended forty years ago, but the tragedies it created cannot end. They are felt among generations of Vietnamese, both those living in Vietnam and those forced into exile. They are felt, too, among thousands of traumatized American veterans and their families or widows. Almost sixty thousand American families have an empty seat at the table as a direct result of the war--many more when we consider suicides or alcohol-related deaths arising from the Vietnam experience. Millions of Vietnamese have lost loved ones, as my friend Emmanuel Bac did, and feel those losses no less keenly. We found paradise and turned it into hell through colonialism and modern warfare. At the time, the Vietnam War inspired a generation of young people to become activists for peace. Their cause remains only too relevant today, as wars rage on on Africa and the Middle East. To misquote Bob Dylan;

How many deaths will it take 'til we know

That too many people have died?

It is a stretch to call this piece 'living witnesses', as we are going to introduce you to an inanimate object--a small printing press. We 'met' this amazing witness last summer in Assisi--and what a story he has to tell! Please take a few minutes to hear:

The story of the printing press.

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I'm retired now and live in a museum. But for many years I worked in a small souvenir shop in Assisi, printing prayer cards for pilgrims who came for St Francis' blessing. Just how powerful that blessing was, none of us knew, until the dark times came. You see, in September 1943, just as our friends the British and Americans landed in the South of Italy, our 'allies' the Germans occupied Umbria and all of Northern Italy. With war now raging in our beautiful land, all the monuments and pilgrim sites of Italy were under threat of bombing--and the Italian people were in dire straits. Worst of all, Italy's Jews were now threatened with deportation to the East.

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The Brizi Souvenir Shop

Well, my friends, the first blessing came from an unexpected direction--the Bavarian officer in command of Assisi. Col. Valentin Müller was a fine man, a medical doctor, very devout, went to mass at the Tomb of San Francesco every day, or so I heard. (Sitting all day in a popular souvenir shop, you hear all the local gossip, you see.) It was he who arranged for Assisi to be designated a hospital city. As such, not only were we spared the Allied bombings, we were also freed from the presence of German troops--making it much easier for us to hide people in our midst. The Colonel must have known what we were up to, but he turned a blind eye to our efforts to save people from the death camps. For that was what we did--save three hundred Jews--and in a city which had never before, or since, had a Jewish community!

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Col. Valentin Müller

The next blessing was equally unexpected--our Fascist mayor, Arnaldo Fortini. He was a kind man, a lover of San Francesco and Santa Chiara in his own way. He even wrote a biography of St Francis! Not only did he too play a part in lobbying for Assisi's demilitarized status, he also risked a lot to support our efforts, passing on warnings of impending Nazi raids.

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You see, once we became a hospital city, a safe zone in the midst of bombing, our population was swollen by thousands of refugees. And among them were several hundred desperate Jews who had heard about the kindness of Fortini and hoped they might be safe here. They got more than they could have hoped for. No hiding in sewers or barns for the Jews that came to us. And that's where I played a very important part, as you will soon hear.

The third blessing for Assisi in those days was surely our wonderful Bishop, Guiseppe Placido Nicolini. He had already set up a "Committee for Assistance" to help the refugees. Under cover of this committee, he began the dangerous and difficult work of saving Jews. Our Holy Father, Pope Pius XII of blessed memory, had ordered Catholic institutions to save, hide and protect the Jews. And the humble and tireless Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, coordinated all these efforts.

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Bishop Nicolini

The plan was to give all the Jews false papers--and that's where I and my owners, Luigi and Trento Brizi, came into the picture, you see. Father Aldo Brunacci was placed in charge of the rescue operation, along with Father Ruffino Niacci. Friar Niacci was a simple man from an Umbrian village who had never even met a Jew before! Yet he rose to the occasion and did what San Francesco would have done. I will never forget the day when Niacci came into our store to ask us to print the false papers. Luigi agreed to do this, at risk of his own life. And young Trento rode his bike to Foligno to get a friend who was expert in etching to create the seals. The documents were produced here by yours truly and taken to a different location to be stamped. I made false papers for other Jews too, those who just passed through Assisi and went on to live elsewhere

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Luigi Brizi

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An example of the false papers

When the Jews first arrived, they were hidden in various convents and private homes and even in the Bishop's palace. I can tell you, our Bishop Nicolini was not above giving his own bed to the exhausted refugees. But the Bishop was not content to keep the Jews in hiding. His plan was that they should not just survive, but thrive to the greatest extent possible. And thanks to the fake identity documents I produced, the Jews were able to rent apartments, work within the community, obtain rations, and--most importantly of all to the Bishop--the children could attend school.

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Father Ruffino Niacci at tree planting ceremony in Yad Vashem, being honoured as Righteous among the Nations

The Bishop felt it important to care for all the spiritual and material needs of our Jewish friends. He kept their valuables and money in his vault for them and hid their special religious objects in his palace cellars. He and dear Father Aldo constructed false walls with their own hands to create hiding places for sacred texts and other Jewish items. And when a family wanted to leave, the pair broke open the wall with a pick and shovel and then re-plastered it. He made sure the Jews could celebrate their special holidays, too. I remember Yom Kippur of 1943 and how the Sisters prepared the fast-break meal for the Jews. And the indomitable Father Aldo even arranged for a secret Hebrew school for the Jewish children to learn their faith!

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Don Aldo Brunacci

There was one family I could not help. The Finzis from Belgium had arrived early in the war and were already registered as Jews. Well, you will never guess what our Bishop did! He hid them in the most secure hiding place he had--the strict enclosure of the French Colettine Poor Clares. Here their baby was born and here they celebrated the Passover Seder with the nuns. How beautiful that our sisters, whose enclosure was so strict, allowed a family to live with them to save their lives!

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Colettine Poor Clare Monastery

On 17th May 1944, we were horrified to learn that Don Aldo and some other members of our network were arrested. Thanks be to God, Montini was able to get them out. That was a blessing in itself. But the greatest blessing of all was simply the fact that not one of the Jews who came to Assisi was lost. By our collaborative effort and all the risks we took, we were able to save three hundred lives. And how many old printing presses could say that?

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Some of those who were saved

Last summer Alakananda and Sadananda came to visit me here in the Museum of Memory, housed in the beautiful Palazzo Vallemani, where I live surrounded by false papers I printed and pictures of Bishop Nicolini, Don Aldo, Friar Niacci, Mayor Fortini, Col Müller, my owners and some of the dear ones we saved. My new friends stroked me lovingly and Sadananda took several photographs of me. Tears were sparkling in their eyes--tears of gratitude for those whom we saved and tears of sorrow for the millions who were lost. We can only hope and pray for a future when--by San Francesco's blessing--nobody will ever be killed because of their race, colour or creed.

Hear Don Aldo's testimony here.

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Assisi

Related Links: Living Witnesses Part 8: An Umbrian Teenager

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.

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Wandering through the beautiful hill town of Spello in Umbria, we met the amazing elder pictured here. Spello is described as 'Assisi without Francis.' Close to Assisi and built of the same glowing pink stone, Spello represents what Assisi would be like without all the souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and crowds of pilgims. It is a peaceful and picturesque place. Yet our friend was eager to tell us of a time when the beautiful Umbrian plain and the slopes of Subasio were anything but peaceful. In the latter years of the war, Umbria was under Nazi occupation--and Allied bombardment. Foligno, in the plain below Spello, was particularly hard hit, reducing most of the historic town to rubble. Perhaps our friend was in Foligno at the time.

"Bomba! Bomba!" he said, wide eyes lifted towards the skies, once so dangerous, hands portraying the massive shocks of bombardment. 'Brroooom!"

Due to the rudimentary nature of my Italian--and his lack of teeth--it was difficult to grasp the details of the story. But the sheer terror of those times was vivdly portrayed for us. Even more telling was the fact that, seventy years on, this was the only thing he wanted to talk about. On a warm and peaceful summer afternoon in a delightful town, the horror of those days was still alive for him.

Italy is the quintessence of Western civilization, home to a heritage that belongs to all humanity; home too, of the people who have nurtured that heritage. The war destroyed many irreplaceable monuments and places of beauty and left Italian civilians hungry and terrified. Today, proxy wars around North Africa and the Middle East continue to destroy the monuments of Greek, Roman and still earlier great civilizations. Many today live in the same fear our friend endured as a boy. Our Umbrian friend, like our other living witnesses, reminds us that the ending of one war is not necessarily peace. As long as any young person looks to the sky in fear, peace has not yet come.

As Saint Francis said in blessing Brother Leo:

May the Lord
bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you
and be merciful to you.
May He turn His countenance to you
and give you peace.

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Umbrian plain, by Sadananda

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