Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.
Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.
What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.
Episode 1 – Mark Rylance
From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.
Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas
Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.
Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.
Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter
While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.
In Min Jin Lee’s acclaimed novel Pachinko, there’s this episode in an early chapter. Sunja is harassed by three Japanese high school boys while heading home after shopping at the market. Hansu appears just in time to rescue her. After that, he kindly warns her:
“Listen, you have to be careful not to travel alone or ever be out at night. If you go to the market by yourself, you must stay on the main paths. Always in public view. They are looking for girls now.”
She didn’t understand.
“The colonial government. To take to China for the soldiers. Don’t follow anyone. It will likely be some Korean person, a woman or a man, who’ll tell you there’s a good job in China or Japan. It may be someone you know. Be careful, …” (p. 32, Pachinko)
Korean-American author Lee is subtle here and does not dwell further on the issue. But this episode offers a realistic backdrop to her story set during the Japanese occupation of a large part of Asia. Sadly, the two sisters who work in Sunja’s mother’s boarding house are lured to work in China, with no news after that.
What was Lee referring to?
United Nations researchers report that between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese military forced an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls into institutionalized sexual slavery. They are called comfort women, a term used by the Imperial Japanese Army, euphemism for sexual slaves. Girls and young women were kidnapped, tricked, or taken away from their homes in Korea, China, Philippines, and Indonesia to comfort stations, another euphemism, for military brothels. To say they were victims of sexual assault was a description put mildly, because many of these women were literally raped on a daily basis.
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung’s documentary The Apology follows three surviving comfort women. To honor them with dignity, Hsiung calls them ‘Grandmas’: Grandma Gil in Korea, Grandma Adela in the Philippines, and Grandma Cao in China.
Since 2009, the Toronto-based writer/director began documenting survivors of this silent atrocity, silent due to the long-held shame and fear of rejections of sexual violence victims. The six years of making The Apology had turned Hsiung into an advocate for WWII comfort women, seeking justice and sharing their stories in communities and universities in North America.
What had been a silent issue was first exposed by Korean survivor Kim Hak-sun, who spoke out in 1991, nearly five decades after World War II. Her brave act of putting away the shame and openly testifying to the horrible ordeals she had suffered prompted many other survivors to follow her lead. Such war-time atrocities began to draw international attention. The voices of these comfort women soon became a poignant outcry, a pioneer of social activism way before the present-day #MeToo Movement.
Grandma Gil of Korea was only 13 when she was forcibly taken away by Japanese soldiers from her home in Pyongyang to be a comfort woman in Harbin, China. She was seriously damaged physically, had gone through four operations during which she was made sterile. Today in her late 80’s, she is still separated from her family as Pyongyang now is in North Korea. She dreams of unification one day so she can see her family again.
Grandma Adela in the Philippines was 14 when she was taken away. Hsiung’s documentary shows us an actual comfort station in the Dona Baray Garrison, now desolate. Adela had not told her late husband about her past fearing rejection, but now felt she needed to let her son know. Hsiung’s camera captured the quiet understanding from her son as he learned of his mother’s painful experience during the war, a shameful secret no more. Sadly, Grandma Adela passed away after that before the production was completed.
Grandma Cao in a village in rural China had never told her adopted daughter. Again, Hsiung’s filming opened up the channel of release for her. There were three comfort women in her village. They were actually already documented by a local writer and a book had been published.
Grandma Gil in Korea is the most outspoken among these three survivors. She continues the protests that Kim Hak-sun had started. She bravely goes to Japan personally to speak to young women of a new generation, students who have not heard of such atrocities. She sits in street protests, over a thousand of such gatherings had taken place so far, yet all but fallen on deaf ears. Not only that, these woman protesters were often met with counter accusations and derogatory insults shouted at them.
A recent comment by a Japanese politician could well have represented the official view. Mayor Hashimoto had said that ‘sex slavery was necessary.’ His political party stated there was no need to apologize.
So, the protesters pressed on. Eventually 1.5 million signatures were gathered from across Asia and as far as Canada. Grandma Gil and several supporters personally delivered the boxes of petitions pressuring Japan to own up to their war crime and offer an apology. The documentary follows Grandma Gil all the way to the office of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, where the group delivered the boxes of signatures and met with the UN Human Rights Commission.
As of today, no apology has been given by the Japanese government.
The Apology is produced by the National Film Board of Canada. It will premiere on PBS’s POV Monday, October 22, 2018. Check your local station showtime, filmmaker info, trailer and other resources including reading list and lesson plan here:
Mark Sakamoto’s family memoir was first published in 2014. The book reemerges now due to the Canada Reads 2018 event. The annual battle of the books is CBC’s reading campaign. Five Canadian media and entertainment celebs will defend one of the five shortlisted books in a national broadcast March 26-29. The panelists will vote down one book each day to arrive at the winner. Audience can tune in on the debates via radio, TV and live stream online.
Mark Sakamoto is a lawyer by training and has enjoyed a varied career. In Forgiveness, he writes about his grandparents’ real-life experiences, two contrasting, traumatic WWII accounts. The subtitle of the book is telling, Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents.
Mark Sakamoto’s maternal grandfather Ralph MacLean is from the Magdalen Islands in the east coast of Canada. In 1940, he enlisted with the army voluntarily together with his friend. After a few months’ training they were sent overseas to Hong Kong, oblivious to the perils into which they were driven. With the British already retreating a hopeless post, MacLean’s garrison didn’t have a chance to defend the then British Colony. In a few short weeks after their arrival, all two thousand or so Canadian soldiers were either dead or turned POWs forced to live in sub-human, horrific conditions under their Japanese captors.
… the fate of 819 men was sealed. They would never return home. The remaining 1,155 survivors would be forgiven if they sometimes felt they were the unlucky ones.
Later, MacLean was shipped to Japan to work for the Japanese war effort, from POW to slave laborer. That he survived at all was a miracle.
Cut to the other side of the world in Canada. Mark’s paternal grandparents Mitsue and Hideo Sakamoto were born in British Columbia and lived in a fishing community. Grandma Mitsue’s father, together with thousands of other Japanese Canadians, had their own boats and were doing well as fishermen in a closed-knit community.
During the time Ralph MacLean was barely surviving as a POW in Japan, the Sakamotos, being Japanese Canadians, went through their own battle in a land they called home. Their families were interned and sent to rural Alberta as forced farm laborers. The family fishing boat, and all their possessions were confiscated. Together with thousands of Japanese Canadians–many Canadian born–Mitsue, Hideo and everyone in their extended families, young and old, were put on a train barely suited for human passengers, under the watchful eyes of policemen with rifles, and transported to Lethbridge, Alberta. There Mitsue and Hideo were separated with their parents as they were sent to different farms to work as laborers, living in shacks of wood planks and dirt floor.
After the war, Ralph MacLean came back from Japan and settled in Calgary, Alberta. Mitsue’s families knew they had no home to return to in B.C. after receiving a compensation cheque of $25.65 from the Canadian government for the loss of all their properties. They decided to remain in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Fate has it that Ralph’s daughter Diane and Mitsue’s son Stan met in a high school dance. When Ralph eventually met his future son-in-law, who looked like one of his wartime tormentors, he knew he needed to leave the past behind. The two families first met at a dinner in Mitsue’s home:
Mitsue and Ralph became instant friends. There was an unspoken understanding between them… they had both discarded the past, keeping only what they needed. They did not compare hardships or measures injustices. They knew there was no merits to that.
Two families who had suffered torments of varying degrees during the war and for very different reasons came together as their children joined in marriage. What a wonderful story. Yet the above short few lines are all that readers can find relating to how the two families came together. Despite the extraordinary personal experiences, the book fell short of delivering a satisfying read.
With the bold, one-word title, “Forgiveness”, it is surprising that the author leaves us with little internal reflections or insights. For Ralph, having gone through so much trauma and physical torments, we are told in only a few lines how he came to the state of forgiveness, that is when he read his Bible during the last days in the Japanese war camp, turning to Mark 25:11, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” That is all being mentioned, just the quote. It seems a lot of the forgiveness is left to the reader’s own assumption and speculation.
It matters little that it lacks literary style, or that the writing is conversational. The short sentences make it a fast read and descriptions are vivid, especially the war years. While the thematic materials are worth telling, the book lacks editorial work to make it a cohesive whole. There are sections that are disjointed, the chapters uneven. There are moments where readers have to join the gaps on their own. The photos are helpful for readers to visualize, but there are no captions right underneath except all stated in a list at the back of the book, not too drastic a fault but an inconvenience still.
Structurally, the first two-thirds of the book about the war years are stark personal experiences many North Americans are not familiar with. These painful, eyewitness accounts told to the author by his grandparents are informative and necessary for us to know. But after that, the last part of the book about Mark and his parents, especially at the end how he had to care for his mother’s debilitating addictions after his parents’ divorce reads like another story unrelated to the earlier part, and Ralph and Mitsue seem to have disappeared.
Nevertheless, for the personal torments of Ralph’s as a POW under Japanese hands during WWII, and the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians had undergone at the same time right here in Canada, Sakamoto’s book is of value as eyewitness accounts to history and a cautionary real-life tale of how we ought to go forward as a civilized society. The last section of the book could well lead to another personal memoir dealing with the urgent social issue of addictions.
Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto, HarperCollins Publisher, Toronto, 2014.
The Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO, is a must-see whenever I visit Toronto. Not only because I’m a Frank Gehry fan who never gets tired of looking at the centre spiral staircase in there, but the exhibits are always intriguing and thought-provoking. Spent a few days in Toronto last week and this time, I was much gratified to view the current show at AGO: “Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty”.
“You can’t be more horrific than life itself” says a quote from Francis Bacon on the AGO’s Artist page. The exhibits speak to that by extracting from the horrors of WWII and other forms of human sufferings and struggles depicted in the works of these two 20th century Irish/English artists who were contemporaries of each other.
The exhibit is a wealth of surrealist works from Bacon, and sculptures and drawings from Moore. But I was particularly captivated by the WWII items. While Moore is well-known for his abstract sculptures of the human body in larger than life poses, here’s a rare chance to see his more personal, wartime drawings.
Going home one evening in 1940, as he entered a London subway station, Moore discovered crowds of people sleeping on the platform to take shelter from an impending German air strike, the Blitz. He was taken aback by what he saw and his later drawing was a ghastly interpretation:
That’s Moore’s view of the underground subway station used as impromptu bomb shelter. But what was it really like in those tube stations? That’s when I was totally captivated by the photos of the renowned photojournalist Bill Brandt displayed alongside Moore’s shelter drawings.
Rather than horrific depictions, I was utterly surprised by the actual photographs by Brandt, who acted as official war photographer. His noir and darkened perspective is haunting and yet, full of mystique and beauty.
What I saw was an opposite interpretation of the subway scene: rather than terror, I saw resilience. Indeed, the London populace came out in droves to seek shelter in the subway, a much safer haven than their own homes. What I saw in many of Brandt’s photographs was the strong sense of ‘life goes on’.
Two photographs in the exhibition will forever remain in my mind.
First is the Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter during an air raid in November, 1940. The photograph shows a family sleeping soundly, bedding against the grooves in between the steel structures of the tunnel. But look more carefully, there’s even a bunk and blanket for a doll beside the child. They all look peaceful and calm.
For the archive in my mind, let me call this photo: “The Doll in the Subway”
The second picture by Brandt is in the Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter. Here, people sleeping on the crowded platform while taking shelter from German air raids during the Blitz.
But look how they were dressed in. The mid-heel pump the woman in the foreground was wearing caught my attention. Looks like she was dressed for work. Blitz or no Blitz, after she woke in the morning, she had to go to work. Life as usual.
In my mental archive, this photo will now be entitled “The Mid-heel Pump”.
What more, after civilians had crowded into the subway stations against government’s advice, the officials had to respond with helpful measures by installing chemical toilets, first aid facilities, and providing drinks, while the people created their own entertainment. With all due respect to the victims of the Blitz, the resilience and adaptability of the Londoners are most inspiring.
After I stepped out of AGO, I wanted to go back in to take a more careful look at the exhibits again. But that was not feasible so I had to write this post from memory (no photos of the exhibits were allowed) and from some online digging. Glad to have found these two memorable images from the Imperial War Museum website. Thanks to AGO, these two historic photos will remain in my mental archive for a long, long time.
This is an important book in that it chronicles the real-life experience of a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese army after the British surrendered in Singapore during WWII. The Pacific War is a part of WWII history that has often been ignored, other than the Pearl Harbour chapter. The British Empire in the Far East was dealt a deadly blow by Japanese invasions, and, British POW’s suffered not a bit less than those in Hitler’s death camps.
Japanese atrocities and war crimes have often been muffled in this our North American society. I don’t want to speculate why but yes, I do have an inkling which I will not discuss here. But as someone who had grown up in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a teenager, I can tell the difference in knowledge and perceptions when I compare the generally uninformed public of the West and those who themselves or their elders’ generation had lived through in Asia during the war.
Because of the general lack of knowledge on the Far East during WWII, Eric Lomax’s first person narrative as a POW in a Japanese labour camp and later military prison is all the more valuable. The memoir starts off with his love for the railways in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. As the colony fell to Japanese hands, Lomax’s life was torturously demented in subsequent decades until the very end.
Eric Lomax was a young 22 year-old when he was captured and moved with tens of thousands of POW’s to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to build the notorious ‘Death Railway’ in 1943. It was a passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. The conditions of forced labour were horrendous. Many POW’s died building the railway. This part of the world was the subject of the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai, an unrealistic (even farcical now that I’ve read Lomax’s memoir) depiction of British POW’s inside Japanese military camps.
With his skills, Lomax and several others built a radio secretly to get news of the war. The radio was later discovered, together with a map Lomax had carefully drawn up of the railway line. Six of them were interrogated and savagely beaten by The Kempetai, or goon squad, as Lomax described them. Both his arms, wrist, several ribs, teeth, and his hip were broken. Two died from the beatings. While Lomax survived, more tortures and horrendous treatments followed in the days after. The experiences had left him permanently damaged psychologically for the rest of his life. Decades after the war, Lomax was still being tortured by terrifying flashbacks. The nightmares continued until he met his tormentor and forgiveness replaced hatred and vengeance.
So all in all, a significant story to tell. But while the book’s description is straight forward and clear, it leaves me ungratified as to its writing style and lack of deeper exploration, with all due respect to the author and his horrific, nightmares of ordeals. Yes, he had done a detailed job in reporting his personal journey from childhood to the war, the tortures and his suffering, other victims and their fate. As well, he recorded the aftermath of his horrific experiences as he re-entered ‘normal’ society, and sadly still, to a family that he no longer knew. His mother had died of a broken heart and his father had remarried. I was particularly engrossed with the after war effects in the last chapters.
However, the internal change of heart for the reconciliation with the Japanese interpreter had not been explored. After the bulk of the book describing his painful ordeals, the very last chapter of a happy ending looks off-balanced. It all started with the Japanese officer and interpreter, Takashi Nagase, who was present at Lomax’s torture, publishing his autobiography in his seventies. In there, he even mentioned the torture of Lomax, but due to his remorse, he felt he had been ‘forgiven’. Lomax’s second wife Patti, upon reading the English translation of the book, decided to write to Nagase regarding her husband. Patti’s letter opened up a chance for the later meeting between the tormentor and the victim.
Nagase had shown deep remorse, and dedicated his life after the war to help the Allies locate graves of POW’s, to ‘make-up’ for the wrongs the Japanese army had done. In his meeting with Lomax fifty years later, both in their seventies, near the bridge on the River Kwai, Nagase offered his visibly acute and sincere regrets for what the Japanese army had done to the British soldiers. A forgiving spirit suddenly took hold of Lomax and the two became friends. However, Lomax did not go deep into how his ingrained hatred and vengeance were alleviated, except noting that Nagase was a changed man now.
Further, the book had not answered a question I’ve always pondered. No, I understand it was never intended to delve into that issue as it is a personal memoir and not a political or philosophical treatise. But this question has been unsettling for me. What if the tormentor had no remorse, could reconciliation be possible? Other than Nagase, we know that many in Japan today still worship their dead WWII soldiers including war criminals as national heroes, unlike Germany’s denunciation of the Nazi regime. History textbooks had even been changed to tone down Japan’s aggression in the war. Even as recent as January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited and paid his pilgrimage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The controversial Shrine is a clear symbol of, in Lomax’s words, “an unashamed celebration of militarism”. In the book, we also read that Nagase had taken the unpopular and even dangerous stance of denouncing this war monument. To victims and their descendants of Japanese wartime atrocities, the chapter has not ended; in international politics, the issue remains.
It is always a triumph to see true remorse and subsequent reconciliation. Lomax’s personal story is extraordinary for both himself and Nagase. In that sense, readers are gratified with a light at the end of a long, dark chapter of one life, a bright stroke on the large canvas of WWII history.
The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, first published in Great Britain, 1995 by Jonathan Cape. Movie tie-in edition by Vintage Books, London, 2014, 322 pages.
** Movie Adaptation: I saw The Railway Man the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. So far, there has not been a general, major release of the film here in North America. As much as I’d like to share my view on the film, with Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, Nicole Kidman as his wife Patti, and Jeremy Irvine as young Lomax, I intend to wait till there is a public release of the film before I post my review. Let’s hope I don’t have to wait much longer.
I’ve read some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing years ago, but knew close to nothing about the life of this highly admired Christian theologian, pastor and anti-Nazi martyr. Eric Metaxas’s 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer is an informative first step for me to delve into a selfless and heroic life. Within the close to 600 pages are highly readable narratives, at times humorous and even entertaining, albeit juxtaposed with pathos and sombre accounts.
What I’ve appreciated most is Metaxas’s inclusion of Bonhoeffer’s own voice, excerpts from his writing, letters, sermons, and words spoken as reported by witnesses. One of the most important sources is from his theology student and confidant Eberhard Bethge who had written what generally considered the definitive biography on Bonhoeffer. That’s over a thousand pages. I’m in no position to offer any critique on the accuracies of Metexas’s book, for I have not read both or any other historical documents to compare notes. Here I’m just sharing my thoughts as a reader, casting my two pebbles into the pond of resonance.
In this second part, Chapters 19 to the end, the mood changes as we see Hitler tightening the noose on his opponents, especially the Jews and their sympathizers. Bonhoeffer had to help his twin sister Sabine’s family flee the country before it was too late, as her husband Gerhard Leibholz was Jewish.
Dietrich’s own Confessing Church which had boldly stood against Hitler’s anti-semitic laws was now facing Gestapo arrests, its seminary Finkenwalde shut down, and its pastors slapped with the ordinance to swear an oath to Hitler. For his own safety, he had made arrangement to leave Germany for America. The Union Seminary in NYC had offered him a teaching post, welcoming the return of this brilliant theologian from Germany.
Bonhoeffer sailed to NYC on June 12, 1939, finding a safe haven in America, but not peace of mind. His inner turmoils were so overwhelming that he stayed there for just twenty-six days. His pastor’s heart prodded him to rush back to Germany to be with those who were suffering. My admiration for the man grew even more as I came to this part.
Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.
It was a much deteriorated country to which he returned under the grip of a mad Führer. War broke out. His brother Karl and brother-in-law Dohnanyi were in the Resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon, Dietrich was involved too, at first offering encouragement and emotional support, but later worked for the Abwehr, the German spy agency, as a pastor, which he was, but unbeknownst to the Abwehr, as an undercover for the Resistance. What a dangerous job to take on!
In Operation 7, Bonhoeffer successfully helped seven Jews escape to Switzerland from certain death. A larger amount of foreign currency had to be transferred out of the country to suport their livelihood. Thus a track was left for his later Gestapo arrest. It’s interesting to note one of the two relatively minor reasons for his arrest is money laundering, for it’s much easier for the Gestapo to believe that than for them to think any German of sound mind would want to help Jews escape.
I can see a courageous man with integrity. Bonhoeffer could not stand aside to see the murders of innocents and the spread of evil. Yet, it’s disturbing to see his stance belonged only to a dearth of people at that time. Hitler’s murderous rampage and the Gestapo’s torturous tactics seized the country with a ferocious grip. Soon, those few dissident voices had to go underground, for their own lives were at stake. I kept asking myself what would I have done… a question I’m afraid to answer.
It was also then that Dietrich was swept by love with Maria von Wedemeyer. Their love was like silver linings behind dark, ominous clouds. Most of their time was spent apart, for Dietrich was held in prison by then, a most precarious relationship indeed. Yet from their letters, I could see love bring them hope, and hope in turn enriches their bond. It was heartbreaking to read their letters to each other, foreseeing wedding and marriage. From the dreadful Gestapo prison, Dietrich wrote Maria:
You mustn’t think I’m unhappy. Anyway, what do happiness and unhappiness mean? They depend so little on circumstances and so much more on what goes on inside us. I’m thankful every day to have you – you and all of you – and that makes me happy and cheerful.
Maybe the title of this book should add in one more description: Lover.
Dietrich had earlier written a Wedding Sermon from the Tegel military prison in Berlin for the wedding of his best friend Eberhard and his niece Renate. In there is a most inspiring thought:
It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.
Later, he was transferred to the Buchenwald death camp outside Berlin, and ultimately, to Flossenbürg for his execution. It’s heart-wrenching to read about Bonhoeffer’s last days, still keeping a calm and peaceful composure, touching other prisoners and even the doctor overseeing his execution. What is death? In his own words:
… life only really beigns when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up…. if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word… Death beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
I had expected Metexas’s book to be informative, but I had not thought it would read like a page-turner. The last chapters are so intense and engrossing that it felt like I was reading the script to the film Valkyrie, about the foiled plan to assassinate Hitler by Colonel Stuaffenberg and a subsequent coup. Bonhoeffer was not personally involved in the operation. But it was due to the failure of the Valkyrie plan that Bonhoeffer’s hidden identity with the Resistance was later discovered. Nine months after Stuaffenberg’s execution, Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg prison on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched in, and three weeks before Hitler took his own life.
Maria and Dietrich’s parents did not know of his demise until much later. Upon hearing the memorial service on BBC radio broadcast on July 27, 1945, Dietrich’s parents were confirmed of the saddest news a parent could ever hear. I was deeply moved to read the Sermon on the Mount excerpt from Matthew 10:17-42. What jumped out from the passage were these most apt and powerful verses:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul…
Whoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
And with the script of Bishop Bell’s poignant sermon at the Memorial Service, Metaxas ends his biography of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
I thank all those who have read along with me, some with their thoughts posted on their blogs, some silently participating. If you’ve written a post, do let me know in a comment. I’ll be sure to link it here.
February 4 has come and gone without fanfare, without even being noticed by me, the one hosting a read-along of a bio on Bonhoeffer. That day two weeks ago would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 107th birthday (1906-1945). I’m feeling a sense of loss for missing it.
A sense of sadness too which comes from knowing a young and brilliant life so purposeful even from the start was cut short violently. It also comes from empathy with the parents Karl and Paula, who had to experience the death of three of their four sons and two sons-in-law during war time. Back in 1918, their second son Walter died in action in WWI. And during WWII, their third son Klaus, youngest Dietrich, and two sons-in-law were executed by the Nazis for their role in the German resistance against Hitler. Sad especially that they only learned of Dietrich’s death through a radio broadcast of his memorial service from England. He was only 39.
My impression from the outset is, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s was a life of purpose, even from an early age. It was made possible largely by a nurturing and vibrant family, and a lively brood of four boys and four girls. Father Karl Bonhoeffer, a prominent psychiatrist and university professor, instilled intellectual rigor; mother Paula imparted faith and fervor. The young lives benefitted from the cultural and musical home environs, but more importantly, the indomitable sense of social justice.
Dietrich knew he wanted to study theology when he was only thirteen. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Berlin, obtaining his doctorate when he was only twenty-one. What brilliant mind and potential! And with that mind he saw through the trickery and schemes of an emerging demigod in Hitler. This is probably my favorite quotes from him. You can see his driven sense of direction:
If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.
This has been my query all the time, and Eric Metaxas’s accounts have partially answered it. How could Hitler have gained such power without being challenged? It can’t be all due to fear, that came later. Hitler was democratically elected by the people as chancellor in 1933. The Führer Principle was readily embraced by most. So nationalism played a large part. Then came racism, with the establishment of new laws barring Jews, many of them in prominent positions too from the legal, academic, and medical fields, and then the engulfment of the German Church by the Third Reich. It’s utterly mind boggling. Why was it that the Bonheoffer family was only one of a dearth of lucid observers during this dark chapter in German history?
Nothing is beyond the Nazis reach. The ‘purging’ of the literary and scientific realms resulted in the casting out of thoughts and works by anyone not of the Aryan race, including Helen Keller, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and the poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote these prophetic words in 1821 in his play Almansor:
Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people too.
Metaxas’s book is informative and detailed, especially on Bonhoeffer’s effort to take back the German Church from the Nazis by establishing The Confessing Church with Karl Barth. Metaxas has also painted a very human portrait, a purposeful young man, bold, principled, passionate, and full of life. I move along eagerly, albeit sometimes confused by the numerous names and historical accounts. I want to find out what actually happened in the end, although not so sure how I can bear to read about Dietrich’s ultimate demise.
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