Saved from Sack and Ashes

Imagine young Dutch men packed into a rail car for transport to a Nazi labour camp in the last year of World War II. On top of the horrific conditions, the Allies are bombing the tracks and the men cower and pray until their terror becomes anger directed at one another – elbowing, cursing, blaming.

Then picture a young priest with flaming red hair who hollers, “Enough praying, let’s sing.” And he does, not hymns as one might expect, but bar songs, drinking songs. And the men become a chorus.

The Canadian tenors singing Peit Hein in Holland

My dad, eighteen and scared to death, was on that train. “We sang like our life depended on it,” he says. Maybe it did. The song he remembers singing was Piet Hein, a favorite folk song of the Dutch then and now.

The men sang as the bombing stopped and the cover over the train was thrown back. They sang though German guards hollered at them to stop. They sang until an emaciated Jewish man in the corner was dead and the train had reached its destination, the men prodded out to blink in the sudden sunlight. Only when their eyes cleared and their new reality hit them did their voices fade. But the priest kept singing. And the guards were angry. The priest was from my dad’s hometown and was never seen again. It was a folk song. It wasn’t high art. It was hardly worth dying for. But of course it wasn’t about the song.

Dad

“He saved us from sack and ashes,” my dad says.

The mythology of the song and the unifying power of shared voices saved the men from succumbing to their base animal instincts, allowing Dad and the others to walk into the camp as men; prisoners yes, but still men. Perhaps the priest knew they would which is, of course, why the Nazis killed him.

Dad survived internment and forced labour and a long walk home from Germany at the end of the war, but he remains incredulous at the courage of the singing priest on the train, Dad’s gratitude evident in the tears that spring to his eyes at the memory.

And now, at 96, it is the plight of others that makes him weep, the unfathomable truth that what he and so many millions endured almost 80 years ago can be happening again, a sovereign European nation invaded, its cities destroyed and it’s people killed and displaced.

On the phone we discuss the courage of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, talk about the solidarity of western countries around sanctions and other measures, the ways in which Putin is being isolated. These are what we can do from afar, they give us a sense that the world is engaged in a way not seen since those dark days of World War II.

But I also remind Dad of the train to the labour camp and wonder if, like the folk songs the priest encouraged, it is the songs of Ukraine that help steady its people’s resolve. The Ukrainian anthem now sung in solidarity around the world; the violinist playing in the center of a bombed square in Kharkiv; the Kyiv-Classic Symphony Orchestra gathered in Independence Square to play Beetholven’s Ode to Joy as Russian forces advance — all of them are a display of a collective defiance, a choice to be more than the suffering of war, to recognize what is beautiful about being human.

The songs won’t end the war. They won’t bring back the dead or heal the wounded. They won’t rebuild cities. But if nothing else comes of this terrible, terrible war, perhaps we are being forced to recalibrate our appreciations, to recognize what is best about being human, to come together in a kind of unconscious knowing that there is still beautfy to be found in the world and one another. That while bearing witness to the suffering we can still see how the simplest moments of grace give us all the courage to hope.

The Courage of Volodymyr Zelensky

One of the chapters in my new book is titled The Hope Required for Courage. The phrase encapsulates a moment when, in the midst of Hitler’s occupation of Holland, the main character Sam is called upon to trust in a German to save his brother’s life. Finding hope in human decency gives Sam the courage to act.

As my brain tumbles with anxiety at what the people of Ukraine are enduring in these dark days since the Russian invasion, I can’t help considering the phrase in relation to Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

The heroism and resolve of the man might come from anger or faith or fear. Those would be wholly appropriate motivations as Putin steps up his attacks using cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, vile weapons that violate international laws and basic decency. But I can’t help wondering if there is more to Zelensky’s fierce determination.

I am here, he tells his country every day, assuring them of his continued existence. I am with you. Such words give hope, and such hope infuses his people with courage, and such courage has galvanized the world.  

While global anger and disbelief has come out in a collective gasp of action more immediate and unified than that against Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the outset of WWII, Putin’s actions are not without precedent. He invaded Crimea eight years ago, and his continued efforts to take the Russian-separatist areas of the Donbass region were, and continue to be, violations of international laws and treatises.

So why this visceral global response? And why now?

It seems something has shifted in our psyche, and in the world, and I think it has to do with our need to speak, act and fight FOR something real and important; Ukraine specifically, and democracy in general.

Over the past years, both democratic countries and authoritarian regimes around the world have seen a string of self-serving elected officials and cartoon leaders, one, as my daughter put it, the dumb orange guy from the apprentice who became president. We’ve watched them fight vain and inane battles over social media, sniping from the bleachers and usurping the real concerns of the average person into rhetoric and ideology that often seeks only power and money. Such ‘leaders’ have sought to divide and destroy. They have not been FOR anything, have not given us a vision to inspire or a moral code to uphold.

We’ve not been immune in Canada, most of us mystified by a trucker convoy that paralyzed the downtown of our capital city and disrupted trade worth millions at our borders. Instead of taking a beat to assess, right wing politicians supported the ‘protest’ that sought to delegitimize the very government they are a part of. The people involved toted the goal of ‘freedom’, but in reality they were anti. . . well. . . everything. Anti- science, anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-media. It’s hard to get behind a bunch of people camped out in warm trucks, or lazing in hot-tubs on the grounds of parliament while shouting about how un-free they are. It was theatre of the absurd.

But Ukrainians standing up to the Russian onslaught; Ukrainian civilians taking up arms to defend their fragile democracy; men and women committed to something bigger than themselves with little hope of success, but determination just the same—that is galvanizing. And a leader standing with his people and willing to die for and with them—that is someone to stand with.

The bad guy miscalculated the effects of the Ukrainian resolve on the rest of us. Money, arms and support are pouring into Ukraine. The EU, NATO, even China are condemning Putin’s actions and lowering the boom with biting sanctions, no-fly areas, and freezing the billion dollar pocketbooks of Putin and his cronies. It’s been swift and unified because anyone in a democratic country who’s watched the slow erosion knows how vulnerable we all are. Even the authoritarian regimes of Orban in Hungary and Erdogen in Turkey have given Putin a hard no. They might be authoritarian but they want to be that way in a country outside the Russian sphere of influence. Freedom is a relative thing when you once suffered under Stalin.

I’m not pollyanna about this. It’s easy for us to cheer from our cozy homes while ignoring the erosion of democratic institutions globally and attacks on democracies from within. And we shoulder a collective guilt at global governmental refusal to actually fight with Ukraine on the ground. It’s all about pragmatism and not poking a beast that has his nuclear arsenal on red-alert. Fair enough.

But we can at the same time be inspired by the Ukrainian president’s leadership in a world short of convictions, his resolve despite the truth of his odds, and actions that have pulled the Western world along in a fight for a greater ideal. We can recognize the hope and raw courage it takes to be Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ruby’s Big Laugh

In her novel Probably Ruby, Lisa Bird-Wilson (Doubleday Canada, 2021), takes us through the twists of fate and conscious, if sometimes questionable, choices in the life of Ruby, an Indigenous woman adopted at birth by a white couple. Big- hearted Ruby searches for identity and a sense of belonging and, along with the reader, comes to recognize that those two things don’t always equate.

Chapters fraught with the heartache of lost children and substance abuse exist right alongside glimpses into joy and friendship and the complicated love of family. What is wonderful about this story is that we see Ruby as whole, as containing all the elements of a life despite, and sometimes because of, her search to determine who she is in a world that wants to prescribe that for her.

What Bird-Wilson does not ask us to do is to feel sorry for her protagonist. Ruby is loud and raw and lovely, and her big booming laugh rings through the pages. She is self-aware even as she becomes mired in the consequences of bad choices. And Ruby is brutally honest.

“Something Ruby didn’t tell anyone: she could spot an Indigenous adoptee a mile away. Pick them out of the crowd like it was a serious parlour game. Sixth sense. And it wasn’t just a visilibility thing…. likely, she thought, because of that window, a blank spot like a slipped stitch in a knitted scarf — once it was missed there was no going back to fix it. It just existed.”

Ruby tries really hard. She is always moving forward, learning American Sign Language, “back when she wanted nothing more than to learn a secret language. If she had a superpower it would be invisility. Pretending to be deaf was the next best thing.”

Ruby’s stories are interspersed with those of others, women who gave up babies because there was no other choice, men who survived abuse by priests at residential schools. There is a fluidity to the book, the stories weaving into each other and connecting us to Ruby, her big laugh reminding us that she doesn’t want our pity. She only needs us to see her as joyful and flawed, perfect and terrible, to witness her life as a whole, and to love all of her.