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.