In 1966, when I was ten years old, my dad heard the voice of God commanding him to give up his career in business and become a Christian writer. As a result, he packed up our family and we took off to travel the world so he could gain inspiration for his books. We had many adventures, such as escaping out of Egypt right before the 6 Day War, smuggling Bibles into communist countries, and living in a 17th century Swiss castle.
Eventually, my dad became a successful author, but that took many years of perseverance. I've never met anyone more courageous or devout than my dad. Yet, for me, the further afield we went, exploring ever more exotic lands, the more I questioned why our particular faith had to be right while everyone else's was wrong. Each people had a unique faith and history. A magic all their own.
I loved that magic. I found it in the wild moors of Scotland, in the Pieta and the Parthenon, in the paintings of El Greco and Vermeer, in the stone faces of Egyptian gods and in the stories told to me by a Nubian sailor. I also found the horror of what we as humans could do to one another. No place spoke to me more of the dark side of humanity than Dachau.
THE GATES OF HEAVEN AND HELL
(from my memoir, INTO THE WORLD)
And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside
and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what
I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren't any other people living in the world.
~ Diary of Anne Frank
I had decided early on that the world was a terrible place. Oh yes, it was beautiful and marvelous and mysterious, but it was also terrible. My worst fears were confirmed on a gray day in Germany.
As a little girl of six and seven back home in Los Angeles, I listened in church, not daring to squirm on cushion-less folding chairs while the sun beat on me through the windows, starched dress itching my skin, my hair pulled back in a pony tail so tight, it gave me a headache. My mom made a spit-curl on my forehead, a humiliation almost beyond endurance, one little wisp of a curl that she plastered flat with spit and then would look at critically, bobbing her head left and right, saying, “Perfect! Now, behave like a proper lady!” And then she would hairspray me as the finishing touch.
Yes, I listened in church, starched and pressed, to visiting missionaries preach of the sin and darkness in the world, showing slides on a big screen of starving children in faraway heathen lands like Africa and India, telling stories of the terrors of communism, the ignorance of those who grew up believing in Buddhism or Islam, how evil and lost they were and how the missionaries brought the good news of salvation and if the sinners repented, they would be saved and go to heaven.
And if they didn’t, well, unfortunately they would burn forever in hell.
The horrible thing was that there must have been millions of lost souls right that second, while I was listening in church, who weren’t repenting, including little children who never even had the chance to hear the gospel because they died too young. What about all the millions or even billions of children down through history who hadn’t heard the story of salvation? Were they all burning in hell?
On the nights after the sermons I was terrified to go to bed because those lost children visited me and I could hear their voices in my mind, crying out to God for deliverance from pain and suffering. And God didn’t answer…he didn’t answer. Over and over, since the first day God had created planet Earth and let humans loose on it, the same scenario had repeated itself with children being born and dying under horrific circumstances, suffering agonies beyond anything I could imagine enduring. Certainly far beyond the humiliation of a spit-curl.
What was the point? It needed to stop! God needed to stop it! In fact, he needed to have never started it in the first place.
But God wouldn't listen to a nobody like me! I was just a little girl. In our church, women sat in submissive silence, heads bowed and covered, usually by elaborate flowered hats that were supposed to hide their shame but seemed more like fancy fashion statements. Women couldn't speak, they couldn't pray. If they had a request, they whispered obsequiously to their husbands and the men got up to speak on their behalf, if they deemed their wives' requests worthy enough.
I was just a child, a girl child, wondering why, trying to understand what it all meant. How could I explain about the children's voices, the debilitating pain that I felt for them and the questions welling up inside of me? When the panic and the pain became too great I leaped from my bed and ran down the long corridor, as if chased by demons. I was frightened of the dark, frightened of the shadows. My imagination ran wild and once it started on its frightening journey, I couldn't catch or tame it. I had learned never to leave the closet door open, or clothes hanging over chairs or from the nob on the door. If I did, they turned into strange, leering faces, sometimes clowns, sometimes ghosts, with glowing eyes, staring at me. I never let my foot hang over the side of the bed, sure that a bony claw would grab me and pull me down a trap door and into hell.
And then, what if I did fall asleep? What if I did? Jesus might come in the night. The Rapture might occur and all the good Christians would be taken home to heaven. In the twinkling of an eye Jesus would snatch them up. I would be left behind. I was sure of it. God wouldn't want such a doubter as me.
So I lay in my bed, afraid to close my eyes for fear of sleep and afraid to keep them open for fear of what I would see.
Awake or asleep, I couldn't stop the voices of the children from filling my head. When the sound became unbearable, I gathered all my courage and leaped from the safety of my bed, tearing down the hall as fast as I could, not looking left or right, intent on my destination, my dad's study, where I always knew I could find him, working late on his books and sermons.
I stopped at the study door, trying to compose myself, slow my breathing, stop my heart from bursting through my chest. The study was safe, the warm glow of lights illuminating all the corners, no shadows to haunt me. My dad never sent me away, nor did he chide me for my fears. He was used to my visits, my questions about salvation and the suffering of the world, and he welcomed them in his desire to lead me in the right direction.
Sitting in his lap, I poured out my questions, sometimes in tears and shaking from a deep despair, holding tight to my favorite stuffed bear.
“Why is the world such a terrible place, why does God let children suffer? Babies, too! He's supposed to love us, so why doesn't he do something about it? Doesn't he want to do something about it? If I was God, I wouldn't make the world like this, I wouldn't!”
And on and on my words would flow. “God says it’s our fault. We have to repent and pay the price? Repent from what?” I paused and gulped, blurting out defiantly, “Isn’t it really God’s fault?” shocked that I had even said it.
Dad flinched slightly, as if I had hit him. “No, Karen! God loves us!”
I couldn't stop myself from continuing, “Loves us? How could he let this happen? How? I mean, he's God. He can do anything. When he started this world didn't he know it would be a big failure? Why didn't he figure out a better plan?”
I shook my head, more angry now than sad. “If I was God, I wouldn't let children suffer. I wouldn't!”
I looked up into my dad's face, fearing condemnation. I saw compassion and understanding, as if he, too, heard the cries of the children and it pained him as much as it pained me. He wrapped his arms around me and stroked my hair and told me, “I don't understand everything. But I have faith in God. One day it would all be revealed to us in heaven.”
And he went on to me that God had given us free will, so that we could make a choice to serve him or not. Adam and Eve had rebelled against God and had brought sin into the world. We were all fallen creatures.
“There is no good in any of us, Karen, my dear. Each one of us is a vile, sinful creature, unworthy of redemption. God sent his only son to die for our sins. And each one of us nailed Jesus to that cross. Each one of us! There is no reason why God should love us. Yet he does anyway. Be thankful that you've been blessed to grow up in a Christian family. Don't think about everyone else. You aren't responsible for them. Leave them in God's hands, trusting in his wisdom. God wants you to make the choice to serve him. When you stand at the judgment seat and face God, you can't say, 'but what about all the other people, it's not fair what happened to them.' No! God will look at you and say, 'what did you do with your life? You were given every opportunity to choose the right path. What did you do?'”
My dad looked me straight in the eyes. His were kind but firm, burning with conviction. And I looked back, trying my hardest to hold his gaze and take the strength that I saw in him and put it into me.
“You want to serve God, don't you?” he asked.
And I answered fervently, with all my heart, “Yes!”
He smiled and prayed for me, that the “peace that passes all understanding will wash over my daughter.”
And it did. I felt that peace washing over me, soothing away the pain and doubt. My dad was all wise and all-knowing. God spoke to him, revealing the Truth. More than anything, I wanted to be like him.
My dad hugged me and sent me back down the hall to my bed. And as I hurried fast, once again not looking left or right, I felt better, I felt stronger, taking my dad's faith with me, wrapping it around me like a shield.
But once I climbed back into my bed and darkness engulfed me, the spiders of doubt and fear crawled out from the darkest corners of my mind. I tried to resist. I tried to push them away, but they paid no mind, busily weaving their sticky webs once more.
Really, if I thought about it, my dad hadn’t answered my questions at all, just skirted around them. Faith, it all came down to faith. Why couldn't I have faith like my dad? I envied his blind, unshakable faith.
But it also terrified me.
I knew it was okay for me to ask questions. It was expected. But I also knew that soon, very soon, it was expected of me to reach the right conclusions. What if I didn't? What if the day came when I decided not to agree with my dad? Would he still be kind? Would I still be accepted in my family?
I didn't like to think about it. Didn't want to think about it. Pushed those thoughts down, down as deep inside of me as they could go. Because I knew that if I chose another path, I would be an outcast, thrown from grace. A child of the Devil not of God. No longer loved and cherished but abhorred.
What if I’d grown up in a different family and been taught a different faith? How did I know that my dad's faith was automatically right while everyone else’s was wrong? It hurt my head just thinking about it.
Such thoughts were blasphemous, but I couldn’t help it, they pounded relentlessly. A wrecking ball of thoughts tearing down the walls of justification that my dad tried so fervently to build.
As I looked out of the VW van window that day at the entrance to Dachau, I didn’t know what awaited me. I didn’t know that I was about to confront the demons that had haunted me back home. I don’t even think my parents were prepared for what awaited us. How could anyone adequately prepare for hell? As far as I was concerned, this was just another stop on an interminable journey, a museum of sorts, or so I understood, and I wasn’t thrilled to be visiting yet another museum.
The front of the building looked unassuming, boring, a place I wasn’t interested in going. But there was no staying in the van. The sliding door opened and my dad stood there, sternly ordering me out. “Be thankful that you’re blessed to travel the world like this,” he said.
I didn’t answer. What could I say? I had no choice but to obey, suppressing my anger and resentment while dragging my feet and thinking that it wasn’t fair, why did I, out of all the children of the world, have to be so “blessed?” In fact, if I heard my parents tell me one more time how blessed I was I would strangle them both and run away and find a normal family to live with—one where everything wasn’t dependent on fulfilling “God’s Will.”
As usual, I kept my sinful thoughts to myself and heaving a deep sigh, walked up to the iron entrance gates and stood beneath the words welded into the arch, “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “work makes one free.”
A good slogan, or so it would be in our family, I thought with some bitterness. We were always being told to work hard and that self-sacrifice would bring salvation. Ugh!
Standing in the shadow of those words and facing the interior courtyard, my mom, who loved history, gathered us around her and said, “Imagine it’s the end of the 1930’s and you are children torn from your parents, lost, confused, scared, not understanding why you are here or what is happening, and you enter these gates.”
I dismissed her words, thinking, well, I don’t understand why I’m here—and I don’t want to be here! And frankly, being torn from my parents sounds like a good idea.
It’s easy to dismiss words, to not even hear them until you are confronted with their reality and then the words come back and scream at you, mocking your ignorance because now you are experiencing the words, seeing the horror with your eyes, feeling it slide under your flesh and invade your mind.
William W. Quinn, 7th US Army liberator of the prisoners said that “Dachau, 1933-1945, will stand for all time as one of history’s most gruesome symbols of inhumanity. There our troops found sights, sounds and stenches beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind. Dachau and death were synonymous.”
Was it “inhumanity” or was it an expression of the dark side of humanity, an expression of the evil that is as much a part of the human condition as is the good?
Himmel said, “Nature is cruel, therefore we are entitled to be cruel.” It was horrifying to think how easily we justified our brutality as being necessary or normal.
Nature isn’t cruel, it just is. But for humans with hearts and minds and dreams and agonies and hopes and fears to turn on other humans and make a conscious choice to hurt and kill them, how could it be? I’d always known instinctively that it was true. It was what I had wrestled with in the dark of my bed at night. But how was it possible? That was what I didn’t understand. How was it possible that a good God could create something as twisted as this and allow it to continue? Dachau was one little stop on the long, tangled road of humanity. This behavior had happened endlessly, over and over, and it was happening still.
While I walked through Dachau with other tourists, all of us shaking our heads and muttering how can this be, new victims were being blown apart in Vietnam, a “righteous war,” or so our God-fearing leaders in America told us, justifying killing in the same way Hitler had justified it to his people and they had raised their voices as one and consented, sheep led to the slaughter, blind, unthinking. Dachau had ended, but the evil had moved someplace else. It never really went away, it just moved around, a slippery devil, a part of us all, impossible to catch and contain.
I saw all my nightmares that day, within the space of a few hours, walking through the gas chambers, the barracks, looking at the pictures of haunted faces and soulless eyes. That was the worst, the eyes, for it is by looking into the eyes that we connect with one another. I saw how a soul can be sucked right out of people, their eyes becoming empty haunted shells. Skeletal children stood before me, their ghosts crying waterless tears, empty piercing eyes, bodies broken, contorted, tormented, ancient spirits forever lost.
“It’s what happens when all hope is gone,” I heard a lady say next to me, staring at the same photos.
What is hope, I thought? Do I have hope? I must have it. My eyes don’t look like that. Hope! I have it and I must never lose it or I will become like them. How many hundreds of thousands of girls and boys like me and my sister, and my brothers had walked through those gates just as my mom had said, scared, eyes wide open but still with hope, thinking, maybe I’ll be okay, I’ll be lucky, God will save me, it won’t be so bad, it’s just a summer camp, I’ll be home soon, I’ll be lucky, yes, I will…
Only to die in agony, prayers unheard and lost on the autumn winds, piled in graves like dead leaves to ferment and enrich the earth, anonymous, their bodies defiled, their worth reduced to bits of jewelry, gold fillings, hair, even fat made into lamp wicks and soap.
Bodies piled high, mountains of bodies, with men in suits casually surveying them, walking to and fro, discussing philosophical ideologies, doctors conducting experiments that would make any horror movie seem tame, and then the doctors and scientists, SS guards and officials receiving their pay checks for jobs well done, fulfilling their job descriptions, believing they were cleansing humanity, leading the master race towards a new world order, leading the chosen ones to heaven, going home to their families each night, kissing their children, eating a warm home-cooked supper, gorging themselves on food and pleasure, attending church on Sundays, and sleeping in beds of soft goose down, sleeping….did they sleep, their dreams sweet and untainted?
“Millions of Jews killed, but not just Jews,” the lady standing next to me said, reading the inscriptions. “Poles, gypsies, Russians, communists, homosexuals, the disabled and mentally ill, the intelligentsia, political activists, Jehovah witnesses, those who hid Jews, Trade Unionists, criminals, and anyone labeled an enemy of the state.”
“Why would they do this?” I whispered.
The answer came…the one I dreaded but knew was true: “They believed they were doing what was right.”
I don’t know who that lady was. I don’t know why she was there. She was a stranger to me who spoke English with an accent. I don’t remember what she looked like but I remember what she said. A brief encounter between a child and a woman on the edge of hell, speaking of vile things that should never happen but that had happened anyway. And then we walked away from one another in opposite directions, never to meet again.
We encountered another lady as we walked through the barracks, although we didn't speak to her. She was shaking her head, saying over and over in German, as if trying to make it real in her own mind, “It was never as nice as this. Never as nice as this.”
Mom spoke German so she understood the woman.
“She was a prisoner here,” mom whispered to us.
I looked at the beds, the room, everything bare and clean. What must it have looked like when it was filled with starving women awaiting death? The lady in front of us was old now, her shoulders bowed, her face twisted with the pain of remembrance. How was it possible to survive and ever feel even one moment of happiness, ever laugh again, ever tell a joke or listen to one, ever even be sane?
It was late afternoon when my family left that place. In silence I climbed back into the safety of our van and lay my head against the window, holding onto the soft, pudgy blue bear that I had hated knitting in school in Switzerland but that now gave me comfort, reminding me of my favorite stuffed bear that I had left behind at home. So long ago. In another lifetime. In another world.
The air outside was cold and misty, covering the deep green forest with shiny, blinking dewdrops. Surely there was something sinister in the outward beauty of that forest. What horrors had happened beneath those trees? Perhaps in a moonlit glade, just like this one, a grave had been dug and people herded there, the crack of rifles splitting the air, their bodies falling one on top of the other and covered by earth, the green grass growing up and over the mound, beauty swallowing the terror. I felt as if we as humans didn’t belong, as if we were aliens on this planet. Without us, the natural world would thrive.
Back in Los Angeles I hadn’t thought so much of our war. I had been told that it was necessary. We were in the right. We were righteous. We were fighting for democracy. For the freedom of others.
But now I wondered. My brother Davy was fifteen. If the war continued he would be called to fight. I didn’t like to imagine my brother having to kill or be killed.
My body ached with tiredness. I wanted the van to stop. I wanted it to pull into our driveway in front of our house and for my parents to say, “We're home!”
Where would we stay this night? When, oh when, would the journey end?
I opened heavy eyes to find that the van had stopped in front of a plain gated building, not much different from the entrance to Dachau. I shuddered. Had we returned to the terrible place? But no, the big entrance door swung open and out of it came a woman dressed in a long black gown with a white covering on her head. I blinked, thinking surely I was dreaming. But she was still there, greeting us as we climbed out, saying “Welcome to the Sisterhood of Mary.”
And with that welcome, in the space of one day, we entered the gates of heaven after escaping the gates of hell. The woman’s name was Mother Basilea Schlink and her face radiated sunshine on that dark night. Inside, the Mother House was lovely in its simplicity, with warm, inviting rooms for guests to stay in.
Mother Basilea had been called to start the sisterhood in 1949, after the war. The Mother House had been built with bricks salvaged from the wreckage of Darmstadt.
“We call it the Sisterhood of Mary after the mother of Jesus who followed him all the way to the cross,” said Sister Eulia, a young rosy-cheeked woman.
I’d always been told to follow Jesus to the cross and it had scared and depressed me. But Sister Eulia said it with such happiness. That made no sense to me.
We ate a meal of savory soup, crusty bread, cheese and apples in a large dining hall with other guests, the sisters singing a prayer for us all. They sang and danced seemingly for no reason other than spontaneous joy. I felt embarrassed watching them. My parents sat in uncomfortable silence. It was sinful to dance. Even ballet. I had wanted to study ballet but my parents had refused to let me. And yet, the dancing was infectious and my parents’ severe façades began to crack. They smiled. Their heads bobbed, they actually began to clap tentatively, to tap their feet. It was too marvelous. Bleary-eyed with fatigue and still distraught after the day’s experiences, I wondered if I had entered an upside down place where miracles were possible and preconceived notions were thrown away.
At the dinner table sat former Jewish prisoners of the concentration camps who were staying there, awaiting their time to testify in the trials of war criminals. But the sisters didn’t limit their kindness simply to those who deserved it. Not only did they open their home to the Jews but they visited the Nazi prisoners, praying for their salvation.
“The trials still continue?” Davy asked in surprise.
Yes, they did. One frail old man told us between sips of soup how he had hidden in a cupboard for fourteen months, another in a hole in the ground before being captured and sent to the camps. I could not speak; I could only listen in a daze to their tales of courage and survival.
Jon said, “Bet you hate them.”
And Davy said, “How can you face those monsters in court?”
The frail old man shrugged philosophically. “I did hate them and it was eating me like parasites, from the inside out! The hate gave them power and made me weak. So I learned to let it go. I can't say I forgave them. I don't know what that means. But I let it go, for me, not them.”
I was sleepy, full of good food and lost in this otherworldly experience, sitting at that table surrounded by Jews and nuns and my parents and sister and brothers, thinking how miraculous it was that we were part of the same family. There was good, here at this table, and I was so thankful to have found it when I had been feeling such despair.
After dinner the sisters danced and sang all the guests down the candle-lit halls, dropping each of us off at our rooms with a blessing. Outside an angry storm raged, a deluge of rain beating upon the rooftops, while inside we were safe and warm and comfortable. It seemed that no danger could enter our secure fortress. That night I slept peacefully, no nightmares of Dachau. I had expected nightmares and dreaded them and could only imagine that my peaceful slumber was due to the prayers of the sisters and the safety of the sanctuary in which I lay.
The next morning, as we said good-bye, Mother Basilea hugged me and prayed that God would bless me. She cradled my face in both her hands and looked at me with sharp eyes. Certainly, she wasn’t physically beautiful. I wondered how old she was, older than my parents probably, but her skin was smooth without many lines. Her hair was thin and dully gray. Not beautiful. Majestic. She was majestic in my young eyes.
“You are an artist,” she said.
I nodded, tongue-tied.
She smiled brilliantly. “It is a gift from God. Use it well.”
I nodded again, still unable to speak for I was in such utter awe of her. How she had known I was an artist, I had no idea. No doubt my parents could have told her in the course of some conversation. It didn't matter. I'd been given a blessing and admonition when I'd been lost in confusion. Her words stayed with me, positive and powerful, a shield against the evils of what I had seen and absorbed into my spirit the day before at Dachau. There was goodness and I could choose to be a part of it. This I remembered long after the image of Mother Basilica's eyes and her smile had faded.
In my childhood enthusiasm, I became a fan of nuns that day—or sisters or whatever they called themselves. Before then, I had never met a nun, except maybe passing one on the street. I'd always thought they looked plain and ugly and stupid in their ridiculous outfits. I had looked down on them, having been told that they were following false doctrine, and made fun of them in my childish way.
It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how the world looked through a nun’s eyes, or why a girl might choose such a path. These women from the Sisterhood of Mary had given up all earthly opportunity for success and pleasure in their devotion to serve a higher purpose. They wore no make-up, they would never marry, nor would they have children. No knight in shining armor was going to carry a single one of them off to his castle.
I’d assumed nuns were weak and silly. But these women were not weak and silly. They were intelligent and strong, having stood up for their faith without the help of any man. During the war, they had denounced the Nazi regime. Mother Basilea had continued to teach classes to girls even though she had been ordered to stop. Three times she had been called in front of the Gestapo and God had kept her safe.
Maybe I should become a nun, I thought, my heart burning with sudden fervor. I could come back to this place one day. I could do it. I could deny earthly pleasures, never wear another cute outfit, never kiss a boy or put on lipstick. Never be admired, hiding my body under an ugly formless dress, even in boiling hot weather.
Well…maybe not. I would be a disaster as a nun. I didn't really want to be married to Jesus. That didn't seem right to me. I liked boys. A lot. That was one of the many secrets that I couldn't share with my parents. I wanted to be kissed, I wanted a boyfriend.
Anyway, it was the enthusiasm of the moment. My parents had been suspicious of the sisters, since evangelicals didn't have any, but they had been endorsed by Christians friends and the nuns had won my mom and dad over.
“Are they Catholic?” I asked my parents in confusion. I'd always been taught that Catholics were about as close to Satan as anybody could get.
“No, although their theology isn't completely correct. Still, you can see how much they love the Lord,” said Dad.
“Yes, their wonderful,” said Mom, although she added, “But I do wonder how many of them would be here if they didn't have to be.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
But she would only said, “I don't want to speak ill.”
And with that, my mind wandered in a new direction. What was it like when all the guests left and the gates closed on the nuns inside, alone? Were they really so happy? Each woman in the sisterhood had a reason why she was there. Maybe some of them were destitute and didn't have a choice. I remembered the historical tales I'd read of girls being born out of wedlock of gentry and princes and being forced to join nunneries, or girls from poor families being sent there to pay a debt. Could that still be true today, could some of these nuns been forced to join against their will because of dark, sinister reasons? Were these nuns really unhappy inside, but had to act happy in order to fit in? Like me, did some of them hide their doubts and fears with a facade of faith, afraid to admit how they really felt because they would then be outcasts, without a home?
I shook my head, trying to fit all the pieces into their proper places. How did I know when something was real and not just a facade? Was there any place in the world, any person, who was truly how they appeared to be and not something else inside?
And why did I have to wonder such things in the first place? Why couldn't I have kept my vision of Mother Basilea as an angel intact, without now adding a pair of devil's horns?
My family had been subdued and thoughtful, in a peaceful sort of way, while staying with the sisters. Driving away the spell lifted and we felt a bit like Moses descending from the mountain, back into ordinary society where cruelty and violence were an everyday occurrence.
“Okay, those ladies were weird,” said Janna. “But nice,” she acknowledged. “Amazingly nice.”
I agreed. Weird was a good word. I loved the word “weird.” It covered so much territory. That's what I would do when I wondered about things. Just conclude that everything was weird and leave it at that. Of course, such thoughts were accompanied by a desperation. My brain didn't allow me to happily conclude that the world was simply “weird” and leave it at that.
I agonized and ruminated, over and over, despairing that a conclusion could ever be reached. My faith was about the size of grain of sand. In fact, I didn't even know which faith was mine. There were so many of them! The sisters had faith. But now I was being told that it wasn't quite right. My mom and dad had faith, and their's was the right one because God had told them so. How could I argue with that?
But everybody that we met on our travels genuinely believed that their faith was the right one. Only maybe they called their god a different name, or they wore a certain kind of hat on a certain kind of day, ate a special kind of food in a special kind of way, lit candles and prayed at precise moments...and on and on it went. Every town and village and city and country had developed their own elaborate sets of rituals enabling them to feel safe and special and chosen. I didn't understand why it was so important for humans to do this, but I could see that it was.
And then, inevitably, each group began to believe that their faith was the best and the most righteous, which led them to the insane conclusion that they had the divine right to enslave and suppress other groups of less enlightened people, resulting in hatred, enmity and fear, rather than love, acceptance and peace.
Like building a place called Dachau and rationalizing the killing of millions. “Good” people had done that, people who believed they were following God's will.
I was ten years old and couldn’t articulate my concerns the way I can now, but this was the essence of the thoughts racing through my head. It was an insistent worry that only intensified as our travels progressed. I don’t know why it loomed so large at such a young age. I wrestled and wrestled with it. The only conclusion I ever reached back in those gypsy days was that I must be missing a screw in my brain.
As we drove along another bumpy, winding road, Janna announced, “I’m going to knit another bear.”
I groaned. I wasn’t good at knitting. I had hated having to sit there in that classroom in Switzerland with all the other girls on Wednesday afternoons, fumbling with needles and yarn, making arms and legs, heads and bodies, sewing and stuffing, while the boys had been allowed to run free outside. How unfair. I despised knitting and sewing and all of those proper womanly talents. I wanted to be an artist and a writer. And maybe a ninja or a secret agent on the side.
But really, that was so selfish of me. I should do some good in the world, like open an orphanage. Maybe I could be a ninja and open an orphanage, too?
Except that girls weren't ninjas, everybody knew that.
“And you’re going to make one, too,” Janna ordered. “Because what else is there to do while we drive and drive and drive—to who knows where next?”
She had a point. Many hours would be spent in the van until we reached our next destination. Knitting bears, well, it was a way to pass the time. Probably, we could knit an entire army of bears while sitting in the back of that van, rumbling over mountains and through valleys, from country to country.
And then, when I became an international spy—because there were women spies, weren't there—I could smuggle important documents in the bears and save the world that way. And then maybe all the voices of the suffering children would be silenced and we would have peace at last. Thanks to me and my knitted bears.
Janna got out the knitting needles and the yarn and as the van drove deeper into a darkly wooded forest, the rain lashing the van mercilessly, we did what all girls from proper Christian families do when difficult questions invade their brains and threaten to derail them. We submissively knit more bears.