I often take time out to watch the world go by. People fascinate me. I wonder who they are, where they have been, what they have done. Are they happy, content, or perhaps lonely, hurting, anxious?
For me life has been a mixed bag. I think most people would feel the same about their life. I know that for some people life has, to say the least, been a difficult journey. It is all too common to see homeless people on our streets or those who are dependent on alcohol or other substances. It is all so easy to look down on these people, to see them just as ‘down and outs.’ I look at these people, my fellow human beings, and wonder who they are, where have they been, what have they done.
In the early 1970’s I met a very special lady I will call Isa. By profession she was a GP. Nothing remarkable in that, I hear you say. What made this lady special is that she was brave enough to tell her story.
As Hungarian Jews she, along with her family, were rounded up by the Nazis and transported to a concentration camp.
Hungarian Jews arriving at a Nazi Concentration camp
Her parents were highly respected doctors, her father working on the embryonic development of micro surgery. The Nazis ordered Isa’s father to undertake the surgical procedures inflicted on selected women of child-bearing age. When he refused the whole family were marched to a pit in the grounds of the camp. Isa’s parents were stripped naked, then shot dead. Isa’s last memory of her parents was to see them fall into the pit. She was about 13 years of age.
During the next few years Isa was put on the death train three times, and for reasons unknown, was taken off each time. She survived the war but when the camp was liberated by the Russians, she had to take a Russian soldier as her lover to save herself from being raped and abused.
This was found in the personal album of an Einsatzgruppen soldier. It was labelled on theback “The last Jew of Vinnitsa”. All 28,000 of the Jews living there were killed at the time.
Returning to her native Budapest she qualified as a doctor. Having witnessed the failings of the Catholic Church to oppose the Nazi regime, Isa and her husband (also a doctor) joined the communist party. It soon became apparent the communist party was not for them. They could not agree to the censorship imposed on them. Denouncing Western music and art was alien to them and so they resigned from the communist party.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 meant that all Hungarian borders were closed and even mail in and out of the country was not allowed. Despite this Isa’s husband’s application for a post in a British hospital was successful and they escaped from Hungary travelling down the Danube in a bathtub under the cover of darkness.
Following her divorce, Isa move to Australia where she practised as a GP. Life seemed to have changed for the better. Sadly many people who suffer extremely traumatic events cannot erase those memories. One night Isa reached breaking point. Alone in her home she sat with a bottle of alcohol and a deadly dose of pills. As a recording of Beethoven’s music played she was about to take the lethal dose she had prepared. Then a miracle happened! Listening to the music she felt the urge to pray. Falling to her knees she prayed as she had never prayed before. She came to know the presence of God and His peace in her life. Isa spent many more years as a GP.
A friend in Melbourne would suddenly ‘disappear’ for several weeks. No response to the doorbell. Telephone calls went unanswered. Several years later sharing a meal, we heard her story. She too spent some years in a Nazi concentration camp. The weeks she ‘disappeared’ were her dark days when she experienced flashbacks of her days in the camp.
In Singapore I witnessed a group of men suddenly weeping on a bus. We were passing the infamous Changi prison. The group of men were prisoners there. They too experienced a life of cruelty and deprivation that we cannot possibly even imagine.
Survivors of Changi Prison
Both my grandfather and father saw service during wartime. My grandfather was in France during WW1 and my father in the RAF during WW2. Neither would tell their stories. Whenever I asked their response, with tears flowing down their cheek was ‘it was terrible … terrible.’
Although my and subsequent generation have seen films and news reports showing the horrors of war, most of us have been spared reality of experiencing war. I remember the horrors pictures of the Vietnam War, particularly the picture of 9 years old Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing naked from napalm bombing that burned the clothes from her body.
June 8, 1972 – Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing from napalm bombing. The boy is her older brother. Both survived.
Wars continue. The Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Men and women still pay the supreme sacrifice
But in war there other casualties. Those brave service personnel who have served and survived. There are those suffering physical and mental injuries. There are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters whose lives are devastated by the loss of loved ones.
This weekend we pause to pay tribute to all casualties of war, particularly those who made the supreme sacrifice. Let us also remember all those whose lives will never be the same as a result of war.
‘Lest we forget’