Love does not die easily. It is a living thing. It thrives in the face of all of life’s hazards, save one – neglect.
-James D. Bryden, American author
In Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, we find the protagonist, Hazel Motes, standing on the hood of his car (yes, Hazel is a man) and expounding – for everyone with ears to hear – on what he calls the Church Without Christ, a paradoxical faith in which “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way.”
We live in a world where the dead stay dead.
This is a world where life does not come from the dead. When an animal dies in the field, it does not trot across that field again. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where any scientist worthy of the name will argue without fear of contradiction that virgin births do not occur in humans, and that once you die, you are dead. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where every biologist who sees the bones of a skeleton knows that those dry bones are not going to live again. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where people are blown to bits by bombs on a daily basis. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where fanaticisms are so great that suicide bombers volunteer every day for what they consider to be a righteous cause. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where an influenza pandemic can threaten to wipe out whole populations. Dead things stay dead.
This is a world where hurricanes can devastate the Gulf Coast of the United States and where tsunamis can wipe out coastlines and kill or displace people from Northern Sumatra to Kenya.
This is a world where dead things stay dead.
Or is it?
If we were to ask Gerda Weissmann, she might disagree.In 1939, Gerda Weissmann was a fifteen year-old girl who had her life changed forever as Nazi German troops invaded her home in Bielsko, Poland. After being forced to live in the basement of her childhood home for nearly three years, Gerda was separated from her parents. Never losing hope, Gerda would spend the next three years in a succession of slave-labor and concentration camps. She was forced to walk on a 350-mile death march during which two thousand women were subjected to exposure, starvation, and arbitrary execution and fewer than 120 of them survived. In the recounting of her extraordinary life, Gerda Weissmann recalled a precious gift that she received from a childhood friend. A simple loving gesture on the part of young Ilse Kleinzähler made a lasting impression on Gerda Weissmann. Both girls had been placed in a series of brutal slave labor camps. One afternoon, Ilse found a raspberry in the gutter. She carried it in her pocket all day long wrapped in a leaf that she had plucked through the barbed wire fence. It was just one single dust-covered raspberry and she gave this treasure to her friend, Gerda. Of this gesture, Gerda Weissmann wrote, “Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
Sometime later, Ilse lay in the arms of twenty-year-old Gerda, weak from starvation. Ilse told Gerda that she harbored no anger toward anyone and made two last requests of Gerda: first, that Ilse’s parents would never learn how she died and second, that Gerda would hold on for another week. Soon after making these last requests, Ilse died and Gerda was indeed liberated by American forces in May 1945. The raspberry was the symbol of the love that kept both Gerda and Ilse going even under incredibly difficult circumstances.
One of her liberators was Lieutenant Kurt Klein, who had stumbled upon the abandoned factory in Volary, Czechoslovakia where Gerda and her fellow prisoners were housed. Gerda guided Lieutenant Klein to her fellow prisoners, most of whom lay sick and dying on the ground. Gerda was one day shy of her twenty-first birthday, at sixty-eight pounds, with gray hair.
This first encounter outside a booby-trapped warehouse in Europe on 7 May 1945, blossomed into a fifty-seven-year marriage for Gerda and Kurt, with a tireless mission: to battle intolerance and hunger and to turn heartache into hope for generations, ranging from Holocaust victims to Columbine High School survivors.
Suffering, evil and death are the norms in a “dead things stay dead world.” But sometimes a gesture of love, like Ilse Kleinzähler’s solitary raspberry can give one the hope that love can triumph over tragedy and that there can be a radical transformation of despair.