This excerpt from the book Return from Tomorrow by George C. Ritchie is without question the most powerful testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit I’ve ever encountered. Every time I hear it, it takes my breath away.
Ritchie was a soldier in WWII who was part of a group assigned to a concentration camp near Wuppertal, Germany, after the war with Europe ended in May 1945. Ritchie’s team was charged with getting medical help to the newly liberated prisoners, many of them Jews from Holland, France and eastern Europe. He writes:
This was the most shattering experience I had yet had. I had been exposed many times by then to sudden death and injury, but to see the effects of slow starvation, to walk through those barracks where thousands of men had died a little bit at a time over a period of years, was a new kind of horror. For many it was an irreversible process; we lost scores each day in spite of all the medicine and food we could rush to them.
Ritchie then relates how he came to know an inmate the American soldiers called Wild Bill Cody due to his long drooping handlebar mustache that resembled that of the old western hero. Wild Bill’s real name was “seven unpronounceable syllables in Polish.” Ritchie writes of him:
He was one of the inmates of the concentration camp, but obviously he had not been there long; his posture was erect, his eyes bright, his energy indefatigable. Since he was fluent in English, French, German and Russian, as well as Polish, he became a kind of unofficial camp translator.
We came to him with all sorts of problems; the paperwork alone was staggering in attempting to relocate people whose families, even whole hometowns, might have disappeared. But though Wild Bill worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day, he showed no signs of weariness. While the rest of us were drooping with fatigue, he seemed to gain strength. “We have time for this old fellow,” he would say. “He’s been waiting to see us all day.” His compassion for his fellow prisoners glowed on his face, and it was to this glow that I came when my own spirits were low.
So I was astonished to learn, when Wild Bill’s own papers came before us one day, that he had been in Wuppertal since 1939! For six years he had lived on the same starvation diet, slept in the same airless and disease-ridden barracks as everyone else, but without the least physical or mental deterioration.
Perhaps even more amazing, every group in the camp looked on him as a friend. He was the one to whom quarrels between inmates were brought for arbitration. Only after I had been at Wuppertal a number of weeks did I realize what a rarity this was in a compound where the different nationalities of prisoners hated each other almost as much as they did the Germans.
As for the Germans, feelings against them ran so high that in some of the camps liberated earlier, former prisoners had seized guns, run into the nearest village and simply shot the first Germans they saw. Part of our instructions were to prevent this kind of thing and again Wild Bill was our greatest asset, reasoning with the different groups, counseling forgiveness.
“It’s not easy for some of them to forgive,” I commented to him one day as we sat over mugs of tea in the proceeding center. “So many of them have lost members of their families.”
Wild Bill leaned back on the upright chair and sipped at his drink. “We lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw,” he began slowly, the first words I had heard him speak about himself. “My wife, our two daughters, and our three little boys. When the Germans reached our street they lined everyone against a wall and opened up with machine guns. I begged to be allowed to die with my family, but because I spoke German they put me in a work group.”
He paused, perhaps seeing again his wife and children. “I had to decide right then,” he continued, “whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life, whether it was a few days or many years, loving every person I came in contact with.”
Wild Bill’s story breaks my heart but lifts my spirits. I, too, have tried to love every person I come in contact with, to see the beauty in their soul. And while I’ve made incremental progress, I have miles to go if I hope to come anywhere near my goal.
It is often unspeakable tragedy that drives people to extremes. Most choose the easy route of hate, self-pity and rage. Precious few choose the opposite end of the spectrum, as Wild Bill did. Yet that is where the human spirit can find endless supplies of strength and forgiveness, for it is there, at the highest level of the human experience, that we find unconditional love. That is when we are closest to God, when our will is aligned with Divine Will. That is where Wild Bill chose to live, and the example of his courage and love burns as brightly today as it did in those hellish days that brought out the best in the bravest and most noble among us.
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ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
If you feel more stressed than blessed . . . if you have more confusion than clarity about how to live your beliefs . . . if you long to live a richer, happier, more meaningful life . . . you will find a wealth of insight and guidance in Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World.
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