World War II has always fascinated me. It’s one of the most heartbreaking and devastating times in the history of the human race, so it will come as little surprise when I tell you how eager I was to read Surviving Hitler by O. Hakan Palm.
In Surviving Hitler we learn about the lives of two very different people and a very unlikely couple. Agnes grew up as a pampered girl in Hungary. Agnes was born a Jew and was baptized as a Catholic, in part, as a way to protect them from the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. Once their beloved homeland was invaded they were quickly shipped off to Auschwitz, where her parents eventually succumbed to the horrors within.
Gustov grew up in poverty and a broken home in Norway. As a young man, he was pressured to join the Norwegian Battalion to support his family. You can imagine his surprise when that battalion turned out to be a front for the SS. Before he knew it he was forced to be a “prisoner guarding prisoners” by guarding jews in concentration camps.
After the war the Jewish Holocaust victim and former SS Soldier met and fell in love. They built a life together, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and raised a beautiful, eternal family.
What stikes me the most about this book is how it really humanizes the individuals on either side of the conflict. Have you ever heard the song Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon? I love that song. It tells the story of the Christmas truce during WWI where both sides of the war came together to celebrate Christmas by trading rare luxuries found not often in the trenches, photographs from home, and a flare lit soccer game. The last several lines are:
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.
My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I’ve learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.
So much of war is political. We are brainwashed with various ideologies and lose sight of the fact that “on each side of the rifle we’re the same”. In our zeal to push what we think is “right” we forget that when push comes to shove, most of us ultimately want the same thing. It reminds me of the stories that I have heard of the poor families in the middle east who sign up for a well paying job to help support their struggling families only to be beaten and brainwashed into being suicide bombers for someone else’s cause.
Something that my sister reminded me of just earlier today is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true unifying and healing cause on the earth. When we fight for anything beyond the basic Gospel Principles, we have lost sight of what really makes life worth living. And after all they had been through, and all that had been done, the emotional and psychological wounds the war had caused was ultimately cured not by ideology and agendas, but by the Gospel message and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.