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October 15, 2001

Calvin Prof Tells Hope of Holocaust

Finding hope in the midst of horror is at the heart of a new book by Calvin professor and author Gary Schmidt.

Mara's Stories is a collection of 22 Jewish folktales, brought together from a variety of sources, and told by a fictional narrator, Mara, who is in a concentration camp. Her audience is the women and children of the camp, who each evening come to Mara's bunk to hear the words.

"Mara is waiting for them all," Schmidt says in the book. "No matter what new wound bleeds through her shirt, she is waiting. No matter what new bruise is swelling, she is waiting. She is waiting with the light and the warmth of stories. Everyone gathers around, and from her lips to their ears the stories go, and for a little while the camp disappears, and for a little while they are all free."

In Hebrew the name Mara means bitter. Schmidt says he gave his narrator that name not because she herself is bitter, but because she lives in the bitterest of times. And Mara's stories are not bitter, despite her surroundings. Instead she spins tapestries whose warmth wards off the chill of the camp and whose lessons live yet today.

"They celebrate," Schmidt says, "all that is good and strong in the human spirit, all that cannot be destroyed by evil. It is one of the reasons why the stories are powerful for all listeners, all readers, and why the stories are still alive today."

In the book Mara tells stories from a variety of times and places. Some are tales that she heard from her father the Rabbi, but she has taken those Hasidic tales and brought them into her own time "as will any good storyteller," says Schmidt (right). Indeed Mara finds that the truth of those tales is just as present in the barracks of the Holocaust as in 19th century Poland or Russia. Mara also tell stories that have come to life in the camps.

Schmidt, a Long Island native who grew up in a predominantly Jewish community, did extensive research to bring together the 22 stories in the book, skillfully weaving together the works of such sources as the Jewish religious scholar Martin Buber, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and folklorists Steve Zeitlin and Yaffa Eliach.

In fact, a letter from Wiesel helped convince Schmidt to pursue publishing the book.

"I wrote the book five or six years ago," he says, "and then I put it away. Although I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and had lots of Jewish friends, I'm not Jewish. Actually my background is English, German and French. And so I wasn't sure if I should be telling these important Jewish stories. But then I wrote (Elie) Wiesel and I sent him a copy of the manuscript. And he wrote back and said 'you will write this for social justice.' If Elie Wiesel could say that, well, I sent it (the manuscript) off soon after that."

The book's stories, many of which actually were told in the barracks, are true to their Jewish roots, but Schmidt often brings fictional twists and literary turns to the tales. For example, in a piece called The "Good Morning" Schmidt retells the tale of two neighbors who see each other daily and greet each other warmly. But then one man arrives at a death camp, only to find that his neighbor is a guard. And not just any guard, but the one who decides which prisoners should die and which should be sent to work and thus live.

It's a well-known Jewish story, but Schmidt brings his own perspective to it. He has the two men meet each morning as they tend their gardens, giving them, he says, a regular reason to be out and to see each other. And as he describes one man's care for his garden he foreshadows his role in the camps.

"And every morning, when Herr Shaul passes," writes Schmidt, "Herr Mueller would be on his knees in the garden, planting a seedling he had nursed through the late winter, spading over the dark soil, or carefully separating a grouping of lily bulbs, laying aside those he thought would no longer bloom and replanting the others. Herr Mueller was very careful about his selection."

Later, in the camp, Herr Shaul sees the two lines split. "To the left shuffled the old ones like himself, so weak, drooping like wilted daffodils. To the right younger ones, ones who might be made to work for the murderers." And then Herr Shaul comes to the front of the line and comes to the Nazi officer making the selections. And before he can check himself he says: "Good morning, Herr Mueller." And Mueller, before he even thinks, replies: "Good morning, Herr Shaul." And then Herr Mueller must select. And he jerks his thumb and says: "To the right."

In the back of the book, published by New York's Henry Holt and Company, Schmidt includes note for each story, both historical threads to the story and his own thoughts about how it was spun from his imagination. In his notes for The "Good Morning," Schmidt says he was tempted to have Herr Mueller motion to the left "as it is almost impossible to imagine someone in such a position having any sense of humanity or compassion left that would lead him to grant Herr Shaul even a chance at life. But I let the ending stand in the perhaps vain hope that in some camp, at some moment, at least one man responsible for sheer evil felt the beginning of shame."

The story, Schmidt says, is based loosely on one told by storyteller and writer Steve Sanfield. It also is told in Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. "It is a story," says Schmidt, "that questions how apparently ordinary people could become a part of something so vastly evil. It is a question with no answer." Herr Shaul is named after Rabbi Shaul who as a young boy traveled with the Baal Shem Tov and met another young boy, Ivan, with whom he became friends. Years later Rabbi Shaul was stopped by robbers and brought to their leader, Ivan, who recognized his boyhood friend and released him unharmed.

That attention to historical detail is evident in reading the notes to each of the 22 stories. Schmidt says it was important for him to get the stories right and to demonstrate their power not only for the Jewish community, but for all people.

"The Holocaust," he says, "is not just a Jewish story or a German story. It's a story for all of humanity. My hope for this book is that it will bring to even wider audiences important lessons of perseverance and hope, lessons that are for us, in every generation, always new, always true."

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Contact Phil de Haan
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