If you ask people "What is your experience of God?" you get as many different answers as there are people present, because this comes to everyone in a very personal way. Let me share mine with you. I have to take you with me on a journey to Germany where, in the spring of 1937, I was a young wife and mother when Hitler and his Nazi party had taken over the government.
Thinking back to those days, two closely related emotions come clearly to mind: fear and distrust. There was paralyzing fear, never knowing what would happen to oneself or one's family. Without trust, which is the basis of any worthwhile relationship--be it husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, friends, neighbors, and colleagues--no relationship is possible. But you could not trust anyone anymore, not even members of your own family. If a boy told his father he wanted a new bike and his father said no, the boy could answer, "I'll just tell my teacher you don't like Hitler," and the boy got his new bike at once. A child thus had the power to get his father arrested and shipped off to a concentration camp without interrogation and he would probably never be heard from again. If you rode any public conveyance like a bus, a streetcar, or a train, you remained silent because nobody dared to speak.
This was the stifling atmosphere in which we lived. My husband was a lawyer who had defended clients against members of the Nazi party, which in itself was risky, but his being Jewish made it doubly dangerous.
In 1936, we had a frightening experience a few days before Christmas. In the middle of the night, we were awakened by hammering on our front door and shouts of "Open up! Open up!" When we opened the door, three men in Nazi uniforms burst in. Obviously, they had specific orders, as they went about their task quite methodically, pulling precious china out of the cupboards, smashing it to pieces on the floor, and sawing off a large piece of our very fine grand piano, which had been our pride and joy. My grandfather, an avid and well-known art collector, had given me an original painting by a Dutch master for a wedding present. It hung in a specal place in our living room. Now one of the men cut through the precious canvas with a razor blade from top to bottom. The pieces of a priceless masterpiece hung helplessly from the frame, an art treasure destroyed forever. They roamed through the whole house, leaving a heap of destruction in every room. If they had only confiscated our belongings, that would have been more tolerable. But this was sheer destructive mania at its worst.
We watched in horror, realizing with agony how powerless we were in the face of such brutal force. Finally, as they were ready to leave, we looked at each other in silence. At the door, I dared to say, "How can you face Christmas after what you have done to us?"
"Orders are orders," one of them barked, and they rushed out.
We sat in the shambles of our home, unable to even think or talk. In our minds rose one big question: What were we to do? Our lives were as much in danger as our belongings. But where could we go? My husband had relatives in the United States that he would write to, but we painfully realized that we had to leave our homeland forever. How would we make out in a strange land, with strange people and customs, and a foreign language? There were many grave questions, but there was no choice. We had to act, and as quickly as possible.
My husband's relatives in America offered to help and sent us the necessary affidavits to emigrate to the United States. Soon we received our needed visas. But there was a frightening snag: a new immigration quota for each country had been established in Washington, based on the population of the country of origin. So even though we had our visas, we were given a number and told to wait our turn, anywhere from six months to several years. Thousands of people whose lives were in immediate danger were simply trapped. Many were killed in concentration camps with their papers in their pockets. In all, 11 million people perished, 6 million Jews and 5 million who in one way or another resisted Nazi orders. There were industralists who had refused to fly the swastika from the roofs of their factories, clergymen, nuns, and writers, to name a few.
Not long after that experience in our home, the Gestapo, Hitler's secret police, knocked again at our door in the middle of the night, and this time arrested my husband and took him away. I never saw him again. I found out later he was taken to a concentration camp, and months later I was notified that he had "died" there. I was all alone with two small children. A relative in Paris persuaded me to let him take the children, and, with anguish in my heart, I agreed to send them there for their safety.
In Germany, there wasn't and couldn't be any organized resistance to the Nazi regime, as there was later in France and the Scandanavian countries, but there were many small groups like the one I joined, which consisted of another young woman and two men. We helped people who were in immediate danger to escape across the border into Holland, France, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. We knew that, if caught, we would be sent to a concentration camp and probably would not survive. But since that could happen anyway, we felt it was better to go down having done some good than just doing nothing.
My quota number for emigration finally came up, but only four hours before I was to depart, the Gestapo arrested me. I had on a short-sleeved cotton dress and sandals and I was not allowed to take anything else with me. At police headquarters, I met my other three companions and, without any questioning, we were put on an open truck and taken through the night to a concentration camp in central Germany--Buchenwald.
It was ironic that this despicable camp was located in one of the highest cultural centers of Germany. It was very near Eisenach, were Martin Luther was born; close to Wittenberg, where he nailed his famous theses of the Reformation on the church door; near Weimar, a city where the greatest writers, artists, and composers met. Nearby was Wartburg, a fortress where Luther was incarcerated and where he translated the Bible from the many existing dialects into a unified German language. After three months there, someone apparently decided that we deserved harsher treatment. So back on the open truck we went and rode for a long time until we arrived at the most infamous concentration camp, Dachau, near Munich.
We were there another three months. I will not describe life in the camps bcause my message is of a spiritual nature. I only mention them because we often have to experience darkness before we can really see and appreciate the light.
Throughout all the ordeals and hardships, I never gave up on prayer and meditation, and even tried to pray for the specific guards who tortured us. And then a miracle happened. One day, the guards who were assigned to us told us that if we came to a certain place in the middle of the night, they would temporarily turn off the electricity in that section of the fence surrounding the camp and let us escape. It seemed too good to be true, but what did we have to lose? Was this an answer to our prayers? We will never know what prompted those hard-boiled men to propose such a thing.
We gathered at the appointed spot. One of the men in our foursome volunteered to try the barbed wire first, in case it was a trick designed to kill all of us, since we couldn't trust anyone. When he got through, we followed. But as soon as we got through and scattered, the guards, in order to protect themselves, sounded the alarm. It was like a movie--searchlights, machine guns, and bullets flying all around us. The only saving grace were the massive tree trunks similar to the California redwoods, behind which we hid and prayed that we would be safe. Ironically, our friend who risked his life for us by going first was hit by a bullet, but there was nothing we could do to help him. It was everyone for oneself under those very dangerous circumstances. After a time, the shooting stopped and there was dead silence. I had lost track of my companions and it was too dangerous to call out to them.
It was mid-November, and snow covered the ground, providing extra light during the day but also producing bitter cold at night. I was still wearing my short-sleeved cotton dress and sandals, which soon gave out, with nothing to keep me warm. I was also quite weak and emaciated from six months in two camps.
Fortunately, I knew this area very well, having lived in Munich as a child. We had hiked in the summer and skied there in the winter, but certainly not as ill-equipped nor in the poor physical condition in which I found myself.
Some areas of Germany and Austria are easily entered from either country. At that time, Austria was still a free country and reaching it meant freedom from capture and death, which still threatened me in Germany. But the only way to get to Austria from where I was required me to cross the Alps. There was nothing else to do but climb those high mountains and try to reach freedom. So I climbed through ice and snow for three nights and two days, with nothing to eat, just snow for my thirst (which is worse than hunger).
In those higher altitudes, it got warm during the day, but was bitter cold at night. I did not dare lie down, lest I fall asleep and freeze to death. So I hopped from one foot to the other and waved my arms wildly until daylight, when I could climb again. Something quite outside my own strength drove me onward.
On the morning of the third day, I reached a plateau and witnessed the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen, and the rising sun began to warm me. Looking around, I saw mountain peak after mountain peak and I had no idea where I should go from there. I knew I had not been brought to this place to perish now because there had been many occasions for that in the camps.
I come from what you may call a religious famly. We went to church and Sunday school, we said grace at table, we observed all the religious holidays, and had our Bible readings and family devotions. I participated in all this more as a routine and because it was expected of me, but I had no personal relationship with God. But as I knelt there, all alone on top of this glorious mountain, for the first time in my life, I prayed to a personal God to help me, to show me the way, to give me some sign to tell me where to go.
I had scarcely said "Amen" to my prayer when I heard an alpenhorn. This is a very large wooden instrument used by the farmers to call cattle down to the villages. The Germans don't use alpenhorns, only the Austrians and the Swiss. So when I heard this sound, I knew without doubt that there was an Austrian within my hearing distance. But in the high mountains, an echo will play tricks, and the sound comes from everywhere. But I was so encouraged by the sound of the horn that I prayed again that my ears would be sharpened enough to distinguish the original sound before the echo responded and that it would continue long enough for me to follow it to the person blowing that alpenhorn. Again, my prayer was answered. I followed that sound for about twenty minutes and then saw a boy, about fourteen years old.
Believe me, I have never seen a more welcome sight than that boy blowing the alpenhorn surrounded by his cattle. I went over to him and asked him where his mother was. He pointed to a farmhouse below and then ran away as fast as he could. Later on, he told me that he had never been as frightened as when he saw me. With my legs bloody from the climbing, my dress torn, my sandals in shreds, my hair wild, he thought I was a mountain ghost who had come to get him.
As I went down to the farmhouse, the sight of it gave me an overwhelming feeling of warmth, security, and safety at last. I could see through the window a glowing fire in the fireplace. A wonderful Austrian farm woman opened the door and all she could say was, "Good heavens, girl, where did you come from?" I was near collapse and all I could stammer was "Dachau." She took me into the kitchen. She heated water on the coal stove and poured it into the tub. I was going to have a bath. I hadn't been in a bathtub for six months, and this was just heavenly. After the bath, she put me to bed and plunked one of those heavy Austrian feather blankets on me, and I sank into the pillows and slept for 24 hours straight. When I woke up, I was famished. The good woman put a big roasted chicken in front of me. My family had tried to bring me up with gracious table manners, which I had resisted, and now I forgot all about manners. Here, in that simple farm kitchen, with both elbows on the table, I tore the chicken apart with my bare hands and ate the entire thing. And then we talked. I explained that I had a cousin in Paris who had my belongings and two children, and even though I now had no papers, my visa to the United States could be verified at the American consulate in Paris.
They had a young daughter who, like me, also weighed about about 80 pounds (I was skin and bones), so they outfitted me with her warm underwear, a skirt and warm sweater, a coat, hat and gloves--most of it handmade. I thought I was the most fashionable girl in all of Austria. A few days later they drove me in a big horse-drawn sleigh to nearby Innsbruck, where I caught an express train to Paris with a ticket they bought me. Thanking them as much as I could, I left.