Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Remembering My Brother: Richard Forest

By Jim Forest

Richard Forest died, age 70, on 17 August 2013.
Remembering my brother, I recall a little boy, half-a-head shorter than I was, almost hidden in a cloud of steam while a train pulls into the southbound track of the Red Bank train station just as the sun is setting. It’s sometime in the late 1940s. Dick is gazing up in silent awe at the huge steam engine and the two powerful men who share its cab. Our ears are still echoing with the wailing hoots of the steam whistle that seconds ago announced the train’s impending arrival. Now there’s the shrill noise of the brakes as the tall steel wheels pull the commuter-loaded train to a shuddering halt. No kid at any circus — no saint in the midst of a mystical experience — could be more enthralled than my brother. I’m fascinated too, but my attention is partly held by my steam-wrapped brother who, in his state of pure amazement, is just as astonishing as the train.

At that period of our young lives welcoming the train is a ritual. Dick is probably seven, which makes me eight. Monday through Friday, with our Aunt Douglas, we meet the train that brings our Uncle Bob back from his bank job in Jersey City.

My guess is that Dick’s linkage with trains goes back to when he was four and the three of us traveled via the rails from our former home in Denver to Jersey City where we were met by Aunt Douglas and Uncle Bob. It was our move to Mother’s hometown, Red Bank, following her divorce. In fact we must have had some sleep, but I have the impression Dick and I were awake every inch of the way, our noses pressed to the window glass making islands of condensation while watching the ever-changing view: farms, houses, horses, cows, trees, rivers, fields of corn and wheat, gullies, huge clouds, lightning storms, cloudless skies, train stations, blurred villages, fast-passing towns, snap-shot glimpses of people in their homes, all the while the train rushing relentlessly forward, the steel wheels beating a sweet jazzy music out of the tracks. Even long after sunset, it was a constant visual adventure, better than any movie. Is there a finer way to see the world than from a train?

Dick’s marriage to trains took root in childhood and lasted until he breathed his last, seventy years of age. While Dick was allergic to religion, perhaps he wouldn’t object to me saying that he was a devout member of the Church of the Sacred Stream Engine.

Eventually be became a lawyer and was, by all accounts, an excellent one, but I think the job he had enjoyed most was the one he had before he passed his bar exam — the years when he worked for the railroad running switching towers. When we were both young men, I made a drawing of him in command in one of those them. It was a hot summer day. Dick was dressed for the heat. The windows gave a sweeping view of the train yard. Close at hand were the long levers that were used to slide the tracks below us into the right positions as engines and freight cars moved back and forth. It was a demanding job that required being wide awake every minute and which allowed no errors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man happier in his work.

I never had the chance to see him in court but I have no doubt he was equally at home in that environment. God knows he loved talking about it. As did everyone who knew him, I heard no end of stories from him about many of the cross-examinations he conducted of witnesses who weren’t inclined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Reviewing the e-mail Dick and I exchanged over the last quarter century, I found one courtroom story of the sort my brother relished. It comes from a U.S. District Court in Texas. Let me share with you the extract from the transcript he forwarded to me:

Lawyer: So, Doctor, you determined that a gunshot wound was the cause of death of the patient?

Doctor: That's correct.

Lawyer: Did you examine the patient when he came to the emergency room?

Doctor: No, I performed the autopsy.

Lawyer: Okay, were you aware of his vital signs while he was at the hospital?

Doctor: He came into the emergency room in shock and died in the emergency room a short time after arriving.

Lawyer: Did you pronounce him dead at that time?

Doctor: No, I am the pathologist who performed the autopsy. I was not involved with the patient initially.

Lawyer: Well, are you even sure, then, that he died in the emergency room?

Doctor: That is what the records indicate.

Lawyer: But if you weren't there, how could you have pronounced him dead, having not seen or physically examined the patient at that time?

Doctor: The autopsy showed massive hemorrhage into the chest, and that was the cause of death.

Lawyer: I understand that, but you were not actually present to examine the patient and pronounce him dead, isn't that right?

Doctor: No, sir, I did not see the patient or actually pronounce him dead, but I did perform an autopsy and right now his brain is in a jar over at the county morgue. As for the rest of the patient, for all I know, he could be out practicing law somewhere.

I only wish I had recorded some of my brother’s accounts of his own courtroom exchanges. Many of them were every bit as funny.

Because I’ve lived in Holland the last 37 years, I saw less of Dick than I would have liked, on average just two of three times a year, but one of the treats for me, when back in the U.S., was asking him about recent courtroom events. It was like turning on a radio and listening to a comedy show with my brother doing all the voices. He was a down-to-earth, no-frills New Jersey boy who could have been part of the cast of “The Sopranos.”

He loved certain movies and television shows. He seemed to have memorized the scripts for both. I think his most beloved TV show was the Archie Bunker comedy, “All In The Family.” Even when he was laid low in the hospital, suffering considerable pain and feeling like a prisoner, there were times when he could recite substantial chunks of scripts, and also had a large collection of brief exchanges and one-liners. One of these was Archie Bunker saying, “You'd better start mixing toothpaste with your shampoo. You're getting a cavity in your brain.” Also from Archie Bunker, “Whatever happened to the good old days when kids was scared to death of their parents?” His favorites films included “The Godfather” and “Doctor Strangelove.” Possibly his favorite line from “Doctor Strangelove” came from President Merkin Muffley as played by Peter Sellers: “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.”

In contrast to our parents, both of whom were passionate social activists, I wouldn’t call my brother a cause-oriented person, though he was sometimes enlisted by our mother to do pro bono work in her battles with local politicians. He hated war and was dead set against capital punishment. One of my treasured memories of Dick is his declining to shake the hand of a certain governor who had authorized a number of executions and who was standing in front of Dick with his hand extended and a smile on his face. My brother said, “Sorry, Governor, but I don’t shake hands that have blood on them.” I’m sure the governor, if he is still alive, thinks about that brief encounter from time to time.

As I mentioned, Dick hated war. He managed to avoid participation in the Vietnam War and spoke out against it with his usual vigor. Yet he loved guns and had a collection of rifles. For much of his adult life, he was a devoted member of the National Rifle Association. For years one of his hobbies was to bait me into ranting against the NRA. Much to his amusement, I always fell for the bait like a bull chasing a red flag. One year I begged him, for the sake of my blood pressure, not to mention the NRA any more. To my astonishment that was the end of our semi-annual argument about guns.

Like so many of us, Dick had a hard time finding the ideal marital partner. At last he met Adele and married her in the spring of 1997. This not only made him a happy man but also greatly lengthened his life. It was Adele who managed to help him lose weight, a thankless job as my brother, when in the presence of food and soft drinks, was a man without brakes who wasn’t notably appreciative of anyone else applying the brakes on his behalf, even though, after his first heart attack, he knew that major weight loss was an absolute necessity. It wasn’t easy, but Adele was persistent. And it worked. My guess is that Adele added a decade to his life.

Let me close by recalling one of my favorite memories of my brother. Nancy and I live on a narrow lane in one of the oldest parts of a small Dutch city named Alkmaar. Not only is there no traffic but not that many people walk by, probably under a fifty a day. As home is our principal work place — I’m a writer, Nancy is a translator — we’re there most of the time. When someone passes by we often notice. During our coffee break one morning 25 years ago we happened to see two people passing by. I said to Nancy, “They look just like Dick and Beth.” She agreed. Neither of the two stopped at our front door, but not long afterward there was a knock. I opened the door and there stood Dick and Beth! It turned out that Dick had made a last-minute decision to ride some trains in Europe and invited Beth to join him. “Sorry to come unannounced,” Dick said. “It was all last-minute. And it’s in secret. You must not tell Mother. She doesn’t know I’m here”

I never did find out why Mother was not to know. Both of us were a great many years past the age when one sought parental permission for any undertaking. It’s one of the family mysteries that will go unanswered.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Remembering Rosanne

Charles & Rosanne in 1993 at the time of their wedding
On the 24th of July my sister Rosanne breathed her last. She was 68. In her final hours each breath was a great labor. Her husband, Charles, and two of her four children were at her bedside when she exhaled that final time. I was a few feet away. Quite soon all four children were in the house along with grandchildren and cousins plus other members of our complex family in which bonds of DNA are not the decisive ingredient. The next morning Charles washed Rosanne and then all the family oiled her from forehead to toes before placing rose petals on her body.

Rosanne was startlingly emaciated. On the day she died, it had been three weeks since she last accepted food. When I arrived, she was taking very little water. She seemed unable to swallow.

For seven years Rosanne had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. The onset had been very slow -- an increasing degree of absent-mindedness that finally reached the point of her having to give up her work as an occupational therapist. In that period Charles and other family members looked for dietary changes that might help stop the damage to her brain or even reverse it. During the last few years she was gradually stripped of her active vocabulary until words were few and rare. She was sometimes confused about where she was. A wheel chair was needed. Going out became a challenge. She became utterly dependent on the care of others, Charles most of all.

Thank God I was able to take part in the last nine days of Rosanne’s life — part of a community of family members and friends who were not only camping out on the edge of her deathbed but on the border of the mystery of death.

The hours when I was at her side were mainly times of silence but also of a quiet one-sided conversation and reading aloud. I urged her, for example, to ignore the advice of Dylan Thomas about not going gently into that good night; better, I proposed, to embrace, embrace the dying of the light. Using the Bible I have on my e-reader, I picked out psalms, or parts of psalms, that seemed appropriate. I slowly read her the story of Lazarus being called out of his tomb, accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the Beatitudes, the Book of Jonah, parts of the Song of Songs, the canticle of praise sung by the three young men consigned to the furnace in Babylon — texts that have to do with death not having the last word, the grave not being the end of the journey, life not being a bad joke. I told Rosanne that no one knows much about what happens after death but that we get occasional joyful glimpses of heaven in day-to-day life.

Though she couldn’t speak, apart from an occasional yes or no or groan of distress as her body was turned, I think she recognized each of us who took part in the vigil and heard what we had to say. She communicated by intense attention to the face of the person sitting at her side, sometimes with a puzzled look, at other times with a gaze of recognition, or so it seemed to me. And there was communication by hand-holding. She held hands with each of us with a remarkable firmness, each massaging the thumb of the other.

The kitchen and dining room near the bedroom in which Rosanne was dying served as a gathering place. Charles did a lot of cooking and family members brought still more food. Cooking and eating became a way of coping. Over meals lots of stories about Rosanne were told. One that especially rang bells for me came from our step-sister Tamara, who recalled a post-high school trans-Atlantic crossing by ship taken by Rosanne, Marianne and herself in 1962. Along the way there was a major storm that sent furniture sliding from port to starboard and back again plus water splashing through portholes. After the storm, the question was raised: “What if the ship were sinking? What would our last words or actions have been?” Answer: Marianne would write a poem, Tamara would say, “Just a  minute!” and Rosanne would say, “Oh! Really?”

From childhood until her death, Rosanne had an “Oh! Really?” quality. It was in her steady, wide-eyed gaze. It lay behind her kindness not only in good times but in trying circumstances. It reflected her passionate curiosity about the world, a permanent "tell me more” setting.

Rosanne and I were both “red-diaper babies” — the children of Communist parents — but neither of us were, as adults, engaged with any political party or inclined to look at the world through ideologically-ground glasses or to value people according to their politics. “Blessed are the pure of heart,” one of the Beatitudes affirms. Throughout her life Rosanne had a very pure heart, a deep innocence, a quiet selflessness, an innate ability not to judge others. From early adulthood she had been drawn to an alternative way of life — non-acquisitive, peaceful, sharing, self-giving — and those traits remained with her until the end.


Photos taken during the days I was with the family in Santa Cruz are in this folder:

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

washing the dishes

Back after a long absence..

Yesterday I happened to see this quote: “Everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to wash the dishes.” I was reminded an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling. But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Operation Live

Transplant surgeon Mirza Idu, nephrologist Frederike Bemelman and Dink Legemate, another transplant surgeon. On the right TV presenter Charles Groenhuijsen.
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the kidney transplant, and -- amazingly -- there was a program on Dutch TV last night called "Operation Live" that featured a live kidney transplant. Non-Dutch speakers won't be able to make much of the dialogue, but the operation itself is breathtaking. It was performed last night at the same Amsterdam hospital that we went to (the AMC), and by the same surgeon who did our operation, Dr. Mirza Idu. At a certain point in the discussion one of the doctors in the studio says that removing a live kidney from the donor is considered "top sport" in surgery, and that Dr. Idu is their "top athlete". Nice to know this! When Dr. Idu is interviewed he says he has performed 600 kidney removals and 400 transplants in his career.

The entire operation takes five hours, and this program is only an hour and a half long, so the part they show is part 2, the actual transplant. By this time the donor is in the recovery room and doing nicely.

The donor and recipient are two women, both named Mariane, who have been lifelong friends.

Also during the program is a short interview with Jacintha Jenniskens, the AMC transplant psychologist who interviewed me during the screening process. She talks about the book that was recently published by the Kidney Foundation that features 20 double portraits of live kidney donations. Jim and I are one of the portraits.
The program in full is online:


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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Two days with Patriarch Kirill before he was patriarch

Patriarch Kirill, presiding bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been trashed in many columns, editorials, news reports and blog postings lately, portrayed as corrupt, vengeful, un-Christian, President Putin’s dance partner, etc. Few of those making these and similar charges seem to have met him or even to know much about Russia or the Orthodox Church.

I don’t want to argue that there is nothing about Kirill to criticize, but I do want to share a few memories of him that go back to the summer of 1987, when Nancy and I were his guests in Smolensk for two days. At the time he was both Bishop of Smolensk and rector of the Theological Academy in Leningrad, as the city was still named in those Soviet days. At the time I was writing a book published the following year as Pilgrim to the Russian Church. Here are extracts from the book’s Smolensk pages:

Smolensk, Sunday, July 26, 1987:

Smolensk, “the key and gate of Russia,” is the most western of ancient Russian cities. On the north end of the River Dnieper, it is at the source of the water highway that leads past Kiev to the Black Sea.

Father Victor, a quiet young priest, met us when the train pulled into the station at dawn. After checking into the hotel and having a brief rest, we went to Holy Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Assumption, the principal Smolensk landmark, a five-domed green and white building standing at the top of a steep hill in the center of the city. Inside the cathedral is a mammoth, heavily gilded iconostasis from the Eighteenth Century that includes not only icons but statues. There is also a baroque pulpit, not an element of Russian church architecture until the time of Peter the Great.

Archbishop Kirill was presiding, a man in his forties, among the youngest bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has a greying black beard and a clear, direct manner. For ten years before coming to Smolensk he was rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy where he is credited with many of the innovations that happened there, including the introduction of women students.

While he stood in the center of the church with his arms outstretched, attendants vested him. It as though he were no longer himself, but a moving, praying, singing part of the liturgy, all connected with the church, the icons, the music, the incense, the Eucharist.

The church was crowded. There were the usual deeply pious old women, among them one woman on her knees at the front rail, eyes fixed on an icon, crossing herself and bowing over and over again. Russian tourists moved in and out, watching rather than participating. Despite the almost continuous motion among the people and the clergy, and the constant music from the choirs, there was a powerful sense of attentiveness and stillness.

No one hushed the children in the church. They obviously enjoyed being there. We noticed a priest and his family in a vacant choir stall. One daughter looked to be twelve and her little sister about four. The older sister was holding the little one up on the rail and they were hugging and stroking each other. All the while, the older girl joined in singing the words to all the prayers and hymns.

The day's Gospel was the story of Jesus healing two blind men. A sermon followed by Archbishop Kirill. As he began to speak, the congregation gathered around him, standing with their hands relaxed at their sides, completely attentive.

“Our Savior said to the blind men, 'Do you believe I can heal you?' They said, 'Yes, Lord.' And then he healed their blindness.

“This story makes me wonder about wonders. A wonder is something that surprises. It goes past the border of usual experience. We see wonders and we call them miracles. But there are people who reject the possibility of miracles or anything that goes beyond their own experiences. They say, 'It cannot be.'

“What the Church teaches is that wonders are special expressions of the love and power of God. When we experience or contemplate wonders, they inspire wonder in us.

“St. Augustine says that the normal growing of wheat is akin to the multiplication of loaves. So much of the beauty of the natural world awakens wonder: sky, sun, plants, water. 'Look at these things,' says St. Augustine, 'and see that they are beautiful. Their beauty is their confession of God.'

“Most wonders stand on laws that are the foundation of the world, in which everything is developed. And isn't this too a wonder? When God does things beyond our understanding, even then he is acting within the laws of the universe.

“Not to see beauty, not to be aware of wonders -- this is to be blind and deaf. The French scientist Pasteur said that the more we contemplate the world, the more we are filled with wonder.

“Some people can see wonders, some not. Why? What makes it possible to become aware of the actions of God in the world? Do we need special education? Some special wisdom? No, dear brothers and sisters, the Gospel shows us otherwise. Christ said to the two blind men, 'Do you believe I can heal you?' Only when they confess that they do believe does he heal them.

“They were healed, but there were even at that time people who were not moved to wonder by what he did. There were those who said, 'Jesus casts out devils only because he is the prince of devils.' What he does, they said, isn't a miracle. It is magic. And so they dismissed what Jesus did.

“Faith is the condition of wonder, not the other way around. Perhaps here at this moment there could be a miracle. Even then there would be people present who would leave saying, 'Yes, there was something strange, something we need to clarify.' In fact we find in the press stories about events for which there seems to be no natural explanation. But this doesn't mean people reading these stories are led to faith. Miracles don't give birth to faith. Perhaps that is why Our Lord in this Gospel forbids people to publicize what he did for the blind men. The news would add nothing to people's faith. It was not with wonders but with his words that he tried to soften people's hearts. A heart filled with love and faith can distinguish good and evil. The believer can cross any boundary with God.

“Love is the power of God. May God help all believers to be attentive to the wonders that, because of God's love, fill the whole universe.”

The congregation replied, “God save you!”

While the Liturgy was going on, Vasili left us for about a half hour. When he returned he said that another priest had been giving a talk in the back of the church on such topics as the reception of communion, marriage and mutual help.

At communion, the children came first -- all the children, beginning with babies, held in the arms of their parents or other adult friends. The first in line was the twelve-year-old girl, holding up her little sister to receive the Eucharist. Communion is administered with a spoon while an attendant holds a napkin under the chin of the person receiving. [.…]

Smolensk, July 27:

After a morning of being rained on in the countryside, we visited Archbishop Kirill. He lives in a small house with a view of the Assumption Cathedral. The dining room table was laid with candies, cookies, and a delicious cake. Coffee, tea and vodka were served.

I asked why so few adults had received communion at the Liturgy yesterday. “Yes, it is still very few, but more than used to come. Now it can be fifty on a Sunday when it used to be not more than five. Things change, but slowly. Before the Revolution, it was common for people to receive communion only twice a year. People were overwhelmed by their sense of unworthiness. Patriarch Pimen has made a call to believers to receive communion as often as possible and this appeal is being heard. But with this there has to be a process of religious education. We try to offer that in the church and actually prefer doing it there. We would rather not have something like that happen in a school classroom. Part of the process of religious education in our diocese is to have a priest on duty throughout the day in the cathedral where they can answer questions. We find that if one person asks a question, immediately others gather and you have a group discussion.”

Archbishop Kirill is a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches. “I got into the ecumenical movement as a 'youth.' It was the sixties, a decade when everyone was bowing their heads to the young people. The experiences that opened to me through the World Council of Churches have made me realize that the ecumenical movement and work for the renewal of humanity and peace are profoundly linked to each other. What enthusiasm there was for Christian unity sixty years ago! Not that I was there, but what a spirit of youth, power, and passion there is in papers presented at early ecumenical conferences. They are filled with both joy and pain, with longing for unity and sorrow for division.”

Nancy commented on how much more vital churches are in the Soviet Union than in Holland. “The problem in the west is not organized atheism but secularism and the consumer psychology. But we may face the same thing in a few years, so we watch anxiously what the church does in the west as this may help us. But perhaps we also have something to offer the church in the west, some encouragement, some lessons. It is important to know something of the church that exists in the first socialist state.”

I asked about the tendency for more young people to become active believers.

“Certainly there is an encouraging influx of young people right now but we have to be careful not to limit our perception of who is a believer by only noticing who is standing in the church. The process of coming to belief is very complex. We are aware that many people are believers in their world outlook even though they rarely go to church. The tip of the iceberg are the people you see in church, and that tip creates the image. These are people permanently in church, often retired people, mainly elderly women. But the iceberg is one object, not two, even though most of it cannot be seen. Also that babushka that looks older than the world -- in fact she is younger than the Revolution. She never attended a church school. She memorized no catechism. As a young woman she never went into a church. But sometime in her life she became part of the visible church. There is always a large group of believers who are struggling with this decision, and slowly, as they become older, they begin attending church. The invisible part of the church is much younger, but today they more quickly become part of the visible church. They aren't waiting for retirement. The democratic events now going on in our country help this process. We see more and more people coming who never came before, never showed any sign of belief. Now they want to belong to the church. It seems like a fresh development, something completely new, but actually it has deep roots.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Archbishop Kirill said, “Jim, I am disappointed. There is one question every journalist asks but you haven’t asked it.”

“What question is that?”

“How many of the people in church are actual believers?”

“All right, your Grace -- one last question: How many people are actual believers.”

“I’m glad you asked. My answer is I don’t know. Yesterday you saw quite a lot of people in the church. You might say that some of them were just tourists. I don't think more than twenty percent of the people were crossing themselves. Many of the women weren't wearing scarfs. But a lot of those who seem to be just watching are on the border of belief. They don't stand there for two hours just because it is a beautiful old building. Something draws them. They are not practicing believers, but they are there. But what about those who crossed themselves? Can we say they are believers? It may be that they were just conforming to norms of church behavior. Who can say who is a believer and who is not? We don't know. Nobody knows. God knows.”

We said good-bye and hurried to catch the train to Minsk.

(from Pilgrim to the Russian Church by Jim Forest, Crossroads Books, New York, 1988)

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Canonization in Munich: Saint Alexander Schmorell

Saints come in many sizes and varieties, ranging from kings to beggars, surgeons to street sweepers, scholars to the illiterate, the extraordinary to the unnoticed. Some never marry, some are the parents of large families. Some die in bed in their old age, others die early in life at the hands of executioners. There are millions of saints -- heaven is crowded -- but relatively few of heaven’s population have been formally canonized. The vast majority are rank-and-file saints, an inspiration to those who knew them, but never placed by name on the church calendar.

Reporting on canonizations, journalists often say that so-and-so was “made a saint” today at such-and-such location, but in fact the Church does not make saints. Canonization is merely an act of carefully considered recognition that a particular person became a saint in his lifetime and is unquestionably among the blessed and thus in no need of our prayers for his forgiveness and salvation. The saints who are singled out for special recognition are mentioned at the Liturgy on a particular day every year, some locally or nationally, others in churches around the world. They are also depicted in icons in both churches and homes.

What is it that makes the Church occasionally canonize a particular saint? In many cases it has to do with some remarkable quality or achievement -- their exceptional impact on other lives. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”

The majority of those canonized are martyrs. One of these -- Alexander Schmorell -- was added to the church calendar this past weekend. His canonization took place at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, a church in Munich not far from Schmorell’s grave. On the far side of the cemetery, at Stadelheim Prison, Schmorell was beheaded on 13 July 1943. He was only 25 at the time. He was an Orthodox Christian who had put his life at risk by being part of a anti-Nazi resistance group.

The canonization got underway on Saturday afternoon, February 3, as people began to gather in the church. Aware that the reporters and cameramen present would need certain photos before the ceremonies started, Fr. Nikolai Artemoff, dean of the cathedral, brought out the icon of Alexander Schmorell in anticipation of its formal presentation later in the day. Many photos were taken, a pre-canonization ceremony that would not have been imagined in earlier centuries. The icon showed Alexander Schmorell as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band (he had been a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University), his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a blood-red cross plus a white rose. He is standing against a pure gold background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

As Father Nikolai explained to the journalists, the white rose in his hand symbolizes the White Rose group Schmorell co-founded with Hans Scholl in the spring of 1942. Before the arrests began the following February, the group succeeded -- assisted by friends in many German and Austrian cities and towns -- in widely distributing a series of six anti-Nazi leaflets. All six members of the core group were guillotined. (The story is powerfully told in an the Oscar-nominated film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” much of which was photographed in Munich.)

Press photos taken and interviews completed, at about 4 PM a procession of about two hundred people set out led by a cross bearer. Behind the cross were six bishops: Archbishop Mark (who leads the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Germany), Metropolitan Valentin of Orenburg (the Russian city where Schmorell was born), Metropolitan Onufriy of Czernowitz in Ukraine, Archbishop Feofan of Berlin, Bishop Michael of Geneva, and Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart. How many priests? I lost count.

The frigid air was challenging -- it was about 15 degrees below zero Centigrade (5 degrees Fahrenheit), with snow and ice on the ground. Though the cemetery, Perlacher Forst, was just across the street, its entrance was several hundred meters away. Once inside the gate, we wound our way through tombstone-lined paths, first stopping to pray at the graves of Hans and Sophie School, the brother and sister who were the first to be executed from the White Rose group, and Christoph Probst, beheaded the same day -- 22 February 1943. Here three tall black crosses stand side by side, a single cross piece linking the crosses over the Scholl graves. Sophie, the one woman in the White Rose inner circle, and the youngest, was 21 when she was killed. Today many German streets and squares are named in honor of Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and others executed for their part in the White Rose. Hans and Sophie came from a closely-knit Lutheran family. Christoph Probst was baptized in the Catholic Church a day before his execution.

The procession than continued to Alexander Schmorell’s resting place, not far away. A bouquet of white roses was resting against the rough surface of the tombstone and more flowers heaped over the grave. Embedded in the stone was a bronze Russian Orthodox crucifix. Memorial prayers -- a panikhida -- was sung, concluding with the melodic two-word chant, Vyechnaya Pamyat (eternal memory), sung repeatedly by all present. Every year there has been a panikhida sung at this grave on the 13th of July, the anniversary of Schmorell’s death, but this was the final panikhida. Now that he has been officially glorified, future services at his grave no longer have a penitential character.

The high point of the day came during the Saturday evening Vigil, which began at 5 PM and lasted three-and-a-half hours, by which time an almost full moon was shining through the windows. In the middle of the service, several icon stands were placed in the center of the church with candle stands behind. At least a hundred candles were lit, forming a curtain of light. Finally a procession of bishops, clergy and altar servers poured out of the sanctuary carrying an icon of Saint Alexander Schmorell followed by another icon crowded with images of New Martyrs of the twentieth century. Next came a huge silver-bound Gospel book, a copy that had been a gift from Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, to Russian Orthodox Christians in Germany. The two icons and the Gospel book were solemnly placed side by side on the stands, then incensed. Finally everyone in the church, beginning with the six bishops, venerated the icon of the newly recognized saint.

“When they brought out the icon,” Nancy told me later that night, “it was such a climax, with the servers holding all those fans over the icons and the choir singing with such exaltation. It was as it there were neon arrows pointing at the icon of Alexander Schmorell and saying, ‘This is what really matters.’ It’s the Church pulling out all the stops. They couldn’t do more to make you look in that direction and feel the importance, the challenge, of this brave life. You couldn’t not get it. This is what the Church does in interpreting human events and letting us know what’s truly valuable. This is something that requires all the ceremony the Church is capable of. But it’s not ceremony for its own sake. It’s all meant to confront us with the inner meaning of a young man putting his head on the chopping block. The canonization ceremony pulls you out of ordinary time and confronts you with the message: consider this life and let it influence your own.”

At the Liturgy the following morning, the church was even more crowded than it had been for the Vigil. We were jammed together like cigarettes in a carton -- it was challenging to make the sign of the cross without grazing your neighbors with your elbows. Perhaps as many people were present as would fill the church for the All-Night Easter service. (Also present on Sunday-- give a special chair placed at the right end of the iconostasis -- was Bishop Engelbert Siebler, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich.)

In the Orthodox Church every Sunday is regarded as a little Easter, but rarely have I experienced so intense a paschal radiance. Resurrection was at the heart of Father Nikolai’s sermon, delivered just before communion. He reminded us that the name the White Rose group adopted for itself had been proposed by Alexander Schmorell. His suggestion came from a story in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, written by Schmorell’s most beloved author, Dostoevsky. In one chapter Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people in Seville’s cathedral square, a place were the pavement is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics. Responding to a mother’s desperate appeal, Christ raises from the dead a young girl whose open coffin was being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. Flowers have been laid on her body. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!' and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, he is recognized by the Grand Inquisitor, who orders Christ’s arrest.

The white rose is a paschal symbol, a sign of the victory of life over death.

That Alexander Schmorell would one day be canonized at this cathedral had been evident for years. He is shown among of a row of twenty-two martyrs of the twentieth-century included in an icon that has long been part of the cathedral’s iconostasis. After the Liturgy and the emptying out of the church, I went to look more carefully at that older icon. Schmorell is easily picked out -- there he is, in the first row, third from the right, wearing a white robe. What is remarkable is that, within the group, he alone group has no halo, for at the time the icon was painted canonization was only anticipated. In one hand he holds a thin cross, in the other a scroll with these words taken from his last letter to his parents:

“This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!!”

One can imagine future icons of Saint Alexander of Munich will often use the same text while other iconographers may decide to use his last words, spoken to his lawyer as he was being taken to the guillotine: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

-- Jim Forest

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Hymns sung at the glorification of Saint Alexander of Munich (annual commemoration day July 13):

Troparion, tone 4:

Today a light adorns our glorious city, / having within it your holy relics, O Holy Martyr Alexander; / for which sake pray to Christ God / that He deliver us from all tribulations, / for gathered together in love we celebrate your radiant memory / imitating your bravery, / standing against the godless powers and enemies.

Kontakion, tone 4:

From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ, / and through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God, O all-glorious one, / to Whom you did give thyself, O all-honorable Alexander, / and you diligently pray with the angels. / Entreat on behalf of all who honor your memory a forgiveness of their sins.

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A great deal of information about Saint Alexander is on the web, especially on the web site of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Germany: www.sobor.de

A biographical essay (“Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times”) is here: www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/02/02/alexander-schmorell-a-witness-in-dark-times/

An English translation of Schmorell’s letters from prison:

A set of photos of the canonization:

A set of photos having to do of the White Rose:

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Friday, January 6, 2012

How does it feel to be 70?

the Pentagon's War Room, as envisioned in "Doctor Strangelove"

Yesterday a friend asked, “How does it feel to be 70?”

I’m mainly astonished.

I turned 30 in 1971 and was very surprised to have lived that long.

Through much of the fifties and sixties, nuclear war seemed extremely likely -- a maybe-today-or-tomorrow event. For years I had expected few people would be alive in 1971, with no chance of survival for those of us living in high-priority target areas like New York and Washington.

I’m not old enough to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in the fifties there were the frequent open-air explosions of nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert as well as on various Pacific islands and remote areas of the USSR. No one in the northern hemisphere wasn't exposed to fallout. As a kid watching many of the blasts on television -- truly a theater of the Apocalypse -- I didn’t feel at all confident about the human future.

For a school project in the eighth grade, using a cardboard tube plus cotton and spray paint, I made a foot-high model of the mushroom cloud produced by an atom blast,

In high school, as a member of the school debating club, I gave a talk that had the title “Generation in the Shadow.” The shadow looming over us, I argued, was the mushroom cloud.

In 1960-61, while part of a Navy unit at the US Weather Bureau just outside of Washington, one of our regular exercises was to plot fallout patterns in the event a 20-megaton nuclear weapon to explode today over the capital. The drill made readiness for nuclear war very real.

Out of the Navy and part of the Catholic Worker community in New York, I tacked up a cover of Liberation magazine on the wall of my room that reproduced poet Kenneth Patchen’s brush-stroke calligraphy, “Get ready to die.” Sobering.

In those years, millions of school kids took part in duck-and-cover exercises. The entire city of New York along with many other cities had compulsory annual drills to prepare for nuclear attack. Year after year Dorothy Day was among those arrested for refusing to take part, sitting instead on a park bench in front of City Hall. Across the US, suburban families were encouraged to build bomb shelters in their basements or underground in their backyards.

In October 1962, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I doubt any adult lived through that week without the awareness he or she might become radioactive dust before nightfall. For a lot of people, probably including many atheists, it was truly a week of prayer.

In recent years we’ve come to know more and more about the many instances since 1945 when nuclear weapons were almost used. It’s remarkable we have lived to tell the tale.

Nor is the danger purely in the past tense. Far from it.

I feel like a survivor living in the world of Doctor Strangelove.

For more than half a century, the surprise of a World War III not yet having happened has given me a sense of every day being extra.

Having survived to celebrate my 70th birthday has also renewed my awareness that the efforts made by so many people (not only anti-nuclear campaigners but people in government and the military who might have pushed the button but didn’t) to protect the world we live in really do matter. Meager, yes, but not inconsequential.

Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick was one of the life savers. Thank you, Stanley.

I really can say, and not just to myself, “Happy birthday.”

-- Jim

Friday, December 30, 2011

A dream

Grant Wood: Young Corn (1931)
A dream. I am lying on an old gray and white mattress in a large, unfamiliar house. Slowly the mattress rises from the floor and floats through a nearby door, then through other rooms and passageways until reaching a wide, roofed-over veranda. The house reminds me, as I think about it, of a building in Rivendell. We -- the mattress and I -- pass not under but through the roof as easily as light through a window. Below there are green hills dotted with old trees, the hills descending toward an ocean. The colors and contours could be from a Grant Wood painting. The mattress is now quite high up but I feel no anxiety about falling off. The air is comfortable and sweet. Passing over sandy beaches far below, the mattress carries me out over the deep blue water. I admire waves crashing against several small stone islands, too far below for me to hear the impact of water turning white. Now the mattress turns south (I have the feeling of being a passenger simply going where the mattress chooses to go). Soon we're back over land, slowing descending toward a a rural town -- farms, lanes, wooden houses, gardens. Now we're coasting along one of lanes past houses with fences that border their lawns. A woman on one of the porches sees me being carried along by the floating mattress. I see the surprise in her face and wave at her. She waves back. A little further we pass a father and son in a garden between the road and their small house -- the father tries to grab the mattress but his hand seems to pass through the material. All I feel is a kind of ripple. The mattress responds by rising just out of the man's reach. Meanwhile the boy is watching with astonishment. Now we gain altitude -- the town becomes smaller and smaller while the countryside around it expands. And I wake up feeling great joy.

-- Jim

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Pilgrimage to Hell

where the trains entered Birkenau,
but there was no fence in those days 

No one is certain how many died at Auschwitz. Most prisoners were gassed soon after arrival without having been registered, while, for those who were registered, the SS destroyed the bulk of their records before abandoning the camp. But years of research have shown that the figure is not less than 1.1-million people. Even that minimum figure leaves us with a number beyond comprehension. One million plus one-hundred thousand. In the summer months, there are perhaps that many leaves on the trees in the park where I take a walk each morning before starting work. I live in a city of 100,000 people -- thus the number killed equals everyone in this city plus ten more of the same size. But in fact there is no way to envision such a number meaningfully. I cannot take it in.

The way we usually deal with so large a number of human casualties is to focus on just a single face. One face, one story. This is manageable. A single life and death can open a window on a vast crowd.

The most well known face of the Holocaust is Anne Frank, who was fifteen when she and her family arrived at Auschwitz. (Later she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she died.) It is consoling to know that her diary has been read or seen enacted in film or on stage by far more people than died in all the Nazi concentration camps combined. In July 1944, shortly before she and her family were taken away from their hiding place, she wrote in her diary, "I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more."

Or there is the face of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish scholar and gifted writer who wrote another widely-read diary of life in Amsterdam during the German occupation. She died at Auschwitz on the last day of November 1943. Turning down offers to go into hiding, she explained that she wished to "share her people's fate." The Nazis, she wrote in her diary, “are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. Very well then. I accept it. I work and continue to live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful...”

Or it could be the face of the Edith Stein, a nun with Jewish roots whose life ended on the 9th of August 1942 in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. She had been born in Poland, had lived in Germany and was in a Dutch Carmelite convent at the time of her arrest. “I told our Lord,” she wrote, “that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.”

For me, living in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, there is another way of making an intimate connection. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews -- all the local Jews not in hiding -- were gathered at our one synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. (Today, after a 69-year recess, the old Alkmaar synagogue is under reconstruction.)

So many names, so many stories, so many faces to choose from. More than a million.

It had long been a hope of mine to visit this Golgotha of the modern world. Though far from the only one, Auschwitz provides one of the most vivid images of the factory production of dead bodies and of the assembly-line hells that can be created by fear and obedience.

The chance finally came this November, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at an interfaith conference on peace at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. Appropriately for a pilgrim to a death camp, my topic at the conference was a rescuer -- Saint Maria Skobtsova of Paris, founder of a house of hospitality in Paris who saved the lives of many Jews and others before her arrest. A twentieth-century martyr, her life ended at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware from Oxford, who led our small delegation, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece.

The day after the conference ended, we drove by car to the camp, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Also with us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, an Orthodox priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’s books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the prime movers behind the peace conference at the University of Wroclaw.

The local weather itself seemed to be in mourning -- chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction -- the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started.

Standing near the camp’s only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by an historian on the museum staff, Teresa Wontor-Cichy, who led us under the camp’s notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign -- Labor Brings Freedom. It was here that the famous Auschwitz inmate orchestra played as columns of famished prisoners marched in and out twice a day to their places of labor. The music, Teresa told us, made it easier for the guards to count.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as two inter-connected camps, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus of forty-five other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of prisoners, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn't look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren't so bad. Why there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside nearly any building, he would have discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10 -- the domain of doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the "Angel of Death." Block 11 served as a "prison within the prison." A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among those who died in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who managed to take the place of a Jewish mother. He has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who died here and for the guards who had caused so much suffering.

The charts, maps and photos we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and the surrounding camps, but what made the deepest impression were the many items the SS had failed to destroy as, the Red Army fast approaching, they made their hurried retreat in January 1945. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time. The lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads -- they died immediately -- while those further away took up to twenty minutes to breathe their last.

Even as they were dying, their possessions were being carefully sorted. We saw a grim mound of reading glasses, thousands upon thousands of shoes, the train tickets more affluent passengers had purchased for the privilege of riding to Auschwitz first or second class instead of traveling in freight cars, countless suitcases bearing names and addresses of the doomed, and finally empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released. We also saw dense piles of hair that had been cut from the bodies of women after being removed from the gas chamber. The hair was for use, Teresa told us, as a commercial component in making textiles.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers were built at Birkenau, this smaller space had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent two-oven crematorium with its tall square chimney were also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The one brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure with an observation tower in the center built over a passageway through which trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, literally the end of the line, was the area where an SS doctor presided over the selection of those healthy enough to work -- a slow death sentence for most -- while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival, including mothers and their under-fifteen children.

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep wooden bunks on which inmates -- up to a thousand per barrack -- were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. There was almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me -- indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way. But the awful facts and images are unerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever real to me. Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer to the mainly anonymous people, saints among them, who died here.

One thought kept running through my mind. This human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran the camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking soldier, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. While no doubt some of the staff were already psychopaths, most of those who were assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they weren’t being sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” We have heard the same justifications from everyone involved in all the concentration camps: “I was just following orders.” The same was true of those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us are “just following orders,” whether because of a sense of duty or driven by fear of what the consequences would if we dared to say no.

Following orders is made easier by propaganda -- slogans inciting fear and hatred, slogans to kill by. For everyone involved wants to believe that the murderous work he or she is doing serves, at least eventually, some larger good. But underneath it all is fear -- fear of punishment, fear of exclusion, fear of death. Thus we conclude that it’s better to remain alive by becoming a murderer than to die without innocent blood on our hands.

At Auschwitz I kept thinking of Easter, an event which, for Christians at least, ought to equip us not to fear death and no longer to be prisoners of hell. But how rare are the Paschal people.


* * *

Photos of our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157628042735399/with/6358571131/

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Monday, October 10, 2011

After the War Was Over: Seeing What You’d Rather Not See

My Lai massacre, 16 July 1968
It was in 1975 that the Vietnam War came to an end with the sudden collapse of the South Vietnamese regime. The iconic image of that event was a helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon carrying diplomatic and military personnel to safety aboard an offshore aircraft carrier.
The Vietnam War was one of the main events of the Cold War — three decades of combat that began in 1946 with the French attempting to regain their colonies in Southeast Asia. That stage of the war ended in 1954 with French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The result was the division of Vietnam into two zones, North and South. As French influence waned in South Vietnam, little by little the US took on the war the French had abandoned. One gets a vivid glimpse of the early stage of American engagement in Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” or the film inspired by the book in which Michael Caine plays a jaded British journalist trying the make sense of what a very quiet American is up to.
The US objective was to prevent the Communist regime in North Vietnam from taking over the South as well. This meant not only taking sides in a civil war but to a great extent covertly creating the Saigon government we were supporting. Does this sound a little like current events in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya?
If you have ever been in Washington, DC, perhaps you visited the Vietnam Wall and walked the length of its 58,272 names, all the US service members who died in that war. How many Vietnamese were killed is unknown — estimates range from one-million to more than three-million. For years American bombs rained down on jungles, towns and villages. Many thousands of those bombs carried napalm, a jellified gasoline designed to stick like glue to the body of whoever happens to be nearby when the bomb explodes. Napalm was only one of many varieties of “anti-personnel” weapons that were developed for use in Vietnam — another type exploded thousands of fragments of razor-sharp blades. Every war is hellish, but few have shown less interest in protecting non-combatants. In fact non-combatants became targets. At a place called My Lai, US soldiers methodically killed each and every man, woman, child and infant in the village.
When the US engagement in Vietnam was gathering momentum in the late fifties and early sixties, most Americans thought of it as something necessary to halt the spread of Communism and, shrugging their shoulders, paid little attention. Even if you offered a $20 bill as a reward, you wouldn’t have easily found people on the streets who, shown a map of Asia, could have pointed out the location of Vietnam.
At first it was only American military advisors who were sent, but then came combat troops, a few thousand at first, large numbers before the war ended. As troop levels rose and military conscription was imposed, public interest rose too. You pay a lot of attention to a war in which a family member has been forced to participate. The war became increasingly controversial. Small demonstrations eventually grew into mass events involving tens of thousands — in one 1969 demonstration, two-million protesters clogged the streets of Washington, DC.
Part of the disgust and repugnance that took hold of many Americans was due to the fact that this was the first war Americans were able to watch on television as it was happening. On the one hand there was nothing inspiring about the series of Saigon regimes on whose behalf we were fighting. On the other hand there was the sheer horror of seeing the casualties of the war. Most of the dead were women and children, the aged and sick — the people, that is, who were least able to protect themselves. About ninety percent of Vietnamese casualties were non-combatant.
As time passed and the war got worse, many protesters began to sympathize with the other side — the Vietcong, as they were called, the forces of the National Liberation Front, and North Vietnam as well, for what was a ground war in the South Vietnam was an air war in the North. Before the war ended, a good many American peace activists had been honored guests of the North Vietnamese. They were taken on tours, visited bomb victims in hospitals, met American prisoners of war who assured their visitors they were being well treated (in fact many suffered torture), and took shelter with their hosts when US bombs began to fall on the places they happened to be visiting. Many of them came back to the US with glowing reports of how warmly they had been treated by their hosts.
My own engagement in protest against the war began quite early, July 17, 1963. At lunchtime the day before, two members of the Catholic Worker community, Tom Cornell and Chris Kearns, had demonstrated outside the building in midtown Manhattan where the South Vietnamese Observer to the United Nations had his apartment. Their signs read, "The Catholic Worker Protests US Military Support of Diem Tyranny." Diem was president of South Vietnam at the time. It was the first US protest of Vietnam War. Hearing from Tom that this small action would continue each lunch hour until the 25th, I joined the next day. By the last day, our number had swelled to several hundred and drawn TV news attention.
In 1964, less than a year later, I wrote an article meant to give readers some basic knowledge of Vietnam and its recent history. It wasn’t easy doing the research. At the time there were very few books about Vietnam in the New York Public Library. There were also no privately owned computers and there was no web.
Not many months later I had left my newspaper job and was working full-time for the newly-established Catholic Peace Fellowship, an offshoot of the Catholic Worker. Our work focused mainly on assisting conscientious objectors who were refusing to fight in Vietnam and also making it better known to Catholics that conscientious objection as well as draft resistance was an option.
One of the events that brought Vietnam much closer to me at the personal level was a friendship that developed with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1967, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the US. Vietnamese food, music, language and poetry became part of my daily life for weeks on end. I began to understand that the population of Vietnam was not tidily divided between Communists and anti-Communists. There were millions of South Vietnamese in the middle, many of them Buddhists. They identified with neither side and sought what they called a “third way” solution. They suffered a great deal of persecution from the Saigon government. A number of Buddhist monks and nuns gained international attention when they immolated themselves in acts of anti-war protest.
In 1968, I was part of a group of fourteen people, half of them Catholic priests, who filled sacks of key files from Milwaukee’s nine draft boards and burned them, using homemade napalm, in a little park in the center of the city. We were protesting both the war and military conscription. Following our trial, we began serving one-year prison sentences. I look back on it as a kind of sabbatical.
Released from prison in 1970, I renewed my efforts to end the Vietnam War. In 1973, I was appointed editor of Fellowship magazine, the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest and largest peace group. Two years later, it was my joy to edit an issue of the magazine celebrating the end of the war, at the same time raising the question: “And now what?” So much of our energy had been devoted to Vietnam, it wasn’t an easy question to answer.
What I didn’t anticipate was that Vietnam would still hold a major place in my life and in the lives of many others who had welcomed the war’s end.
While I was in France the following summer staying with the small Vietnamese community led by Thich Nhat Hanh, letters smuggled out of Vietnam arrived with the news that the Hanoi government was arresting and jailing not only participants in the former Saigon administration but also Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people who had actively and courageously opposed the war. Also at that time the French journal, Nouvel Observateur, was publishing a series of lengthy reports about post-war Vietnam. The author, Jean Lacouture, was the first western journalist invited into Vietnam by the Hanoi government. He was deeply jarred by some of what he saw, not least by his visits to prison camps. He estimated there were 300,000 prisoners, 100,000 more than Vietnam had admitted. He asked why there were so many? After all, there had only been 35,000 army officers in the forces of the South, and thousands of them had fled Vietnam after the northern victory as did nearly all government officials.
It turned out that many of those imprisoned were people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, who had opposed the war, siding with neither North or South. Those whose lives were centered in their religion rather than in politics, whether Christian or Buddhist, were being singled out, temples and churches closed, publications suppressed, charitable and educational projects locked up.
Thich Nhat Hanh showed me photos of Buddhist nuns and monks who, that past November, had burned themselves to protest government actions along with a letter from the nuns explaining their action. He also had news of the arrest and imprisonment of leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church.
Back in the US, I wrote an article about the reports that had reached Thich Nhat Hanh plus the reports by Jean Lacouture, a name well known and respected in the anti-war movement in the US. Circulating the text in draft to peace movement leaders prior to its publication, I vividly recall a phone call from a colleague who urged me not to publish it. Should it appear in print, he warned me, “it will cost you your career in the peace movement.” My caller was a member of the national staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Our conversation ended abruptly when he slammed down the receiver at his office in Philadelphia. I was astonished. Why would a peace organization wish to ignore human rights violations, especially in a country in which they had contacts in the government?
The caller’s key word was “career.” Until he called, I had no idea I had a “career,” but I began to realize that even in peace groups one can embrace a careerist mentality.
My article — “Vietnam: Reunification Without Reconciliation” — was in fact published in the October 1975 issue of Fellowship, by which time I was one of several people  (the others included Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg) drafting an appeal to the government in Hanoi. Here are the main paragraphs:
“Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.
“Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. While some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the ‘bloodbath’ so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons, including religious, cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks… [A list of names was included.]
“Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics…
“We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.
“We recall the tragic self-immolation of twelve monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church … including those assisting war orphans, have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated.”
Quite a number of people quickly signed. Just as quickly passionate opposition arose.
Some of the appeal’s opponents were so outraged that they accused me of being a CIA agent. The author of an article in one peace movement publication proposed that I should to be sent to a re-education camp. Another accused me of being a white bourgeois American — which was true except for the adjective “bourgeois.” I was also charged with being a covert anti-Communist. (That reminded me of how, in the fifties, my father had often been accused of being a Communist, except in his case it was true.)
Rational opposition to the appeal largely fell into two categories. Some objected that the reports of human rights violations could not possibly be true. Another group said some of the reports, possibly many of them, might be true, but — given what America as a nation had done to Vietnam — no American, even those who had spent years of their lives opposing the war, had the right to protest what the Vietnamese government was doing.
On the positive side, the appeal was signed by ninety well-known Americans who had struggled to end the war, many of whose names would have been known and respected by leaders of the Hanoi government. We could reasonably hope to be taken seriously.
One of the appeal signers was Joan Baez. She called me one morning to describe the intense pressure she was under to withdraw her signature. It had been exhausting. The night before she had endured a six-hour coast-to-coast phone call from one weighty opponent of the appeal. In addition Joan told me that a distinguished friend, recipient of several peace prizes, had made a personal visit to warn her of Jim Forest’s “possible CIA connections.” Her first response to her guest, she said, was laughter. She then told him, “Jim Forest is much too nice — and much too disorganized — to work for the CIA.” (In fact how does one prove he isn’t working for the CIA? Should you ask the director of the CIA to certify you weren’t an employee? Denial only adds fuel to the fire of suspicion. The only thing you can do is joke about it.)
Joan wanted to assure me that the pressure to withdraw her signature had only made her more determined not to. She said she could hardly imagine what the pressures were on me. Then, to cheer me along, she sang me a song over the phone. Would that I had recorded it.
She also issued a public statement in which she recalled Albert Camus’s comment that justice is the “eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.”
“I have,” she said, “a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”
What did our controversial appeal achieve? We certainly failed in our main proposal — Vietnam’s camps and prisons were never opened to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. But did we do some degree of good? Governments never acknowledge that appeals or protests have any influence, though occasionally later on we learn the impact was significant. Someone in the government writes a book, an insider makes secret papers public, revelations occur at a hearing or trial. But mainly we never know. Perhaps we made a positive difference for some of the prisoners in Vietnam, perhaps we totally failed. Perhaps we prevented worse from happening. All one can say with certainty is that it was a worthwhile effort.
What did I learn from this event? Here are five lessons:
* There is no peace where there is a systematic violation of basic human rights, beginning with the right to life itself. War of its nature involves a massive violation of human rights.
* Human rights issues can be divisive even in groups that one associates with the protection of human rights. Much of the opposition to the Vietnam War grew out of disgust with the systematic violation of human rights by the Saigon government — imprisonment and torture of dissidents had been commonplace.
* Attention to violations of human rights can severely strain relations not only between governments but between persons and organizations. Whenever we identify with the perpetrator of human rights violations, there is always a temptation to downplay, ignore or even justify violations of human rights. For example, in the 1930s, many on the left were rightly outraged by human rights violations carried out by Nazis and Fascists in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain, but turned a blind eye to similar actions carried out under the red flag in the Soviet Union. The reverse was true of those on the right.
* Our way of seeing the world around us is often shaped by peer group pressure. Like certain kinds of fish, we humans tend to swim in schools. It happens even to dissidents, who band together in their own smaller schools. If I belong to a group that regards abortion as a human right, the chances are I will adopt that view. If I belong to a group that sees abortion as a violation of human rights, then it’s more than likely I will too. How little independent hard thinking we actually do!
* Last but not least, there is the problem of careerism. Careerism is possible even in idealistic movements. How easy it is for the bottom line in one’s life not to be the search for truth but the search for economic security. We say what our bosses or more powerful colleagues want to hear, and we say it with a smile. We even try to believe what we’re saying.
It’s only graying people who can recall the Vietnam War. It’s in a category of dusty past events that include the Punic Wars and the War of the Roses. Today Vietnam is a tourist destination and a country offering cheap labor to major corporations. But the issues raised both by that war as well as its aftermath remain all too timely. We continue fighting wars that bring us immense shame and cost immense treasure. We continue to pay lip service to human rights while ignoring them when it suits us.

-- Jim Forest
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text as of 10 October 2011
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For more on this topic, see Jim Finn’s essay, “Fighting Among the Doves”: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/08/08/fighting-among-the-doves/