We’re in the middle of a dreamy week in Utah. My parents bought a cabin in southern Utah earlier this year and graciously lent it to us for a week. It’s my first time to Utah and it’s been blowing my mind. Everywhere you look are these incredibly scenic views, so fantastic your mind has trouble fully processing it all. So many times I have had to remind myself that what I am looking at is actually real and not a movie set or CGI…or even more embarrassingly, not Frontierland in Disney World (seriously, Disney. What, did you just transport rocks from here to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad?) It’s been easy to check out this week from the rest of the world. My cell phone rarely has signal as we bounce around from one remote national park to the next and reliable wifi is few and far between unless we are back at the cabin. Its been nice to be so checked out and unreachable in some days.
And yet, the news of this week still found me. Another tragedy. Another life senselessly taken. Another public outcry where violence reigns free on both sides of the battle. Another family left to bury their dead and a nation left seemingly stuck in time in an era where man really isn’t created as equally as we boast.
I don’t know what the “proper” response is to this madness. I don’t know what the solutions are. I don’t know how to stop the pain and I don’t know how to explain the pain one day to my son. But whenever I hear news of this nature, whenever it all seems just a little too much for me to take in and when I feel the temptation to duck my head back into its shell and wait out the storm in the safety of my own false sense of security, I remember a story I read a few years back about a lady on a train.
This train was barreling through the German countryside, taking German sightseers, businessmen and visiting relatives to their intended destinations. All of whom were blissfully unaware of some unregistered cargo this train was also transporting. The last few cattle cars of this train were filled to the brim, not with cattle, but with human beings. Jews, to be exact, who were being transported from their own hometown German villages to a concentration camp. The world was on the cusp of war once again and this train was catapulting its way to a new, sad reality for the German nation.
The story goes like this: a young woman, who had spent the last several weeks being shuffled from concentration camp to concentration camp, suddenly found herself being yanked from a crowded cattle car of human despair and unceremoniously dumped into a soft, cushy seat in a first class car. This young woman was pregnant and still to this day is unsure if her good fortune was the random kindness of a German soldier or simply a miscommunication somewhere along the chain of command. Regardless, she was determined to blend in as much as possible so as to not call attention to her momentary good luck. She knew what was lying ahead for her and she chose to simply be thankful for some rest…no matter how fleeting it would turn out to be.
She was in the middle of trying to make herself look presentable, which was quite a feat, since she was dirty and smelly and reeking of despair, when her seat mate arrived next to her. Her seat mate for the several hours long train ride was a distinguished, older looking German woman, the kind of woman who certainly did not feel out of place riding in the first class car of a passenger train. For the first hour or so of the ride, the older woman kept glancing sideways at her ragged and disheveled traveling companion. Eventually, boredom and curiosity got the best of her and she began to chat with the young pregnant woman.
She asked the young lady where she was traveling to and who she was going to visit. The young Jewish girl, having not seen a German soldier since the ride began, decided to throw all caution to the wind and told the older woman the truth. She was a Jew who had been displaced from her German place of birth. She had been traveling the countryside for days, in a cattle car with other Jews, and was headed to a concentration camp, where she would most likely die.
This story astounded the older woman. This could not be true! She had not seen any cattle cars at the end of the train when she had boarded. And everyone knew that the increased presence of German soldiers at the train stations was simply their new leader’s way of keeping Germany safe and secure…from some evil…although the older woman wasn’t exactly sure who the new evil was. But Hitler wasn’t a bad man! Germany was a compassionate nation. Never would her homeland do what this young woman was describing to her. She told the young pregnant, disheveled woman not to despair. This was all just a misunderstanding. If the Jews were being taken anywhere, it was for their own safety and well being. And besides, such atrocities would never happen in such modern day times.
The young woman, seeing that her story was falling on deaf ears, simply nodded her head, buried her dirty, cracked fingernails in her lap and tried to politely smile at her older companion. She could tell that she was making her seat mate upset and she didn’t want to draw any undo attention to herself. Any hope that this woman would rescue her in some way was shattered and she felt foolish for assuming that anyone was coming to save her.
The older woman, still in disbelief, did feel badly for her new friend so throughout the journey she offered the pregnant woman all sorts of snacks and drinks and nourishment from amongst the treats she had packed for herself for the long ride through the countryside. And as she watched the young girl devour these things as if she had not eaten in weeks, she found herself beginning to believe the crazy tale she had just been told. But, she was still determined that this young woman must have done something horribly wrong to garnish such a strong punishment from her nation and she took no qualms in telling the young lady this.
When the train finally arrived at its destination, the older woman was the first to get off the train. She wished her seat mate good luck and told her to be strong. Surely it couldn’t be all that bad. And she disappeared into the bustling crowd at the train station, refusing to look behind her at the cattle cars she now suspected might actually not be transporting cows.
You and I read this story in 2016, decades after the end of this atrocious black mark on our world’s history and we feel horrified. How can such ignorance exist? How can anyone turn such a blind eye to someone who clearly needed protection and safety? How hollow of a soul do you have to be to ignore the truth when it is staring you right in the eye?
And yet, part of me completely relates to the older woman on the train. It’s not only the deep dark fear that lurks inside of me that wonders if rule following World War II era Reagan might have accidentally ended up on the wrong side of that war for far too long if she were alive back then. But its also the fact that I don’t think the older woman was a compassionless monster. I think she was afraid. I think she was overwhelmed. I think she thought what could she to do against such darkness. I think she needed to duck her head back into her shell for her own sanity and peace of mind.
When I read about the injustices that shake our world everyday, some of them even in my own backyard, I think about the woman on the train. Sometimes I literally say to myself out loud, “Don’t be the woman on the train!” I have to remind myself to react, to feel the fear and the anger and the despair. I have to remind myself to not throw apples and sweets at a person who is crying out for justice and safety. I have to remind myself to fight for the underdog, to stand up for what is right and moreover, what is godly! As much as I want to be the woman on the train, who goes merrily on her way, blissfully ignorant and perpetually safe, I know that that is not what real courage is made of.
To quote my guru, Brene Brown, “Courage is turning toward hard truth, not turning away.” The woman on the train had hard truth sitting right beside her. She looked it in the eye. She broke bread with it. She “comforted” it. And then she walked away from it. Don’t be the woman on the train. I don’t know what the answers are but I know that walking away from the injustice is not helping. I know that turning a blind eye is not helping. I know that demonizing the victim is sure as hell not helping. Don’t be the woman on the train.
In case you are curious, the young pregnant Jewish woman did survive the war. She found herself in the most fortunate of circumstances, where she was indeed sent to a concentration camp but it was one of the only ones in Nazi Germany made for pregnant women. Compared to her fellow Jews, she was treated relatively humanely and gave birth to a son in this camp under the care of a kind doctor. She and her son lived. The rest of her family and friends and entire world were not so lucky. But she was and when the war was over she and her son made their way to the US, where they lived out their days, happy and safe.
This story has a better ending than could be hoped for. And it gives me hope that even when humanity is doing its worse to each other, sometimes the Divine steps in and rescues.