Survivors restore our faith in humanity

Less than four months after Sandy Hook, the bombings at the Boston Marathon confront us, once again, with the presence of sheer evil.

Another wide-eyed child has captured our hearts and has come to symbolize the horror inflicted on hundreds of victims. Eight-year-old Martin Richard was killed in the blast, reportedly after hugging his father, Bill, at the finish line. His little sister lost her leg and his mother suffered a serious brain injury.

A photo, taken a year earlier, shows Martin holding a poster board that says, “No More Hurting People” and the single word “Peace” bracketed by earnestly-scrawled red hearts.

How can we contemplate his death, and not give up on human nature altogether?

Once again, it is the victims and their families who won’t allow the greatness of the human spirit to be overshadowed by the wickedness of a single action.

Think of all the first responders and the people who rushed toward the mayhem to help others.

Think of the victims who woke up in the hospital Tuesday morning, maimed, missing a limb, yet telling surgeon George Velmahos how happy they were to be alive.

Think of the surgeon described by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick Thursday at the interfaith “Healing Our City” service: “He finished the race and continued running to the operating room.”

Indeed. In the April 15 online edition of The Nation, columnist Dave Zirin wrote about a very different kind of courage, telling the story of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the males-only Boston Marathon in 1967. She registered as K.V. Switzer and, Zirin wrote, “Five miles into the race, one of the marathon directors actually jumped off a truck to forcibly remove Switzer from the course, yelling: ‘Get the hell out of my race!’ But the men running with her fought him off. For them, Kathrine Switzer had every right to be there. For them, the Boston Marathon wasnʼt about exclusion or proving male supremacy — pitting boys against girls. It was about people running a race.”

Switzer later said, “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

A poster popped up almost immediately after the tragedy: “If you are trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target.”

But marathoners hardly have a monopoly on courage. Think of the Sandy Hook parents, enduring a grief beyond words who found the words, somehow, to testify before Congress. Benjamin Wheeler’s mother, Francine, said she always knew her son was destined for big things. She thought it would be through his life, not his death. “Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy,” she pleaded when delivering President Barack Obama’s weekly address April 13.

Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel in the Newtown massacre, explained the parents’ resolve: “Our hearts are broken. Our spirit is not.”

Go back in time, nearly 70 years now, and listen to what may be the most powerful words ever written about the triumph of the human spirit. Anne Frank, from the confinement of her Amsterdam attic, wrote that “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

The Oakwood community had the opportunity to meet another indomitable spirit when Holocaust survivor and author Gerda Weissmann Klein visited Oakwood High School, giving a public talk April 11 and speaking to students the following day. Her visit came after the discovery of some anti-Semitic graffiti at the high school and the home of a Jewish family.

In 1939, when she was 15, German troops invaded her town of Bielsko, Poland. She spent the war in a succession of slave-labor camps, and at the end of the war — from Jan. 29 to May 7, 1945 — she was forced on a 350-mile death march in which 2,000 women faced starvation, exposure and arbitrary execution. Fewer than 120 survived.

Klein’s Oakwood talk didn’t focus on the horrors of the death march, but on the childhood friend, Ilsa, who was her companion along the way. She had been the daughter of her mother’s best friend, and during childhood, Klein confessed, “I didn’t like Ilsa very much. My mother was always telling me that I should try to be more like her.”

When they were separated from their families and sent to the same slave-labor camp, Klein said, “Ilsa was not my friend, but my sister.”

Ilsa died in Gerda’s arms during the final days of the death march on April 29. “Don’t let my family know how I died,” she pleaded.

A week later, Gerda’s heart leapt when she saw the white star of the American Army on an approaching Jeep. As she met the first American she had ever seen, she remarked, “We’re Jewish, you know.”

There was a long pause, until the GI at last replied, “So am I.”

Then he held the door open for her.

“I weighed 68 lbs., my hair was snow white and I hadn’t taken a bath in three years,” she recalled. “With that one beautiful, symbolic gesture, he restored my humanity.”

A year later, she married that American GI, Kurt Klein. “He brought me to this incredible country that I so proudly call my own,” said the Scottsdale, Ariz. resident. Her autobiography, “All But My Life,” has been published in 67 editions, and inspired the Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary, “One Survivor Remembers.”

Klein’s first words to her future husband, on the day of her liberation, were drawn from Goethe’s poem “On The Divine”: “Noble be man, merciful and good.”

How can we lose faith in human nature, if Gerda Weissmann Klein refused to do so?

Or, as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino put it: “Nothing will take us down because we take care of one another. Even with the smell of smoke in the air and blood in the streets and tears in our eyes, we triumphed over that hateful act.”

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