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Martyrs for Freedom

Munich, Germany 1943.  Time was running out for Hans and Sophie Scholl. As brother and sister and students at the University of Munich, they faced the brutal reality of Hitler's Germany. There was no time for righteous indignation or sentimental thoughts about justice. It was time for action against the regime. Hans began The White Rose resistance movement. He was inspired by the sermons of Bishop Graf von Galen of Muenster, one of the first to denounce the extermination of what the regime called "useless eaters"-the elderly and disabled.

Bishop von Galen wrote, This secret program to kill innocent citizens of the Reich is against God's commandments. It is against the law of nature and against the system of justice in Germany. These are our brothers and sisters! How can we be expected to live if the measure of our lifespan is economic productivity? We must not use force, but spiritual and moral opposition. Be strong. Be steadfast.

Hans bought a mimeograph machine and began distributing hundreds of leaflets under cover of night. The White Rose was the first voice in Germany to reveal Hitler's "final solution"-extermination of Jews.

On this fateful day, Hans and Sophie had a dangerous mission. Hans carried a suitcase full of leaflets that denounced Hitler and the Nazi government. In the Third Reich, even a whisper of dissent meant imprisonment or death. They were in an upper hallway above an atrium. Quickly, they placed piles of leaflets outside classroom doors. Only minutes remained before classes were dismissed. Soon students would flood the halls. Sophie opened the suitcase and dumped leaflets over the railing. Leaflets fluttered down to the floor below. This caught the eye of the school janitor. He looked up and saw the sweet, young face of Sophie Scholl.

Trials and executions moved swiftly in Nazi Germany. Sophie, Hans, and a friend, Chirstoph Probst were tried for high treason. In the trial, Sophie stated, "we simply expressed what many people are thinking. They just don't dare say it out loud!" Before their execution, Sophie's mother came to visit her 21 year old daughter. Mrs. Scholl brought a cake. Sophie smiled and said that she had not had lunch. Her mother said, "I'll never see you come through the door again."

All three members of the White Rose were beheaded on February 22, 1943.

Several months later, millions of White Rose leaflets were dropped over Germany by British bombers. Their legacy of courage in the face of tyranny lives on. Their story has been told in many books, movies, and plays. Monuments honoring these young people can be found throughout Germany.

Hans Scholl's words as he stood before the guillotine were prophetic, "Freedom lives!" 

Sophie, Hans, and Christoph died exactly 75 years ago this past Thursday. As a writer, I am grateful to have learned this fact so as to honor these brave young people.

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The Man who Saved Chartres Cathedral

Chartres, France - August 16, 1944. Colonel Welborn Griffith crept silently through the halls of Chartres Cathedral in search of German soldiers. Atop the roof was a bell tower-perfect lookout to spot American troops now bearing down on Paris to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Allied bombers had blown a hole in the German front near Cherbourg, France. Under the command of General George Patton, the Third Army had German soldiers on the run. American pilots bombed the path of the Germans as they retreated. Now Chartres Cathedral was in the crosshairs. Allied command believed that German observation posts were established inside the church. They gave the order to destroy Chartres Cathedral.

One man challenged this order. Colonel Griffith must have known about the cathedral. He must have known it was a national treasure in France. Built in the middle ages, he must have known that Chartres was considered one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, an architectural miracle that used principles far ahead of its time. Griffith took action. He volunteered to go behind enemy lines to determine if German soldiers occupied the cathedral. Accompanied only by his driver, Griffith searched every closet, every pew for the enemy. Every step into a darkened room could have been his last. Cautiously, he climbed the stairs to the bell tower, awaiting a burst of machine gun fire. Silence. The bell tower was empty. Triumphant, he hurried back to the command post. The order to destroy Chartres Cathedral was canceled.

Later that day, Griffith spotted a machine gun nest in the nearby village of Leves. He turned back to the American front and climbed the turret of an army tank. He was too big to fit down the hatch and stayed on top of the tank. In the battle, the Germans were defeated, but Griffith lost his life.

Colonel Griffith was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and awards from the French government. A plaque is nailed to a wall in Leves near the site where Griffith died. He is buried  in the St. James World War II Cemetery in Brittany, France.To this day, he is remembered as the American soldier who saved Chartres Cathedral. 

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Opera for dummies...

...and I am the dummy, yes, until now. Last week at the Waterville Opera House, I woke up to the truth about opera. I attended Puccini's Tosca on the big screen, part of the Metropolitan Opera's HD Live program. Here's the story. Two weeks ago, I held the firm belief that opera was an incomprehensible soap opera on steroids, an opportunity for buxom sopranos to show off their vocal range. Wrong! How foolish of me to hold such a prejudice. After all, opera is considered to be the most complex of all art forms. It combines acting, singing, orchestral music, costumes, set design, and even dance. Opera uses the enormous power of music to express emotion. What was my problem? I listened to opera on the radio. Without seeing the facial expressions of performers, without seeing magnificent sets, without the libretto (plot), without subtitles, I was baffled and bewildered. Thus the Jimminy Cricket in my brain said I hate opera. I concluded that only Italians appreciate opera. Since I am of Irish/English heritage without a drop of Italian blood in me, I was exempt from liking opera.

I sat in my seat waiting to be bored. Never happened. I was swept away. I watched the human soul on parade. I witnessed love, hate, jealousy, lust, torture, betrayal, death, and suicide. Tosca was written over one hundred years ago, but it is still timeless. One major plot line was sexual harassment. Our villain was Baron Scarpia, a sadistic chief of police who was consumed with desire for the beautiful singer Floria Tosca. She handled his brutal advances without calling the police. She stabs him several times with a steak knife. He drops to the floor. Tosca mournfully places two lighted candles next to him and places a crucifix on his body. As an aside, the actor who played Scarpia bore a striking resemblance to Harvey Weinstein.

Thanks to Metropolitan Opera HD Live, I experienced world class performances, read subtitles and could easily follow the plot. A program was provided that contained a libretto. Each 15 minute intermission treated us to behind the scenes interviews with the stars and gave us a glimpse at set production. HD Live was launched in 2006 as an outreach to the general public.The goal was to make opera affordable and understandable to a wider audience. Met Opera HD Live has streamed to movie theaters and local opera houses around the country.

All this being said, I probably never will attend opening night at the opera with its glamour and sparkle. I probably never will listen to opera on the radio. I do know that I will be attending Puccini's La Boheme on February 25th. I do not have to take the train to New York. I simply drive to the Waterville Opera House located across from our local barber shop. Opera has come to the people, even dummies like me. 

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Beauty defeats evil.

Auschwitz 1943-1945. Dr. Victor Frankl sat on his luggage in a crowded cattle car . One thought occupied his mind. Prisoners were being taken to a munitions factory, forced to hard labor by the Nazi government. A mournful train whistle sounded like a human cry for help. As they came to a station, the train shuddered to a halt. He looked up at the station sign-Auschwitz .It stood for all that was horrible-watch towers, barbed wire fences, gallows, and gas chambers.

Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist, wrote about these years spent in concentration camps in his book Man's Search for Meaning, published in 1946. At the time, it was an international best seller and considered one of the ten most influential books in America. With a psychiatrist's eye, he studied how he and his fellow prisoners adjusted to living in conditions of immense horror.

After initial shock, Frankl sank into a protective shell of apathy. This lasted for many months. One day he was in a march to work, enduring icy winds, kicks, and blows from rifles. Another prisoner whispered to him, "if our wives could see us now." Suddenly, images of his wife filled Victor's mind. He looked up and saw fading stars and a pink sunrise. Thoughts of his wife transported him to another place, another time. Thunderstruck, truth revealed itself-the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how man who has nothing left in this world can still know bliss…in the contemplation of his beloved.

From that day on, his inner life deepened. As prisoners were transported from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp, the men saw mountain peaks, golden in a brilliant sunset. He wrote, we were carried along by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long. After a dreary day chopping frozen ground with ice picks, the weary men sat down to eat their watery soup. One man burst through the door in breathless excitement. He called the men out to witness a blood red sunset.

Still he questioned the meaning of suffering. He was beset with gloom. Miraculously, his spirit broke through despair.I heard a victorious "Yes" in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. In this battle for their souls, these heroic prisoners quoted poetry, told jokes and even sang Italian arias.

Author of over 30 books, Frankl wrote that man had an inner yearning for love and beauty. Most difficult of all is the discovery of meaning in suffering. His work all began with thoughts of his beloved wife. Victor Frankl saw beauty in a sunset, even through the barbed wire of a concentration camp. 

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Beauty as a battlefield...

 For more than a year, I pondered the theme of this blog-the importance of beauty, not realizing that indeed beauty is powerful. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, "Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men." In our fatigue or disillusionment with life, beauty captures our hearts, even for an instant. We can't resist the lure of a sunrise over Otter Point at Acadia National Park or Winslow Homer's seascapes or the New World Symphony by Dvorjak. Humans are hardwired to appreciate beauty, for it defines that spark of divinity within us in our search for a transcendent God.

If beauty is a battleground for the hearts of men, all the more should we nurture love of beauty in our children. How is this possible? Surround them with classic literature, play Beethoven while sweeping the floor, take them to art museums and science centers. Read aloud to them before bedtime. Beauty will sneak up on you. Suddenly you are a little less tired, a little more hopeful. It is important to read aloud to your children. This is a theme I will visit again.

One of my favorite children's books is Brave Irene, written and illustrated by William Steig. Irene Bobbin is a little girl, daughter of a seamstress. As a dangerous blizzard bears down on Irene and her mother, they are in a pickle and a serious one at that. Mrs. Bobbin must deliver a ballgown to the duchess that night, but she can't. Influenza plunks her back to bed. Irene tucks the dressmaker's box under her arm and wades out into deep snow. Menacing winds and blinding snow do not deter our heroine. She is powered by love for her mother.

Steig's watercolors stir the heart, fully matched by his artful storytelling. By the middle of the pasture, the flakes were falling thicker. Now the wind drove Irene along so rudely she had to hop, skip, and go helter-skelter over the knobby ground.

Covered in snow, chilled to the bone, Irene accomplishes her mission. Brave Irene is a 1986 New York Times Book Review - Best Illustrated Book of the Year. 

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