THINGS THAT MATTER
These books are about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, the power of faith and the healing journey of forgiveness.
There’s a tradition of summer reading and Christmas reading which informs a couple of my columns every year. But for an addicted reader like me, books flow through my house, on every table and in every corner, with several being read concurrently. I’ve just finished three books that are truly awesome – all revelations of human nature, and all three inspiring at many levels.
The first is Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan. An investigative reporter, novelist and adventurer, he lives in Montana where his mini-bio says “he remains grateful for the miracle of every moment.” And Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a book that reads almost like a series of miracles – an account of one young man’s incredible courage, resilience and faith against amazing odds during World War II.
It’s an inspired story of the triumphant, epic role in the Italian resistance of a forgotten hero, whose existence Sullivan hears about, whom he interviews extensively and tells the tale. It’s a true page-turner and the human drama and courage evoke every emotion. Pino Lella, as a teenager, risked his life helping Jews escape from the Nazis over a mountain pass in the Alps into Switzerland. By a stroke of good luck and quick thinking, using his driving skills, he became the personal driver of Hitler’s left hand in Italy, gaining an opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command. He fell in love with the beautiful Anna, but ultimately tragedy strikes. He survives, and after some seventy years, his story is told.
Peddlers All: Stories of the first Ashkenazi Jewish Settlers in Barbados is another fascinating story of Jews looking for a better life and by good fortune ending up in Barbados. These are those families, many interlinked, from Poland – led by Moses Altman, his niece and her husband in March or April 1932. Others followed, many related, throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, because anti-semitism was growing in Poland and the Nazi holocaust was to follow. These Ashkenzi Jewish families worked hard, many as peddlers initially, building relationships and trust until they could expand their businesses and form a thriving community, including a place of worship, initially in the home of Moses Altman, “Macabee” in Hart’s Gap.
Peddlers All is an ambitious compilation by Dr. Simon Kreindler, with poignant family stories told by the present generation. Simon’s father was one of the earliest settlers, and Simon and his brothers are old Lodge boys. Simon is a psychiatrist in Toronto.
The book is a truly rich and fascinating collection of personal and family tales of dedication, hard work, spirituality and loyalties. It begins with a short history by Aaron Truss of the first Jewish population of Barbados, the Sephardic Jews, originally Portuguese, thrown out of Brazil, although there were Jewish emigrants here as early as 1628 – merchants and later property owners. These Jews played an important part in the early, rapid development of our sugar industry, because of the expertise they acquired in Brazil. The Synagogue was established in or soon after 1654.
The story is told of the disappearance of this first Jewish population, through assimilation, intermarriage, Christianisation and emigration, resulting in the sale of the Synagogue, on April 27, 1928. Sadly the agreement for preservation of the cemetery in good order was not observed by the purchasers, and after many years as offices, there was serious deterioration of the building and the grave stones. The property was purchased 40 years ago by government as the site for a new supreme court. I read the announcement of this plan as I flew out of Barbados in 1981 to a conference in San Diego and I nearly had a seizure at such sacrilege. A committed Jewish Community negotiated with Prime Minister Adams and saved the day. The Synagogue was vested in the National Trust and its magnificent restoration followed. But that’s another story.
Peddlars All tells deeply touching stories of hard work, love and dedication by settlers working to establish a secure future for their children. Many in the book have made their mark - the Altmans, Bernsteins, Kreindlers, Orans, Pillersdorfs, Steinboks and so many more have made great contributions to the development of Barbados, in business, realty, preservation, industry. The book is available at the Museum shop, Coffee Barbados Café and the Nidhe Israel Museum.
But opinion is divided on the future of this hard-working community, because of assimilation and emigration. Dr. Kreindler concludes with the simple truth – unless the youngest generation can be engaged, the community and its traditions will continue to suffer attrition.
My third inspiring book is about resilience and reconciliation, the power of faith and especially the healing journey of forgiveness. It’s We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, by Herb Frazier, Bernard Powers Jr, and Marjory Wentworth. Herb is a distinguished journalist, author and marketing manager at Magnolia Gardens, near Charleston. Bernard is Professor of History at the College of Charleston and Marjory is poet laureate of South Carolina. This thoughtful, sensitive and erudite trio have sought to make sense of the horrendous tragedy at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, when the murderous hate of white supremacist Dylan Roof killed nine and injured five in a Bible study group which he joined one evening (June 17, 2015) in order “to create a race war”.
We are Charleston explores the racialised history of slavery in the southern United States, and the endemic bigotry that’s rooted in the dark past and “sometimes preserved in the present”. It describes the origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (which Bishop Reginald Barrow, father of our Right Excellent Errol Barrow, ultimately joined). And it details the importance of Mother Emanuel church in Charleston and in the history of the USA. The authors all have intimate knowledge of Mother Emanuel, and in fact Herb Frazier grew up in the congregation.
The authors give a detailed account not only of the tragedy and the aftermath – which included a national outreach of overwhelming support to the victims’ families and the hurting people of Charleston - but of the extraordinary spirit of forgiveness that emerged among the relatives of the victims. Anthony Thompson, whose wife was killed, spoke at the hearing, saying: “I forgive you and my family forgives you …” And he later said that as soon as he spoke, he began to experience peace: “When I sat down I was a different person”. Dr. Don Flowers, explaining the spirit of forgiveness that prevailed, said: “It wasn’t a sign of weakness, of resignation. Rather it may be the most powerful thing they could do as they remake the future.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa says it best in his The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World: “To not forgive leads to bitterness and hatred. Like self-hatred and self-contempt, hatred of others gnaws away at our vitals”.
President Obama gave one of his most magnificent speeches at the funeral of pastor Clementa Pinckney’s eulogistic service and said: “History can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress, but must be a roadway toward a better world”. And the authors conclude: “A better world can come from this battered church in the heart of the Holy City”.
These stories of human tragedy and triumph have lessons for us all.
Bouquet: To the Chairman of the Barbados Private Sector Association and the BPSA, for the announcement that the private sector will play its part in stimulating the economy and promoting growth, to bring Barbados out of the abyss. This is welcome news, but let’s hear more about it, and let’s see some commitments.
Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website: profhenryfraser.com