Common bonds found in WWII writings

Father Lous Cameli shows how the writings of World War II authors reveal the spiritual ‘links’ among people of faith


CHARLESTON – In the middle of one of the most destructive and catastrophic times in human history, writers of many faiths “hallowed out dwellings of hope” that created a legacy as lasting as the destruction and a lessong for our own often racially and spititually devided era.

Such writers can serve today as bridges or “links” among faiths, said Father Louis Cameli in a recent lecture at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist titled “Interfaith and Ecumenical Links: Spiritual Writings from the Second World War-Catholic, Jewish, Protestant.” Before a packed house at Cathedral Center, Father Cameli used the observations of different World War II-era writers, from a Jesuit priest accused of conspiring to kill Hitler to a young Jewish girl who wrote one of the most famous diaries of all time, to show how faith uplifted them and how it unites not only these different people, but all different religious people.

A professor of spirituality and director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s continuing education for priests program, Father Cameli’s talk was developed from his course on the spiritual literature of World War II. Rev. Msgr. Sam Miglarese, pastor of the Cathedral and a longtime friend of Father Cameli, said he had been trying for a number of years to bring the priest to Charleston, a city famous for its varied and rich religious traditions, for such a talk. He described the visit as co-sponsored by the Jewish community. In attendance were Rabbi Edward M. Friedman, of the Congregation of Beth Elohim in the West Ashley section of Charleston, and Rabbi Anthony Holz of Synagogue Emanu-El in downtown Charleston.

“I am not an historian nor am I an expert on the Second World War,” Father Cameli said at the outset. “I am a student and teacher of spirituality who comes from the Catholic Christian tradition but who recognizes that, at certain deep levels of faith and human spirit, there are connections which cross over formal religious and denominational boundaries.”

Father Cameli chose to focus on six writers: Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl forced into hiding; Elie Wiesel, a Jewish teen-ager held prisoner at Auschwitz; Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest implicated in an attempt on Hitler’s life; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, theologian and Nazi resistor; Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in her mid-20s living in Amsterdam; and Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic farmer who refused to join Hitler’s army.

Many elements link the writers together, Father Cameli said: the common experience of the war, their shared suffering and, simply, their shared human experience. Most significant, though, is their shared spirituality. Their spirituality enabled them to counteract the embodiment of evil presented in the Nazi regime with a spiritual response exactly the opposite, he said. Against its dramatic and dark intelligence, Jägerstätter places his simple convictions against military service, and Frank, her denial of despair. Against its power, Hillesum refused to be humiliated (“Humiliation always involves two,” she said). Against its concealment, the writers sought to communicate and disclose.

Not surprising considering what they witnessed, their search for God was often a struggle, he said. “Their sense of God is very complex, no matter what their particular belief system.” After watching a child languish on the hangman’s noose for more than an hour before he died, Wiesel asks “Where is God?” “It is the frightening experience of the absence of God, which can only be raised as a question based on some experience of the presence of God,” Father Cameli said. Yet, the writers also emphasized human responsibility and recognized a suffering that was at human hands and could not be blamed on a higher power. Father Cameli noted that Bonhoeffer refused to believe in “‘a God of the stopgaps,’ that is a God who just fills in for human incapacity.”

Their unique and shared spirituality also helped them in developing a sense of mission that would serve future generations. It was a spirituality that not only naturally developed to help them survive, he said, but one designed to help others “not only to remember but, more especially, not to forget.” Paradoxically coupled with that sense of responsibility was a “sense of surrender, especially surrender into God,” he said.

This surrender to God reveals itself in how every writer frames his or her thoughts in terms of the future, Father Cameli noted, and it is here that their shared sense of hope and faith in God is most powerful. “The speculations about the future are based on a hope that humanity is redeemable, that sin and death will not have the last say, that all things are in the hand of God.”

This shared sense of hope and faith, Father Cameli concluded, may be their greatest legacy to us. “Their spirituality … becomes a source of hope for us who have our own suffering … a suffering which tempts us to isolation and hopelessness. Those who have gone before us show us another path which does not deny the darkness … but invites us to draw on the inner luminosity that guides us through it.”