There are times in our lives when incidents in the lives of people we do not know take on such profound meaning that we want to learn more. For me that came through a conversation with my husband, Bill Baker. He had heard the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski, dean of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York city, speak at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.
The story the dean told in the church was so powerful that I felt an imperative to speak with him personally. I wanted to know more of this story.
He consented to two telephone interviews, notwithstanding he was in the midst of the opening of a 248-foot-long nave of the cathedral, newly restored after a devastating five-alarm fire in the north transept of the cathedral on Dec. 18, 2001. He also was readying for the delivery of the newly cleaned and restored organ, arriving by truck from Warrensburg, Mo.
After the restoration, the beauty of the nave as a work of art was aptly described by David W. Dunlock in an article in the July 20 New York Times: “The monumental aisle leading from the sanctuary’s main entrance has a surprising clarity, crispness and lightness . . .”
Dean Kowalski’s unselfishness in sharing his time was remarkable and the story he unfolded was riveting.
I began my interview with him by commenting that he had left St. John’s at an important time to come to the Vineyard. He quickly assured me that, “Being on Martha’s Vineyard in July is not a hardship!”
In his recent sermon at Union Chapel, entitled, Roots Endure, he shared a true story of a moment in history during World War II, in the bad times in Terezin.
Terezin was a Nazi concentration camp established by the Gestapo in the fortress and garrison city of Terezin (German name Theresienstadt), where Jews were being herded into ghettos or way stations before being sent to other concentration camps near Czechoslovakia, now divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Terezin originally housed privileged Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, including artists, writers, scientists and jurists, diplomats, musicians, and scholars. It was considered a cultural center.
There were 140,000 people in the ghetto. About 33,000 died of disease or malnutrition. About 90,000 were sent to concentration camps and were exterminated. It is estimated that only 250 Jews from this ghetto survived this horrific experience.
It was here that a woman, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist and art teacher, decided the first thing they should do under those harsh conditions was set up a school for the children to continue their education as they passed through the camp. And she did so in the middle of the ghetto.
She and other Jews knew that it was very likely that the children would die later in the concentration camps, but, nevertheless they set up a school which among other subjects included art and music.
Dicker-Brandeis established drawing classes in the school believing that education was a root that would endure for some of the children who might survive. From these children we are privileged that Dicker-Brandeis produced more than 4,000 children’s drawings which she hid in two suitcases and buried before her transfer to Auschwitz. How extraordinary was this woman.
Ten years later a return to the site unearthed pictures the children had drawn which she had buried there.
Of some 15,000 children, it is estimated that 1,200 survived to the end of the war. Other estimates place the number of surviving children as low as 100. Dicker-Brandeis’s efforts at securing their artwork became part of their immortality and let their lives speak. The children’s art work can be seen in the Jewish Museum in Prague. The children also produced stories and poems which were later published in the collection, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
As I drew down my interview with Dean Kowaliski about this point of light, I began to understand the inherent and enduring power of education and gleaned from him the true connection he was making to his sermon in Union Chapel.
“This story, he said, was not about “just carrying on and acting as if terrible things were not happening,” it was about preserving roots that endure.
Out of this experience, it would be hard to imagine a more profound statement of courage, for it is the valiant ones in our world who transcend the bad times, who create in the midst of chaos and destruction. They create hope that a root can be planted, that traditions can prevail, that we can change the moment and the momentum.