I decided early on that the world was a terrible place. Oh yes, it was beautiful, marvelous and mysterious, but it was also terrible. I believed this because it was preached at me from the pulpit every Sunday morning and night. And Wednesdays too. And at the breakfast table before school. And at night before bed. The devil was real. He was all around us. He brought suffering and death. Hell was real. Anyone who didn’t believe as we did would end up there.
I grew up in a conservative Christian family. In the 1980s, my dad became an influential Christian author, selling over four million books. The road to that goal was long and hard. It all started on a night in 1966, when my dad gathered our family of six in his study and made an announcement that would change our lives forever. Dad told us God had spoken to him. He was to give up his successful business career and become a writer. With the fire of faith and fervor in his eyes, he said we were going to travel the world and go where God led us, so he could gain inspiration for his books.
It seemed to me the height of folly for a father to make such a rash decision. But off we went, landing in London early that summer and beginning our travels. We had all sorts of adventures, from smuggling Bibles into communist countries to escaping from Egypt right before the Six Day War. Through it all, seeds of doubt germinated in my mind. How could it be that people of other faiths were going to hell, while we were going to heaven? By the time I was a teenager, those seeds flowered into outright rebellion, although through it all, I never lost respect for my dad’s determination or gratitude for the experiences I had on our travels.
One day, after some months of wandering in our bright red VW van, I found myself looking out the window at the entrance to Dachau. I’d never heard of the place. As far as I was concerned, this was just another stop on an interminable journey, a museum of sorts, so I understood, and I wasn’t thrilled to be visiting yet another museum. I didn’t know what awaited me. I didn’t know I was about to confront the demons I’d heard about from the pulpit back home. Real demons, not just made-up stories. I don’t even think my parents were prepared for what awaited us. How could anyone adequately prepare for hell?
I walked up to the iron entrance gates and stood beneath the words welded into the arch, “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes One Free.” A fitting slogan for our family, I thought with some bitterness. We were always being told to work hard and that self-sacrifice would bring salvation. Standing in the shadow of those words and facing the camp courtyard, Mom, who loved history, gathered us around her and said, “Imagine it’s the end of the 1930s and you are children torn from your parents, lost, confused, scared, not understanding why you are here or what is happening, and you enter these gates.”
I dismissed Mom’s words, thinking, Well, I don’t understand why I’m here—and I don’t want to be here! It’s easy to dismiss words, to not even hear them until you’re confronted with their reality and then the words come back and scream at you, mocking your ignorance because now you are experiencing those words, seeing the horror with your own eyes, feeling it slide under your flesh and invade your mind. In his 1945 report on the camp, Colonel William Wilson Quinn of the Office of Strategic Services, U.S. Seventh Army, wrote that, “Dachau, 1933-1945, will stand for all time as one of history’s most gruesome symbols of inhumanity. There our troops found sights, sounds and stenches beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.”
But was it “inhumanity”, or was it instead an eruption of the dark side of humanity, an expression of the evil that is as much a part of the human condition as the good? While I walked through Dachau with the other tourists, all of us shaking our heads and muttering, How can this be?, new victims of humanity’s inhumanity were being blown apart or burnt to cinders in Vietnam, a “righteous war,” so our God-fearing leaders in America told us. Dachau had closed down, but evil had set up shop someplace else. It never went away, I thought, it just moved around. I saw all my nightmares within the space of a few hours, walking through the gas chambers, the barracks, looking at pictures of haunted faces and soulless eyes. That was the worst, the eyes, for it is by looking into them that we connect with one another. I saw that day how the soul can be sucked right out of people, their eyes becoming empty shells.
“It’s what happens when all hope is gone,” I heard a lady say next to me, staring at the same photos. What is hope?, I thought? Do I have hope? I must have it. My eyes don’t look like that. Hope! I have it and I must never lose it or I will become like them. How many hundreds of thousands of girls and boys like me and my sister, and my brothers had walked through those gates just as my mom had said, scared, eyes wide open but still with hope, thinking, Maybe I’ll be okay, maybe I’ll be lucky, God will save me, it won’t be so bad, I’ll be home soon...Only to die in terror, their prayers lost on the wind, their piled in mass graves like dead leaves, anonymous, their worth reduced to bits of jewelry, gold fillings, hair, even fat made into soap.
Bodies piled high, mountains of bodies, and men in suits casually surveying them, walking to and fro, discussing ideologies, conducting experiments that would make any horror movie seem tame. The doctors and scientists, the SS guards and officials, all receiving their pay checks for jobs well done, going home to their families each night, kissing their children, eating a warm home-cooked supper, attending church on Sundays, and sleeping in beds of soft goose down. "Millions of Jews killed, but not just Jews,” the lady standing next to me said, reading the inscriptions: Poles, Gypsies, Russians, homosexuals, the disabled or mentally ill, political activists, trade unionists, Jehovah's witnesses, those who hid Jews, Trade Unionists, Communists like the people in North Vietnam. “Why would they do this?” I whispered.
And lo, the answer came…the one I dreaded but knew was true: “They were convinced what they were doing what was right.” I never knew who that lady was. I don’t know why she was there. She was a stranger who spoke English with an accent. I don’t remember what she looked like but I remember what she said. A brief encounter between a girl and a woman at the edge of hell, speaking of vile things that should never happen, but that happen anyway, after which we walked away from one another in opposite directions never to meet again.
We encountered another lady as we walked through the barracks, although we didn't speak to her. She was shaking her head, saying over and over in German, as if trying to make it real in her own mind, It was never as nice as this. Never as nice as this. Mom spoke German so she understood. “She must’ve been a prisoner here,” Mom whispered to us. I looked at the bunks, the room, everything bare and clean. What must it have looked like when it was filled with starving women awaiting death? The lady talking to herself in front of us was old now, her shoulders bowed, her face twisted with the pain of remembrance. How was it possible to survive that and ever feel one moment of happiness again, ever laugh, or tell a joke or listen to one, even ever be sane? It was late afternoon when my family left that accursed place. In silence I climbed back into the safety of our van and lay my head against the window. The air outside was cold and misty, covering the deep green forest with shiny, blinking dewdrops. Surely there was something sinister beneath the outward beauty of that forest. What horrors had happened among those trees? Perhaps in a moonlit glade, just like this one, a long pit had been dug and people herded there, the crack of rifles splitting the air, their bodies falling one on top of the other, then covered by earth, grass growing over the mound, beauty swallowing terror. I felt as if we humans didn’t belong on this Earth, as if we were malevolent aliens who had invaded it.
In Los Angeles I hadn’t thought twice about our war. I'd been told it was necessary. We were righteous. We were fighting for democracy. For the freedom of others. Now I wondered. My brother, Davy was fifteen. If the war continued, he'd be called to fight. I didn’t like to imagine my brother having to kill or be killed. My body ached with tiredness. I wanted the van to stop. I wanted it to pull into the driveway in front of our house and for my parents to say, “We're home!” Where would we stay tonight? When, oh when, would this journey end? I opened heavy eyes to find that the van had stopped in front of a plain gated building, not much different from the entrance to Dachau. I shuddered. Had we returned to that terrible place?
But no, the big entrance door swung open and out of it came a woman dressed in a long black gown with a white covering on her head. I blinked, thinking surely I was dreaming. But she was still there, greeting us as we climbed out, saying “Welcome to the Sisterhood of Mary.” And with that welcome, in the space of a single day, we passed through the gates of heaven after escaping the gates of hell. The nun’s name was Mother Basilea Schlink and her face radiated sunshine on that dark night. Inside, the Mother House was lovely in its simplicity, with warm, inviting rooms for guests to stay in. Mother Basilea had been called to start the sisterhood in 1949, after the War. The Mother House had been built with bricks salvaged from the wreckage of Darmstadt.
“We call it the Sisterhood of Mary, after the mother of Jesus who followed him all the way to the cross,” said Sister Eulia, a young rosy-cheeked woman. I’d always been told to follow Jesus to the cross and it had scared and depressed me. But Sister Eulia said it with such happiness. That made no sense to me. We ate a meal of savory soup, crusty bread, cheese and apples in a large dining hall with other guests, the sisters singing a prayer for us all. They sang and danced seemingly for no reason other than spontaneous joy. I felt embarrassed watching them. My parents sat in uncomfortable silence. It was sinful to dance. Even ballet. I had wanted to study ballet but my parents had refused to let me. And yet, the dancing was infectious and my parents’ severe facades began to crack. They smiled. Their heads bobbed. They actually began to clap tentatively, to tap their feet. It was too marvelous. I wondered whether I had entered some upside down place where miracles were possible and preconceived notions were thrown away.
At the dinner table sat former Jewish prisoners of the concentration camps who were staying there, awaiting their time to testify in the trials of war criminals. But the sisters didn’t limit their kindness simply to those who deserved it. Not only did they open their home to the Jews but they visited the Nazi prisoners, praying for their salvation. “The trials are still going on?” asked fifteen year old Davy in surprise. Yes they were, one frail old man told us between sips of soup. He had hidden in a cupboard for fourteen months and another man had lived in a hole in the ground before being captured and sent to the camps. I could not speak; I could only listen in a daze to their tales of courage and survival.
Then my youngest brother, who was seven, asked the frail old man whether he hated the people who had done those things to him. He shrugged philosophically, “I did hate them and it was eating me like parasites. But the hate gave them power and made me weak. So I learned to let it go. I can't say I forgave them. I don't know what that means. But I let it go, for me, not them. I was sleepy, full of good food and lost in this otherworldly experience, sitting at that table surrounded by Jews and nuns and my parents and siblings, thinking how miraculous it was that we were part of the same family. There was good here at this table and I was thankful to have found it when I had been feeling such despair.
After dinner the sisters danced and sang all the guests down the candle-lit halls, dropping us off at our rooms with a blessing. Outside an angry storm raged. A deluge of rain beat upon the rooftops, while inside we were safe and warm and comfortable. It seemed that no danger could enter our secure fortress. The next morning, as we said goodbye, Mother Basilea hugged me and prayed that God would bless me. She cradled my face in both her hands and looked at me with sharp eyes. I wondered how old she was, older than my parents probably, but her skin was smooth without many lines. Her hair was thin and gray yet she was majestic in my young eyes. “You are an artist,” she said. I nodded, tongue-tied. She smiled brilliantly. “It is a gift from God. Use it well.” I nodded again, still unable to speak as I was in such utter awe of her. How had she known I was an artist? I had no idea and it didn't matter. I'd been given a blessing and an admonition when I'd been lost in confusion. Her words stayed with me, positive and powerful. There was goodness and I could choose to be a part of it.
My family had been subdued and thoughtful while staying with the sisters. Driving away the spell lifted and we felt a bit like Moses descending from the mountain, back into ordinary society where cruelty and violence were an everyday occurrence. “Okay, those ladies were weird,” my sister, Janna, said, “But nice,” she acknowledged. “Amazingly nice.” I agreed. I loved the word “weird.” It covered so much territory. That's what I would do when I wondered about things. Just conclude that everything was weird and leave it at that. Except I couldn’t. I ruminated, over who was saved and who wasn’t? My faith was about the size of grain of sand. I didn't even know which faith was mine. There were so many of them! The sisters had faith. My mom and dad had faith. I’d met a Nubian sailor in Egypt who had faith in Allah. In the Soviet Union I’d met people who apparently had no faith at all but were just as good as we were. They didn’t deserve hell.
I was only a kid and couldn’t articulate my concerns the way I can now, but this was the essence of the thoughts racing through my head. It was an insistent worry that only intensified as our travels progressed. I don’t know why it loomed so large at such a young age. I wrestled and wrestled with it. The only conclusion I ever reached back in those wandering days was that I must have a screw loose in my brain. As we drove along yet another bumpy, winding road, Janna, who was older than me by two years, announced, “I’m going to knit another bear.” I groaned. I wasn’t good at knitting. I had hated fumbling with needles and yarn, making arms and legs, heads and bodies, sewing and stuffing, when boys were allowed to run free outside. I despised knitting and sewing and all of those proper womanly talents. I wanted to be an artist and a writer. And maybe a ninja or a secret agent on the side.
But really, that was so selfish of me. I should do some good in the world, like opening an orphanage. Maybe I could be a ninja and open an orphanage, too? Except that girls weren't ninjas, everybody knew that. “And you’re going to make one, too,” Janna ordered, “Because what else is there to do while we drive and drive and drive—to who knows where next?” She had a point. Many hours would be spent in the van until we reached our next destination. Knitting bears, well, at least it was a productive way to pass the time. We could probably knit an entire army of bears, sitting in the back of that van, rumbling over mountains and through valleys, from country to country.
Except I didn’t want to knit. I didn’t care if I never knitted again. I turned my face to the window and stared out at the rain lashing down mercilessly. There were angels and demons and battles to be fought. Maybe one day I would win a battle against some terrible evil. For that, I would have to grow stronger. One day I would draw pictures because I loved to draw. One day too I would write books, like my dad. But they would be my kind of books, like the ones that meant something to me. And that is what I did.
KH Mezek, aka Karen Hunt's other writings include award-winning essays as well as nineteen children's books including the YA fantasy series, Night Angels Chronicles
She writes about at Karen Hunt aka KH Mezek's Newsletter (substack.com) and her upcoming science fiction novel, Luminaria – Tales of Earth and Oran, Love & Revenge is coming in August
Read more about My World Project and follow Karen on KH Mezek (@khmezek) • Instagram photos and videos Find out about a fantastic Boxing Program in Cairo founded by Sally Mae Sally Mae (@trainersally) • Instagram photos and videos