International Holocaust Remembrance Day

This piece was originally posted several years ago…


Today, January 27, 2015 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, estimated at 6 million Jews, 2 million gypsies, 15,000 homosexuals, and countless other millions like Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, and Bronisław Czech who gave their lives to resist one man’s unfortunate choice to eliminate a people from the face of the earth.

The United Nations established this memorial day in 2005.  The date coincides with the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest Nazi death camp – on January 27, 1945. Continue reading International Holocaust Remembrance Day


The Hamsa
Bronislaw Czech

“The final kilometers cross level ground. Antonín and I trade places one time, but ski side by side as we approach the finish line at the Stadium.  I move as fast as my tired body allows me.  I watch Antonín from the corner of my eye and wonder if he is trying as hard as he can, or does he defer the finish line to me because I stopped to help him?  I slow to see what he will do.  He slows when I slow, and increases his speed when I increase mine.  His objective is no longer a secret to me.  Strange, yet wonderful, the power of friendship and the way it moves men to react in such noble ways.  After all, what will matter most in an old man’s life?  The medals he’s won or the friends he’s made and preserved through the best and worst of times?  Can a man who has friends be called a failure?”

Bronek in The Hamsa

Shield of Abraham

I am amazed at how my spiritual life evolves.  One thing connects to another, and that to another, and each leads me back to the source.  It finds its way into my writing.

Bronislaw CzechEight years ago, I began writing a novel on human dignity, The Hamsa.  God gifted each of us with free will, the ability to make choices, right or wrong.  He also bestowed dignity upon us, the quality of being worthy of respect.  Each of us is born with it, and NO ONE can take it from us.  We can give it away, but NO ONE can take it from us unless we offer it to him.  That is the core message of The Hamsa.

There are those who have given their God-given dignity away.  The list is long and not worth enumerating.  There are others, like Bronisław Czech, the protagonist in The Hamsa who refuses to release their dignity through the gravest of times, who keep their eyes set upon the light that always glows in the heart of darkness.

Several weeks ago, I embarked on a study – with a friend – of the Book of Psalms.  This week, we are contemplating the 3rd Psalm.  This is one of the Psalms that scholars attribute to King David.  In it he writes,

“You are a shield around me, Oh Lord.  You bestow glory on me and lift up my head.”

I smiled when I read those words, which in my preferred translation – Eugene Peterson’s The Message – reads, “But you, God shield me on all sides; you ground my feet, you lift my head high.”

the real Yeheil, a victim of the Holocaust
the real Yeheil, a victim of the Holocaust

Midway through The Hamsa at the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bronisław Czech meets a young, Jewish boy, Yeheil.  The boy explains to Bronek that on the backside of many hamsas is written one of the many Jewish names for God …

“Mine reads ‘Resh Aleph Hey,’” Yeheil says softly while staring at his hamsa, “Finding the Way.”

“And mine?”

His father leans close, studies the worn and faded letters and says to his son, “You know what it says.  You can tell him.”

“Magen Avraham, Shield of Abraham.”  The boy speaks the words with such reverence that even my jovial mates are captured by the silence that follows and lingers like ripples on a pool of clear mountain water.

“Thank you,” I tell him.  On his program I write, ‘Yeheil will find the way.  From your new friend Bronek, the Shield of Abraham.’”

My life is an interesting circle, and I continue to grow and learn.

You are a shield around me, O Lord.

“The Hamsa” Revisited

Bronislaw CzechIn the spring of 2002, my son Brad and I had dinner with Steven Pressfield and then shared a beer with him at his house.  He’s a good man, Steve Pressfield is.  As we chatted in his sitting room, I asked him if he understands and recognizes when he writes something very special.

“I don’t really think about it,” he answered.

I smiled and then pulled a copy of Gates of Fire from his bookcase and read,

'Nothing fires the warrior's heart ....
“Nothing fires the warrior’s heart more with courage than to find himself and his comrades at the point of annihilation, at the brink of being routed and overrun, and then to dredge not merely from one’s own bowels or guts but from one’s own discipline and training the presence of mind not to panic, not to yield to the possession of despair, but instead to complete those homely acts of order which Dienekes had ever declared the supreme accomplishment of the warrior: to perform the commonplace under far-from commonplace conditions. Not only to achieve this for oneself alone, as Achilles or the solo champions of yore, but to do it as part of a unit, to feel about oneself one’s brothers-in-arms, in an instance like this of chaos and disorder, comrades whom one doesn’t even know, with whom one has never trained; to feel them filling the spaces alongside him, from spear side and shield side, fore and rear, to behold one’s comrades likewise rallying, not in a frenzy of mad possession-driven abandon, but with order and self-composure, each man knowing his role and rising to it, drawing strength from him as he draws it from then; the warrior in these moments finds himself lifted as if by the hand of a god. He cannot tell where his being leaves off and that of the comrade beside him begins. In that moment the phalanx forms a unity so dense and all-divining that it performs not merely at the level of a machine or engine of war but, surpassing that, to the state of a single organism, a beast of one blood and heart.”

“I wrote that?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

I pointed to the passage on page 259 of the hard cover edition and showed him.

He smiled and said, “Wow.  I guess I did.  That’s not bad!”

That, Steve, is an understatement …

Six years later, I began work on my second novel, The Hamsa, which I refer to as ‘a Holocaust story.’  The Hamsa was published late 2010.

Last month, I befriended a wonderful woman from Chicago.  Her name is Teresa.  We met through Teresa’s interest in The Hamsa.  You see, her parents lived in Zakopane, Poland, the home of The Hamsa protagonist Bronisław Czech.  Teresa happened to be staying at the Desert House of Prayer, a retreat house visited by truth seekers from all over the world.  The Desert House is ‘across the street’ from the Redemptorist Center I regularly frequent and only about three miles from my home in the desert.

TeresaI chatted with her soon after she had started reading the book.  “The very first sentence brought me to tears,” she said in her enthusiastic way.  “I’m telling you it brought me to tears.”  I wrote the first sentence of the book – excluding the prologue – in Polish.  Teresa obviously knew what it said, even though I repeated the sentence in the first few pages in German, Norwegian, French and finally English.

One year ago on March 5, 2014, we posted an article “When Readers Get It!”  Teresa definitely ‘got it.’

Teresa returned to ‘the real world’ yesterday, but left a note at the Redemptorist Center addressed to “E.S. Kraay.”  I read the note in the dim, early morning light of the chapel.  Teresa definitely ‘got it.’

“I cried as I read the first sentence,” she wrote, “and I cried when I read the last sentence.”

She continued with a lengthy list of “SOME EXAMPLES OF WHY I ENJOYED READING THE HAMSA.”  She noted passages that touched her spirituality – “Move over Meister Eckhart” she wrote – and she noted passages that put her into a reflective mood.  She concluded with examples that made her laugh out loud.

Teresa identified each passage with the page number in the book.

I shared the note with Marie when I returned home.  I read aloud each passage that Teresa noted (from page 250 for example)

“Light snow falls like God’s tears from the black sky.  He rues what happens here but denies free will to no one.”

I will admit, after each passage I looked up at my wife and said, “Wow!  I wrote that?  I guess I did.”

Even as I plunge forward with my new manuscript — my seventh novel — it is important to look back at its predecessors.  The note from Teresa with such specific examples gives me pause to reflect and say, “You know what?  I think that was a pretty good story.”  Thanks to Teresa and so many others who take the time to comment and send emails with encouragement.  It is the greatest, professional satisfaction I get.

The Search for Truth

I find it interesting how one book, one author, one concept, one thought leads to another and another and another ….

At our Seed of the Word book club meeting yesterday — if you care to listen, you can click this link — we discussed Thomas Merton’s classic The Seven Storey Mountain.  If you do listen, I’m the schmuck answering the moderator’s first question.  I tell the group, “I had difficulty reading this book.”  Definitely not the consensus!  Next up at the club is Jesus, A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ who unequivocally states that it was Merton’s book that changed his life and led him from Corporate America to the Jesuits.  See the connection?  One thing leads to another.

The HamsaToday’s Zenit quotation of the day comes from Maximilian Kolbe

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it.”

I smiled when I read that.  Maximilian Kolbe appears briefly in The Hamsa as that ‘crazy holy man’ who saves Bronek with his Latin recitation of Pater Noster.  Then I reflected on Kolbe’s quote.  The promo quote from Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ is

“The story of one man’s remarkable search for truth.”

I begin every manuscript with a core message, and the core message behind Gaspar is:  Truth is universal.

Mrs. tVM and I hike the ‘Inspiration Trail’ at Sanctuary Cove several times every year.  One of the messages posted on the trail is a quote from Chief Seattle:

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

Indeed, it is a Circle of Life.  One thing leads to another and in the end, all things are connected.

Mitakuye Oyasin.

A Kindle Discount

We have a poll running in which I invite you to participate.  You can find it in the right sidebar.

The last full week in September 2014, we will run one E.S. Kraay Kindle edition [Excluding the West Point trivia book and The Sixth Day, A 17-175-Word Novella About Creation and Prizefighting] at a 50% discount … maybe more if the mood strikes me.  I am asking you to help me decide which book to feature at a discounted rate.  Please participate in the poll.  Thanks for your continued support.

The Hamsa
Gaspar cover
The Olympian

“Night” and “The Hamsa”

Elie WieselI just concluded reading Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  I read it in preparation of May’s ‘Seeds of the Word’ monthly book club discussion at the Redemptorist Renewal Center at Picture Rocks, Arizona. Having written a ‘Holocaust’ novel, The Hamsa several years ago, some readers are curious that I have never read Mr. Wiesel’s powerful account of his years in the Nazi concentration camp system.  The fact is – until this afternoon – I have not.  My interest in the Holocaust began one rainy afternoon at the Berkshire County Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  I loved the library and frequented it daily between school and basketball practice.  On this particular afternoon, I came across Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  I will never forget that day or that book.

Berkshire County
The Berkshire County Athenaeum, Pittsfeld, Massachusetts

As I prepare for May’s discussion, I have reviewed several reading guides.  One question in particular stays with me.  I do not intend to discuss it at the meeting, but I have to answer it here.  The Hill and Wang Teacher’s Guide asks

“Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?”


The Last Jew in Vinnitsa

In 2007, I first saw the photo commonly referred to as “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”  It still haunts me.  I continue to stare at the expression of the ‘victim.’  His face exudes faith and confidence … he is not afraid.  When I look at the expression of the executioner, I see doubt and guilt … his eyes are filled with fear. Shortly after viewing that picture, I discovered the “Report by Witold Pilecki” who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and who successfully escaped three years later. The photo and the report evolved into The Hamsa, which incidentally is about neither. Back to the question:  “Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?” When I first began writing The Hamsa, I lived in a small town in the heart of Missouri wine country,The Hamsa Defiance, Missouri about 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis.  St. Louis is blessed with an excellent Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC).  As I researched my manuscript, I made an appointment with the director and visited the museum.  Included in its exhibition – at least in 2008 – is a large image of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” My conversation with the director ended rather abruptly.  When I explained to him what I was doing, he emphatically stated, “There is no room whatsoever for the Holocaust in historical fiction.”  As his case in point, he referred to the recently released film “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig that recounted the activity Daniel Craigof the Bielski brothers who saved over 1,200 Jews by hiding them in the forests of Poland.  “That film is not accurate,” he adamantly stressed and repeated, “There is no place for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” I listened patiently and respectfully.  His statement rang in my ears for the 40-minute drive back to my home in Defiance.  I made a point of seeing the film “Defiance.”  It was a good film.  More importantly, it occurred to me that if only 2 million people saw the film [the actual box office is reported at $56 million], then 2 million more people have some idea of what the Jewish communities in Poland faced during WWII.  Thanks to the Bielski partisans, there were 1,200 fewer people in Hitler’s concentration camps. With that thought in mind, I committed myself to The Hamsa. Do I exercise ‘artistic license?’  Absolutely.  One reviewer, Paul Knott referred to a technique I implied throughout the narrative

“If there is any ‘trick’ to the narrative, it might be Bronek’s meeting such historical figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Sonia Henie, and Heinrich Himmler, a la Forest Gump, but these meetings are plausible and serve the story line.”

The final 80 pages of The Hamsa are specific to the protagonist’s — Bronislaw Czech (Bronek) — experience at Auschwitz.  I was committed to historical accuracy, and I stand firm that those pages accurately reflect what happened in that hell on earth.  I am not a Holocaust survivor and do not pretend to know what it was like.  Elie Wiesel did survive, and I hope that what I have written in The Hamsa does justice to those like his friends and father who did not survive. I believe that those thousands who have read The Hamsa have a better understanding of the era and errors of the times.

Dogs in Books

E.S. Kraay
Hans and I

I love dogs.  I have three:  Caesar, a seven-year old American bulldog; Hans, an 11-year old mutt akin to a coyote; and Cooper, an aging 12-year old Icelandic sheepdog.  Big, medium, small … I love them all.

In three of my five books, dogs play an important role.  In The Hamsa, Bronisław Czech meets the dog Raphael in Rome, and the dog is ‘with him’ for the remainder of the story.  In Tobit and the Hoodoo Man, the dog Caesar enters the story with Father Gabriel midway through the narrative.  In The Sixth Day, Scooter makes his important appearance on … ‘the sixth day.’  Each dog plays an important role and is graced with a special ‘spirituality.’

In truth, Raphael and Caesar were both fashioned after my dog Caesar.  Raphael evenThe Hamsa graces the cover of the Kindle edition of The Hamsa.  When I wrote Scooter into The Sixth Day, I envisioned Sparky from the 1996 film Michael.

MichaelThis morning, I read an interview with best-selling author Dean Koontz in the Spring 2014 issue of “Parabola” magazine.  Mr. Koontz includes dogs in his stories, and they play important roles.  (At least I can claim one thing in common with Mr. Koontz!)  His character Einstein, the genetically altered golden retriever in his 1987 thriller Watchers immediately comes to mind.

Here is how Mr. Koontz responded when “Parabola” asked him what happens to dogs when they die …

“I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson who said, ‘You think dogs will not be in heaven?  I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.’  Our first golden retriever, Trixie, dramatically changed me and my wife, Gerda, and had such a positive impact on our lives that I have written – in A Big Little Life – that I am convinced Trixie was a theophony, the presence of God in our lives.  When I encounter someone who sees nothing miraculous about dogs, I at once suspect they see nothing miraculous about life and therefore live in the absence of hope.”

Parabola Magazine, Spring 2014

I could not agree more with Mr. Koontz.  For those of you who might come to my home and be concerned with dog hair and slobber …. Get over it!

By the way, there is a dog in my upcoming 2014 release.  His name …. Dog.