While The Olympian remains my best-seller, my heart belongs to The Hamsa. Based on the life of Olympic skier Bronisław Czech, I refer to The Hamsa as ‘a Holocaust story.’ You see, Czech was the 349th person incarcerated at Auschwitz. The Hamsa is a story of human dignity.
In 2016, eight years after I penned the opening line to The Hamsa – “My mother had a dog.” – I traveled to Haiti with Tony Sanneh and have since become irrevocably part of his efforts to empower kids, improve lives and unite communities in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The people I have met here have been tested by earthquake, poverty, violence and most recently Hurricane Matthew and through it all, they refuse to give up. They hold on to their human dignity as fiercely as Bronisław Czech did as his world fell apart in September 1939 when the Nazi Wehrmacht invaded Poland.
In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” If truer words have been spoken, I do not know them. Dr. King’s words struck me like a sledgehammer during my first visit to Cité Soleil.
“The time is always ripe to do right.”
I have made two trips to Haiti this year, and I will return a third time in December. I am drawn to the human struggle. I am drawn to men, women and children like Bronisław Czech who cling to their God-given dignity and refuse to let anyone or any disaster take it from them. The time is ripe for me to help. While I invite you to join me on an Impact Trip with the Haitian Initiative, here are two simple ways for you to support my efforts:
- Purchase the Kindle edition of The Hamsa or any of my novels. As of September 2016, ALL proceeds go directly to the Haitian Initiative.
- Text the word “Haiti” to 80077 on your cell phone, and $10 will be billed to your phone and go directly to The Haitian Initiative.
“The time is always ripe to do right.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
A spokesman for Yad Vashem reported today that Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel who cheated death in Auschwitz died today. He was 87 years old. I invite you to read my May 2014 post “Night” and “The Hamsa.” I share in the world’s loss and I mourn the passing of another great peace hero. May his memory and the things he taught us endure forever.
With more good friends in my lifetime than any 10 men deserve, Caesar was my best. This morning, I freed his spirit from his cancer-riddled body.
Unwittingly at the time, I cast his memory into future generations by including him in two of my novels. When people ask me which of my books I like the best, I tell them The Hamsa and Tobit and the Hoodoo Man. I think it is because Caesar plays a significant – though not so obvious role in each of them. I named him Raphael in The Hamsa. In Tobit, I unabashedly use his given name, Caesar.
His likeness graces the cover of the Kindle edition of The Hamsa replete with angel wings! As I researched and wrote the book from 2008 to 2010, Caesar always sat by my desk waiting for a frequent pat on the head. In the opening pages of the prologue I wrote,
“Last night, I held my own dog as he took his last breath. I cried. Maybe the dog was really holding me, and not I, him. His name was Raphael. I think he was an angel. I am ready to follow him to the feet of God.”
Those words felt prophetic this morning as I held him close to me in the clinic. In The Hamsa, Caesar/Raphael appears to Bronisław Czech in the story exactly as he appeared to me in real life, as a guardian angel that I turned to whenever something was bothering me through his nine years. He was always there and he never let me down.
When Bronisław meets Father Michael in Rome, the priest describes the dog,
“He [Father Michael] ruffles Raphael’s ears. One is white like his body, the other brown like a deer, and a brown patch covers his left eye giving the appearance that he is wearing a mask. ‘You, my friend,” he tells the dog, ‘Care for this man and lead him from the city on the ‘morrow.’”
Caesar was our rock and our common ground that helped us through every challenge we faced during his too short lifetime.
Now an inmate in Auschwitz, Bronek introduces his dog to his friend,
“This is my dog,” I whisper through swollen lips. “His name is Raphael.”
“And where did he come from?”
I wrote in the story what I believed about my dog in real life: he was heaven-sent. We did not expect Caesar to die so young, but the cancer that invaded his body was aggressive. When I returned home from church this morning, I could see in his eyes and in the way Marie caressed his large, beautiful head that it was time to say goodbye. As I sat on the floor with him at the clinic, I could not help but recall the scene I penned in The Hamsa when it was time for Raphael to leave,
When I swing my legs to the floor, Raphael moves closer and I hug him with more love than I would hold a woman, maybe even a child. He allows it. I walk outside and sit on the top step. He follows me and lies down with his large head on my lap.
The night sky is brilliant. Earth bears the light without damage and watches as Draco threatens the North Star. Softly, I hum the highlander’s song as if it is a lullaby for my dog. Raphael’s pulse slows … He dreams of good things and makes soft, happy sounds. I lean close to feel his warm breath on my cheek. I so envy the dog the peace that follows him. I take the chain with the hamsa from my neck, and put it to my lips. It smells of ancient clay and perspiration. I wash it with a single tear and see that the letters are worn and unreadable. B’hatzlacha. I think of little Yeheil in Bavaria. He would like Raphael. I kiss the hamsa and place it reverently around the dog’s powerful neck. As I do, he raises his beautiful eyes to me, and they say, “Do not be afraid.” I place my lips close to his ear and whisper, “I am not.” His head falls to my lap and he breathes his final breath. I try to hold him, but his spirit knows it is time for him to leave me. He follows the voice and is gone. My arms grasp only air. I weep into my hands, empty save for the hamsa.
I held Caesar closely this morning as his spirit left his worn body and soared. The moment it did, I recalled the final two sentences in The Hamsa,
“A mighty angel with outstretched wings descends towards me to take me home. I commend myself to him and to his God.”
And so I do the same with my best friend Caesar.
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.
I have written much on memory and ‘remembering’ on The Vitruvian Man website. Several years ago, I wrote that the major Jewish festivals today remain the same as they were 2,000 years ago. They are festivals of remembering As we quoted from David O’Rourke’s book about the people customs and religion in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus,
“More than anything else, [Jewish children] were taught to remember. Remember who you are, remember what God has done for you and for us, and live as though you remember.”
I think the final phrase is the key phrase:
LIVE AS THOUGH YOU REMEMBER.
It is important to remember both good and bad. As we remember the Holocaust, we remember what evil the human heart is capable of realizing. By remembering, our generation and generations in the future are less likely to repeat the mistakes and bad choices of our past.
Acknowledgement of the Holocaust prompts the world to say, “Never Again,” and that each man, woman and child will hold the other accountable for our actions.
The entrance to the Hall of Nations at the United Nations in New York City is graced by the words of the Persian mystic poet Saadi Shirazi,
“Human beings are all members of one body.
They are created by the same essence.
When on is in pain, the others cannot rest.
If you do not care about the pain of others,
You do not deserve to be called a human being.”
Today we honor the millions who died in the Holocaust.
Teach your children well. Teach them to remember and teach them to
“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
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.
Eight 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.”
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.”
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.
In 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,
“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.
I 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.
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.
Today’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.