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Rescuing Blessings From Hell

On this Independence Day, what does it mean to be truly free?

George Orwell had a lot to say about freedom. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” he wrote in his bestselling dystopian novel, 1984. “If that is granted, all else follows.” He also wrote, “what is needed is the right to print what one believes to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail from any side,” and, “if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But there are some other ways of thinking about freedom that have receded from contemporary discussions of liberty. I once heard Rabbi David Wolpe use a phrase that I've begun to use to describe some of these other ways of thinking about what it means to be free. Blessings rescued from hell.

In September, 1943, Olga Neerman’s mother was cooking lunch. A man urgently rang their doorbell. He said that Olga’s father’s name was on a list and told them they should run. The Nazis were coming. At first, her father, a respected Italian businessman, didn’t believe that they needed to worry.

The family was Jewish, but not very observant—though by that time, Jews in Italy (observant or not) were no longer allowed to own businesses. They were required to “sell” them to non-Jews. In some cases, friends engaged in the transaction on paper only, allowing Jewish businesses to be run as usual. In other cases, people took advantage of Jews, who had no choice and no leverage to demand a fair price. And by 1943, when Olga was 17 and her brother 14, it had been four years since Olga and her younger brother had attended school. Jewish children were prohibited.

Within a few minutes of the man’s departure, Olga’s father changed his mind. He told his children to pack quickly. They took only a few things.

The family went into hiding in the mountains. With the help of a guardiaboschi (a ranger) named Costande Mertello, they evaded the Nazis by splitting up. Olga lived above a butchery while her mother and brother lived in a cheese-making shed. She thinks her father, who came and went, might have joined the resistance.

When the Nazis began to infiltrate the mountains over a year later, the family fled to Venice where they were taken in by a non-Jewish grandparent who hid them in his home.

After the liberation, Olga’s mother would wake from sleep in a panic, thinking the Nazis were coming. Half-asleep, she would run from her bed to the train station. Olga and her brother would go after her and bring her home.

For decades, Olga didn’t talk about what happened during the war. It was two years after her wedding when she told her husband (a non-Jew) that she was Jewish. She suspects that he knew.

Olga told me that for years, given the horrors that others had suffered, she thought hers was “just a small story.” Her whole family survived while so many people didn’t. Until seventeen years ago, even her children and grandchildren didn’t know her story.

She told me that during the long climb up the mountain to their hiding place, her uncle said to her, “ricordatevi che cos’è la libertà.” Remember what freedom is.

Did he mean that she should try not to forget what it was like to be free so she had something to live for, I asked, in order to not to lose hope?

She shook her head and tapped her forehead with a finger. “Io sono libero fino al che penso.” I am free as long as I can think.

Her thinking about freedom is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl’s. He wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Olga also told me approvingly that the guardiaboschi who helped them survive the war also helped a Nazi defect. When asked years later why he didn’t kill that German soldier, and helped him instead, he answered, “because he was a human being.”

The ability to see an enemy as a human being is anathema today. It seems increasingly difficult to see an ideological opponent as fully human; perhaps because to do that requires a kind of inner strength that is either misunderstood or no longer valued by those who adhere to a Manichaean worldview.

Martin Luther King knew that even a righteous struggle could twist the human soul. He understood that only compassion could prevent us from becoming the very thing we fight against. “The non-violent resistor,” he said, “not only avoids external, physical violence, but he avoids internal violence of spirit. He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him.”

Ingrid Betancourt has intimate experience with this struggle. In 2002, when running for president of Colombia, she was taken hostage by the FARC, a ruthless, Marxist, terrorist guerrilla organization that at one point supplied half of the world’s cocaine.

Ingrid was held in captivity for more than six years. She and other captives were subjected to cruelty, starvation, and forced marches. The FARC routinely beat her and often kept her chained to a tree by the neck.

In her memoir, she recounts how her captors encouraged the hostages to turn on one another—and how the hostages complied. “We lost the compass of what was good and what was right,” she said. “In captivity, everything is upside down.”

We know ourselves to be good people, but we are all capable of hate. Ingrid told me that the effect on her was profound. “It was a battle, not only with the guerrillas, but with ourselves,” she said in an interview in 2010. But despite her ordeal, “I had the ability to free myself from hatred,” she said. “I viewed this as my most significant conquest.”

Pandemics can tend to elicit our worst qualities. While we are pursued by an invisible “enemy,” we feel disoriented and dislocated, and it can seem as though we have lost the authorship of our own lives. Uncertainty and anxiety can encourage us to dismiss critical thinking while narrowing our concept of who counts as “us” and widening the range of acceptable punishment for “them.” We can be persuaded to be rigid, unforgiving, and even cruel.

Joel R. Terrell/FreeImages
Source: Joel R. Terrell/FreeImages

Given the risks posed by large gatherings, the 4th of July this year is an ideal time to celebrate a more personal kind of independence. To perhaps think more deeply about what it means to be truly free. And to consider what blessings of liberty we might rescue from hell — before it’s too late.

Pamela Paresky served as primary researcher and in-house editor for the New York Times bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind. Her opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky.

References

Frankl, V. E. (1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, 2006). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press

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