Post-war reconstruction

As I write,  I realise some people are afraid of the effects of meditation, one friend insists it can influence our ability to think rationally. My own experience is exactly the opposite.

After four years of college, covering 700 hundred years of English literature I found myself to be both exhausted and totally frazzled in my head. In philosophy 101 I learned from a dry but earnest Scottish professor that the Descartes principle “I think therefore I am” was a turning point.

From one day to the next, the whole belief structure of my childhood came tumbling down – later that year when I made a painful decision to break off a relationship, an inner vision of a desert and a mountain appeared: it was quite clear I was to climb that mountain if I wished to get out of the desert. So much for rational thought at that moment.

At the end of university I was invited by my aunt, Agnes Bentley to join eight others of my family who were involved in post-war reconciliation and reconstruction. It was the beginning of a remarkable experience. One of the first people I met in Holland where I went to join my cousin Betty, in the home of the Hintzen family was a regal silver-haired matriarch named Madame Lottie van Beuningen. During the war, she had been head of the Dutch Red Cross. In order to bring food to the nearby concentration camp for her starving fellow-citizens, she was obliged to face down six different commandants. Each time, this valiant woman sought the guidance of god. Each time she found a way to get past the obstacles placed in her path. One of the commandants insisted she met him at a brothel, thinking that would stop her. She sailed in, confronted the man in his underwear and got his permission. Only the hardness of the sixth official made her task Impossible.

I understood the power of this woman’s experience but I had no way to access the source of her inspiration. When I tried to ‘listen to God’ I found myself writing down a grocery list of things to do. Later I joined another cousin, Lydia Bentley, at a centre in Switzerland, high above Lake Geneva at Caux-sur-Montreux.

One morning at the plenary session, in the huge living room of this old hotel, a woman got up to speak, named Frau Moni Von Cramon – there was no German translator available at that moment, so without thinking I stepped up the platform. I had had a good grounding in german at Bishop Strachan school in Toronto. The story that this stranger told was so powerful that even though some of the words were unknown, it poured through me out to the audience. This aristocratic lady had gone to Himmler’s office to warn him that if he and his colleagues didn’t change their behaviour their country would suffer. Her family were followed by the secret police. Her son-in-law was killed in the plot against Hitler, strung up with the other conspirators.

In the audience was a woman named Irene Laure, head of three million socialist women in France. She had led hunger marches in the streets of Marseille against the Nazi regime. Her son had been tortured in front of her; she hated all Germans. When she heard german being spoken at Caux she went to pack her bags. Someone said to her, ‘How can you build a new Europe without Germans?” She and Moni Von Cramon met and wept together and shared their stories. Irene later travelled to all the state parliaments across Germany. She said to them ‘ I don’t forget what happened but I ask for forgiveness for my hatred”. In Berlin she saw women picking up the rubble. This is the destruction I had wished for , she thought to herself. She wept as she saw their bleeding hands.

A young german was in the audience at Cauz when Irene was speaking. His name was Peter Petersen. He had been prominent in the Hitler Youth. He had arrived with the first group of the young Germans allowed out by the Allied Occupation Forces. He swore that if he heard one word spoken against the Germans he would exit with the whole delegation. He was stunned by Irene Laure and other Europeans whom he met. Later this brilliant young man would become a cabinet minister. Robert Schumann of France and Chancellor Adenauer of Germany would meet at Caux and forge the foundation of  the European Union.

Interestingly, the family of Peter Petersen’s future bride, Ilse, was the first family I stayed with in Germany. They gave me a chance to improve my german. I can still remember Herr Yunker, lifting a spoon and saying die Loeffel, das Messer (knife) and so on…(have I got it right? My german is bit rusty!)

My first Christmas that year was spent with Trude Spoun, whom I visited just this past year. At that time, Trude was  a young violin student. Together we climbed the vast tower of Ulm cathedral and looked down at the rubble and empty space surrounding the base of the cathedral. Space where families had once lived. As we stood there, Trude told me the story of her sister, giving birth to her first child in the aftermath of the bombing. I felt tears welling up, as they do now.

At that moment, a surge of powerful emotion took me back to that night in 1940 when I watched my home on Donland Farm burn down and tried to keep my Airedale dog from rushing back into the burning house. That night I lost my whole childhood world, my dog and my free life on the farm.

to be continued..

At that moment I realised the difficult things in our lives can help us to understand other people, at least to some extent.

Catharine McKenty


  1. 1
    Catherine Robinson Says:

    Catharine, my mother was a nurse at home during the war while my father, the one she was waiting at home for, was overseas. Both Mom’s brothers were enlisted as well, and my Uncle Arnold was shot down in his plane shortly after his twenty third birthday and on the last mission before he was to return home. Mom’s description of waiting for news and then receiving the very worst news that her brother was not longer ‘missing’ but was buried in Belgium, shows me that these memories are so very clear to her.
    Years later, when Mom was the head nurse at a local hospital, she was in charge of hiring nurses who applied for positions. One young woman was German, spoke with a strong accent and made Mom wonder if she could ever possibly forgive the Germans for the loss of her brother, her very dearest friend. This nurse represented all that she feared, all that had caused such hurt in her life.
    My mother has strong Christian beliefs and she really does walk the walk in so many areas of her life. She figured she would have to get past her own angry feelings, hired Ursla, one of the best nurses ever to work at the hospital and never looked back.
    This woman is such a role model to me. She felt she grew in spirit from forgiving and letting go the past. We all could learn from this.

  2. 2
    Catharine McKenty Says:

    Response to Catharine Robinson:
    Indeed we could all learn from your mother’s experience. Thank you for sharing this remarkable true story with us. I won’t soon forget it. We need more stories like that.

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