Human Nature Stories

Le Chambon

There are two things, it has often been said, that human beings cannot gaze at directly without going mad – the glory of God and the darkness of human evil. After years of studying human cruelty, Philip Hallie, professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University and a veteran of World War II, must have felt close to madness. Working on a project on Nazi cruelty, he focused on the medical experiments Nazi doctors conducted on Jewish children in the death camps.

“Across all these studies,” Hallie wrote later, “the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetitions of the patterns of persecution…. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Between the bars and the walls I revolved like a madman … over the years I had dug myself into Hell.”

During this time Hallie came across a short article about a small town of three thousand in the mountains of southern France, which was the only safe haven for Jews in all of German-occupied Europe. Reading with academic objectivity in his effort to classify types of cruelty and forms of resistance to it, he was about halfway down the third page of the story when he became “annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks.” Reaching up to wipe away a piece of dust, he felt tears – “Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.” Those tears, Hallie wrote, were an instinctive “expression of moral praise.”

What Hallie was reading was his introduction to the citizens of Le Chambon and their heroic rescue of more than five thousand Jewish children in the Second World War. Later written up in his modern classic Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Hallie came to realize the rightness of a summary by one of his readers: “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Yes, he concluded, “I realized that for me too the little story of Le Chambon is grander and more beautiful than the bloody war that stopped Hitler.”

What emerges in his story is the strands of the stubborn courage of the Chambonnais. They were Huguenots, French Protestants fired by their faith in Christ and the experience of three hundred years of persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. And they were led, taught, and encouraged by their indomitable pastor, Andre Trocme, and his equally heroic wife, Magda. But what comes across repeatedly is their character and the down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality of their faith.

Many French let themselves be deceived by the infamous “night and fog” propaganda with which the Germans concealed the death camps. But the Chambonnais simply did what had to be done, what they’d been taught to do, what Christ would have expected them to do – they sheltered and saved their neighbors, the Jews, who were in danger.

The evening Pastor Trocme himself was arrested illustrates the whole story. The pastor and his wife had been invited to dinner by church members who, knowing they often forgot such invitations, sent their daughter to remind them. But when she entered the dining room, she saw the police arresting her pastor. So the word flew around the village: Andre Trocme had been arrested.

Typically, however, Magda Trocme invited the two policemen to have dinner with them. Friends were later incredulous and upset with her. “How could you bring yourself to sit down to eat with these men who were there to take your husband away, perhaps to his death? How could you be so forgiving, so decent to them?”

Madame Trocme always gave the same answer: “What are you talking about? It was dinner-time; they were standing in my way; we were all hungry. The food was ready. What do you mean by such foolish words as ‘forgiving’ and ‘decent’?”

Such a response was typical. The Chambonnais shrugged off praise again and again. They would look Hallie in the eye and say, “How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.” An outsider’s words of moral praise, Philip Hallie concluded, are “like a slightly uncomfortable wreath laid upon a head by a kind but alien hand.”

Source: Os Guinness. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Kindle edition. Locations 1092-1095).

The Greatest Forger

It was perhaps the greatest hoax in art history. Han van Meegeren was an artist with a grudge. Painting in the Netherlands pre World War 2, critics mercilessly panned his exhibitions. One critic described him as “A gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school, he has every virtue except originality.” Stung, van Meegreen decided to strike back. He painted a work with flourishes of the style of the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, titled it “The Supper at Emmaus”, and submitted it to the prominent critic Abraham Bredius. Bredius took the bait, writing that “It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master… And what a picture! We have here a – I am inclined to say the – masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”  The art world gasped, the painting was sold for the equivalent of millions of dollars, and displayed in  the Boijmans Gallery in Rotterda.

Han van Meegren planned to expose the forgery at the opening of the Gallery’s 400 Years of European Art exhibition, in which his forgery was given pride of place. His critics would be humiliated and their reputations shattered. Greed, however, got the better of him. Rather than exposing the forgery, he made more, raking in millions more dollars. When the Nazis swept through Europe, he even managed to sell The Supper at Emmaus to them.

This almost proved his undoing.After the war the victorious Allied forces were determined to return the artworks collected by the Nazis to their previous owners. A receipy led two soldiers from the Allied Art Commission to the studio of vm Meegren. They wanted to know from whom van Meegran had bought the artwork. Unwilling to divulge the truth, van Megreen was arrested on charges of treason and faced the death penalty. Confined in prison, facing death, van Megreen had a change of heart. He confessed, but no-one believed him. Experts testified that the work was indeed an original by the Dutch master Vermeer. The only way to prove his innocence was to produce another fake, anfd so he did, spending weeks literally painting for his life!

The final twist to the story is that van Meegren was not only acquitted, but became a national hero, for he had fooled the Nazis, shown them to be the corrupt regime everyone knew they were.

Source: information found in “The forger who fooled the world” The Telegraph, Aug 5, 2006

We’re All Like Auggie

In 1995 Harvey Keitel and William Hurt starred in a movie called “Smoke.” Harvey Keitel plays Auggie Wren, the owner of a tobacco store, the Brooklyn Tobacco Co. which sits on the comer of third and seventh streets in Brooklyn. One of Auggie’s closest friends is a writer by the name of Paul Benjamin, played by William Hurt. At the end of the movie Paul Benjamin the writer, tells Auggie that he’s been asked to write a Christmas story for the New York Times, but he’s stumped. What’s he going to write about? Auggie says, “I’ve got lots of Christmas stories. In fact I’ve got a great Christmas story. Buy me lunch and I’ll tell it to you.”

Paul buys Auggie lunch and Auggie tells his story. “It’s about me” says Auggie. “One day, I’m in my shop” – the Brooklyn Tobacco Co. on the corner of third and seventh – “when I notice a kid in the act of stealing a girly magazine from the shelf up the back of the store. I call out and the kid bolts for the door and starts running away. So I chase him.” While he’s running something falls out of the thief’s pocket onto the sidewalk. It’s his wallet. Auggie stops running and picks it up. It’s got the thief’s drivers license inside. Now Auggie’s got his name and address. The only other thing the wallet contains is three photographs. One of them is the thief as a young boy with his mother. It softens Auggie’s attitude. This is just a kid who lives in a poor part of the town, who’s struggled all his life to get by. So Auggie decides not to go to the police. Instead he takes the wallet home and puts it on the shelf. And there it sits.

A couple of years later it’s Christmas day. Auggie’s got no friends or family to celebrate with, so he’s sitting at home and his eyes fall on that young thief’s wallet sitting on the shelf. “What the heck” he thinks. “I’m gonna go round to that kid’s place and give him his wallet back.” So he heads downtown, ‘til he comes to the address on the driver’s license. He walks up to a rundown building, rings the doorbell and waits. After a few moments he hears some shuffling, then an old woman’s voice, “Yes, who’s there.”

“I’m looking for Robert” says Auggie.

“Robert” replies the woman. “Is that you Robert? I knew you wouldn’t forget your Granny Joe on Christmas day.”

She flings the door open and Auggie can see she’s an old woman who’s almost completely blind. She opens her arms wide, and next thing Auggie knows she’s hugging him.

“I knew you’d come Robert. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint your old gran.”

Well, what’s he supposed to do? “What the heck” thinks Auggie, “I’ve got nothing better to do today. I’ll play along.”

“Yes gran, it’s me, Robert.”

He can tell by the look on her face that she knows it’s not her grandson Robert, but she’s living all alone and seems to need some company. So she decides to play along too. She welcomes Auggie in, and for the rest of the afternoon Auggie pretends to be her grandson Robert. He tells her how he’s got a good job now, that he owns his own store, that he’s met a lovely girl and they’re going to be married. All this brings a smile to her face and she replies “That’s fine Robert, that’s fine.”

Auggie decides to make lunch for the two of them, but when he goes to the cupboard he finds Granny Joe has no food. So he goes down the road and buys a chicken and breadrolls and salads, and brings it back for them to have lunch together. They open a bottle of wine Granny Joe has lying about and spend a wonderful afternoon together, Auggie still pretending to be her grandson Robert, and she pretending to believe he really is her grandson.

Later in the afternoon Auggie needs to go to the toilet. He walks down the hallway til he finds the bathroom. He goes in, and as he’s relieving himself he notices a stack of six polaroid cameras by the window. Brand new, still the box. Six of them. He thinks to himself, “I’ve never had a camera before, but I’d love to have one.” In a moment of decision he decides to take one of the cameras. After all, the old woman won’t know. She’s blind, she’s got no use for them. So he picks up one of the cameras and heads back to the lounge room. When he gets there Granny Joe has fallen asleep. He decides to let her sleep. He washes the dishes, cleans up the kitchen, picks up his coat and the camera, and walks out the door.

From that day on he starts taking photos of his shop, the Brooklyn Tobacco Co, on the corner of third and seventh. Every morning at exactly 8.00am, whatever the weather, he walks across the road and takes his photo. Over 14 years he documents life in his little comer of the world. It becomes his hobby, his life’s work.

A few years after that Christmas he stole the camera, Auggie decides to go and see Granny Joe again, to apologise for stealing the camera. But she’s no longer living there. He guesses she’s died, but his guilt pangs have not died with her. Fourteen years later as Auggie Wren tells his story to his friend Paul Benjamin the writer, he still feels guilty and ashamed for stealing that camera.

The story says something about all of us, not just Auggie Wren. It captures the human dilemma. On the one hand we’re capable of extraordinary acts of love and generosity, like Auggie’s gift of his presence to an old woman on a cold Christmas day. But on the other hand we’re capable, in exactly the same moment, of extraordinary selfishness, like Auggie when he steals a camera from the house of a lonely old blind woman. In Auggie we see ourselves, in all our glory and all our shame.


Hitler the Artist

Held in the United States Army of Military History are four watercolours by a soldier-artist of the early twentieth century. In the opinion of most art critics these wartime scenes are unexceptional. Historian William Shirer described them as “crude, stilted and lifeless”. Their value lies in the name of the artist in the bottom left hand corner: “A Hitler.”

Adolf Hitler’s name is synonymous with evil and brutality. Yet most people are unaware that before he became a dictator who menaced the world Adolf Hitler made his living selling his own paintings. When he was 18 years old Hitler even applied for admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He dreamed of becoming a great painter, but despite a flair for drawing, failed the entry tests.

Marylou Gjernes is the former curator of the US Army Art Collection. Reflecting on Hitler’s artworks she says, “It’s a side of him that no-one expects. You don’t expect to see an artist. It’s very incongruous and, in a way, it’s frightening. If someone who can perpetrate such evil can also have this softer side, then who’s to say that possibly isn’t in all of us?”


Source: Reported in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine June 1, 2002