The Fourth of July – A holiday reminding us of purpose and meaning
Every year that the Fourth of July rolls around I have to think of our great American leaders that were around at a time in dire need of defining and living a vision for the future when there was a sizable amount of unrest and uncertainty. All of it happened at a grand scale, but it all started small, based on pure human needs and fulfilment.
Purpose, meaning and standing up for humanity do not need a grand stage all the time though – it can happen to everyone. On the Fourth of July in 1944 it was my grandmother’s birthday and two very different folks defined greatness in a time of unrest and uncertainty for everyone.
You see, this took place in what is now Western Germany in a small village up North right behind a saw mill. A tiny forced labor camp was built on the premise and around 20 laborers were imprisoned there. I know this from many conversations with my grandparents and one wall still stands in my sister’s backyard that once belonged to this little prison. I still cannot fathom the terrors of the time. Understandably, the prisoners (forced labor is one thing, but they could go nowhere and that sounds like prison to me) must have been quite terrified working under suspicious circumstances. The majority of them had been “relocated” from Belgium and France to help out in the saw mill far away from home with no way to communicate with anyone. Not much better was the situation of the average German citizen. By this time the war was not going well and the Allied bombings reached even this little village and the nearest town called Hameln. The closer the Allies got the more the remaining Nazi’s terrorized everyone that was left behind. People old and able enough to hold a weapon were recruited to fight to the last moment. Granddad was a soldier at the Eastern front and visited home very few times.
The wood carving reads: “As a reminder (meaning gift), Happy Birthday, 4 July 1944.”
Here was Oma all alone tending to her sister’s two toddler children. Her sister had died shortly after the second child was born (my mom) and Oma could not stand the thought of the little ones who had been slated for separation and were to be sent elsewhere to other relatives. Yet Oma had a great heart even in the darkest of times. She could not bear the prisoner’s living conditions and the lack of food. Somehow she managed to slip in something extra to eat for them or just a little treat. The extreme conditions turned into their normalcy and at one point of time they even had a lot of fun. One day, the prisoners got to know that Erna’s (Oma’s) birthday was about to come around. The prisoners looked around and came up with two lovely presents. The included pictures show a little chest that they made her from scrap pieces of wood. They also made a little side table for her because they were so grateful for her empathy and compassion. Right after the village had been liberated by US troops a lot of the furniture and technology had been “liberated” from Oma’s house. It was a few of he ex-prisoners who later one week brought most items back to her. How about that for courage, empathy and compassion?
Can you image how both my grandmother and the prisoners must have felt? I get goose bumps every time that I think of them and the conditions that there were in and how they still were showing to each other that they shared being human.
It goes to show that greatness does never have to come at a grand scale, but it is important to realize that we all can do so much with very little. Most of the times it only takes a small thing that turns into greatness. That is where this story connects with our American history. Here is to you early American leaders and to you, the everyman and woman who have made and continue making a huge difference in so many lives. Thank you for your initiative, courage, and sacrifice. Have a Happy Fourth of July Holiday.