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Advent Activity Discussion 3 – ‘The World’ of the Second World War

2012-12-15T11:33:41+10:00

It is unsettling to realize that at least a part of Etty’s ‘world’ was my world too. When she and her family and so many other Jewish people were dying at Auschwitz in 1943, my secondary schooling was beginning modestly in Sydney.

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All too obviously, our respective wars, hers and mine, were lived with markedly different levels of risk. My family turned out to be relatively sheltered from the war’s worst misfortunes. Others close to us, though, in neighbourhood or parish or school, were not. Anywhere in Australia at the time, one would have been aware of friends and neighbours in prison camps like Changi; and would have known many houses with stars in their front- room windows indicating that loved ones of theirs in the services had died. Inevitably, we were fearful, especially when the war came so close to our shores. American propagandist films had schooled us in the perils: our women were going to be raped and the rest of us enslaved once the brutal Japanese arrived. And of course, even in Sydney we did come under attack – in a certain sense. I remember being in the Enmore picture- show late one night with an aunt of mine when the air-raid alarms went off, for real. We had to walk home in the blackout. And when we got there, found the family huddled together under the stairs in our trim ‘shelter’. Japanese submarines had shelled Bondi, and mini subs were able to infiltrate the harbour’s defences and sink a ship. Apart from the bombings of Darwin (which were more serious than most of us realized at the time)I think this was our one and only non-combatant ’emergency’.

Etty Hillesum, on the other hand, would have defined her ’emergency’ in different terms. She wore the yellow star that marked her out as an enemy of the state and left her open to all kinds of villification. She saw her own people being mistreated, thrown into prison camps and transported east, for reasons no ordinary observer really knew. Etty herself, as we see in the diaries, was soon reading the signs and drawing dire conclusions. But one suspects the ultimate reality turned out to be too terrible even for her to predict. Whatever about that, the danger facing her was up close, and very, very personal. And what she was involved in was something human beings had scarcely ever inflicted on their kin (even their worst enemies) previously.

But, when that might have seemed impossible, things did manage to become even worse. After Etty was dead and the Holocaust was over, another peak in human horror was reached. In the closing stages of the Pacific war, the Allied side all but matched their fascist opponents’ immorality. ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, as they were wryly called, the two atomic bombs, were dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively on 6 and 9 August 1945. As with the Holocaust, this event’s true horror only gradually became clear. And again, the event’s consequences turned out to be even more dire than anyone might have imagined. The nuclear technology spread, bombs proliferated, and a different kind of ongoing world conflict became a reality – the so-called Cold War’. Most human consciences seemed to have become worn out by this time, and the argument that these bombings actually saved lives by bringing about Japan’s surrender, prevailed in most circles. There was, however, the odd brave dissenter – one in Sydney, as it turned out. Asking the question in “The Catholic Weekly”, just a few days after the dropping of the second bomb, “What Should a Catholic Think of the Atomic Bomb and its Use”, an Irish priest who was Professor of Moral Theology at Manly College, John Nevin, was entirely clear about his answer. And he was untroubled about declaring it bluntly, even though his view must have seemed unpatriotic to very many. I mention his name with respect.

My own education in the bombs’ impact only properly began a decade or more later. This happened unexpectedly, when I was in Rome for a year’s study and lived in a college for priests from many countries. It became my good fortune to go off to lectures early each day with a Japanese priest who had been severely damaged by the bomb that had fallen on Nagasaki, his home city. And as I came to know this calm, even-tempered man better, his injuries became increasingly offensive to me. Knowing the person made all the difference. At the same time I was learning more about Japan from a different quarter. In college I grew close to a Sydney priest, older than myself, who, along with a half-dozen or so colleagues, had worked in parishes in Japan for nearly a decade immediately after the Pacific War ended. Their being sent there was a gesture of good-will to our country’s former enemies on the part of Sydney’s archbishop, Cardinal Gilroy. And his instinct for how reconciliation might be re-built turned out to be sound. I soon discovered my friend’s deep love for Japan, and his affinity with its people and culture. And the extent to which his pastoral efforts were appreciated was shown to me much later, when I happened to visit the Catholic Cathedral at Goulburn, and found there a tasteful altar dedicated to his memory by the people of his former parish. It was in Goulburn because the man later became an auxiliary bishop there.
When it comes to making the world a better place, I guess this man’s work among Japan’s people must surely have achieved more than the protests against the Bomb that I and others like me became involved in over the years. Our efforts were well-meaning, I suppose; but look now to have been far too impersonal to have made much difference. Would Etty have joined ‘Ban the Bomb’ campaigns, I ask myself? Or would she have stood somewhere else, much closer to the action – alongside liberationists of her own kind, fellow-sufferers, standing and dying with them?

Which raises another question in my mind – about Fr Pedro Arrupe, SJ, whose name often crops up at St Canice’s. Like St Ignatius himself, he was a Basque, but was born in Bilbao, not Loyola. He studied medicine in Madrid, joined the Jesuits and then later went to Japan as a missionary, arriving just before the Second World War began. He was imprisoned in bad conditions by the government for a time when war did start; but after his release, took charge of the Jesuit novices on the outskirts of Hiroshima and was there when the bomb dropped in 1945. What he saw when he entered the city on the day following looks to have changed his life markedly. He and his novices helped care for as many of the injured as they could, and Arrupe himself laboured long afterwards to publicize the horrific impact of the bomb. When he became Father General of the Jesuits in 1965, he encouraged the Society to adopt many of those positions we now instinctively associate with it – the option for the poor and the world-wide work for refugees, for example. Might this inspired leadership have had anything to do with his experience at Hiroshima, I wonder? (We might ask Fr Phil to comment. He met Fr Arrupe on a number of occasions in Rome and elsewhere.

At our discussion on Sunday, Marg Walsh will introduce discussion on the passages in Kidder’s ‘The Single Life’ section (pp. 70-79). And Juliet Darling will take us through the closing sections, starting with “Simplicity of Speech and Lifestyle” (pp.89-104). Our thanks to them both.

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