It is easy to become jaded, seeing all the horrors of war on our Facebook wall. It is easy to lose empathy with the suffering innocents when we see so many images of blood and mayhem, especially when some of them, unfortunately, are later proved to be fake.
But we are human, and we must somehow ignite our hearts when we encounter suffering. Not get agitated and angry and self-righteous, only to burn out and forget about it the next day. No, somehow we need to learn how to use that pain that we encounter in a way that changes things around us essentially.
No, I don’t actually mean that each one of us should become an activist. But there is a way that every person can essentially change the world after encountering innocent suffering. Fr. Zachariah of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in England, quoting the teachings of his spiritual forebears St. Silouan and Elder Sophrony of Essex, talks about people being “spiritual transformers.”
Whenever encountering any kind of emotion, instead of letting it affect you in ways that won’t help anyone, you should transform that emotion into strength to improve yourself. In the theology of these modern fathers (and, indeed, the Orthodox Church), every person who manages to transform himself from a lazy sinner to a sinner who actively seeks perfection in repentance and humility actively changes the world around him, both by his example and because human beings are intrinsically connected. Every improvement in a part of humanity effects an improvement in the whole.
For myself, I have been moved and pained by the death of children in the recent war in Eastern Ukraine. One of the more moving stories concerned a certain doctor named Liza who braved bombs and snipers to go into war zones to take children and bring them to safety. I wanted to include her as a character in my second novel, which is at least cursorily “about” the tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
The recent celebration of V-E day brought all this back to mind. For all the sufferings of the Middle East and Ukraine and other places today, the sufferings of the Russian people (and indeed all of Europe) during WWII was much worse.
WWII showed the reverse of the spiritual truth spoken of by Fr. Zachariah. If the improvement of some can effect great positive change in humanity, the spiritual depravity of others can cause lasting harm. Surely the horrors of the Nazis have contributed much to the general moral degradation around the world that people are only starting to wake up to.
And as so many of us get our fill watching Nazi-like horrors on Game of Thrones every week, maybe we should remember what happened during WWII, because if we don’t, what’s to stop us from becoming completely insensible to the sufferings of others?
As you read this first-hand account of a Russian nurse on the front, I urge you to use the strong emotions you are bound to feel to help fuel your own “spiritual transformer.”
Warning: very graphic content about atrocities committed against children.
Blood for Blood: the Reminiscences of Irina Nikolaevna Wolfson
“Please, nothing about me,” said pediatric cardiologist Irina Wolfson. “I want you to just tell this story. It was under Vjaz’ma. Early autumn 1942…”
By this time, Irina was already four months into her time as head surgeon at a field hospital on the front (No. 4464). There were only three people working under her, but every three or four days they had sixty new wounded. Her specialty was wound care of the appendages. Basically, all she had time to do was quickly amputate, wrap in bandages or casts, and send the wounded on, farther east to an actual hospital. She could manage only minutes at a time for sleep, working on a veritable conveyor belt of blood, pain, unimaginable tension.
In such a situation you had no choice–you had to turn off your emotions, otherwise you’d burn out. It was twice as hard for Irina, because her husband had been executed in 1941 merely for having a German last name, even though his family had moved to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. Plus, she had to leave her only son in Moscow with her mother, and he was only eight months old.
Vjaz’ma kept getting overrun, first by the Russians, then by the Germans, then the Russians again. When the Germans were finally cast out of the little town that had basically been burned to the ground, certain young women from the village, very upset, came to the field hospital at night. They said that in the nearby woods the Germans had set up a “hospital” for children. And some children were still there.
“Of course, we immediately ran over there,” she remembers, “The house–I remember there were columns, it was an old aristocratic estate house–was completely quiet. We walked into two rooms, recently painted white and immaculately clean. The first had a surgical table. The second was filled with children lying in white beds, covered in snow-white blankets. They were silent, like dolls. All of the were shaved bald, dressed only in undershirts and white underpants. Just like patients waiting to be operated on.”
They completely did not react when the nurses arrived. That was the most frightening thing. She had not seen such children, before or after. They were all from four to eight years old. When they carried them to the field hospital, something incredible began to happen among the wounded. The men began to weep and cry out in anger and horror. All of them began to say, “Take my blood! Give them my blood!”
They began blood transfusions that very night and continued the entire next day. It didn’t help. The children were dying, or rather, they were melting like candles. Without tears, without words. Completely indifferent to what was going on around them, to all the men who were ready to sacrifice everything to save them. Only two or three managed to actually say their names out loud.
From twenty, only eleven survived long enough to be taken to the hospital farther east along with the wounded. The rest were buried. But even those who survived did not last long. They probably did not even make it to the hospital alive.
It is obvious that these children were the victims of a horrifying experiment. This place was a blood donation point for soldiers, the officers of the Reich. After all, children’s blood was considered more “vital.” But for a small donor, whose circulatory system has not yet fully formed, the loss is irrevocable. And the Nazis did not even feed the children. They just pumped blood out of them.
That was fascism, which in Europe and maybe even in America no longer seems so horrifying.
“We don’t even know who was killed there,” she ended, quietly. After so many years, she spoke about this for the first time. Just as a fact. Only asking that everyone remember what happened not so long ago. It happened!
Lest we forget…
(“Za Kaluzhskoj Zastavoi” #16 (403) May 11, 2005)