America’s favorite TV uncle Mr. Rogers once said:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
“Look for the helpers.”
It’s good advice, especially in trying times.
That’s why for this installment of the “5 Best Books for Brilliant Writers” series, I decided to feature some incredibly brave helpers.
Of course, there are helpers everywhere, in every time, place, and situation. So I had to narrow the theme down a little bit, focusing on stories of helpers who helped during wars during which perpetrators attempted genocide.
The following books tell the stories of real, ordinary people who in their own quiet way served and saved others not only the most infamous Holocaust in Europe, but also the lesser-known Pacific Theater side of WWII, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Rape of Nanking.
In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke
“If you are only a girl, this is how you destroy your enemies.” — Irene Gut Opdyke
In My Hands is a memoir by Irene Gut Opdyke that reads like a novel. Seriously. The crazy risks Irene took, the dangers she both thwarted and succumbed to, the people she worked with, and helped, and hurt her, and saved her…partway through reading this book I literally had to turn it over and double check to make sure this was not historical fiction I was reading, but an actual real person’s actual real history.
Irene was a Polish student nurse who got caught up in the middle of WWII when German Nazis took over Poland. Separated from her family for years, she managed to survive, and not just survive, but save a dozen Jews right under the Nazis’ noses by hiding them…in a Nazi officer’s house.
If you want to read the details on how she pulled of this incredible feat, try this book. But I warn you, although it’s a thrilling and almost unbelievable story, there are moments of great suffering and sadness as well. As is the case with all the true stories that happened during that terrible time in history.
The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
“Almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances.” — Iris Chang
The Rape of Nanking is a heavy, heavy book. I would not recommend it for anyone who is overly sensitive or too young to know how evil this world can be. Iris Chang doesn’t sugarcoat the horror of the Nanjing Massacre, which took place right before World War II, and resulted in the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians.
Chang herself seems to have been deeply affected by the tragic and grotesque stories she uncovered during the writing of the book…and it may or may not have contributed to her eventual suicide at age 36.
However, the reason why I include this book in this list is because of the heroic actions of the members of the Nanking International Safety Committee, ironically led by a member of the Nazi party.
While Chinese citizens were being slaughtered and tortured left and right, and the majority of non-Chinese foreigners were fleeing back to their respective countries, a small group of insanely brave Americans and Europeans chose to stay and protect the Nanking citizens, ultimately preserving the lives of about 250,000 people.
As Iris herself writes:
“The heroic efforts of the Americans and Europeans during this period are so numerous (their diaries run for thousands of pages) that it is impossible to narrate all of their deeds here.”
…But a good place to start would be by reading about them in this book!
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
“Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain.” — Corrie Ten Booms
The Ten Boom family is one of the most famous Holocaust rescuers, thanks to the stories of the lone survivor, Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie, her elderly father, and her sister hid Jews in their home until they were betrayed by someone they thought was a friend. The three were then thrown into the concentration camps, where first Corrie’s father, and then her sister, were killed.
The Hiding Place is the story of the little family with the great faith and courage, and their experiences defying the evil totalitarians in their own quiet way. It goes through the before, during, and after of Corrie’s experiences under Nazi rule and in the concentration camps, including the amazing forgiveness she preached and demonstrated after enormous loss.
Desmond Doss In God’s Care by Frances Doss
“Please, Lord, help me get one more.” — Desmond Doss
Desmond Doss was the only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for his services as an unarmed medic in the Pacific Theater during WWII.
A devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss had peculiar beliefs that he held to with integrity despite people’s ridicule and abuse. For one, he kept the Sabbath by refusing to work on Saturday (and picking up the slack on other days), and for another, he refused to kill — he wouldn’t even touch a gun.
Yet, he refused the opportunity to evade the war and chose to serve as a medic, without a single weapon for self defense. Then, during a particularly gruesome battle, Doss single-handedly rescued 75+ injured servicemen by dragging them one by one to the edge of a cliff and lowering them down to safety, even as enemy forces did their best to shoot him.
Years after these events, Desmond Doss’ story was made into a movie: 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge.
I’m Not Leaving by Carl Wilkens
“[Radio message from Wilkens to US consulate] As a private American citizen, I do have a choice. I’m not leaving. Over.”— Carl Wilkens
In I’m Not Leaving, Carl Wilkens tells his story, as the only American who refused to leave the country during the mass killings. Wilkens and his family lived in Rwanda because of his position as the director of ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, a church humanitarian organization.
When the president of Rwanda was killed, setting off the 100-day Rwandan Genocide, all the foreigners were told by the UN and their respective national organizations to evacuate.
Wilkens sent his parents, wife, and children away, but chose to stay, in order to protect the Rwandan nanny and guard living with their family, who were not allowed to leave and whose lives were in danger from the killers.
Over the next few months, Wilkens, along with a local pastor and his wife, and a handful of other helpers, including foreign Catholic nuns and some locals, not only kept themselves alive, but did what they could to sustain and protect the people around them (including hundreds of orphans).
Wilkens and the friends he was protecting all survived the genocide, and his family later returned to Rwanda to help with the rebuilding efforts. This book tells his story of that tragic, turbulent time, in his own words.
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