A swarm of cold & hungry bees find refuge in our topbar hive: Photo by Nicole Herbert


Sadananda and Michael installing bees: Photo by Nicole Herbert


Ma and Akacia watch as Sadananda and Michael install bees: Photo by Nicole Herbert

For the last few years, we've been keeping bees at Alandi Ashram. The garden is fragrant with the scent of propolis and honey and abuzz with bees busily pollinating the garden. Yet keeping bees alive is becoming increasingly difficult.

We've all heard of neonicotinoid pesticides and how they precipitate colony collapse disorder in bees. Banned in the EU to save bees, this class of pesticides continues to be used in the US, where the Department of Agriculture has refused to ban it.

Today, I want to talk about another hazard that bees face. In our years of keeping bees, we've realized that bees are climate change victims, suffering even more than their keepers from extreme weather events.

Initially, we didn't have our own bees, but a neighbour placed a beehive in our garden to enjoy our flowers and help pollinate--with dramatic results in the garden's productivity. Then drought and forest fires began to plague the Boulder area. Watering restrictions made it hard to keep the garden in bloom. Our friendly beekeeper gave up keeping bees.

Next, we had our very own bees, with all the emotional upheavals that go with losing your pets. Beekeeping went quite well at first, but as CO2 levels have increased, so has extreme weather. Drought and forest fire made the local black bears hungry, short of berries for winter food. Some moved from the foothills into town. And so a neigbourhood black bear was one of the first unexpected hazards our bees faced. He, or she, broke down our fence in an attempt to get to the hive. We saw the bear's paw prints right in front of the hive. We'll never know whether a car entering the next-door parking lot spooked the bear, or whether the bees themselves fought him off.

Another extreme weather event that is becoming increasingly common is the polar vortex phenomenon. It's challenging to keep Italian honeybees warm when it's twenty below--and more so when this occurs unseasonably. The November 2014 polar vortex will have long-term effects on bee forage. Just yesterday our neighbour showed us two wild plum trees killed by that weather event. She said that many fruit trees around town were killed, lowering the amount of bee forage available in the crucial weeks of spring.

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2014 Polar Votex

Of course, our most extreme weather event was the 2013 Boulder Flood Disaster. I was so busy at the time taking care of flooded rooms and indoor mold that I did not realize that water had also entered the hives. The winter store of honeycomb moulded and we lost our bees yet again. In fact, Boulder County lost ninety percent of its bees as a result of the flood.

Fall of 2014 brought an amazing Indian summer. It was an enjoyable time in many ways, but disastrous for the bees. Instead of hunkering down in their own hives, local bees were out raiding other hives. All our three hives were raided and our bees slaughtered--a painful event because, as I've said, they are our pets.

Spring of 2015 rolled around, and our bee support person, Michael has brought us three swarms. But we have been having an exceptionally wet and cold spring, so there is little to no forage for the bees. Rainstorms keep knocking the pollen and nectar off the available flowers. And the newly installed swarms don't have any stores built up for rainy days. The swarm in the pictures had been out in the rain and cold for two days. In desperation, we've begun feeding our bees. And we've added the winter insulation to the exterior of the hives. The swarm that had been out in the rain was too exhausted even to make it to the feeder. Instead, we sprayed bee food on the bees, so they could lick each other clean and gain strength that way. We don't know if that colony will make it or not , but on the occasional sunny intervals we've seen some of them flying around.


Feeding the bees, winter insulation in place in late May.

The environment is a system, a web of life. Extreme cold kills bees. Lack of berries means more bear predation. Shortage of forage makes for more bee raiding. Whatever affects the flowers affects the bees. Whatever affects the bees will in the end affect us, for we depend upon pollinators for food.

How can you help:

  • Don't use pesticides
  • Let your dandelions bloom, a crucial early food for bees and hummingbirds
  • Grow bee-friendly plants like members of the mint and borage families.
  • Let your bolted mustards and arugula bloom.
  • Grow some clover on your lawn and let it bloom.
  • Most of all--become a climate change activist!


See Ma's speech on video!

See Ma's song on Video!

Honoured guests, faculty, staff, graduates and students, each of you in your own way a part of our Alandi family,

Today's graduation is a unique occasion, taking place, as it does, during our Silver Jubilee Year. Twenty-five years ago, we rented the little garden level apartment here. After looking at many depressing spaces, we felt sure that in this humble place we could make our dreams a reality. This vision has proved true--but not without challenges. When we first arrived we had a rock band, The Samples, as our upstairs neigbours. We had to listen to the same guitar riffs beings played over and over, all day and into the night! Next, a single mothers' collective took over. They were great neighbours--but children can sound like baby elephants when you are meditating and they are playing overhead. Finally, after seven years confined to the basement, we had the opportunity to take over the lease of the entire house and create the facility you see today.

We are located on a clay bank with no topsoil to speak of, so initially the garden yielded nothing but Canada thistles and bindweed. Then we discovered soil amendment and double digging. We created the garden patiently, by hand, lugging buckets of compost for the beds and wheelbarrows of rocks for the borders. We built the firepit according to Dr. Lad's instructions. We made our own ceramic vessel for bathing the shiva lingam--an Indian ritual honouring the union of form and emptiness. We started an Ayurvedic pharmacy from scratch.

Twenty years ago, we began weekly chanting for world peace and healing on Monday nights. Our initial inspiration was the then dire environmental situation at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant--now Rocky Flats plutonium-laced so-called Wildlife Refuge. From our inception, we have practiced an engaged spirituality weaving justice and peace concerns with contemplative practices. The Ayurveda gurukula gives us the opportunity to pass this approach on to younger generations of seekers.

So today, we celebrate twenty-five years of caring community. And we honour the contibutions Larisa, Matt and Nicole have made to this community. Larisa has always been ready to step in and support with everything from a new peace rose to a vegan chocolate cake. Our caring community has been a vital source of support for her journey through metastatic cancer, as well as the painful situation with conflict in Ukraine, her native land. Aland is a spiritual home for Larisa for the six years now and I'm sure she will continue to find ways to stay involved.

Nicole and Matt arrived at Alandi just in time for the 2013 Boulder Flood Disaster. Despite the stressful situation--sitting in class surrounded by boxes, with the Shivalingam in front and pharmacy behind us, they were unwavering in their commitment and always ready to take on responsibilities. One of the first things Matt said to me was, "If you need any heavy lifting, I can take care of it." The second was, "I can help with shopping." Both of these have been much appreciated--but Matt's abilities as a community builder have been an even greater asset.

When Nicole was asked if she was willing to take over as pharmacy manager, she said 'yes' even before she found out that the position carried a full work-study. She simply wanted to be of service and be more involved with the herbs. Nicole has been keeping pharmacy going with ease and tranquility. She gently nurtures the students' medicine making skills. We are delighted that she will be continuing her studies up to the degree of Ayurvedic doctor.

In an age that rewards greed and celebrates selfishness, creating caring community is both challenging and counter-cultural. Alandi is a microcosm of the reign of love and loving-kindness--the radical solution to the numerous social and environmental problems that plague us as a nation and a world. If we care about drought in the horn of Africa, we will take strong action on climate change--and thus save ourselves. If we care about conflicts raging in the Middle East and North Africa, we will demand global economic justice--and solve terrorism by love, not war. If we care about species extinction, we will nurture a more diverse and beautiful world for our children. If we create a caring society, we ourselves will have happier and less stressful lives.

In honour of this special jubilee year, I have written a song for you. Here is, the Caring Community Song.

The youngest girls are just thirteen,

They work all day, they sob all night,

Until the little matchgirls strike

And set the world alight.

A new day has dawned for us,

A fresh new song is in the air.

Join hands in community

For a world of sharing and caring.

A man is walking to the sea,

To make the salt is forbidden,

And thousands more shall march with him

In soul-force for freedom.

A new day has dawned for us,

A fresh new song is in the air.

Join hands in community

For a world of sharing and caring.

The cattle cars roll through the town,

The German wives are weeping.

They pour the water for thirsty mouths

And take their daily beating.

A new day has dawned for us,

A fresh new song is in the air.

Join hands in community

For a world of sharing and caring.

On Selma Bridge with heads held high

They walk into a sea of blue,

The future held in bleeding hands,

They march for me, for you.

A new day has dawned for us,

A fresh new song is in the air.

Join hands in community

For a world of sharing and caring.

So come, my friends and walk with me,

Where King and Gandhi have gone before

And by the little matchgirl's light

Let us live each for all.

Each for all and all for each,

A fresh new song is in the air.

All for each and each for all,

For a world of sharing and caring.

A new day has dawned for us,

A fresh new song is in the air.

Join hands in community

For a world of sharing and caring.

Black Spring

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Recently, my double cousin had her DNA tested, revealing that a stream of our ancestry comes from Benin or Togo, a centre for the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves from this part of Africa were mostly shipped off to Brazil. This does not come as a surprise--we all know that our great-great-grandmother was black. And Auntie Bertha, her daughter, told my grandmother we were descended from African slaves transported to Brazil. From there, our ancestor Richard Charnock must have been 'pressed' into the British navy, arriving in the port of Rochester.

My ancestor's slave collar has haunted from time to time in terrifying nightmares. I clutch my neck and try to rip off the collar. Then I wake up --and the nightmare is over. For my African ancestors, there was no waking from the nightmare of slavery. Today, too many descendants of slaves have their own waking nightmares of poverty, racism and police brutality.

Following events in Baltimore, a new hashtag has emerged on Twitter--Black Spring. It's easy to throw up our hands in horror and condemn actions such as those in Baltimore in recent days--especially if we have viewed these events through the lens of mainstream media. Other media sources, from Mother Jones to Al Jazeera, have pointed to converging provocations: public transport being shut down so high schoolers couldn't get home, excess police presence inflaming passions, even reports on social media of agents provocateurs who were actually undercover police.

We admired revolutionaries in Tahrir Square or Tunis; we gave military aid for the Libyan revolution; we supported protestors in Ukraine. We respect those who raise their voices and risk their lives for democracy in far away places. We honour our own revolutionaries who won independence from Britain. But black youth making themselves heard in our own cities are seen as troublemakers, not as fighters for a just cause. The words Black Spring remind us that recent events are not just an outburst such as we might see when a baseball team loses. The protests, peaceful and otherwise, that have been taking place ever since the killing of Michael Brown are symptomatic of something much larger--people are standing up for their rights and they won't sit down and take it any more.

We need a Black Spring because Black lives don't seem to matter to the world. We need a Black Spring in America, because we have yet to live up to our pledge of liberty and justice for all. Just this week, Israel's Ethiopian Jews launched their own Black Spring in protest against racism and police brutality. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement inspired them too. We need a Black Spring in the UK, where inordinate numbers of black youth are imprisoned, often for offences that would be better handled by restorative justice. We need a Black Spring in the other former colonial powers, France and Belgium. We need a Black Spring in our international organizations and our financial systems that force African nations into poverty to service debt. The world needs a Black Spring, because none of us are free until all of us are free, and justice for some is justice for none. I'll give the last word to Bob Marley.

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight
Get up, stand up. Life is your right
So we can't give up the fight
Stand up for your right, Lord, Lord
Get up, stand up. Keep on struggling on
Don't give up the fight!


"Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in Cuba" by USHMM, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park.

Today, Sunday 26th April, German president Joachim Gauck donned a black velvet yarmulke to speak and shed heartfelt tears at a ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Germany has accepted full responsibility for all the atrocities perpetrated in the name of the German people. But what about the rest of us? We like to see ourselves as the heroic liberators, the defeaters of Nazism, saviours of freedom and the rule of law. But In July of 1938, where were we? Where was our humanity at the time of the notorious conference at Évian-les-Bains?

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Survivor Maria Gniatczyk, German president Joachim Gauck and the Duke of Gloucester, front from left, listen to a survivor's speech during a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Bergen, northern Germany, Sunday, April 26, 2015.. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) (The Associated Press)

At this conference, convened to address the plight of escalating numbers of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, both the USA and Britain refused to accept any substantial number of refugees. The rest of the thirty-two countries at the conference followed suit--with the exception of the Dominican Republic, which offered to accept 100,000 Jews--although only about 700 actually succeeded in making the hazardous journey.

No story could be more pitiful than that of the so-called 'Ship of Fools'--the voyage of the MS St Louis to bring almost a thousand Jews across the Atlantic to safety. The refugees were refused entry to Cuba, their original destination. According to authors Rabbi Ted Falcon & David Blatner, "America not only refused their entry but even fired a warning shot to keep them away from Florida's shores." Canada likewise refused the refugees and the St Louis turned back. (It is not known why the ship did not go to the Dominican Republic). Britain accepted only a few and the rest returned to Europe to meet their fate. Many died in internment camps or were murdered in Auschwitz.

Today there are many 'ships of fools'--desperate refugees from Syria, people fleeing conflict zones in Africa, as well as those unable to find a decent life in their homeland. The misery they are fleeing is so appalling that it seems worthwhile to leave everything they have ever known and risk their lives in flimsy vessels on the Mediterranean. Those we see as 'economic migrants' --and thereby illegitimized--are in fact victims of converging and mutually exacerbating stressors that include global economic disparities, international financial policies, post-colonialism and climate change.

While we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, paradoxically, we allow thousands of refugees to drown--viewing their plight more as a security issue than a humanitarian one. Just yesterday a thousand people took ship from Yemen to the comparative safety of Somalia. Can you imagine being in such danger and misery that Somalia seems like a better option than your ancestral home?

We in the Western countries lead comparatively safe and comfortable lives. But we have our own difficulties. Why should we let in people who will take our jobs, depend upon our welfare systems, overwhelm our charities? Why--because we are all human.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

One version of a quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller.

With all the uncertainties created by climate change, we should remember the Pastor's words. I live a great, if simple life here in Boulder. We have space to grow our own vegetables and I don't need a car because I can walk everywhere. But in 2013 I became a climate change victim myself during the Boulder Flood Disaster. As sea levels rise, as arid regions dry and resource-based conflicts increase, none of us knows if we will be the next to be displaced.

It's important that we commemorate the Holocaust. The millions who died--my own relatives among them--should never be forgotten. We should also not let them die in vain. Let us fertilize the seeds of humanity and compassion with their ashes and water them with our tears. We cannot change the past, but we can and must show humanity today and create a brighter future for all.


Remembering Vietnam

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In 1975, I was living as a postulant in the Convent of the Assumption, Kensington Square in West London. Here I had two close friends, Sister Evelyn, from Bavaria and Sister Emmanuel Bac, from Vietnam. Each of us was barely five feet tall and, as well as our mutual passion for a life of prayer and service, we shared the camaraderie of being able to converse at eye level and walk comfortably arm-in-arm. Evelyn was quiet, soft-spoken and serious, burdened by the atrocities that had taken place in her country shortly before she was born. I was enthusiastic and intensely creative, yet grappling with the appalling death of my relatives in the Holocaust. And Emmanuel Bac was naturally joyous and light-hearted, but faced the daily horror of the Vietnam War. Bac was the name of her native village. Upon entering religious life, she took the name Emmanuel Bac, meaning, 'God dwells with us in Bac.' Emmanuel and I looked up to Evelyn, who was approaching her final vows. So despite her quiet nature, Evelyn was the leader. She taught us to 'share' by sitting in a circle and expressing our deepest feelings and aspirations.

I was in medical school, while Evelyn and Emmanuel were busy with their religious studies leading to their vows, but we spent every possible moment together. We studied together at wooden desks beneath the attic roof of the juniorate. We sat together in the corner and shared. We strolled in the garden together. We sang together in choir--Emmanuel and I in unison with our soaring soprano voices while Evelyn sweetly sang the alto line.

Easter was early that year. The next day, 31st March, I brought Emmanuel Bac to see the Easter Monday parade, something I had always enjoyed as a child. Hand in hand, we wormed our way to the front of the crown to enjoy the glittering sight of Pearly Kings and Queens, their costumes adorned with mother-of pearl buttons. When my parents came to London to visit me, soon after Easter, they we thrilled to meet both Sister Evelyn and Sister Emmanuel Bac. Meanwhile, Emmanuel introduced me to London's Vietnamese community, who voted me an honorary Vietnamese--an oriental in a white body. Always quite shy, I enjoyed the welcome I found among my Vietnamese friends. I even learnt a little Vietnamese, a language so musical it is almost sung rather than merely spoken.

Only a month after the Easter Parade, I came home from the hospital one Wednesday to find Emmanuel Bac sitting in Mother Provincal's office, white and shaken and the whole convent in a state of shock. While I was tending to children on the leukaemia ward, she had received the news of the fall of Saigon. Tense days passed as we waited for word of her family. When the news did come, it was not good news. Her brother had been killed. And now I learnt something new about my friend. Outside our tender 'sharing' circles, she did not reveal her feelings. There was always a smile on her face, even when she was crying inside.

The months flowed on. Sister Evelyn took her final vows and left the Juniorate. Emmanuel Bac got leave of absence to connect with surviving family members who had escaped Vietnam. I graduated medical school and began working at West Suffolk Hospital. Our different adult lives pulled Evelyn, Emmanuel Bac and I into different locations, even though our hearts remained united. Today, forty years on from the Fall of Saigon, I know that I will never forget my friend and the rest of London's Vietnamese community. The sorrow of that war remains with me in an intimate way, because I shared a heart with someone who was so deeply impacted by it.

The war ended forty years ago, but the tragedies it created cannot end. They are felt among generations of Vietnamese, both those living in Vietnam and those forced into exile. They are felt, too, among thousands of traumatized American veterans and their families or widows. Almost sixty thousand American families have an empty seat at the table as a direct result of the war--many more when we consider suicides or alcohol-related deaths arising from the Vietnam experience. Millions of Vietnamese have lost loved ones, as my friend Emmanuel Bac did, and feel those losses no less keenly. We found paradise and turned it into hell through colonialism and modern warfare. At the time, the Vietnam War inspired a generation of young people to become activists for peace. Their cause remains only too relevant today, as wars rage on on Africa and the Middle East. To misquote Bob Dylan;

How many deaths will it take 'til we know

That too many people have died?

It is a stretch to call this piece 'living witnesses', as we are going to introduce you to an inanimate object--a small printing press. We 'met' this amazing witness last summer in Assisi--and what a story he has to tell! Please take a few minutes to hear:

The story of the printing press.

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I'm retired now and live in a museum. But for many years I worked in a small souvenir shop in Assisi, printing prayer cards for pilgrims who came for St Francis' blessing. Just how powerful that blessing was, none of us knew, until the dark times came. You see, in September 1943, just as our friends the British and Americans landed in the South of Italy, our 'allies' the Germans occupied Umbria and all of Northern Italy. With war now raging in our beautiful land, all the monuments and pilgrim sites of Italy were under threat of bombing--and the Italian people were in dire straits. Worst of all, Italy's Jews were now threatened with deportation to the East.

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The Brizi Souvenir Shop

Well, my friends, the first blessing came from an unexpected direction--the Bavarian officer in command of Assisi. Col. Valentin Müller was a fine man, a medical doctor, very devout, went to mass at the Tomb of San Francesco every day, or so I heard. (Sitting all day in a popular souvenir shop, you hear all the local gossip, you see.) It was he who arranged for Assisi to be designated a hospital city. As such, not only were we spared the Allied bombings, we were also freed from the presence of German troops--making it much easier for us to hide people in our midst. The Colonel must have known what we were up to, but he turned a blind eye to our efforts to save people from the death camps. For that was what we did--save three hundred Jews--and in a city which had never before, or since, had a Jewish community!

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Col. Valentin Müller

The next blessing was equally unexpected--our Fascist mayor, Arnaldo Fortini. He was a kind man, a lover of San Francesco and Santa Chiara in his own way. He even wrote a biography of St Francis! Not only did he too play a part in lobbying for Assisi's demilitarized status, he also risked a lot to support our efforts, passing on warnings of impending Nazi raids.


You see, once we became a hospital city, a safe zone in the midst of bombing, our population was swollen by thousands of refugees. And among them were several hundred desperate Jews who had heard about the kindness of Fortini and hoped they might be safe here. They got more than they could have hoped for. No hiding in sewers or barns for the Jews that came to us. And that's where I played a very important part, as you will soon hear.

The third blessing for Assisi in those days was surely our wonderful Bishop, Guiseppe Placido Nicolini. He had already set up a "Committee for Assistance" to help the refugees. Under cover of this committee, he began the dangerous and difficult work of saving Jews. Our Holy Father, Pope Pius XII of blessed memory, had ordered Catholic institutions to save, hide and protect the Jews. And the humble and tireless Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, coordinated all these efforts.

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Bishop Nicolini

The plan was to give all the Jews false papers--and that's where I and my owners, Luigi and Trento Brizi, came into the picture, you see. Father Aldo Brunacci was placed in charge of the rescue operation, along with Father Ruffino Niacci. Friar Niacci was a simple man from an Umbrian village who had never even met a Jew before! Yet he rose to the occasion and did what San Francesco would have done. I will never forget the day when Niacci came into our store to ask us to print the false papers. Luigi agreed to do this, at risk of his own life. And young Trento rode his bike to Foligno to get a friend who was expert in etching to create the seals. The documents were produced here by yours truly and taken to a different location to be stamped. I made false papers for other Jews too, those who just passed through Assisi and went on to live elsewhere

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Luigi Brizi


An example of the false papers

When the Jews first arrived, they were hidden in various convents and private homes and even in the Bishop's palace. I can tell you, our Bishop Nicolini was not above giving his own bed to the exhausted refugees. But the Bishop was not content to keep the Jews in hiding. His plan was that they should not just survive, but thrive to the greatest extent possible. And thanks to the fake identity documents I produced, the Jews were able to rent apartments, work within the community, obtain rations, and--most importantly of all to the Bishop--the children could attend school.

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Father Ruffino Niacci at tree planting ceremony in Yad Vashem, being honoured as Righteous among the Nations

The Bishop felt it important to care for all the spiritual and material needs of our Jewish friends. He kept their valuables and money in his vault for them and hid their special religious objects in his palace cellars. He and dear Father Aldo constructed false walls with their own hands to create hiding places for sacred texts and other Jewish items. And when a family wanted to leave, the pair broke open the wall with a pick and shovel and then re-plastered it. He made sure the Jews could celebrate their special holidays, too. I remember Yom Kippur of 1943 and how the Sisters prepared the fast-break meal for the Jews. And the indomitable Father Aldo even arranged for a secret Hebrew school for the Jewish children to learn their faith!


Don Aldo Brunacci

There was one family I could not help. The Finzis from Belgium had arrived early in the war and were already registered as Jews. Well, you will never guess what our Bishop did! He hid them in the most secure hiding place he had--the strict enclosure of the French Colettine Poor Clares. Here their baby was born and here they celebrated the Passover Seder with the nuns. How beautiful that our sisters, whose enclosure was so strict, allowed a family to live with them to save their lives!


Colettine Poor Clare Monastery

On 17th May 1944, we were horrified to learn that Don Aldo and some other members of our network were arrested. Thanks be to God, Montini was able to get them out. That was a blessing in itself. But the greatest blessing of all was simply the fact that not one of the Jews who came to Assisi was lost. By our collaborative effort and all the risks we took, we were able to save three hundred lives. And how many old printing presses could say that?


Some of those who were saved

Last summer Alakananda and Sadananda came to visit me here in the Museum of Memory, housed in the beautiful Palazzo Vallemani, where I live surrounded by false papers I printed and pictures of Bishop Nicolini, Don Aldo, Friar Niacci, Mayor Fortini, Col Müller, my owners and some of the dear ones we saved. My new friends stroked me lovingly and Sadananda took several photographs of me. Tears were sparkling in their eyes--tears of gratitude for those whom we saved and tears of sorrow for the millions who were lost. We can only hope and pray for a future when--by San Francesco's blessing--nobody will ever be killed because of their race, colour or creed.

Hear Don Aldo's testimony here.



Related Links: Living Witnesses Part 8: An Umbrian Teenager

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Wandering through the beautiful hill town of Spello in Umbria, we met the amazing elder pictured here. Spello is described as 'Assisi without Francis.' Close to Assisi and built of the same glowing pink stone, Spello represents what Assisi would be like without all the souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and crowds of pilgims. It is a peaceful and picturesque place. Yet our friend was eager to tell us of a time when the beautiful Umbrian plain and the slopes of Subasio were anything but peaceful. In the latter years of the war, Umbria was under Nazi occupation--and Allied bombardment. Foligno, in the plain below Spello, was particularly hard hit, reducing most of the historic town to rubble. Perhaps our friend was in Foligno at the time.

"Bomba! Bomba!" he said, wide eyes lifted towards the skies, once so dangerous, hands portraying the massive shocks of bombardment. 'Brroooom!"

Due to the rudimentary nature of my Italian--and his lack of teeth--it was difficult to grasp the details of the story. But the sheer terror of those times was vivdly portrayed for us. Even more telling was the fact that, seventy years on, this was the only thing he wanted to talk about. On a warm and peaceful summer afternoon in a delightful town, the horror of those days was still alive for him.

Italy is the quintessence of Western civilization, home to a heritage that belongs to all humanity; home too, of the people who have nurtured that heritage. The war destroyed many irreplaceable monuments and places of beauty and left Italian civilians hungry and terrified. Today, proxy wars around North Africa and the Middle East continue to destroy the monuments of Greek, Roman and still earlier great civilizations. Many today live in the same fear our friend endured as a boy. Our Umbrian friend, like our other living witnesses, reminds us that the ending of one war is not necessarily peace. As long as any young person looks to the sky in fear, peace has not yet come.

As Saint Francis said in blessing Brother Leo:

May the Lord
bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you
and be merciful to you.
May He turn His countenance to you
and give you peace.

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Umbrian plain, by Sadananda

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.


Dick Newell was born in 1919, in the tiny coal-mining town of Red Lodge, Montana, (pop. 3,000) at the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park. Miners had been brought in from many lands, so the town had seven nationalities--Italians, Yugoslavs and so on. At first the Catholics and Protestants kept themselves to themselves. "But in time they got to intermarrying and forgot all about who went to which church and we became a very good community," Dick said.

"In such a small town you get well acquainted and the High School was crammed with good athletes from every community--Finnish, Yugoslav, Italian--you name it. I was among the English-Scotch ones. We had seven festivals a year, one for each nationality, each with their national food and dances." Tourists came from Billings to enjoy the various festivals in Red Lodge and the opportunity to have spaghetti with meat balls, Yorkshire pudding, haggis, Finnish smoked beef and so on.

Red Lodge sits in a valley, with steep hills on either side. Cattlemen and farmers were in the hills. Dick and his family lived two blocks from the edge of town, where the road ran westward into the hills. The cattlemen ran their cattle down the street, crossed the railway and herded them into the cattle cars.

"And that's how I got to college. In those days we couldn't afford to get out of town. I took a cattle train as far as Chicago and then a bus to Yellow Springs Ohio, where I went to college." The conservative boy from small-town Montana attended the famed liberal arts school, Antioch College, for two years. Despite its reputation for activism, which did not interest Dick at all, he chose Antioch because of its innovative programme offering one semester of school followed by one semester of work experience, which enabled him to work his way through college. "It was a beautiful campus, I'll say that for it. But one day a kid from Tacoma Washington and I got together on campus and both of us said, 'Why the hell are we here?' You see, we were pretty conservative, and here we were studying science in a famous liberal college. But we lived through it."

From Antioch Dick went to the University of Montana in Missoula for his major in forestry. Dick's political awakening came not at Antioch but in Montana's capital city, Helena, where his father was a legislator. Visiting his father in legislative session sensitized Dick to the issues he cared about. Around this time, Dick also developed a lifelong passion for Big Band music--then all the rage-- and ballroom dancing.

By late 1941, Dick was in Weather School as part of his forestry studies. But the life he had planned changed dramatically when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941. Weathermen were crucial to the war effort, especially for bombing operations in the Pacific Theatre. Dick and some of his classmates were called up for the 15th Weather Squadron, established April 10, 1942. Immediately, they were shipped off to Australia from Seattle. During the voyage they stopped at an island where the inhabitants were very fond of tobacco. Here, they were able to exchange cigarettes for fresh fruit.


First the weathermen went to Melbourne for a two-week orientation. Then Dick was shipped on via Sidney to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, and the main US base during the war. He spent some time in Brisbane, helping US bombers who were traveling to and from South America. Then he was sent on from there to Cairns in the far North. The young man from landlocked Montana did not waste his opportunity to enjoy the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. In Sydney he enjoyed swimming at the famed Bondi Beach with its white sands. At Cairns he went to a beach hut on the ocean with the daughter of the local American furniture store operator together with her best friend and her friend's boyfriend. Although the waters were shark-infested, they never saw a shark.

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Bondi Beach in 1942

The life of a weatherman was quite solitary. The weathermen did not belong to a specific bomber squadron, nor did they stay in a cohesive weather group. Instead, they were moved around as need arose. In Northern Australia, Dick's weather group consisted of a husky Australian, two Englishmen, Dick and another American. Then Dick was assigned to the Beaufort Bomber squadron. Officially called No. 100 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the squadron was raised in early 1942 from the remnants of a British unit that had been destroyed in Malaya and flew Bristol Beauforts. In September 1942, the 100th squadron was sent to Milne Bay, New Guinea. Dick travelled to the islands in a Sunderland flying boat with General Thomas Blamey. General Blamey was Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, and commander of Allied land forces in the Pacific, second only to the American, General Douglas MacArthur.


General Blamey, left, General McArthur with teacup, New Guinea

They set off from Townsville, and flew to Milne Bay, New Guinea, with its six hundred coral islands. The Sunderland made a brilliant water landing, kicking up a mighty spray.


Sunderland flying boat

Dick was impressed by the weather station, built by the indigenous Papuans with palm leaves, which provided excellent shelter for the delicate meteorological instruments as well as the weathermen themselves. The 'native boys,' as the airmen and weathermen called the Papuans, would climb the palm trees and knock down coconuts. Then, they would place the coconut between their feet and, with startling skill and speed, cut off the top with a machete to open up the delicious coconut milk. However, much as Dick loved New Guinea, it was at the time an active war zone. They were regularly bombarded by Mitsubishi bombers dropping 500 pound bombs which cut down palm trees 'like mowing the grass.' " When the bombers flew over we hid in foxholes--and we made sure they were very deep."

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Beaufort Squadron on New Guinea

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Base in Milne Bay, New Guinea

Most of Dick's social life consisted of his small weather group--they had little to do with the 'fly boys' or bomber pilots due to their different and very specific schedule. But the bombers depended upon the weathermen for their missions. ''And you didn't have to be a very good weatherman, because it rained every day. You couldn't go wrong!"


The 100th RAAF squadron

Next Dick was sent back to Australia, to Fenton Airbase, just south of Darwin.The B24 Liberator bombers were stationed there, and needed weather support.This too was an active war zone, with frequent Japanese bombing raids. The staging point for Darwin was Alice Springs, in the geographical centre of Australia and the wartime civilian capital of the Northern Territory, after the evacuation of Darwin. In Alice Springs Dick encountered Aboriginals, who he describes as 'ancient-looking.' And in Sidney he particularly remembers a beautiful Aboriginal woman who was a nightclub singer.

When Dick got leave for R and R, he went to Adelaide," a beautiful area in the South, great water." Dick admired the houses set up on stilts to prevent flooding. "You could crawl under the houses." A beachfront hotel in Adelaide was reserved for the American troops. As a weatherman, Dick was more solitary than the troops. One day, as he was walking around town, he stopped in another hotel, one available for the public. Here, he saw that he was not the only one sitting by himself. On the other side of the restaurant a young woman wearing WAAF uniform was dining alone. "No self-respecting young American is going to let a gal eat alone. So I asked her if I could buy her a drink and she said, 'of course!' So we joined forces and I bought her a drink." The pair tried to get into the hotel reserved for American forces but were not allowed in. So they walked to the shore, carrying her lunch with them. Sitting comfortably by the ocean, their feet dabbling in warm water, they swapped life stories.

At the time of the unconditional surrender of Japan on 2nd September 1945, Dick was in Fenton. He was sent to the main base in Brisbane to be demobilized. Upon his return, he realized that forestry did not have many job prospects, so he decided to become an acountant. His family had moved to Arkansas by then. Under the GI Bill, Dick was able to attend the University of Arkansas, graduating in accounting in 1947. Eventually he became comptroller of a large company operating coast-to-coast.

Dick does not minimize the horror of the war, yet he loved his palm-roofed weather station in New Guinea, and he loved Australia as well. With his positive outlook on life, he retains happy memories of the war years, despite being bombarded by the Japanese on numerous occasions. Whenever he goes into a state of relaxation, he is back in Adelaide, his feet in warm ocean water and a pretty WAAF at his side.

Related Links:

Living Witnesses Part 5:The Refugee

Living Witnesses Part 3: The Medical Student

Living Witnesses Part 1: The Fire Warden


For the past several weeks we have been hearing from the living witnesses who experienced the Second World War. Today we are in the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis since that war. As we mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of Second World War and the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, let us take a look at what the Living Witnesses have to tell us about Syria.

The story of the Living Witnesses is not just a tale about the past, about events which unfolded before most of us were born. Their story is a contemporary one, for they know and understand what the Syrian people are enduring today. Baerbel Miller, Joyce Hudis and Frances Hollander have told us how their education was disrupted by persecution, bombings or displacement. Peter Hudis, the sheltered only child of a middle class Jewish couple, contracted tuberculosis due to sleeping in the London Underground during the blitz. Today we are creating a Lost Generation of Syrian children whose education has been disrupted and who lack basic protection from communicable diseases.

We have heard how Joyce, the evacuee, did not see her parents for three years and we have seen four-year old Garry Hunt turn away from the father he did not know. They understand the feelings of Syrian families separated by war and fighting. We have heard about the persecution experienced by Frances Hollander and Isidor Kiefer at the hands of the Nazis, and how Isidor was forced to flee the beloved city where his ancestors had lived for nine hundred years. Today some of the world's most ancient minorities--Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidi, experience genocide at the hands of ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria. We are in danger of losing our Aramaic-speaking Christians and other precious ancient minority cultures just as we lost the rich cultural heritage of European Jewry.

Frances had to flee her home in Essen and all her friends and childhood memories to go to a strange land where she did not speak the language. Baerbel was a refugee too--starving, cold, exhausted and in constant danger as she fled the advancing Red army. Four million Syrian refugees today, many of them children, share similar experiences.

When Joyce was on Peckham Road during the worst buzz bomb incident in Camberwell, she barely escaped with her life. Many others did not. Baerbel crawled out of a cellar window to cross a street strewn with white phosphorus. Garry Hunt vividly remembers bombings he witnessed even before he could speak. Peter, the fire warden, watched London burn. As Baerbel said, 8th May 1945 brought, not peace, but the laying down of arms. And arms laid down in one place are soon picked up in another. Whether in Ukraine, South Sudan or Syria, the endless war rages on. As long as any child watches their city burn, the peace has not come. As long as young people lie at night terrified of the sound of bombs, as long as homes are destroyed and people have to flee their ancestral lands, peace has not come.

Seventy-five years ago, we turned our back on the Jews. Today the world turns its back on Syria. How many more people must suffer as the War Babies suffered, before we say, enough? We cannot take away what the Living Witnesses have suffered, but must their suffering be in vain, just a part of an endless cycle of violence? We could not help the War Babies because we were not yet born. We could not stop the Holocaust because we were not yet born. The conflict in Syria is ours to stop and the children of Syria are ours to help.


Syrian Refugees pour into Kurdistan

In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm.The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard.

The story of the War Babies is often overlooked because they played no active part in the war. Yet these are the ones who, from the moment of birth, or even in their mother's wombs, experienced sirens, bombs, fighting, parental deprivation, food rationing and other extreme events. This is a cohort of individuals who came into the world without an experience of 'before', of 'normality.' In whatever country they were born, they were war's innocent victims. For the War Babies and their children, the war will never really be over until they find peace in their hearts. As we think of all the children suffering from warfare around the world today, let us take the time to hear the wisdom and experience of the War Babies.


Six-year-old Baerbel in 1946.

When General Alfred Jodl signed Germany's unconditional surrender on 7th May 1945, five-year-old Baerbel Gergen and her mother Hilly were on a train heading West, together with hundreds of other starving and exhausted refugees. Having fled the advancing Red Army, they were on their way home to Worms. Now, as citizens of an occupied country, their welfare was partially in the hands of the occupying US army in the territory of Germany they were passing through, as well as the French army, which occupied Worms and its environs.

Their onward journey was by no means straightforward. Sometimes they had to walk for long stretches where no trains were running. Sometimes they rode in a normal passenger train and sometimes in cattle cars. Often, as the train slowly rolled through a town, American GIs would throw their own rations into the train in an effort to help the hungry travellers. At one train station an American soldier gave her a small tin of chicken soup. She brought it to her mother who said, "Don't take it, don't take it!" Hilly did not want to accept anything from American soldiers.

"Are you crazy?" asked a fellow refugee. " Take it for your little girl, she needs food. Even if you don't want to touch it, take it for her."

Another time, an American soldier grabbed her and gave her a bear hug so tight she could hardly breathe. She took him by the hand and brought him to Hilly, saying, "I've found us a Daddy! I've found us a Daddy!" How badly the little orphan girl wanted a father!

At last, after the long, exhausting and chaotic journey, Baerbel and Hilly arrived in Worms. They were home at last--or so they thought. The pair went straight to their house on the outskirts of town and knocked on their neighbour's door to collect the key. "We don't have the key any more," the neighbours told them. 'There is somebody living at your house." Shocked, they went to their home and rang the doorbell. To their astonishment, a maid in a white apron and black dress came to the door. It was a bizarre sight to see a uniformed servant at a time when most people were suffering so much deprivation--and in their own home too!

"What do you want?" asked the maid.

"I want to get into my house," Hilly replied.

"Just a minute." But little Baerbel pushed by her, ran to her room and tore open the cupboard where her toys were.

"Get out of here, you filthy brat!" said the maid, grabbing her.

As it turned out, their house had been requisitioned by the government and allocated to the Lord Mayor of Cologne, a city about four hour's train ride from Worms.

"He lived in our furniture, he used everything we had--and we had nothing."

Their house had belonged to a baron who ran the leather factory, which used to manufacture the fine leatherwork for which Worms was famous. Baerbel's father was an important member of the upper management and had been assigned the house as part of his compensation. After his death, Hilly continued leasing the house. But now the house had been snatched away and his widow and daughter were homeless. All of the Gergen's heirlooms and mementos--their silver, books, special cameras, items of sentimental value that had belonged to Baerbel's father--all were taken over by the Mayor and for the most part never returned.

Although their house was a large one with several floors--in fact it is currently home to four families--there was no question of Baerbel and Hilly being allowed to share it. They were sent out into the country to live in the attic of a farmhouse. Hilly was given a just a few pieces of her own furniture to furnish the attic. Fate had left them destitute. Their reluctant hosts--the wealthiest farmers in town--were unwilling to feed them, saying they needed the food for their pigs. The attic was unheated. In the winter there was ice on the windows and they had to wear hats and gloves indoors. No longer refugees on the road, Baerbel and Hilly were still enduring displacement, hunger and hardship.

The village was seven kilometers from Worms, so Baerbel had to start first grade at the village school. But she and her mother simply did not fit into peasant life. Hilly was a sophisticated woman who wore lipstick, scandalizing the villagers, while Baerbel was mercilessly teased for her 'weird name.' Once she did move back into town, she was half a year behind the other students!

Eventually Baerbel's wish to have a father came true, when Hilly met and married a local dentist named Walter. Now they could move out of the country attic and settle in the comfortable house near the cathedral that is Baerbel's home to this day. Her new father loved and cherished her and never raised his hand to her. But still Baerbel's troubles were not over. Walter was a veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most horrific battles in the annals of war--and one that relatively few German soldiers survived. He was wounded in the leg at Stalingrad and a piece of shrapnel and a fragment of leather boot were later removed from his leg. Inevitably, more than his leg was wounded. Like many of today's Iraq War veterans, Walter was prone to frightening outbursts of anger. PTSD was not known or understood at the time and no therapy was offered to traumatized veterans, so the family was left to manage as best they could.


Piece of shrapnel and leather boot that were removed from Walter's leg.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Worms were being held to account for their actions during the war. While families such as Baerbel's had always been opposed to Nazism, others were in a different position. Hilly was working for a doctor who had been a Nazi. When questioned by the Americans, he said,

"Yes, I was a Nazi. I don't like all the stuff Hitler did--some things were good, and a lot of things were not." His interrogators were astounded by his bluntness.

"You are the first person we have encountered who admitted that he was a Nazi!"

Everyone else was denying that they were ever connected with the Nazi party. Baerbel's uncle by marriage was also a doctor but refused to join the Nazi party. As a result he was in and out of prison several times during the war. Inevitably he would be let out because of the shortage of doctors. His wife, Baerbel's aunt, was also arrested at one point, because she sent her maid to a Jewish department store to buy a zipper.

Baerbel's maternal grandmother was known Oma Lies-chen. She was also called Frau Doktor because she was engaged in alternative healing practices. Before the war, a prominent Jewish family, Isidor and Else Kiefer, lived next door to Oma. Isidor was a tin manufacturer and longtime chairman of the Jewish community. But by 1933, life was becoming very dangerous for Worms' ancient Jewish community--especially for those who were wealthy and prominent. There were beatings, murders and deportations. In August 1933, a large group of Jews from Worms were sent to the new concentration camp at Osthofen. The Kiefers left for America in 1934, via Belgium. After the war, they used to send care packages to Oma, complete with dresses for Baerbel that had been outgrown by their daughter. Why did the Isidor Kiefers send gifts to the city where they and their community had suffered so terribly? Did the kind-hearted and selfless Oma risk her life to help them in their hour of greatest need? Later, in 1961, Baerbel visited this family in their apartment hotel in New York, on the day she arrived in the USA. She brought them some lilies of the valley, which she had picked in their garden and smuggled in under her coat. This would have meant so much to the family! Isidor was closely involved with efforts to rebuild Worms synagogue--the most ancient in Germany--after the Holocaust, as well as the Jewish cemetery and museum. He is especially noted for extensive research on the history of the Jewish community in Worms and his incredible collection of papers and archival documents, covering the history of Worms' Jewish community from the 11th Century to the 1930s.

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Isidor Keifer

By the mid-1950s, television was becoming a feature of middle class German homes. And with it came footage of the camps. Fourteen-year-old Baerbel, who until then had heard nothing about the Holocaust, was horrified and shocked, experiencing a profound sense of betrayal. She and all her friends were furious with their parents. How could they have let such atrocities happen? We have spoken in other blogs about moral injury. For the War Babies of Germany, and indeed for their children, simply being German in the postwar years was a profound moral injury. Baerbel and her contemporaries felt immense shame and guilt for actions they could not have influenced, for they were just little children. All of Hitler's attempts to create a master race had resulted in generations of Germans who felt morally inferior to the rest of humanity.

It is easy to draw the wrong lesson from the Holocaust and all the other Nazi atrocities. Those of us who grew up in the postwar years have tended to lay blame on the German people as a whole. We imagine that some inherent defect in the German character and German culture made these appalling events possible. If we allow ourselves to hold such beliefs, we miss the real lesson. The Holocaust showed us, not the evil of Germans, but the evil of which we, humanity, are capable. Whenever we mind our own business, look the other way or 'just obey orders', when we ignore human rights abuses, or fail to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable, we become a part of the same pattern that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Empowered by the pain of what happened in their land, generations of Germans have learned to speak out for peace. May they, like Baerbel and her family, serve as inspirations to us all!

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