A simple act of kindness goes a long way

“Encountering human kindness such as that became the highlights of my otherwise dreary existence.”

These words were spoken by a man who had spent eleven years imprisoned in a Stalin-era Russian gulag. The act of kindness of which he speaks was something very small, but very important. In 1953, a young woman doctor who was working in the prison smuggled in a blank postcard, then passed it secretly to a prisoner, Roland Gottlieb, so that he could send a message beyond the prison walls to his wife and three daughters.

By that time in 1953, Roland’s wife, Ruth, had already spent more than eight years waiting for her husband to be released from the political prison. During those years she didn’t even know if he was alive or dead. It was a very long period of terrible anguish for her and for their  three daughters, as they lived from day to day wondering where the hell  Poppa was, or if they’d ever see him again.

Hell on earth it must have been for them, and for him.

For Poppa, who endured not only cruelties, near starvation, physical abuse and the frigid Siberian weather, the worst part was not knowing anything about his family, not knowing where they had ended up after he was taken prisoner by the Russian army in Bulgaria, not knowing if the girls even knew what had become of him, not knowing if he would live to ever see them again, not knowing anything except the day-to-day hell-on-earth of captivity in Stalin’s gulag.

Then one day a brave doctor’s willingness to risk her own career and safety made it possible for Roland to at least send a few words–a long-overdue update– about his location and condition (alive) to his loved ones.

Here’s a cover pic of Ruth, to whom the secret postcard was addressed, and to whom the card was delivered, four months after it was mailed.

LivesDiv

  https://www.amazon.com/Lives-Divided-family-apart-Russian/dp/1490404236

You can read more about this long ordeal of separation in Birgitta Gottlieb McGalliard’s autobiographical memoir, Lives Damaged. It’s a good book about the first eleven years of her life, which happened to be the same eleven years that her father was in prison, simply because he was (doing his duty as a German diplomat protecting war refugees)  in the wrong place (Sofia, Hungary) at the wrong time (when the Russian army took over the place) in 1944.

Birgitta was born a few months after her father was hauled to a Soviet prison in Siberia. She never even saw her father, never even touched him, until she was eleven years old. And when she did finally see him, and hug him, and at last get to talk to him and get to know him, she asked him some questions about the bad people he had encountered  in prison. And he spoke to her and to the family about the bad people there, some of them prisoners and some who were staffers. But then he said:

“Just as these blatnois were bad, I found equally many if not more ‘good’ Russians, like the young female doctor who took pity on me when I was in the punishment camp after the Vorkuta Revolt in 1953, where writing was strictly prohibited. She smuggled a postcard to me so that I could write home. She could have been severely punished if she hand been caught. If it hadn’t been for her kindness, you never would have received that first postcard from me.”

That “first postcard,” when it finally was delivered, was a major milestone, a turning point in the life of their family.

That major milestone was made possible by a very small, seemingly insignificant act of smuggling a postcard in and out of the prison, and yet . . .

Later, after his release in 1954, looking back on it and trying to capture an explanation of it all for his daughters, Roland Gottlieb said:

“Encountering human kindness such as that became the highlights of my otherwise dreary existence.”

Kindness stands out. Its effects go far beyond the pale.

The milk of human kindness–it goes a long way toward the healing of the nations, and the healing of people whose suffering is a consequence of the injustice and evil that men do to each other throughout history. A brave doctor’s small act of postcard benevolence, along with a few other small deeds like it, is what  enabled the prisoner to hang on to a thin thread of hope. It’s what he remembered more vividly than anything else about what happened in his eleven-year gulag nightmare: Kindness from a brave soul whose courage to act enabled him to cross a bridge from perpetual discouragement to newfound hope.

It’s no wonder that Paul, the 1st-century itinerant Christian messenger, included kindness in his lists of the “fruits” of our Creator’s Holy Spirit.

Kindness. You can beat it, but you can’t defeat it.

Smoke

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