Monday, February 28, 2011

Another kind of memory post.

The idea for this post came to me last week while I was working on my most recent Austrian memory post. Writing about my encounters with some significant sites of memory in Innsbruck, I found my mind turning to memories of a very different kind - memories of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that I encountered on a more or less regular basis last summer. I'm sure that I took some of these sensory phenomena for granted at the time, but the examples that came to mind last week were ones that I consciously savored as I experienced them - the sort of things about which I thought, "This is something I'm going to miss."

One ordinary Innsbruck experience that I knew I would miss later (and that I miss even now, as I write these lines) was that of seeing clouds spill over the surrounding mountains on rainy days. The above images give some sense of what I'm talking about, though mere photographs can't compete with real experience. I'd like to think that I'd still be moved by the sight of these clouds even if I spent a lot more time in Innsbruck, just as I'm still captivated by the stars in the night sky even though I've spent my whole life looking at them.

I'm sure that those who are reading this have had experiences similar to mine. At the start of a new week, perhaps we would do well to recall some of these experiences in a spirit of gratitude. What are the simple, everyday things that you got to know in a particular place, and that you have missed - and perhaps always knew that you would miss, once those things were gone? AMDG.

Frank Woodruff Buckles, 1901-2011.

Late last night, I learned of the death of Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last living United States veteran of the First World War. Here's a bit about Mr. Buckles' life, from the Associated Press report on his passing:
Frank Buckles, who lied about his age to get into uniform during World War I and lived to be the last surviving U.S. veteran of that war, has died. He was 110.

Buckles, who also survived being a civilian POW in the Philippines in World War II, died peacefully of natural causes early Sunday at his home in Charles Town, [West Virginia,] biographer and family spokesman David DeJonge said in a statement. Buckles turned 110 on Feb. 1 and had been advocating for a national memorial honoring veterans of the Great War in Washington, D.C.

When asked in February 2008 how it felt to be the last of his kind, he said simply, "I realized that somebody had to be, and it was me." And he told The Associated Press he would have done it all over again, "without a doubt."

. . .

Born in Missouri in 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, Buckles visited a string of military recruiters after the United States entered the "war to end all wars" in April 1917. He was repeatedly rejected before convincing an Army captain he was 18. He was 16½.

"A boy of (that age), he's not afraid of anything. He wants to get in there," Buckles said.
Among the various details in Mr. Buckles' New York Times obituary, the following bit caught my eye:
Sought out for interviews in his final years, Mr. Buckles told of having witnessed a ceremony involving British veterans of the Crimean War, fought in the 1850s, when he was stationed in England before heading to France. . . .
With the passing of Frank Buckles and others among the "last of the last," we lose more than a living link to the First World War - we also lose the links that Mr. Buckles and other centenarians had to even more distant events in the past. Though the United States has lost its last surviving World War I veteran, there are still many Americans who have met or at least seen veterans like Frank Buckles and can speak about the experience. When that link is lost, the First World War will become as irretrievably distant as the Crimean War probably is for most people today.

May the living continue to learn from Frank Buckles and the last of the last, and may their memory be eternal! AMDG.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jewish Innsbruck.

Resuming my intended series of Austrian memory posts (previous entries here and here) after a long hiatus, I would like to say something about the Jews of Innsbruck. Though Innsbruck's first Jewish residents arrived in the 13th century, the city was never a major center of Jewish life; the local Jewish community apparently peaked in size just before the First World War, when Innsbruck had approximately five hundred Jewish residents out of a total population of roughly sixty-six thousand. In the wake of the Holocaust, the Jewish presence in Innsbruck nearly vanished: over two hundred Jews from Tyrol and Vorarlberg died at the hands of the Nazis, and survivors who had lived in Innsbruck before the Second World War were slow to return. The reconstituted Jewish presence in Tyrol is very small - the local synagogue estimates the size of the community at around one hundred - but the Jews of Innsbruck remain proud witnesses of a tradition with deep local roots.

The photos featured above depict the most enduring reminder of Innsbruck's longstanding Jewish presence, the remains of an old Jewish cemetery nestled in the wooded foothills north of the city at a spot known as the Judenbühel (literally "Jews' Hill"). The Judenbühel was the final resting place for Innsbruck's Jews from the late 1500s until the 1860s, when the community moved its burial site to the Westfriedhof, a large cemetery located within the city itself. For nearly a century and a half, the site of the old Jewish cemetery remained abandoned and largely neglected. Finally, in July 2009, the memorial visible in the above photos was dedicated by the Chief Rabbi of Austria, Paul Chaim Eisenberg.

Though the Judenbühel is no longer a burial site - the bodies once interred here were long ago moved to the Westfriedhof - the enclosure of the boundaries of the old cemetery with the tombstone-like metal panels seen above creates a palpable sense of sacred space. The Judenbühel's isolation was once a liability, making the cemetery inaccessible during winter and more vulnerable to attack by anti-Semitic vandals. Now, however, this peaceful site is an ideal spot for quiet reflection - a place where one may be led first to wonder about the lives of the people who were once buried here, and then to consider how one might honor their memory today.

The Jewish section of Westfriedhof, glimpsed in this second group of photos, offers a poignant reminder of the prosperous, culturally assimilated Jewish community that made its home in Innsbruck in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many older headstones note the occupations of the deceased, with some also featuring narratives attesting to their accomplishments. Also noteworthy is a memorial (visible in the second photo of this group) honoring local Jews who fought and died in the armed forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War; the Chewra Kadischa mentioned on the memorial's inscription is a traditional Jewish burial society.

Though the Jewish section of the Westfriedhof includes an explicit memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (visible in the last photo of the group), many individual family grave markers include the names of family members who perished at the hands of the Nazis (the fourth photo in this group offers an example), listed with others who died in more peaceful times. In contrast with the long-neglected Judenbühel, the Jewish section of the Westfriedhof is well cared-for and appears likely to continue serving the community into the foreseeable future.

The final stop on this tour is Innsbruck's only synagogue, located across the street from the Jesuit residence where I lived last summer. The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde für Tirol und Vorarlberg is the only active synagogue in either of the two westernmost federal states in Austria; serving a small, scattered Jewish community, the synagogue in Innsbruck has no resident rabbi and offers scheduled services only on the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the first night of Passover, Jews from across Tyrol and Vorarlberg also gather here to break bread and celebrate together as a community.

Even though worship services are only offered here several times a year, the synagogue's mere presence makes a statement about the resilience of the local Jewish community. Dedicated in 1993, the structure was built on the site of an earlier synagogue destroyed by aerial bombing during World War II. The Hebrew inscription above the door - "Build me this house and I shall live in it" - speaks not only about the Almighty but about the aspirations of a community that decided to return to Innsbruck and make a new home for itself after being driven away and nearly destroyed. This time, the inscription seems to suggest, the Jews of Innsbruck are here to stay. AMDG.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How Jesuits serve the Church.

On the website of the Jesuit Conference of the United States, one may view a series of video interviews with Father John Padberg, a respected Jesuit historian and longtime director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources in St. Louis. I decided to share one of these videos here, simply because I believe that Father Padberg's cogent yet concise explanation of the Society's commitment to the intellectual apostolate deserves to be heard.

Though I encourage you to watch the video and listen to all of what Father Padberg has to say, here are some of the key paragraphs in his reflection on how Jesuits serve the Church:
Can all kinds of religious orders serve the Church in a variety of ways? Of course they can. Can some religious orders serve the Church in ways that either we can't or we don't? Of course they can. Are there ways in which the Society of Jesus itself can serve the Church that others indeed may be able to do but that we can do with a particular élan or characteristic?

The Society, by God's grace and out of its history right from the very beginning, has had a reputation for and an inclination toward serious intellectual work, asking serious questions on the highest level of abstraction and investigation - historical, theological, philosophical, scientific, whatever the ways are.

We got into that by the choice that Ignatius made very early to get into schools, and by the very fact [that] we got into schools we had to begin getting involved in learning that we never otherwise would have done. Most religious orders - in fact, all religious orders before the Society of Jesus came along - may well have had a training, more or less lengthy, in theology, certainly some in philosophy, but no other religious order almost from the beginning put people into mathematics, or astronomy, or philology.

That charism, that particular attitude, is one that I think the Society of Jesus can give to the Church in a way that no other religious order can. Are there people as intelligent, as scholarly, in other religious orders? Of course there are - but the Society as a whole has an attitude within itself that the things of the mind are good, that it's seriously important not only that we give answers to questions, but much more importantly, we ask the hard questions.
Father Padberg says a lot here that I have tried to express myself in various contexts, though he puts it better - and with greater authority - than I possibly could. In response to his words, then, I'll offer just one of my own: "Amen!" AMDG.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.

I have not become lost to the world, though the paucity of recent posts here may have led some readers to suspect otherwise. I've been having a fairly busy semester, thanks to responsibilities in the classroom (one of the courses I'm teaching is entirely new, which means a lot more prep work for each session) and elsewhere (this is the time of year when applications of various kinds come due, and I've had several recommendation letters to write for former students). Though I'm not able to post here as often as I would like, I hope that occasional updates like this one will be appreciated by loyal readers who check this space regularly to see if I've added anything new.

Not new to me but hopefully new to some readers are the Rückert-Lieder, a set of songs by Gustav Mahler based on poems by German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert. Off and on during the month of January, I found one of these Lieder stuck in my head: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," of which you may find the text and various translations here. "There's a post there," I thought, and, in hopes of winning some new converts to Mahler's music, I decided to share my favorite of the Rückert-Lieder on this blog. Here, then, are three different but equally fine performances of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen."

In this first video, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin led by Riccardo Chailly. Fischer-Dieskau was one of the great singers of the last century, making this a performance worth hearing even though the picture and sound quality of this 1989 recording are far from perfect.

Recorded twenty years after the Fischer-Dieskau performance in Berlin, here is mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená performing the same song with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Kožená's gesticulations and facial expressions can be a bit distracting - at times, she looks like she's about to start weeping - but the total effect of her singing, Abbado's careful conducting, and the fine work of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra all make for a riveting performance.

For a very different approach to "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," check out this choral arrangement by Clytus Gottwald, performed here by the Virginia Chorale under the direction of Steven White. I cannot say that this is my favorite of the three recordings - I like all of them - but I do find that this song moves me in a somewhat different way when it's performed by an unaccompanied choir rather than by an orchestra and a vocal soloist. I can't offer an explanation for this, nor should I be expected to. Whatever your particular reaction to the above recordings, I hope that you enjoy this musical interlude. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The last Japanese in Kazakhstan.

Earlier today, I stumbled upon this compelling report on Tetsuro Ahiko, a Japanese prisoner of war who was sent to Kazakhstan in 1948 and has remained there ever since. One of several hundred thousand Japanese who were forced to perform hard labor in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, Mr. Ahiko has refused offers of resettlement in Japan and now finds himself very much at home as perhaps the last Japanese in Kazakhstan:
Tetsuro Ahiko has his eyes closed now. The vodka has begun to affect him, and he rocks a little towards the battered cassette player from where the music―a shrill chorus of young girls’ voices―is coming. He starts to sing along under his breath: “Shoulder to shoulder, I walk to school with my brother, thanks to the soldiers… thanks to the soldiers that died for the nation, for the dear nation.” As the last voices die away, the room, in a cramped Soviet flat in a crumbling block in a impoverised town in the middle of the icy, windswept steppes of Kazakhstan, comes back into focus. ”I forgot Japanese,” he says. “But I didn’t forget the songs that I listened to in my childhood.”

This cassette of World War II military songs, long since forgotten as part of a shameful past back in Japan, is one of the handful of tokens he keeps of a life that was snatched away from him one day in 1948, when, instead of repatriating him from his military school on Sakhalin Island, Soviet troops put Mr Ahiko on a train to the Gulag work camps. More than 60 years later, Mr Ahiko is still here.

“Now I’m the same as all the people here,” he says. “I’ve got used to it.”

Tetsuro is the last Japanese man still remaining in Kazakhstan out of the hundreds of thousands Stalin shipped to the most desolate parts of the Soviet Union, putting them to work in mines, in construction, and in factories. More than a tenth of them died due to the brutal working conditions.

“I think all the Japanese have gone back apart from me,” he says. “There was one from Lake Balkhash, who went to Japan because his wife was ill, and there was also one in Almaty. I think there are no other Japanese here now.”
To read the rest of a fascinating story, click here. AMDG.

Monday, February 07, 2011

A Catholic "Teach for America."

Today's edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer has a very fine story highlighting the work of the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph's University, a program that allows recent college graduates to work full-time as teachers in inner-city Catholic schools in Philadelphia while earning master's degrees in education at SJU. Inspired by a similar program at the University of Notre Dame, ACESJU is currently in its first year of operation. Here's more on the program, courtesy of Inquirer reporter Martha Woodall:
When Desmond Shannon was a student at the Gesu School in North Philadelphia, he thought students at that private Catholic elementary school had more homework than their teachers.

Thanks to a new, local program that trains young college graduates to teach at inner-city Catholic schools, Shannon, 22, now knows better.

"I see the other side," said Shannon, who teaches 25 sixth graders at St. Rose of Lima Catholic elementary school in West Philadelphia and spends evenings grading their assignments and writing lesson plans. "Teachers have more homework than students."

After majoring in actuarial science at St. Joseph's University, Shannon expected to be crunching numbers for an insurance company. Instead, he joined 14 other 2010 college grads who signed up to teach at nine Catholic schools in Philadelphia through the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at St. Joseph's.

St. Joseph's launched its version of the University of Notre Dame's successful ACE program in the summer with nearly $1 million in contributions from foundations and donors and support from the University of Pennsylvania.

Notre Dame's program, which was created in 1993-94, aims to provide a cadre of dedicated and academically accomplished young educators for Catholic schools just as Teach for America (TFA) trains teachers for public schools nationwide.

As is the case with Teach for America, ACE recruits high-achieving grads who did not major in education, trains them in summer, provides professional support, and sends them to graduate school so they have master's degrees in education at the end of their two years.
To read the rest of the Inquirer article, click here. To learn more about ACESJU - including how you can get involved - please be sure to visit the ACESJU website. AMDG.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Notes on the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple.

Today's feast goes by many names - the Meeting (or Presentation) of the Lord in the Temple, the Entrance of the Lord into the Temple, the Encounter of the Lord with Simeon and Anna, the Purification of the Virgin Mary, Candlemas, and so on. Coming forty days after the Feast of the Nativity, this feast has traditionally been seen as the definitive endpoint to celebrations of Christmas as well as an early reminder of the coming of Lent (a very early reminder this year, as Lent won't begin until March).

Reflecting on the events commemorated by this feast, I am always moved by the prophetic witness of Simeon and Anna, whose quiet faith in the coming of the Redeemer found confirmation in their encounter with the Christ Child. I suspect that most readers have known people like Simeon and Anna, believers of gentle yet prophetic faith whose example both humbles and inspires us; on this feast day, we would do well to recall these individuals, to commend them to God, and to give thanks for their presence in our lives.

To prompt further reflection on the encounter commemorated today and its meaning for us, I'd like to share part of a sermon on the Meeting of the Lord by Father Alexander Schmemann, reprinted in his posthumous work Celebration of Faith. Father Alexander wrote these words as he was dying of cancer, a fact which may give added resonance to his reflections on how our "earthly destiny" actually constitutes a "growth and ascent" toward God:
How striking and beautiful an image, the old man holding the child in his arms, and how strange are his words: "For my eyes have seen thy salvation..." Pondering these words we begin to appreciate the depth of this event and its relationship to us, to me, to our faith. Is anything in the world more joyful than an encounter, a "meeting" with someone you love? Truly, to live is to await, to look forward to the encounter. Isn't Simeon's transcendent and beautiful anticipation a symbol of this? Isn't his long life a symbol of expectation, this elderly man who spends his whole life waiting for the light which illumines all and the joy which fills everything with itself? And how unexpected, how unspeakably good that long-awaited light and joy comes to the elderly Simeon through a child! Imagine the old man's trembling hands as he takes in his arms the forty-day-old infant so tenderly and carefully, his eyes gazing on the tiny being and filling with an outpouring of praise: "Now, You may let me depart in peace, for I have seen, I have held in my arms, I have embraced the very meaning of life." Simeon waited. He waited his entire long life, and surely this means he pondered, he prayed, he deepened as he waited, so that in the end his whole life was one continuous "eve" of a joyful meeting.

Isn't it time that we ask ourselves, what am I waiting for? What does my heart keep reminding me about more and more insistently? Is this life of mine gradually being transformed into anticipation, as I look forward to encountering the essential? These are the questions the Meeting poses. Here, in this feast, human life is revealed as the surpassing beauty of a maturing soul, increasingly liberated, deepened and cleansed of all that is petty, meaningless and incidental. Even aging and demise, the earthly destiny we all share, are so simply and convincingly shown here to be growth and ascent toward that one moment when with all my heart, in the fullness of thanksgiving, I say: "let me now depart." I have seen the light which permeates the world. I have seen the Child, who brings the world so much divine love and who gives himself to me. Nothing is feared, nothing is unknown, all is now peace, thanksgiving and love. This is what the Meeting of the Lord brings. It celebrates the soul meeting Love, meeting the one who gave me life and gave me strength to transfigure it into anticipation.
Good wishes and prayers for all who celebrate this feast today. AMDG.