A recent episode of PBS’s History Detectives featured a woman who wanted to know about the man who drew a picture of her father Bill when he was in a Nazi POW camp during WWII. She wondered who he was, if he survived, and if he went on to become an artist. What emerged was an interesting glimpse into wartime suffering, community, and humanity. Many of the American soldiers held in this camp, located in Austria, had been shot down over France and Germany and were cut off from everyone they knew and all ties back home. As one can imagine, life was tough there, and it was only through the Geneva Conventions and assistance of the Red Cross, that these soldiers received the little they did. There were over two hundred men to a barrack, and these were reminiscent of the barracks used in concentrations camps: close quarters, no privacy and wooden pallets for sleeping. The food was chopped rutabaga, gruel, and bread made mostly of sawdust. The survivors of the camp recalled how easy it was to forget who they were there.
To combat the forgetting, the men turned to creativity and to each other. Most were strangers, but they created a community for survival. They wrote poems and stories. They put on a Christmas review full of carols, an reenactment of The Christmas Carol, and skits. They put on other performances, and, of course, they drew. Bill had traded cigarettes for two onions and a potato with a Russian POW when he met “Gil” Rhoden. Rhoden offered to draw his picture in exchange for the food. Bill thought, “I can eat these, but still be hungry. Or I can give them to him and have something to show for it.” The result was an excellent pencil sketch of Bill looking healthy, clean, and handsome– an image of the way he was before entering the camp. Bill looked at the picture throughout his captivity as a reminder to who he was and could be again.
Rhoden, it turns out, survived the camp, too, and went on to become very successful. He passed away in a plane crash in 1989, but the history detective was able to locate his son and show him the picture. The son was overcome with emotion as he looked at the sketch. “It’s like shaking my father’s hand again,” he said. He and Bill had the chance to meet and share stories about Rhoden and life since the camps.
This story of two men and survival is simply beyond words. Rhoden drew for sustenance and his drawing gave Bill hope. Bill’s sharing of his picture with Rhoden’s son, allowed the son to reconnect to his father. This episode serves as a reminder how we never know the impact that we have on others. Our smallest or most routine actions can mean so much to someone else. It also shows that even though we can be in the most dire of situations and cruelest of fates, we can seek solace and strength in our humanity. The men turned to things that were personal and could be shared or created a shared experience. They sought that which was good.
This story coincided with some thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain of late– the community of bloggers. Granted, bloggers are not POWs in a Nazi prison camp. But we do seek connections to others and give each other hope. We come from all walks of life as there are many blogs about teaching, books, writing, reading, music, motherhood, parenting, poetry, photography, art, mental illness, food, travel, gay rights, community issues, saving historical landmarks, and the list goes on. Some commonalities that bloggers share is that they are all intelligent and highly educated; all have something to share. Even though we are all different, we are all doing the best we can. Together we share our stories and work and offer support and encouragement and new ideas. By reading about other’s lives and thoughts, we gain wider empathy and insight into other perspectives, even if we do not agree. In this time when so many things are uncertain, this is a nice community to be a part of.