I believe an act of kindness has the power to change a person’s life. I recite this in my mind like a mantra each day on my commute to work. My job takes me to the pathology department of a hospital here in northwestern New Jersey. As the medical secretary team leader I have seen the horrible facts of what cancer does to a human life. I meet patients who come to my department to pick up their pathology slides on their way to receive treatment. Some of them look hopeful, others tired and very sick, but always underneath it all they are scared. Something is attacking them that they cannot understand and nor do I. Cancer is a dreadful affliction and I rate it and war as humanity’s greatest enemies.
It is odd that I work in a hospital, I suppose. Considering what I do in my free time, perhaps my life could be different. My free time is spent interviewing World War II veterans. In fact, since 1995 I have been interviewing them for the Saint Vincent College Center for Northern Appalachian Studies. I did my undergraduate work at the college and began interviewing veterans my senior year. The whole project was initiated by one of my professors, Dr. Richard Wissolik. Professor Wissolik’s foresightedness to interview World War II veterans, and also to publish their stories, has helped preserve several hundred accounts. To date I have spoken with a couple hundred veterans myself, but I am nevertheless always amazed at their integrity and quiet courage.
Their bravery in the face of war’s horrors, which are as unspeakable as cancer, has shaped my life. There is one story in particular that reaffirms in me how an act of kindness can change everything. The story is that of Leroy Schaller who was in the US Army’s 28th Infantry Division at the time of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He, along with thousands of other American troops, was captured by the Germans during that clash in the Ardennes Forest. Marched off to captivity, Mr. Schaller and his comrades endured cold, hunger and the possibility of death at the hands of their captors. In the town of Geralstine, Germany, the German guards had their prisoners stop their long march and put them up in a church for the night. It was Christmas Day and they were without hope. But out of a situation of hopelessness there emerged a simple act of kindness. A woman from the town came to the church carrying a pitcher of water. The guards tried to bar her entrance but she pushed passed them. Then five other women from the town started carrying buckets of water up to the church to offer drinks to the thirsty prisoners. Mr. Schaller said he never forgot this act of compassion. Years later, he wrote a letter to a priest in Geralstine and sent flowers to that church. In the letter he told his story about the women and the buckets of water. Some of the women were still alive and remembered the incident. They wrote back to Mr. Schaller thanking him for the flowers and his memory of their kindness.
I think about this story a lot and the courage it must have taken for those women to do that. Because of their kindness I believe that even in a time of colossal brutality there can emerge moments of hope and forgiveness. That simple act of kindness more than sixty years ago has reverberated through time and colors my life today. I guess it is one reason why I continue with my job, for in my own small measure I am paying homage to that act by offering words of encouragement to the patients I meet. Mr. Schaller’s story has taught me to believe that kindness can overcome the greatest of evils. Cancer and war, on equal footing in my mind, are diminished by the power of human kindness, even when the action is as simple as offering a drink of water.
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