Seventy-one years ago today, probably my favorite movie of all time premiered: It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the incomparable Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, and the luminous Donna Read as Mary Hatch Bailey (with strong performances by Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, Henry Travers as Clarence, Gloria Grahame as Violet, and Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu).
George’s journey back through time, with the help of Angel Clarence, underscores the unique contribution he made in the life of his friends and neighbors. George just happened to save his kid brother Harry from drowning (allowing him to later down a kamikaze pilot just in the nick of time); just happened to save old man Gower from a life of ruin by detecting the poison accidentally put into a child’s diphtheria prescription; just happened to have cash savings sufficient to tide The Bailey Savings & Loan over during a Depression-era bank run; just happened…..well, you know the whole story—everyone not living under a rock for the last seventy-one years knows the story.
Was George meant to save his brother, save Gower, save the Savings & Loan? Or were all of George’s actions simply a matter of serendipity? Even with Clarence’s help, it’s impossible to know.
Those of you who have heard my presentation, listened to my interviews, or read my website, know that I wrestle with the question of how I came to be so involved in Odd Nansen’s life. Why did I purchase Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, back in 2010? Why did I then read it; I have lots of books that I’ve purchased over the years, intending to read, but haven’t. In fact, I probably need to live to age 150 in order to finish all the books still unread on my shelves. And why did I decide to locate a copy of Nansen’s diary, ever-so-briefly mentioned in a footnote in Buergenthal’s book? Why indeed? Was it all just serendipity?
Recently I was flipping through my latest copy of Publisher’s Weekly (that’s what book nuts do). Since it was devoted exclusively to children’s books, I was scanning it quickly (my grandchildren already have enough books to last many years). On the penultimate page, a glancing reference to Auschwitz caught my eye. It was an interview with Spanish author Antonio Iturbe, who has just published an English translation of his Young Adult novel (ages 13 and up), The Librarian of Auschwitz, based on a true story.
Years ago, while reading Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, Iturbe learned that, in a special children’s barrack, Block 31, located in Auschwitz’s “family camp,” eight to ten books were secretly collected and maintained by one of the older girls, whose job it was to hide them in a different place each night. (I, too, had read The Library at Night—that’s what book nuts do—but did not remember the reference to Auschwitz.)
As Iturbe recalls “When I closed [Manguel’s] book, this question kept knocking on the door of my curiosity: How was it possible to have a library in the hell of Auschwitz. And then I started looking, and found more than I ever imagined.” Iturbe visited Auschwitz, and tried to discover everything he could about Block 31. He learned that a novel called The Painted Wall, written by Ota Kraus, had been set in the “family camp,” but he couldn’t find a copy of the out-of-print book anywhere. Finally, he found a webpage where someone had a copy for sale. The person who had responded signed her e-mail “Dita.”
“I’d read in a book that the young librarian at Auschwitz was called Edita. So I asked her if she had anything to do with the girl from Auschwitz. She answered, ‘Yes, but now I am 80 years old and I live in Israel.’ It is a moment that cannot be captured in words. From there, we began a correspondence by email, and finally found ourselves together in Prague. Knowing Dita Kraus is one of the important things that has happened in my life.”
Read the full interview with Iturbe here. It is as heartwarming as Frank Capra’s movie. I certainly found myself nodding as I read this wonderful story. I, too, know that befriending Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen’s daughter Marit Greve are among the most important things that have happened in my life.
But was it serendipity that brought Iturbe and Dita Kraus together? Or something else? You tell me. And while you’re pondering that conundrum, I think I’ll go watch It’s a Wonderful Life yet one more time.
Merry Christmas, George Bailey.
PS: A shout-out to my son (and movie maven) Patrick, who reminded me of today’s important anniversary.