One of my favorite and highly recommended books, Return from Tomorrow, written by a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, Dr. George Ritchie, has one of my favorite stories on forgiveness. I quote Dr. Ritchie from the book beginning on page 114.
“And that’s how I came to know Wild Bill Cody. That wasn’t his real name. His real name was seven unpronounceable syllables in Polish, but he had long drooping handlebar mustaches like pictures of the old western hero, so the American soldiers called him Wild Bill. He was one of the inmates of the concentration camp, but obviously he hadn’t been there long. His posture was erect, his eyes bright, his energy indefatigable. Since he was fluent in English, French, German, and Russian, as well as Polish, he became a kind of unofficial camp translator.”
“We came to him with all sorts of problems; the paper work alone was staggering in attempting to relocate people whose families, even whole hometowns, might have disappeared. But though Wild Bill worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day, he showed no signs of weariness. While the rest of us were drooping with fatigue, he seemed to gain strength. `We have time for this old fellow,’ he’d say. `He’s been waiting to see us all day.'”
“His compassion for his fellow prisoners glowed on his face, and it was to this glow that I came when my own spirits were low. So I was astonished to learn when Wild Bill’s own papers came before us one day, that he had been in Wuppertal since 1939! For six years he had lived on the same starvation diet, slept in the same airless and disease-ridden barracks as everyone else, but without the least physical or mental deterioration.”
“Perhaps even more amazing, every group in the camp looked on him as a friend. He was the one to whom quarrels between inmates were brought for arbitration. Only after I’d been at Wuppertal a number of weeks did I realize what a rarity this was in a compound where the different nationalities of prisoners hated each other almost as much as they did the Germans.
As for Germans, feeling against them ran so high that in some of the camps liberated earlier, former prisoners had seized guns, run into the nearest village and simply shot the first Germans they saw. Part of our instructions were to prevent this kind of thing and again Wild Bill was our greatest asset, reasoning with the different groups, counseling forgiveness.”
“`It’s not easy for some of them to forgive’, I commented to him one day as we sat over mugs of tea in the processing center. `So many of them have lost members of their families.'”
“Wild Bill leaned back in the upright chair and sipped at his drink. `We lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw,’ he began slowly, the first words I had heard him speak about himself, `my wife, our two daughters, and our three little boys. When the Germans reached our street they lined everyone against a wall and opened up with machine guns. I begged to be allowed to die with my family, but because I spoke German they put me in a work group.'”
“He paused, perhaps seeing again his wife and five children. `I had to decide right then,’ he continued, `whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life–whether it was a few days or many years–loving every person I came in contact with.'”
“Loving every person… this was power that had kept a man well in the face of every privation.”
To me this is an exciting story on the power of forgiveness and the effect that it has on us physically and psychologically. Even though, from Dr. Ritchie’s account, this man lived in such a dreadful environment, as did all the rest, he was not emaciated like the others. Apparently, he didn’t have to be emaciated to justify all the fear, hate, anger and other negative feelings his fellow prisoners had bottled up inside causing them to fester in their bodies in many cases even unto death. He chose to forgive and love every person.