The state of Victoria in Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions in the world. Hot, dry conditions, gusting northerly winds and heavy fuel loads escalate the risk. Historically, bushfires have caused loss of life and significant damage to property.
Many of Australia’s native plants are fire prone and combustible, while a number of species need a fire to make their seeds germinate.
The immediate impact of a bushfire can be devastating to both the environment and people who are affected by the damage, but long term it can help replenish and revitalise the Australian bush.
Peter Box is a ranger with Parks Victoria. He believes the Australian bush accommodates fire as a means of renewal.
The Australian bush reminds us we are never free from the threat of ‘fire.’ Everyone experiences hardship and no one is immune from personal suffering. They pose a threat to our well-being, testing our resilience and challenging our ability to survive.
The Australian bush also reminds us that the fire itself isn’t what matters, but our ability to overcome it. There are some people who are overwhelmed by hardship and personal suffering and are unable to access their inner resources. They find life too difficult or troubling and it drags them down into self-destruction.
Robert Hillman’s novel, ‘The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted,’ is a work of historical fiction. Hillman writes about two worlds, rural Australia in the late 60’s and World War II Europe and Auschwitz. It is a story of love and laughter, guilt and grief, cruelty and kindness.
Hillman explores the theme of undeserved suffering and hardship and poses the question ‘How does one endure after a terrible loss?’ But like the Australian bush, it is a story of regeneration, of new life.
Hannah Babel is a Hungarian-Jewish woman who lived in Budapest. She was raised in an Orthodox household, not over-strict but strict enough. Her father was by profession an accountant but his passion was for literature. The apartment where they lived had shelves in almost every room, fitted around doorways and windows to maximise the space.
Each book, to George Babel, held its place in the worldwide narrative, a single story told by thousands of voices.
In 1944 Hannah, her husband Leon and her three-year-old son Michael were deported to Auschwitz. Ninety human beings crammed into a single wagon. As Hannah observed,
“All were Jews, but how much did that mean? Thrust together in this way, after the first-day watching others relieve themselves in buckets, listening to each other weep from exhaustion, still no intimacy beyond a shared sense of injustice.”
Hannah recognised some familiar faces. She asked a man who kept a bakery in her neighbourhood in Budapest:
‘What will happen?’
The baker replied,
“They will kill us.’
Hannah knew this. There had been rumours. Some still clung to a belief that they would be spared. But a program of extermination was underway.
Their final destination was Auschwitz. When they disembarked, soldiers shouted orders and pushed people in one direction or another. The gas chamber awaited many. Some were assigned to work details.
Hannah was separated from her husband. She was directed to stand apart as she spoke German, a ‘useful’ skill.
She stood watching in horror at the events unfolding before her. Her son, Michael, sat at her feet, tired and hungry. She fell asleep for a short time. When she regained consciousness, she realised Michael had been taken from her. She was seized by panic. No one listened to her desperate pleas.
Any parent who has lost a child albeit briefly will know that feeling of panic and apprehension. But for Hannah the loss was permanent.
Two weeks passed before she was told by a Polish wraith, a Jew in authority, three years in Auschwitz, that the boy, this Michael, had gone up the chimney. Nothing of him remained. Not a tooth, not a toenail. The memories and the mourning would last a lifetime. She would be forever defined by her loss.
Hannah lost all her family during the war, all her in-laws, everyone – thirty-two individuals who loved her, cared for her, believed in her.
Hannah survived Auschwitz and returned to the family’s apartment in 1945. Her father’s library was gone. She might have thought:
“So what? Did books save my father? Did books save anyone?”
“He loved the books, one day there will be a shop and I will stand behind the counter and sell.”
For Hannah, it was a case of redefining what hope meant for her. She couldn’t see herself being a wife and mother. She couldn’t contemplate having other children when she couldn’t save the one she had. Her wounds ran deep.
A bookshop would be a fitting way of honouring her father and his love of literature. She nurtured this hope in her heart.
When we experience adversity our hearts are often shattered. At such times it is easy to become cynical about life, to believe that nothing good will ever happen to us again.
Author Carey Nieuwhof says,
“Cynics find hope hard because hope is one of cynicism’s first casualties.”
Hope isn’t based on an emotion or feeling. It is having a clear purpose in mind, something to live for.
After the war, Hannah immigrated to Australia, a long way west of Budapest; of Auschwitz. It was Hannah’s attempt to break with the sorrow and sadness of the past. The bookshop was still in her imagination and thought, a bookshop for the broken-hearted.
Hannah made the long journey from Europe to Hometown in country Victoria not knowing what awaited her. She discovered that you can’t dispense with the past for the past is in you.
Two people would play an important part in helping her reconcile the past and restore her faith in life.
Tom Hope is a farmer and not much of a farmer at that according to his own estimations. He is a humble man who endured a failed marriage to Trudy.
Hannah enlists Tom’s help in setting up her bookshop. He is a skilled tradesman and transforms the interior of the shop into something beautiful. Hannah is older than Tom but they form a romantic attachment. Hannah finds Tom’s strength of character attractive but she realises he will never be able to grasp the depth of her sorrow and the gravity of Auschwitz.
Peter is Trudy’s son. He is a young boy who wants nothing more than to live on the farm with Tom. He has had a troubled life, scarred by physical and emotional abuse.
At Trudy’s request, Tom becomes Peter’s legal guardian but his presence creates serious issues for Hannah. She worries about her ability to support the boy and the hurt she may experience in sharing her life with him. She is concerned that any relationship she has will challenge the way she feels about Michael her son. She doesn’t want to stop grieving for him. She doesn’t want Peter to become a substitute for her loss.
It is Hannah and Peter’s love for Tom that draws them together. They both realise that Tom is ‘reliable,’ he will be there for them.
In a reflective moment, Tom thinks about the two most important people in his life. He can see ‘hope rising.’ It is something he has observed in the Australian landscape, something that occurs in the aftermath of a bushfire. He recalls,
“The green of the packed foliage gave way in a thousand places to the bone-white of dead trunks, the standing corpses of trees burnt in the Black Friday fires of 1939. Enough time had passed since the eruption of the mountain into flame for an intricate pattern of living colour and dead colour to have emerged. It was as if the thriving foliage of the living trees had undertaken a vast campaign of support for the dead trunks, hemming them in, holding them erect in places.”
We can’t erase personal tragedy from our life. But facing up to the past can be the key to both freedom and love.
We need a hope that is strong in adversity, a hope that can accommodate hurt and loss, and a hope that can provide a pathway for the future.
Carey Nieuwhof describes the kind of hope we need to stay strong. He says,
“Hope anchored in resurrection is resilient.”