Reaching for the Stars

by Nora Waln
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.00]
HERE is a human document of gripping intensity — Nora Waln’s Reaching for the Stars. This good, gentle, sincere Quaker has accomplished what seemed impossible: she has brought to life the suffering, struggling human beings who make up contemporary Germany. The book is so full of felt experience, it is incomparably just and yet Compassionate. Distracted and bewildered by conflicting impressions, Miss Waln never wavers in her conviction regarding two basic truths: first, the Hitler government, no matter what its concrete practical achievements, is a force of evil, directed against all that is fine in the German tradition; second, countless Germans stand adamantly opposed to it and hold fast to the spirit of the great and eternal verities of Christianity and humanity. If you have known the German setting and feel desperate about the present trend, you will not only be deeply touched, but discover a new hope.
Firmly rooted in those verities, Miss Waln in her untutored simplicity gets more nearly to the heart of things than all the learned studies we have been treated to. If you have wondered how Germans really feel, read this book. It will tell you more than even a prolonged trip. In it you will encounter German men and women of all walks of life in their daily trials and tribulations. The artlessness of the style, the absence of all conscious artifice, only enhance the poignancy of the tale, bringing out the essence of the tragedy.
Miss Waln has caught the spiritual nature of the struggle as no one before had. Relentlessly she forces the reader to participate in the conflicting emotions which her varied experience aroused. But she always returns to the crucial issue: How can it be that these cultured and Christian people live under such a régime? She never gives a direct answer, but instead reaffirms her faith in the ultimate goodness of man and so of the German people.
Miss Waln’s book will be long remembered for certain strictly personal experiences. They stand out in one’s memory like exquisite vignettes: the Christmas at the Rhenish castle when the butler threatens the host because of a non-Aryan guest; the forestry estate; the great harvest; the magazine vendor and resident. Those who think that Nazi propaganda has all the youth of Germany engulfed and seduced will ponder long the brave cobbler’s children who repaired the shoes after father had vanished; ponder the remark solemnly offered by the tiniest of the pastor’s children: ‘Christianity is a religion of love — love and sorrow for all whom the Nazis hurt; and love and sorrow for the Nazis too.’ All of these children are ready to starve so that their fathers may uphold such convictions in spite of concentration camps and death. If your eyes do not get clouded as you read, you are built of sterner stuff than I.
Yet Miss Waln does not allow us to despair; her faith is unquenchable. From among many moving passages let me quote this one, put down by her after a visit to folks tending a great forest estate. ‘Close to the eternity of nature, I felt how ephemeral are the mistakes of men. In the voice of the wood I seemed to hear a promise that this era in which Germans are living is but a purgatory through which they will pass.’ Hence she may well conclude that peace depends mostly upon the strength of the faithful among the Germans: ‘They need the aid we can give them — our prayers, our friendship, and all the recognition and support that our statesmen can devise.’