A Thread of Grace – Resisting The Italian Holocaust
Grace is a heavy topic in systematic and historical theology. It has been the center of a longstanding dispute between Catholics and Protestants. In many respects, this dispute that dates to the Reformation is about how much credit we can take for the good we do or whether we have to credit everything to God.
I must say that when I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s, A Thread of Grace, I thought that the title was more of a poetic touch than a solid theological theme. I was attracted to the subject of the Holocaust in Italy. Since we are now between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the timing of this post seems appropriate.
When I picked up A Thread of Grace this summer for some “light” reading on vacation, I was unaware of Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, which are both works of science fiction with theological and philosophical themes. The Sparrow is the story of a Jesuit mission to an alien planet told by the sole survivor, Fr. Emilio Sandoz. In Children of God, Fr. Sandoz is called upon to return to Alpha Centauri.
Even though it is a work of historical fiction, A Thread of Grace reads like a thriller. Italy withdraws from World War II. Nazis come pouring in, along with refugee Jews from areas of southern France that had been controlled by Italy. Italians resist the Nazi extension of the Holocaust and 85% of resident and refugee Jews in Italy survive the 20 months of German occupation. The story takes place in northwestern Italy and presents the complexity and richness of the stories of the major characters. Who lives and who dies and how they die appears to be largely a matter of chance or fate.
The desperate situation of the region, caught between the collapse of their government and military, the German invasion, the relentless Allied bombing, and various partisan factions, provides a relentless cauldron in which the Jews are offered refuge and protection. The plot is very complicated but the characters reveal a great deal about simple truths. Werner Schramm, a Nazi doctor guilty of horrendous crimes, finds a measure of redemption after he is given a place and help to recover from tuberculosis. The man responsible for this help is the main character, Renzo Leoni, a Jewish aviator and veteran of the Abyssinian War, who has his own guilt about war crimes. Fr. Osvaldo Tomitz, who refuses to give absolution to Dr. Schramm, later receives his final Communion and last blessings from the Nazi doctor who is too late to rescue him. Iacopo Soncini, the local rabbi, comforts Fr. Tomitz when the priest comes to warn him and the Jewish community. People act to help others at an unbelievable cost – torture, the loss of their family, friends, and communities.
While this is certainly not a “feel good” book about the Holocaust, it is a resounding testament to people doing the right things in moments of grace. Are they responsible for these heroic actions or is God? The lives of these believers and unbelievers, these saints and sinners all wrapped up in the same complex person, render the academic quarrel over grace moot. God does not overpower free will and free will snatches hope from despair.
“There is a saying in Hebrew… No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there is always a thread of grace.”