For my English final, I wrote a letter from Stephen Kumalo of Cry, The Beloved Country, to Hans Hubermann of The Book Thief
July 24, 1946
Ndosheni, South Africa
Dear Hans Hubermann,
Your last letter focused on the slowly growing evil in your country, a deep hatred of Jews fanned into flame by this madman, Adolf Hitler. In my country also there is hatred and oppression, but the people of my blood have become accustomed to inferiority, and the oppressors are not all united. For some see nothing wrong with the situation, and claim it is God’s will for whites to rule blacks, while others argue that blacks should be given opportunities for advancement.
But the situation in your land is quite different. For the hatred your leader has stirred is an ancient hatred, and the older the hatred the more justifiable it seems. And too, Jews and non-Jews are not distinguished as easily as black and white, and the suspicion of infiltration fans the flames of irrationality.
But it is just as wrong to stand by and do nothing as madman destroy your land as it is to join them in destruction. You asked me what can one cup of water do to extinguish the fire; how can one man stop a raging stampede?
The answer is not simple, but I shall begin in simple terms. In one sense, the answer is “nothing.” Nothing one man can do will stop the madness of our times, though the one man had all the gifts of wisdom. Only God’s mighty hand holds us back from utter destruction, though the earth may seem to stand on the brink.
But in another sense, one man’s actions might be just enough to tip the scales, the tiny bump in the path that upsets the overburdened wagon. For example, your friend Erik saved your life in the Great War by volunteering you to write letters on the day your entire regiment went into battle.
In the grand scheme of things, it made no difference in the course of the war if you lived or died. But on a personal level, Erik’s decision meant everything. He saved your life. Now, you have a chance to save the life of his son.
What is the worth of one human life? Only God knows; but the scales of men are often swayed to favor the powerful. My son Absalom shot a man, a white man, in fear during a robbery. The judge sentenced him to hang. Would he have delivered the same verdict to a white man who killed a black? I cannot say…
A life for a life, so the Scriptures say in the laws of Moses. But in this world, it is often a life for a mistake, a life to assuage the fear of men. In the eyes of the law, my son’s life was forfeit when he shot the white man. But there is a higher law, one that I do not dare hope that men follow; the law of God’s mercy. The Scriptures say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Life for life; perhaps even life for death. You owe Erik your life, a debt you cannot repay directly. But his son has done no wrong, and yet is pursued by hatred and madmen. If you choose to take him in, your small deed may save his life.
One life. A small, small thing against the burning anger of the Third Reich. But one life is all anyone has. So how can we refuse to help because our actions will not make a difference?
It will make a difference to the one we help.
Go with God, Hans.