This large format colorful paperback is not what it seems. Donít imagine for a minute that itís a sweet story of old ladies at a quilting bee.
Passing on the Comfort is a nitty-gritty tale, or rather, two nitty-gritty tales, of war, peace, and struggle. Itís told through the eyes of two women: An, a survivor of the German occupation of the Netherlands; and Lynn, an expatriate American living in Holland who was led by fate to An.
The central focus of the book is Anís work for the resistance movement during World War II. Married to a Mennonite minister, she and friends made unimaginable sacrifices to save Jewish people, especially children, from the Nazi reign of terror. Netherlands was a small, weak country and could not fight back, so many people seemed to simply acquiesce to the totality of Nazi occupation. But some spent the war years hiding those in danger (remember Anne Frank?) and moving them from place to place. An was a prime character in this struggle, and her memories are sharp. Often hard to read because of the painful realities of what she had to go through, the book has a redemptive aspect. The quilts.
American Mennonites sent handmade quilts to Europe to support the anti-Nazi movement. Lynn and Anís encounter is focused on the quilts. Seeing them again after many years evokes Anís recollections.
The book is illustrated with color photographs of the quilts and old black-and-white pictures from Anís youth, spent in deprivation and in acts of courage that seemed to have been second nature to her. Slip-ups could cost lives. That was the daily reality, which included emptying the backyard privy under cover of darkness so that no-one would suspect how many people were living in the familyís little house, and searching for food to nourish the starving orphans who showed up almost daily at their door.
There are personal glimpses along the way. An was from a wealthy family, so she was not expected to be suffering hunger and poverty, but she took it on willingly as part of the life of a ministerís wife. She had married without a great feeling of love and was tormented by her husbandís family, who considered her stupid and not nearly good enough for their son. It wasnít a heart link, but it was practical and she made the best of it. One of the more striking moments in her chronicle comes when she meets a man among the refugees and feels an eerie kinship with him. He tells her that he first met her when he was hiding out, disguised as a woman. He actually slept in the bed with her and comforted her when she cried Ė as one ďwomanĒ to another. One senses that she had deep feelings for this person that could not ever be expressed.
This is a book about true bravery and conviction, with the quilts as a poignant sidebar to the real action. The narrative jumps back and forth from Lynn to An, and includes a lot of factual material about the war, the Netherlands, and the Jews of Europe. Reading it will help us remember the ugliness of intolerance and war.