“Roll out the barrel! Your Christmas will be here today or tomorrow.”
In his 2007 documentary The War, Ken Burns’ weaves the stories of multiple people and towns into the unfolding events of World War II. One of the narrative threads explored involves a young girl named Sascha Weinzheimer. An American from Sacramento, Sascha happened to be living in the Philippines in 1941. On December 7th of that year – the same day as the attacks on Pearl Harbor – Manila was besieged by enemy forces who moved swiftly to occupy the entire region, including the plantation Sascha and her family were living on. It was not long before eight year old Sascha was led into an internment camp, along with her family and thousands of others.
It is compelling to hear a now older Sascha interviewed, recounting her experience. But even more captivating are the excerpts from her diary that she wrote while the actual events were unfolding. As I read her words for the first time, it struck me that the narrative arc of her story parallels the narrative arc of the gospel. And perhaps it’s the reference to Christmas in the climax of her account, but her story has stuck with me as a particularly relevant meditation for Advent. That’s because her story is one of waiting and holding on to hope amidst oppressive darkness. The source of her hope is the idea that soon there will be an arrival that will bring liberation and restoration. That is the hope of Advent as well, as we wait for the arrival of Jesus. The truth is the Christmas story can become so familiar its power can begin to dim. But seeing parallels in a story like Sascha’s has the potential to stoke the fire in our hearts for just how good the news of Jesus’ arrival is.
Below I have included excerpts from Sascha’s diary from World War II (slightly edited), interspersed with some of my own commentary to frame the excerpts. Like the gospel story, Sascha’s account begins in a garden, an idilic state of beauty and innocence.
“We live on a sugar plantation near Manila in a lovely white house with a big rolling garden This house of ours seems like the most wonderful home a girl could have. Beautiful tropical flowers, hibiscus, ginger flowers, gardenias, and orchids.”
But then signs of darkness begin to emerge, like storm clouds. In her childlike innocence, which would soon be taken from her, Sascha didn’t understand the weight of it all.
“That night we had our first blackout. We kids thought it was fun! Jesus, our cook, made piles of sandwiches before it got dark so that it would be easy chow to eat in the dark. My baby brother, Buddy, was no trouble to feed, except to Mummie.”
Out of naïveté, optimism, or a mixture of both, her parents attempt to downplay the extent of the darkness.
“It was so crowded everywhere as people came from all over the island to the city. “There is really nothing to worry about, Darl.” That’s what Daddy and my mother always called each other.”
But reality, and fear, begin to set in.
“On New Year’s Eve, Daddy brought home three soldiers. When they all had big glasses of whiskey and soda in their hands they started telling stories about fighting [the enemy]. They always smiled when people wouldn’t believe them when they said, “Lady, we haven’t got a chance.” Mother scolded them for talking that way.
The first thing I remember was looking across the street towards the Bay and seeing [the enemy] soldiers and officers around the flagpole, hoisting up the their flag where out Stars and Stripes had been. Soon, trucks came rolling down the Boulevard yelling … We were told to be calm, and keep away from the windows. Everyone was nervous, especially mother.”
The weight of darkness comes to bear in real life, and it is overwhelming.
“After Daddy started to say goodbye I could just hardly stand it, and for the first time I was afraid. I thought he would suffer like in a jail. So I screamed and held on to Daddy until I had to be pulled away. Then he ran out and that was the last we saw of him for a few months. Mother had a hard time to get me quiet, but I couldn’t help it, I just couldn’t stop.”
And the darkness spreads to cover all things. It becomes the context for life.
“On February 15, 1943, a few days after my tenth birthday, we moved into the Santo Tomas Camp. We left Nila, our nanny, crying loudly. After bowing to the sentry on duty, we went through the gate where Daddy was waiting for us.”
The people settle in to live in the land of darkness, trying to keep hope and hold on to beauty. Small practices become a lifeline to how things ought to be, and maybe will be again.
“We got our chow from the lines in tin cans, then we would eat in our shanty, and Mother said that no matter what happened we would eat off our bridge table with a table cloth with our colored dishes and small bowl of flowers so long as we could.”
“The rumor about [the enemy] army taking over the camp was true. If we thought we had reason to complain about how awful our life was in a concentration camp, we soon changed our minds and knew we had been on a picnic till then. From now on we would be the same as military war prisoners and not civilian prisoners.
So almost everything was taken away from us at once. We began to know how bad things could be. Even though Mummy and Daddy kept telling us kids to eat everything on our plates because the day would come when we might have very little to eat, we didn’t really believe them.
September. People are really getting awfully hungry now. Women are using their cold cream for cooking. Every day people are stealing more and more, anything they can to eat. Daddy says, “When one gets hungry, you are apt to do most anything.””
Sascha and her family hold on to the good, even in despair. They give thanks to God, even in oppression and poverty. But there remains a deep longing for restoration.
“[November 30, 1944.] Thanksgiving: We had half a can of Spam, cooked one extra cup of rice and got enough talinum from our garden for a salad with three whole garlics chopped up in it. We thank God we are all together and not really sick like so many people in here are.
As usual, we talked about our next Thanksgiving. Buddy wouldn’t know what a turkey was anyway, but I still remember what good food we always had.
Mother said it was best to forget Christmas this year but we can’t on account of the little kids. She told them because of the anti-aircraft guns in Manila, Uncle Sam told Santa to keep away this year and leave his gifts for the kids in San Francisco.”
How long? Will hopelessness take over?
“January 12. People are dying every day from starvation. Fred Fairman and Mrs. Everett yesterday. We have such a short time to go, what a pity they couldn’t hang on to life just a while longer. Mother weighs only 73 pounds (she used to weigh 148) and Dr. Allen says she has to stay in bed from now because she can’t walk.”
They start to get wind of hope and they dare to let that hope penetrate their hearts. But will it arrive in time?
“January 17. Buddy’s favorite expression is, “Let’s talk about food.” He has a favorite suit, too, which he calls his “Gate suit.” He’s been taking this suit out almost every day for months, putting it on the bed and saying, “I’ll put my Gate things right here Mummy, so I can be ready.” All of us have something saved to wear out the Gate. All of us except Daddy who has been bare-footed now for six months. “I don’t need a thing for the Gate except two good legs to walk out with,” he said.
February 1. This morning Auntie Bee came to visit. She works in the hospital. She says the doctors expect seven more to die today, all from starvation.”
Then, like a message from an angel, a promise arrives. Like a star in the sky, a sign.
“February 3. At about five o’clock last night ten of our planes came over our Camp. One pilot dropped his goggles with a note tied to them it fell in the main building patio where there weren’t any [of the enemy] and lucky a friend of ours found it because we found out right away what it said: “Roll out the barrel! Your Christmas will be here today or tomorrow.” Shortly we heard guns and tanks in the distance. Everyone thought it must be [the enemy] except Daddy. He was sure it was the Americans!”
The scriptures give us a multitude of images to describe who Jesus is. The gospel itself is a multi-faceted jewel that we can admire from different angles. But one of the main themes is that Jesus came to give liberty to captives (Luke 4:18) so that we could be set free (Romans 6). In New Testament terms, this means the chains of sin no longer bind those who are in Christ. And this liberation from sin is not just metaphorically connected to the liberation Sascha and her family longed for; there is a direct line connecting them. Because sin is at the heart of all violence, abuse, oppression, and war. Sin is the reason the world is not as it should be. Because of this, there can be no lasting peace, no setting things right, without sin being dealt with once and for all. This is exactly what Jesus has done (1 Corinthians 15:55). Thus, to liberate the world from sin, is to bring peace and restoration.
That is why as I heard Sascha’s story, Isaiah 9:2-7 rang in my ears. That prophecy points to the coming Prince of Peace who will break the rods of every oppressor and burn every garment stained with the blood of war. It points to Jesus. Thus, the connection is not forced; Sascha’s hope is the hope of Christmas. As silent as Jesus’ first arrival was, it resonated like guns in the distance. Liberation was arriving.
The gospel story tells us that as Jesus grew, lived a sinless life, and gave himself on the cross, he won the decisive victory. The enemy is already defeated. But Jesus has not fully set everything right. That will happen when he returns again (the second Advent) to establish his kingdom forever. When that day comes, we will celebrate at a feast, just like Sascha.
“When we came to the ship’s dining room we could hardly believe our eyes! Long tables with white table cloths (glasses not cups), white plates, two spoons, two forks and what chow! Ice cream and red apples, too!”
This is the hope of Advent, the hope of what Jesus’ arrival means. Liberation. Restoration. And so this promise resounds: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” Come, Lord Jesus.