Letter to a World War II Heroine

May 29, 2017

Dear Babuly,

Webp.net-resizeimage (3)Here in America, it is Memorial Day— a day for the honored dead. (Different from Veterans' Day, observed in November, which acknowledges all who have served in the military). Memorial Day is dedicated to the remembrance of those who never came back, who lost their lives in armed conflict. Solemnity and reverence describe its mood. I am glad we have this day. But can a single day suffice? I worry that it signals a poverty of remembrance.

Lately, it feels like more and more remembrance is needed. The scourge of amnesia seems to have fallen upon us. Or, perhaps, we as a race are becoming incrementally more savage. Just this past week, so much blood spilled, I was hesitant to open the newspaper. Afraid to have the breath sucked out of me again. Even before I tell you of these events that hit me, I am conscious there are others I will not mention, that I do not know about, which by a failure of distance, or point of view, did not make the news, or my eye missed the fine print of their announcement. An unjustifiable erasure.

What would you say? I wonder.

It's these erasures, isn't it, these countless erasures that over time build up into a rage so huge it renders the wounded and desperate with a motive force? I sense it, alive and latent. A primal instinct: the will to be heard and seen by fellow humans, to scream out pain in the absence of empathy. In the darkest hour, that distorted impulse rises up and reaches out to inflict the abiding pain from within on to all those smug, laughing faces. The world is an ugly place right now. The pungency of fear sits on many tongues, poisoning the air.

On this Memorial Day, my mind conjures an image: miles of flat land marked by thousands of headstones, the graves of those felled in action. Bone-white headstones, almost translucent, against the canvas of night. The earth is rough, soil upturned beneath a turbulent sky. A vigorous wind blows across this forbidding landscape filled with the bodies of martyrs.

I am not sure in which country or continent this field lies. And if I set out, in honor of this day that is dedicated to the laying of wreaths and bouquets and flags, will I actually find it? Then there's the question of which flag? Belonging can be furtive, slippery, and identity layered. There are many shades of fealty; the flag of a single nation cannot represent the breadth of human experience, the depth of human compassion. Not in the world we live in now—overlapping, intricately webbed, complex.

In reality, not everyone gets a burial, not everyone lost in war is found. Just because you serve, just because you give all of yourself over to an ideal, doesn't necessarily mean that you will in the end—should your life be snatched—receive a dignified burial, blanketed in soil between the earth and the sky, and on ceremonial days like this: a bouquet, prayers, peonies. Download

You, of all people, know this. You are among those who left and did not return. A poet, an author of stories for children, a pianist, a composer of music for harp, burning with an ideal, you left to liberate an occupied country. Your former homeland. Your friend Henriette described you as fearless. You learned to ride horses with her and when you fell off, you picked yourself up, without a fuss, and climbed back on. Your instructor at Beaulieu, on the other hand, described you as timid, petrified during mock interrogations. Somewhere between fearless and frightened you gave your all and you won our hearts. And today, I remember you.

You landed in an empty field in France by the light of a full moon in June 1943. And the first thing you did was bury your gun in that soil. Then you worked in complete wakefulness, utterly alert, skillfully transmitting messages on your wireless for three months until you were betrayed. Your weapon? Silence. And silence again, when they caught you. Of course, you used your teeth and finger nails, you bit and clawed, as any warrior worth their salt. But then, it was your spirit and your refusal to speak that won.

Each year Memorial Day arrives on the threshold between spring and summer. We sun ourselves in parks blooming with bright flowers, more awake than ever, the cold of winter behind us. In this borderland between seasons, we remember those who brimmed with life and the fervor of their ideal. Those, like you, Babuly, who left, convinced of their life's purpose, never to come back.

We invoke those who because they did not return will never grow old, and instead remain forever radiant with youth. On Memorial Day, we become acutely aware, too, of mortality. Of bodies that made love and were made love to, bodies that brought forth life and gave nurture and bodies taken in their prime; bodies that sleep on the ocean's floor; bodies that merged with the air; bodies that have exploded into trees and melted into the earth; bodies that at the hands of captors met unspeakable cruelty, bodies that have been rendered unrecognizable; bodies that have disappeared. Webp.net-resizeimage (1)

And yet what we remember today extends beyond the body to a celebration of human spirit. That mysterious, impalpable quintessence that lives on in our minds and hearts. The essence and substance of exceptional lives that continue their work in the world through the subtle planes of remembrance. Ceremonial remembrance helps keep their legacy alive. It conveys to later generations the story of what has been lost and gained and the fortitude required to chart unknown territory. Ceremonies like today make us conscious of the spaces and identities that we occupy with a sense of entitlement but which were, in truth, hard won and with sacrifice.

Babuly, at a time when women did not enter combat, you joined the special forces. The first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France, you were among the pioneers of "irregular warfare," whose contribution was dramatic and influenced the outcome of the war. Your family knew you to be strong-minded, "gentle" and "dreamy"; the Germans found you to be highly "dangerous." After capture, they shackled you in solitary confinement on the lowest rations. They continued to beat you. Yet, you gave them nothing, not even your true name.

Earlier this month, I thrilled to hear your name called out at a ceremony in France commemorating your courage and sacrifice along with that of other agents of the Resistance. There was something vital, powerful and affirming about the invocation of names. We summoned your presence. And, today, how can we forget your courage and the cause to which you gave your life? Resistance. Liberty.

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We hear those same words today. How is it possible then that though "Never again" was pledged, we find ourselves in new cycles of violence?

Outside your family home, there was another ceremony in your honor: flags and a band and more words of remembrance. I noticed a large tree with beautiful blooms rising up behind the high stone wall. I read all kinds of symbolism in it. Was it a sapling in your girlhood?

So much of remembrance is an act of imagination. Yet, despite the passage of time, how powerful and healing it was to gather in France, to form an audience. There were one or two amongst us who had survived the war. There we stood, and in our togetherness, that post-midnight field where you landed was aglow, once again, in moonlight.

But on this Memorial Day, Babuly, my heart aches for those who didn't set out to change the world, but who nonetheless have become martyrs, accidental heroes, caught up in increasingly "irregular warfare."

I sense your agreement, reaching me across the divide.

The "Dangerous Woman" concert in Manchester where a young man blew himself up, killing and maiming scores of predominantly young people—that was the first stab to my heart this past week. "Dangerous Woman"—a ‘cool,' subversive title for a concert, but one rendered hideously perverse in the aftermath of what transpired. I remember how the Nazis, unsettled by your silence, your refusal to stop trying to escape, your fearlessness in the face of beatings—called you "dangerous" too.

On May 27 arrived shocking news of the ambush and massacre of Coptic Christians traveling a dusty road to a monastery in Minya City outside of Cairo. Among the victims a busload of children. A targeted, deliberate killing.

Babuly, our world is wretched. It is ravaged by hate. How do we temper this darkness?

Webp.net-resizeimageYesterday, three men in a train in Portland stood up to protect two visibly Muslim women under attack by a white supremacist spewing hate. Two of those chivalrous men were murdered by the attacker, the third seriously wounded. This Memorial Day, we must remember them, say their names aloud.

"There are no new stories, only the rhythm of the times" a writer declared. It irks me, Babuly, that I can't recall his name.

Memory is fugitive. And I am terribly afraid.

In an age of sarcasm, it is easy to overlook ceremony. But there are sacrifices, both those of history and of remarkable individuals, like you, who died for the many freedoms we enjoy today that we mustn't forget; that we cannot afford to forget.

A year has passed since I studied the bronze statue of The Immigrants, at the very tip of Manhattan, on the banks of the Hudson, and pondered the tensile dance of freedom and fear. Heart sore, I returned there yesterday afternoon. As I was leaving I noticed filaments of sunlight in an otherwise overcast sky. I thought of you, remembered the tree in bloom in your family home, the memorable ceremonies in France. Struck by gratitude, I realized, hope, too, is a legacy.

With love and reverence,


* * *

Noorunissa Inayat Khan, 1914-1944, worked skillfully as a radio operator in the Resistance until she was betrayed and captured by the Nazis. Though she was severely tortured, she gave no information to her captors. She was executed at Dachau Concentration Camp. Noorunissa was posthumously awarded the George Cross medal, Mention in Despatches and the Croix de Guerre.