In 1943, two hundred and thirty women were arrested as members of the French Resistance and sent to Birkenau. Only 49 survived, but this in itself is remarkable. These women were as diverse a group as could be imagined. They were Jews and Christians, aristocrats and working class, young and old. Yet they were united by their commitment to the French Resistance and to one another. The solidarity of these women to one another and to their mutual survival sustained them through unspeakable horror and torture.
According to accounts of other Holocaust survivors, the hellish conditions of extreme deprivation and torture drove many to hoard whatever meager resources they could save for themselves. And how could they be blamed? Survival became the only goal—no matter what the cost. Yet, in the case of these French women in Birkenau, solidarity toward each other trumped the selfishness that overwhelmed so many others. For example, when unrelieved thirst threatened to engulf one of their members in utter madness, the women pooled together their own scanty rations to get her a whole bucket of water.
Altruism of this magnitude is seldom seen. Putting one’s own needs first is as natural as breathing. Yet adversity sometimes coaxes out the best and the most beautiful in human beings.
In the biblical account of Ruth, three women are left widows, and one, Naomi, has lost her sons as well as her husband. Bereft of their economic and financial support, the women instinctively stay together, even though Naomi urges the younger women to return to their homeland of Moab, where the prospect of finding a husband would be more likely. Eventually, Orpah did return home, but Ruth insisted on staying.
In staying with Naomi, Ruth would forfeit any sense of security. In the ancient Near East, husbands and sons secured a woman’s total wellbeing. Without husband or male heir, women were left to fend for themselves, often forced into prostitution to earn a living.
Now, Naomi and Ruth would not only depend on one another, but would be cast upon the mercy of another land and another people as strangers. Yet Ruth aligns herself with Naomi—her welfare is Ruth’s welfare—no matter what the cost.
The ancient Hebrew law enforced the care of widows and orphans by the larger community as a sign of solidarity to the weakest and the most vulnerable members of the community. Ruth, as a Moabite, was bound by no such law and yet she sees her allegiance to Naomi. Their shared adversity, their shared identity as widows, bound them together and brought about something beautiful.
Ruth wouldn’t ever see how this exceptional act of solidarity would save not only Naomi, but the people of Israel. She would become the great, great grandmother of King David. Indeed, One would come from David who would also demonstrate solidarity with humanity – Jesus, the Messiah.
The women of the French Resistance provide a contemporary model of what Ruth demonstrated in ages past, an altruistic solidarity to one another in order to ensure survival. It is during the Christmas season that Christians celebrate the God of solidarity. This God chose to cast the lot with humanity by becoming one of us, walking among us, even sharing the horror of human death with us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…solidarity in order to bring us life.
As we close the holiday season and enter a new year, let us choose solidarity with fellow believers and with the God who loved us that much.
Yours in faith,