Ian's Reviews > The Shadow of His Wings

The Shadow of His Wings by Gereon Goldmann
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It's difficult to start this review without the standard clichés and cheap, ubiquitous adjectives. This was "an inspiring true story" and "an amazing narrative" about the "astonishing life" of Father Gereon Goldman, a Franciscan priest, who was forced to serve in the German army during WWII. The Shadow of His Wings is full of "miraculous episodes." This book is "a truly stirring account" of Father Goldman's experiences with "Nazi oppression" and "the horrors of war." See what I mean? But the thing is, in this case, the standard clichés and overused adjectives are all true. Father Goldman's autobiography really is inspiring, amazing, astonishing, and stirring—if any true narrative ever was those things, this one is. I want to do this book justice in my review by not relying on the usual tired descriptions, but maybe I'd be doing an injustice by eliminating words like inspiring et al. if they really are the best words to describe the story. Maybe this book puts meaning back into those words, rescuing them from the junkyard of triteness and mediocrity. Regardless of your own faith or religious tradition (I'm a former evangelical Protestant turned Roman Catholic with an agnostic bent), you should be able to find in Father Goldman's story of living through—and overcoming—the hardship and depravation of WWII something inspirational, something stirring, something that simply amazes you, and most importantly something to make you think about faith and the role it plays in our lives.

The Shadow of His Wings offers the reader several important themes that each deserves consideration. I'll try to give each theme its due. But first a synopsis to put the discussion in perspective:

Father Goldman was born Karl Goldman, Jr. in rural Germany in 1916. (The origin of the name "Gereon" is not explained.) His father was a veteran of WWI and was at the western front when Karl was born. I forget how many brothers and sisters he had, but it was a lot. His mother died when he was about 10 and then his father remarried and had more kids. Young Karl was always the biggest and strongest as he had his father's tall, muscular frame. But Karl didn't use his frame to bully people. Oh, he got in plenty of fights, but it was always defending his siblings from bullies or defending other school kids who were too small or weak to defend themselves. He was brought up with a strong sense of justice and helping those who were less fortunate.

Goldman was an alter server at a young age and professed an early desire to join the priesthood. He also became enamored with the Franciscan order and its creed of helping those in need. A nun that he met when he was young told him that she would pray every day for 20 years that he would be ordained a Franciscan priest. Against all odds, in the middle of the war, it would happen.

As a young man Goldman joined the seminary and studied philosophy, getting ready for his religious/theological instruction. While a seminarian he and his fellow students were drafted into the German army. As educated, principled men they were recruited to the SS and put to work in noncombatant occupations: medics and radio operators and such. That doesn't mean they would avoid combat—quite the contrary, but they were given jobs that didn't require them to pick up guns and kill people. Father Goldman managed to go through the war without ever firing a weapon in anger; he never killed anyone, though he did occasionally threaten people with his gun in specific desperate circumstances. The seminarians were constantly ridiculed and rebuked for their religion. They were part of the invasion of Poland, then into France, then later to Russia. Goldman himself was spared the Russian campaign because of a serious illness that left him incapacitated—that would save his life, as all of his fellows were killed in the Stalingrad campaign.

I won't tell you the rest of the story but rather I urge you to read it for yourself. You'll find out how Father Goldman survived the war and subsequent confinement in prisoner-of-war camps, how he became ordained a priest, how he ministered to his fellow soldiers and prisoners, and the desperate situations that tested his physical will and faith over and over. Goldman's story is better than any piece of fiction, full of suspense, conflict, surprises, and a great ending. Now to themes that I got from the book …

The power of prayer:

The power of prayer is one of the more important themes in this book. Father Goldman clearly believes that the faithful persevering prayer of nuns and priests resulted directly in divine intervention that saved him from death more than once. I admit the circumstances surrounding his various close calls are indeed compelling and would be incredible coincidences. It certainly is hard to deny that, at least in appearance, it looks like other peoples' prayer played a huge role in guiding Goldman's life. I should note here that I have no reason to believe anything Goldman relates is not true; the book's editor insists that he has verified everything with eyewitnesses and contemporary documents, so I'm assuming all the important details are true.

So how should I react to this? I don't know. I'm struggling with it. For every example Goldman cites of prayer working in his life, there are plenty of examples of prayer leading to nothing. I've seen fervent, faithful, and perseverant prayer not lead to any perceivable results in my own life and in the lives of friends and family. But I've witnessed other instances of prayer working, or at least, looking like it was working. And Goldman's stories are, like I said, pretty compelling. So I'm still thinking about it.

As I've noted in previous reviews, my own faith has undergone a huge evolution over the last two or three years. The Shadow of His Wings is just the latest in a series of books that I've read in order to help me better understand the evolution my faith is undergoing, as well as to help me think about faith generally, and try to work out what it is that I really believe. I was once so sure of what I believed, but now I'm in some ways an agnostic, and even where I think I know what I believe I'm constantly questioning, challenging, revising when necessary. I'm just not at a place where I can be sure of things like I used to be. I don't think I'll ever be that sure of faith again, but I do hope to work out a "truth" that resonates with me and that I can settle into. There will be elements of protestant Christianity, elements of Roman Catholicism, and plenty of healthy agnosticism thrown in, but I will get there, eventually, and the story of Father Goldman I think is helping me on that journey.

Faith in times of suffering:

Even now, with all my doubt and constant critical evaluation of what I believe, I can't doubt the important role that a strong faith can play when you're undergoing suffering. And I don't mean the "suffering" that most of us endure in the U.S.—worrying about money, maybe an illness here or there, and whether our kids are learning anything in school—I mean real suffering under literally inhuman conditions. Suffering in the midst of war and concentration camps … seeing your friends die all around you and facing death yourself every day … that kind of suffering. Father Goldman's faith clearly carried him through those times in his lives, and as a priest ministering to other prisoners of war under awful, inhuman conditions he was able to bring out the faith in others that would carry them through those trying times as well.

Suffering as redemption:

Father Goldman offered up his suffering for a redemptive purpose, and he clearly believes that he benefited from others offering up their suffering for his benefit. This is a very Catholic thing, not really found in Protestant circles, the idea that you can offer up your suffering as penance for somebody else so that person can experience God's blessings.

I recently encountered the idea of redemptive suffering in God's Problem by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman shreds the idea of redemptive suffering from a logical perspective. But a few weeks ago I was having dinner with some friends—the most "Catholic" Catholics I know—and they describe the idea in more human, personal terms, and made it seem more plausible. Something else I need to keep thinking about as I search for truth that I can believe.

Humanity in the midst of inhuman war:

As a medic in the German army, Goldman was able to offer comfort to soldiers who were suffering and dying all around him. And he witnessed acts of incredible kindness and self-sacrifice in the middle of the most inhuman circumstances. War brings out both the best and the worst of humanity.

Not all Germans were "bad guys":

When history is written by the victors, it's easy to forget that Germany wasn't a nation full of animals. Like any other nation, German contained examples of the best and worst that humanity has to offer, it's just that people who fell more toward the "worst" side of the spectrum were able to gain control of a desperate, hungry populace struggling to recover from WWI. The massive German army was built primarily on the backs of draftees; they drafted nearly every eligible man between the ages of 18 and 35 very early in the war, and then the jaws of war chewed up those men. A whole generation of German soldiers—their best-equipped and best-trained troops—most of whom were just well meaning young men who were drafted and tried to make the best of their situations—died in the invasion of Russia. Father Goldman escaped service on the Russian front and was put to work in the Italian front.

A few months into the German retreat through Sicily and then Italy, he was Sergeant-Major Goldman, an army medic and seasoned non-com, and he often the most experienced man on the battlefield despite his refusal to fire a weapon at another human being. Goldman's unit, having been devastated, slaughtered even, in the withdrawal and escape from Sicily, was supplemented with new draftees who were all very young (under 18) or very old (over 45). The new draftees, the young and old, were all that Germany had left to throw into the hungry jaws of war, and they were thrown in without adequate training and with very little support in terms of officers or equipment.

Those German soldiers were not all "bad people." Sure, some of them were Nazi sympathizers with ideas of moral and racial superiority. But most weren’t. They didn't choose to be born in Germany. Indeed they probably did not want to conquer all of Europe, but they couldn't speak out without fear of Nazi reprisals against them and their families. They were drafted and sent straight to the front, with the bare minimum of training, and were told "fight or be executed." What would you do in those circumstances? Really ask yourself that question. If you were drafted to fight in a war that America started but that you didn't support, and you had no place like Canada to which you could flee, and America was losing and now threatened itself, and you were told to "fight or we'll execute you and imprison your family" … what would you do? Would you really have the courage to refuse to fight in the unjust war? I wouldn't have that courage, and I bet you wouldn't, either.

The Germans were destined to lose WWII:

So if you've studied WWII at all, you know about Germany losing many of its best-trained "fighting-age" men in the Russian front, North Africa, and elsewhere, and the subsequent need to draft the young and old to send into the battlefields. This leads to something else that Goldman realized when he was fighting in Italy: by late 1942, certainly by early 1943, Germany simply could not win the war; Germany simply could not complete with Allied industrial might and manpower.

I recently completed Connie Willis's newest time-travel adventures: Blackout and All Clear. She likes to hammer points home with repetition—lots of repetition, btw—and one of them was that the outcome of WWII was balanced on the "knife's edge" of history. Willis believes that WWII could have tipped either way at many critical points, and that the world was in real danger of Nazi/Imperial Japanese rule.

I'm not so sure that's true, at least not once the war was a couple of years old. Early on, it seems to me the Germans made a huge error by bombing London rather than smashing the RAF with superior German numbers. They then could have invaded Britain with air superiority and possibly conquered the British Isles. That was a very plausible outcome in 1940 and 1941, and obviously it would have set the Allied cause back tremendously, but it only would have lengthened the war. For one thing, the Germans were still bound to take massive losses on the Eastern Front; the invasion of Russia was doomed from the start. Also, the Germans would have taken significant losses in an invasion of the British Isles, and would have needed a huge occupation army to prevent armed uprisings from the British people. Keep in mind that Germany had a much more difficult time replacing losses—both human and materiel losses—than the Allies did. So every soldier lost in an invasion of Britain was a soldier that couldn’t be replaced, couldn't fight in Russia, couldn't defend Germany from the Russians, and couldn't defend North Africa or Italy from the Americans.

The Americans, compared with Germany (and Japan, btw) had a near-unlimited supply of manpower and equipment. The United States was simply too big and too industrialized. And once Germany decided not to invade Britain, thereby leaving Britain as a staging ground for invasion of the Continent, they were doomed. Stuck between the Russians in the east and the British/American forces in the west, the Germans simply had no chance. The Germans put up a brave and effective fight given their lack of manpower and resources, thereby lengthening the war, but lengthening the war was all they ever could do. The outcome of the war, once Germany decided not to invade Britain, simply was not in doubt.

I certainly don't mean to say that winning WWII was easy, not by any means. Indeed the Allies were always going to win precisely because they were willing to work hard, endure hardship, and make the sacrifices necessary to defeat Germany and Japan. And I know that it's only with the hindsight of history that we can say with any confidence that the Allies were destined to win. At the time, the contemporaries had plenty of reasons for doubt and despair as they didn't have access to the whole picture like we do today. But Father Goldman, I think, realized that Germany was doomed to lose as early as the summer of 1943, when he was sneaking through the mountains of Italy and observing thousands upon thousands of Allied troops landing and marching northward, witnessing row upon row of Allied tanks and artillery lined up on the plains and beaches. Goldman commented at one point that he thought the German Army in Italy was outnumbered ten-to-one in manpower and a hundred-to-one in materiel. While in reality the situation might not have been that lopsided, it was still pretty lopsided. Many German units, their well trained paratroopers in particular, put up a hell of a fight, but all they did was slow the inevitable advance of the Allied juggernaut reaching up the Italian boot.

Conclusion

So what does one say about The Shadow of His Wings? Again, this book really is inspiring and moving in the true sense of those words, clichés notwithstanding. Father Goldman is a remarkable man who has done a tremendous amount of good in the world under the most difficult of circumstances, and you don't have to be a Roman Catholic, or even a Christian more generally, to think so. He is an example of the best that humanity has to offer, and someone we all should strive to emulate, if not in faith than at least in acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. We can all cling to our own faiths and find our own meaning from the spiritual realm, but I don't think anyone could deny that the world would be a much better place—for people of all faiths and cultures—if more of us lived out a life of love like Father Goldman.


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Reading Progress

August 23, 2011 – Started Reading
August 24, 2011 – Shelved
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: nonfiction
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: religion-spirituality
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: that-shit-really-happened
August 24, 2011 – Shelved as: the-innocent-get-screwed
August 24, 2011 –
page 35
10.09% "Looking like a fast and easy read. Very accessible."
August 27, 2011 –
page 169
48.7% "What a story. I mean, seriously wow."
August 29, 2011 – Shelved as: didn-t-expect-to-love-it
August 29, 2011 – Shelved as: not-for-kids
August 29, 2011 – Shelved as: made-me-think
August 29, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Miriam (new)

Miriam The origin of the name "Gereon" is not explained.

It is pretty common to take a new name at ordination.


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Miriam wrote: "The origin of the name "Gereon" is not explained.

It is pretty common to take a new name at ordination."


Ah, thanks, Miriam. Do you know is that only for "order" priests, or diocesan as well? I hadn't heard of it before.


message 3: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I don't think it is set in stone these days, but I'm not sure. The people I know who've become monks or nuns changed their names as well. The diocesan priest who gave me my catechism instruction when I became Catholic had changed his name to Fr. Simeon, but he was a convert from China and had a non-Christian name. My friend Michael who is CSC (Holy Cross Bros) stuck with Michael... so maybe if you are already named for a saint or angel you can keep it?


Miriam Williams quite a lengthy review, but thanks for giving many details and inspiring testimony


Atlasgirl Wow what a review!


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