A mysterious illumination had sheltered her dear aunt to safety.
- Posted on Jan 31, 2020
Great-aunt Anna loved to tell humorous stories that highlighted the joy she found in everyday life. Sitting in her kitchen drinking tea, laughing over her latest tale, I looked at her in wonder. As a young woman during World War II, she had fled Ukraine on her own and managed to get herself out of Europe. Then she spent time in South America before my mother was able to sponsor her to come to Canada, where we lived.
“How did you manage in those war-torn years?” I finally asked out of the blue. “I imagine it must have been so scary.”
Aunt Anna took a sip of tea. “I used to be afraid of so many things,” she said, turning serious. “But that was before.”
“Before what?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It’s a very long story.”
“Please, tell it,” I said.
I tried to imagine what could make her hesitate. Maybe she was embarrassed. Like the story about the first time she took a taxi. Aunt Anna heard two men speaking in the front seat, she was sure of it. But there was only one man there, the driver. “He was on a radio phone,” she’d explained to me. “Silly me! I’d never seen one before and thought I’d lost my mind!”
“Don’t be shy, Aunt Anna,” I tried again. “What took away your fear?”
“If I told you,” she said, “you might not believe me.”
“Of course I would.” I had never known her to make things up. Aunt Anna was always practical and matter-of-fact. Exaggerations and fairy tales were definitely not her style. “I will believe you,” I said. “I promise you.”
Aunt Anna let out a deep breath. “It was three weeks before Christmas, 1944,” she said. “I was a refugee in Yugoslavia living with a host family in an old house up in the mountains. There was a lot to be afraid of there. Not just during the air raids, when bombs dropped from the sky, but any time. People were desperate, many were hostile to foreigners. It wasn’t safe or smart to walk alone. But people get restless. One day with a friend—another refugee like me—I walked all the way to the train station for a trip to a nearby city.”
I tried to picture Aunt Anna as a young woman far away from home, still determined to enjoy an outing. The women planned to be home before dark, but by the time they pulled back into the station the sky was nearly black and sleet was pelting the train.
The friend looked out the window and decided to spend the night with her son, who lived right by the station. “You’re welcome to come with me,” she offered to Anna.
“I was tempted,” Aunt Anna told me, “but I knew the family I was staying with would worry if I didn’t come home and I had no way to reach them. They had no telephone.” What could she do but walk home alone? I didn’t know if I’d have been so brave.
“As soon as I stepped out of the train, the icy wind tore at the thin kerchief on my head and seemed to slice right through my threadbare coat. The sleet stung my face. I had a four-mile walk ahead of me. There were barely any houses along the mountain road, and I had no flashlight. Plus there was a rushing mountain stream to cross. In this rain it was likely to be swollen, the water foaming white.”
My tea sat on the table, my hands cupping a mug that was no longer warm. But I dared not move. This was like no story Aunt Anna had ever told before. “I would have been terrified.”
“I was terrified,” she said. “I thought there was no way I would make it.”
“What did you do?”
“I prayed,” she said simply.
“Father, I’m so scared. Take away this terror. Walk with me. Right at that moment a light fanned across the sky.”
“Oh, no!” I said. “An air raid?”
Aunt Anna put her hand on my arm. “I thought it was,” she said. “And I knew bombers targeted train stations, so I hurried away from there. The strange thing was, the light moved with me. There were no bombers overhead. I couldn’t tell where the glow was coming from, but wherever I went, it went with me. It was almost like being covered with an umbrella as I followed the path into the mountains.”
What was this illumination? Where had it come from? I listened, spellbound, waiting for her to tell me.
When she got to the stream, the water glistened like diamonds in the mysterious light. My aunt had no trouble stepping on the flat rocks to cross over. Safe on the other side, she realized the wind had completely stopped. So had the rain. Her threadbare coat no longer felt too thin to protect her. On the last mile to her friend’s house, she felt as warm as a summer’s night.
Aunt Anna walked up to the little mountain house and knocked. When the door opened a sudden gust of wind nearly pulled it off its hinges.
“Anna, come in!” the family yelled as they pulled her inside. “Such a storm! Weren’t you afraid?”
But as far as Aunt Anna was concerned, there was no storm. Then she stopped and listened. The sounds of the storm were all around them. The howling wind, the sleet pelting the windows, the old house creaking and moaning under the onslaught. Had she somehow imagined the balmy weather she walked four miles through?
“I was about ready to tell the family I mustn’t be well,” Aunt Anna said. “That maybe the war and all my fears were getting to be too much for me. What else could explain what had just happened to me?”
Aunt Anna looked at me as if she’d just now come home from that walk. How confused she must have been!
“The family took my coat and passed it around so they all could feel it. My coat was completely dry.”
“So it was real,” I said. “The illumination. The ‘umbrella.’”
Aunt Anna nodded. “It was proof. God walks with all of us no matter where we go in the world,” my aunt said. “Knowing that, why should I ever be afraid? Why should anyone?”
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