Monday, December 23, 2013



I met Fransiska in Uppsala, Sweden, where she and I were taking a three week Swedish language course. She always sat next to me on my right side.

Fransiska and her brother came from Rostock on the German Baltic coast. They were Prussians, and East Germans, and as such were rather tidy, and very fond of wearing blue jeans.

Fransiska was very pretty, even by today’s narrow standards, and her disposition was naturally sweet, and her sweet disposition was reflected in the sweetness of her face. She had long brown hair, large eyes, and very long legs, which she was perhaps overly fond of showing off--she wore very short denim shorts--but she never did so intending to put other women down.

Fransiska didn’t talk much about her family or her childhood in East Germany, but I do remember that, as she and I and another young woman passed a strawberry stand on one of the center streets in Uppsala, she told us that there were many strawberry stands in Rostock, and that her first job had been as a sales girl at a strawberry stand which was shaped like a giant strawberry.

When the teacher in the Swedish class found out that she was East German, he asked her if other Germans ever gave her a hard time because she was an Ossi. She said, “my boyfriend’s parents don’t like me because I am East German. They come from a small town in Bavaria, and when I first met them, they sat me down and asked me, ‘Bist du katholisch oder evangelisch?’ and when I told them that I was not religious, they didn’t like me.” Her boyfriend’s small town Bavarian parents, surely, had not objected to her because she was East German. They had very innocently assumed that everyone in Germany was either a Catholic or a Protestant. Had she said that she was a Jew, they would probably have understood, but the concept of being a-religious was utterly foreign to them. Sadly, the concept of being religious was foreign to Fransiska. She had been raised in a world where there were no people of faith, just as they had been raised in a world where there were no secularists. It was sad that someone so dispositionally suited to faith and fidelity would find herself cast in the role of a temptress to the young Bavarian county-boy, and yet she did not know that she was a temptress, for she was completely free of guile, and she intended him no harm.

I remember that when the Swedish teacher--his name was Björn, and he was in his late thirties, a man of uncertain beliefs (as are so many modern Scandinavians), but even so he was a family man, and conservative in his own life and actions, if not in his beliefs--asked us to talk about places we wanted to travel to, Fransiska told me that she and her boyfriend were planning to take a trip to Venice. “Oh!” I said, “I went to Venice when I was younger. You should make sure that you go into the cathedral, because the entire ceiling is covered with beautiful mosaics!” “Oh?” she asked me. She had never heard this, and it seemed that the idea of going inside St. Mark’s Cathedral had never occurred to her.

But, although she had no experience of Faith, she did not detest it in other people. She did not understand its importance, but she also did not consider it grounds to dislike another person, or to think less of another person’s intellectual abilities. Once Björn the teacher asked us to talk to each other about works of literature which were considered classics in our countries, Fransiska asked me what works of literature I had studied in my German classes, and we found ourselves bungling around in Swedish about topics that would better have been discussed in German. I said that I had read excerpts from "Parzival" and "Das Nibelungenlied" in Modern German translation, and she was impressed (I have since learned that Germans do not teach their Medieval epics in schools). Then she asked if I had read "Nattan der Weise," by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who wrote it as a tribute to his friend Moses Mendelssohn. I don’t know if Fransiska knew that there was a real devout Jew named Moses Mendelssohn behind the fictional Nattan der Weise, and she certainly did not know what it meant to be a Jew, but she did know that the fictional Nattan was a devout Jew, and because of that she said with conviction that “Nattan der Weise” should be read in schools in order to contribute to a greater understanding of morality.

The book that I remember Fransiska carrying was not anything as complex as “Nattan der Weise.” It was a small child’s book, and on the cover was a mother rabbit with her baby rabbit, and the cover read, “Weisst du, wie lieb ich dich habe?” I remember her packing this little book in her bag, along with some hand-written letters, one morning before we took out our Swedish textbooks.

Another remarkable characteristic of Fransiska was her deep, and rather old-fashioned, affection for her brother. The sight of a grown brother and sister sitting arm in arm is rare now, but for Fransiska and her brother sitting arm in arm was the most natural thing in the world. One night, as I was in my room in the Newman Institute student center getting ready for bed, just as I was about to turn my light out, I heard the voices of a man and a woman speaking gently to one another in German, and out of curiosity I lifted my shade slightly and looked out at the street below, and I saw Fransiska and her brother walking down trädgårdsgatan, in the direction of the Cathedral, in the dusk of the late Swedish evening, hand in hand.

Fransiska’s brother was studying to become a doctor, but when I fell and injured my elbow, which then became infected, it was Fransiska who was concerned for me and who helped me change my bandages. She took me out of the classroom and into the coffee area, and, as she began removing bandages, she said to me, “Please forgive me if I am too rough. I am a soldier, and I am not good at these things.” As she said this, she gently peeled off the row of band-aids on my elbow, and took me to the sink, where she bathed my wound. I thought of Eówyn’s words to Faramir in “The Lord of the Rings.” “Look not to me for healing! I am a shield-maiden and my touch is ungentle.” Yet Eówyn was gentle to Faramir, and so was Fransiska to me.

I found it incongruous that the same young woman who carried children’s books around with her was a sergeant in an army. Even if her brother had been the sergeant, it might have seemed strange to me, because most Germans are afraid of their own army--or at least so other Germans have told me. What could possibly have lead her to believe that she belonged in the military? But I saw that, although Fransiska was clearly not suited to be a soldier (her physical strength could not have been very great), she did have the virtues that make a good soldier. She was loyal, trustworthy, and disciplined. With such qualities she could be an excellent nurse, or for that matter an excellent wife. And with Faith? With knowledge of God? Yes, imagine the sort of person that she would be!

I did not keep up with Fransiska after the end of the class. Our lives were brought together for three weeks when we studied Swedish, and then they diverged again, and I think that each of us thought that there could not easily be a continued friendship between us, but before she and her brother left Uppsala, she asked to have her picture taken with me, as she said, “for the memories.”

Please pray for a young woman named Fransiska.