Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Meeting Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was just a blip in history.  Who but the most scholarly of historians has ever heard of her?  She was a hero, a British nurse working in occupied Belgium during World War I.  When the war began, she was offered safe passage back home, but she refused.  She knew that those wounded soldiers, of all nationalities, needed her.  The Germans insisted that when sufficiently recovered, British soldiers were to report to headquarters.  When Edith learned that these men were never heard from again, she arranged for the others to stay in the hospital longer than necessary, or to hide in the attic.  She also sought out connections with the Belgian resistance, who were able to secretly move 200 of these men to safety in the Netherlands.  Edith was arrested by the Germans in August of 1915 and charged with treason for “conducting soldiers to the enemy”.  Despite appeals by the British and American governments, she was executed in October.  Edith Cavell’s story was used as propaganda by the British to illustrate the brutality of the Germans and to encourage enlistment in the Army.

L’Institute Medical de Edith Cavell is a hospital that still stands in Brussels, in the suburb of Uccle.  Most likely I would have never heard of Edith if not for a turn of events when I was in 5th grade.  I was invited by a classmate to her birthday party, and as part of the festivities, we went to a movie, “Around the World in 80 Days.”  Afterwards, we were driven back to the house by the girl’s governess.  There were four of us in the back seat of the Volkswagen Beetle, and two were sharing the front seat.  I remember riding in the car, windows down and wind blowing, laughing and carrying on like little girls do. 

The next moments were a swirl of confusion.  All of a sudden, we were stopped.  I have no memory of the collision itself.  There were glass shards all over me, and the front seat had broken and was lying in my lap.  The governess, who had red hair, was unconscious in the seat.  My glasses were gone, and everything was a blur.  All of us little girls were panicked, crying and scrambling to get out of the car.  We found ourselves on the side of the highway, with red lights flashing and people everywhere, pieces of metal and glass scattered on the pavement.  I remember frantically crying for my mother. 

An older Belgian couple with a gray Mercedes drove us to the hospital.  This seems odd to me now, but, in shock, we did what we were told.  After arriving at the Hopitâl Edith Cavell (as it was known then) I lay on a gurney in a small alcove in the emergency room for hours, tended to by people who didn’t speak English.  I was enormously relieved when my mother showed up.  I can only imagine the other side of that story: my mother getting a phone call in the middle of the night from someone who spoke only French.  She heard the words “hopitâl” and “accident” and knew something was wrong.  She quickly enlisted the aid of a close friend who spoke French, and off they went.  Hours and hours went by as we waited, punctuated by x-rays and examinations.  I was finally moved to a room, and when my mother insisted she was going to stay, she was met with great resistance.  “C’est impossible,” she was told.  Thankfully, she insisted, and spent the night dozing in a chair next to my bed.

The hospital was probably built in the 1920’s.  It was old and creepy, with high ceilings,  cracked plaster and bare concrete floors.  The rooms in the children’s ward had huge windows between them, so the nurses could see from one to the other.  The next morning a very large, stern nurse came in and spoke a few words in French.  I didn’t understand, but she held up a large syringe and I got the message.  I got this shot every day.  She used to give me sponge baths in the bed, while the (not so sick) children in the next room peeked through the window.  You can only imagine how scary it was for me, not understanding what was happening to me from moment to moment.  Everything was communicated in gestures.  I had a concussion, and sported an impressive black eye for several weeks afterward.

When I got home, I stayed in bed for another week, and someone sent me some colored pencils and drawing paper to keep me busy.  I also read the book “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and will always associate that story with my accident. 

And so, Edith Cavell and I were joined by circumstances.  It was only because of what happened that I was driven to learn about her heroism and her selflessness.  Seeing history up close and personal like this made it come alive for me, as I’m sure it does for most TCKs.  Visiting concentration camps in Belgium made World War II come alive for me, as did the military cemetery in Manila.  Reading about these things in a book will never compare to the smells, the sounds and the sights of the real thing.  And a traumatic experience in a foreign hospital introduced me to a brave woman who stood up against the unimaginable horrors of war, and who gave her life so that others might live.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia

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