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God, give us wings

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

 It is a rare and wonderful opportunity to read and review a book written by a college classmate and friend. Rarer yet is the chance to travel deeply into the life and spirit of a woman who has endured, survived, and been transformed by the experiences of two assaults on humanity: the Nazi and Soviet invasions and conquests of the Baltic countries.

In “God, Give Us Wings,” Felicia Dalia Prekeris Brown writes a record of her family’s experiences “during the confusion and terrors of World War II in Europe” where survival was precarious, at best. As she phrases it, “the events of those years are engraved in my memory because, throughout their lives, my parents and Milda (her sister) would often talk to me about our journey, recalling the hardships and the miracles we experienced.” The oral and written stories serve as the framework for her book.

Unlike novels with Holocaust or survival themes that focus on the thrill of the story, Brown’s autobiographical account interweaves historical background derived from painstaking study of original documents and recollections of other displaced persons. In a sense, she puts history into perspective, as well as memorializing the struggles endured by valiant men and women who refused to be enslaved.

Brown’s account begins with a powerful statement, one that summarizes her family’s monumental efforts to flee oppressive forces and be free. She speaks of her mother, but the book evokes a larger image of all displaced persons who seek to find a place. She writes: “Mother had mettle and Mother had motive, but she was not in shape for running.”

In fact, her parents — and all who endured multiple enemy invasions, persecution, isolation, hunger, illness, continued enslavement — had mettle, motive, and kept running despite any apparent inability to run. Maps and photos help the reader to keep pace with the frantic rush from place to place. Brown’s continued optimism in the face of horrific circumstances allow hope to penetrate despair.

Her journey both ages and tempers her, as well as her family. At the same time, it enhances the depth of their spirit, individually and collectively. Her dreamer/artist/professorial father never loses his ability to see beyond the shock of continued loss. He does not succumb to physical needs at the expense of spiritual desires. Food for the mind and soul remain equal to nourishment of the body. The nurture is seen in his innovative creations. Scraps of wood become bookcases or tables. His love of the arts became a source of sunlight brightening and blessing dark days of hiding. As Brown writes: “He did not think in practical terms and could not take advantage of others. It was his charm and friendliness that contributed to our survival during the war.” Who he was impelled others to be more. Moreover, his high intelligence empowered many an escape from disaster — even when those escapes were often detained by his wife’s reluctance to leave her native land.

Brown’s mother, a determined pragmatist, was a complete counterpart to her husband’s impracticality. Each order-demanding exit stiffened her resolve to maintain her family at all costs. Any job, however menial, was viewed as a possibility. She would not be dismayed, but would be disciplined and inventive in her determination for all to survive.

Milda, eight years older than Brown, provided an extrovert’s unflappable optimism, delighting those who would otherwise be reluctant to help this migrating family. During alarming moments of their trek across Lithuania, Germany, England, she would be the talisman of hope, the smiling force of possibility. This done despite the fact that she was the one most frightened by the threat of being caught by the Soviets. Vivid stories of rape and brutality could have frozen her into permanent despair.

Brown’s description of her birth day encapsulates both who she is, to this day, and what she meant to her family. She writes, “I came into the world on an icy, cold, brilliantly sunny Sunday morning ... my first cry coincided with the ringing of the church bells calling parishioners to Mass. Father was so moved by the sun sparkling on the snow, the bells, and the call to church services that he predicted I would lead a sunny, happy life, blessed with the proverbial luck of the ‘Sunday’s child’ ... My parents quickly agreed to name me Felicia, happy, and Dalia, destiny.” 

“God, Give Us Wings” is a tale of one whose destiny is to be happy and whose happy nature will evoke a new destiny for all who know her, including her own family. From 1939, when troubles begin for the Prekeris family, to their 1952 “permanent haven” arrival in the United States, Brown encounters and overcomes ongoing trials. Extremely intelligent, precocious, and “an irrepressible singer,” yet innately shy, she is alternately envied and ejected by her peers and teachers. Additionally, she is plagued by illnesses brought on by lack of proper nutrition and sanitation. Despite the obstacles, Brown soldiers on. More than that she makes the most of each situation, determined to rise above all negativity, to find joy in the midst of sorrow, to be a light in the darknesses her family endured.

She learned well a lesson in morality her mother taught her. “God understands and God forgives.” The memoir is evidence that she has integrated the lesson. In the face of a desire never to forget or forgive, the text indicates a forgiving heart, an understanding spirit.

What could have been a dark tale of horrific experiences, of prejudice, bias, paralyzing fear is, instead, a saga of steadfastness. Separations do not separate the family. Misunderstandings do not impede return to love. Differences of opinion do not result in permanent anger. Love is deeper than hate. Faith is stronger than fear. Hope surmounts despair.

The book is a metaphor for life symbolized in Brown’s continued love of the soaring freedom of birds, as well as her desire for and love of dolls. It is actualized in her constant prayer that God would give her family wings to fly above and beyond the daily terrors of life. 

The message is not meant solely for reading. It is a challenging call to all who wish to fly into freedom — and tell the story to the many “dolls” who live with us as listeners. It is a book to take to heart. It will give the reader wings.

 

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives,” lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.