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Inner Peace: Auschwitz, the St. Charles Bridge and an old guitar

Having recently returned from a first-ever trip to Central Europe, perhaps I’m finally ready to say something about inner peace. Two events deeply affected me — one involved Auschwitz, the other concerned a girl on a bridge in Prague.

Ironically, visiting the concentration camp where my grandmother’s sisters and countless others were murdered actually evoked some inner peace. I had so dreaded the visit — spending many hours of painful reading to prepare for it — that when my wife and I finally arrived among the endless rows of brick barracks, it wasn’t as horrific as I had feared. No remnant of the infamous gas chambers remains. Most importantly, when one considers the condition of modern Europe, despite some persisting violence and formidable challenges, compared to the killing fields and genocides of the 20th Century, the continent seems almost utopian.

Auschwitz is a symbol of humanity’s lowest descent, but visited as a museum today, it wakens us to how far Europe has morally evolved in recent decades. Among other virtues, the EU bans the death penalty and offers health care to everyone. That ethical improvement applies to most of the world as well, and that’s cause for celebration and some degree of inner peace. “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better,” the Beatles once sang — which brings me to the girl I met on the Prague bridge.

I’d come there to give away a small Mexican guitar I’d had for 35 years. I’d sung with the cracked old beauty at my daughter’s wedding and used it in writing perhaps my best song, a peace song, just a year ago. Still, I wanted to gift this venerable traveling companion to someone who could use it well.

I’d chosen the Saint Charles Bridge because I’d heard it had been a special place during the Cold War. During those dark years in which Czech citizens suffered under the tyranny of Russian communists and their tanks, this bridge became a bright gathering point where freedom songs and Beatles could inspire the virtually imprisoned, where love and music could penetrate the so-called “iron curtain.”

Unfortunately, when my wife and I reached the beautiful bridge with its 38 statues of saints across its span and Prague’s great castle looming above it, I was filled with doubt. Should I really be giving away this old comrade? How could I possibly find the right person? And then a miracle arrived.

First I played “Let It Be” as people mostly walked on by on this grey, frosty morning. But in midst of what I thought would be my last song, a young woman suddenly appeared on the wall beside me. As my wife and I were singing the peace anthem “One Day,” a tune our Rogue Valley Peace Choir had performed a few years ago, this stranger with a beautiful voice had joined in — and she knew all the words.

Afterwards she asked if she could try the guitar. With a beautiful smile, mocha-colored skin, and deep dark eyes, she sang the loveliest song in German. I asked whether she could use a guitar, and she said she’d been “starved” for one, having worked in Germany with refugees the past four months. From two of her friends who joined us, I learned she spoke five languages, including Arabic. Her name is Shea, and she’ll soon be enrolling at Notre Dame for International Peace Studies.

Amazingly, I’d found the perfect recipient for my cracked old friend, which she called the most beautiful guitar she’d ever seen. The group of us sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” then John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and finally the peace song I’d written with the old guitar. We hugged and went our separate ways over the bridge.

A miracle like this is cause for gratitude, wonder and inner peace. With all of our problems and imperfections, we are amazing beings, infusing each other with light and love. We connect and help each other in profound and miraculous ways on our never-ending journey toward making this world a better place.

Sometimes miracles happen, just as we imagine them—

People appear, just when we need them,

To ease our fear and help us sing our song …

After teaching English in Southern California for 30 years, Ron Hertz lives in Ashland where he is a proud member of the Rogue Valley Peace Choir and is working on a second collection of poetry. Search for Donna Hertz on YouTube to see Shea on the Prague bridge singing her poignant song. Send 600- to 700-word articles on Inner Peace to Sally McKirgan at innerpeaceforyou@live.com.