This is a Holocaust story, but not in the usual sense. It’s more a tale of good vs evil. A tale about one young Belgian Resistance fighter named Lily and, sixty years later, a young American woman who always used “Lily” as her online screenname. Two “Lilies” who share the same favorite flower: lily of the valley. This is a tale about different people’s perspectives on good and evil from two women who shared the same perspective.
Our tale starts on New Year’s Eve 1946. Belgian Lily had been freed from a concentration camp only eighteen months before, weighing just fifty-nine pounds. Five months later, she married the love of her life. A year later, Belgian Lily gave birth to her first child, the fashion designer we know as Diane von Furstenberg. Yes, that Diane von Furstenberg (pictured above) who introduced the knitted jersey wrap dress in 1974.
Lily redeemed her experience at Auschwitz by teaching little Diane many priceless life lessons. The one that jumped off the page of Diane’s autobiography The Woman I Wanted To Be was this one: “[Mom] always told me to trust the goodness of people.”
At that point, I had to set the book aside. Overwhelmed, I was, by emotion. My head and eyes were swimming. Here was a woman who had gone to the camps, barely escaped the gas chamber (thanks, shockingly, to Dr. Mengele!), bore her serial number tattoed on her arm and yet she came through the Holocaust still believing in the innate goodness of people. “She looked for the good in everyone and everything,” Diane writes.
American Lily had been taught something else, also by the Holocaust. For years her father tried to convince her that mankind is basically evil. He loved to talk about the sin nature (other people’s, of course) and trace Lily’s sin nature back to her babyhood.
American Lily really tried to believe him. She had profound respect, blind hero-worship for her father, so she always tried to think as he told her to think. But she just couldn’t on this point. It didn’t make sense to her. If mankind was that evil, why did society hum along, more or less, smoothly? Why were most people she met polite, gracious, pleasant, kind and peace-loving?
When she was fifteen, American Lily’s father, apparently, needed a scapegoat or something. He became convinced that she (and her mother) were “bringing him under demonic attack.” Ah, but he was confident he knew how to break Lily of her so-called obsession with evil just as he had “broken your obsession with witches when you were six,” an obsession she never remembered having. (Terror of witches? Yes. Fascination? No!)
And this is where the Holocaust comes back into our story. Lily’s father procured big, fat books bulging with graphic photographs taken at all the concentration camps. Stark photos both of survivors and of mounds of emaciated corpses. He forced a mortified Lily to sit next to him, slowly and carefully soaking in all those pictures of the end result of evil gone wild. It was supposed to break her of her supposed obsession with evil. He followed that up with reading Lord of the Flies aloud to her.
This is where the tales of both Lilies suddenly cross. Belgian Lily was “always denying the bad and demanding that the good forces win and, no matter what, never appearing a victim.” American Lily could only see the heroism and unbelievable courage of the Jews, Roma and other camp inmates in the glossy black-and-white pictures. The evil she was supposed to be absorbing simply wasn’t on her radar. Didn’t even crack the top ten.
What you see in a Holocaust picture depends on who you are on the inside. American Lily’s father saw the Nazis. He never said anything about the heroism of those who survived, of those who went to the gas chamber bravely reciting Kaddish for themselves. Never directed her attention to the survivor’s amazing resilience and strength apart from having The Hiding Place on his bookshelves.
Lily saw only the heroes. The evil people didn’t merit any attention, any focus, any brainpower. While we never forget what the Nazis did, while the memory, the artifacts, the photographs, the truth should never be forgotten or “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” yet American Lily could only absorb the soaring good, the unselfish kindness, the secret acts of Resistance, the miracles and the heroism of those who both lived and died in the camps. She dreamed of living back then, hiding Jews in her attic or working for the Resistance. She wanted to be a Righteous Gentile (but it was complicated because her supposedly “Lutheran” ancestors passed down a very Jewish last name to her.)
Her father’s lesson in evil was entirely lost on her because she was not and never had been nor ever would be obsessed with evil. She wasn’t in league with demons. What you see, depends on who you are on the inside. Both Lilies could only see good because they were good on the inside. What you see depends on who you are. For example, if you are a narcissist, you will see manipulation and game-playing where none exists (except within yourself.) If you are a narcissist facing blame, you will project onto the nearest available, innocent scapegoat like a desperate televangelist caught in a brothel.
That is simply the point of this tale of two Lilies.
Oh, one cute little footnote to this story. It was her screenname “Lily” on a dating site that caught the eye of Lily’s future husband. His beloved grandmother’s name was “Lillian” so he thought he’d take a chance and message “Lily.” Two months later, we were married. And it was he who convinced me that I’m not evil. Not now, not then, not as a baby. And that God doesn’t hate my guts as I once screamed in a moment of spiritual anguish. Michael introduced me to a gracious, empathetic Heavenly Father, quite unlike the disapproving Father staring disapprovingly and condescendingly at me down yards and yards of nose that I’d always imagined.
Even after everything that’s happened in my life, I still see most people as good. There are some that are evil at the core, but even they do good things sometimes. Thankfully, most people are pretty good, but even they do evil things sometimes. I even see so much good in so many narcissists! Society simply wouldn’t run, more or less smoothly, unless most people did the right thing most of the time.
But, now and then, we need a Belgian Lily who’s willing to do even more, to risk everything fighting for The Good, like Diane von Furstenberg’s mother did during World War II. Remember what Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Thank you for reading.
Here Endeth the Sermon ;)