Passing On the Comfort is the story of two women who met by chance and found their common bond in worn quilts from World War II.
In 1980, Lynn Kaplanian-Buller went to a Dutch farmhouse with her Arabic husband and their three-year-old daughter for a gathering of Palestinian students. Hanging on the wall of the farmhouse was a quilt that looked like ones Lynn remembered from her Minnesota childhood. At bedtime, she found a handmade quilt covering every bed in the house; every closet held stacks of them. She learned from one of the students that the farmhouse was owned by a Mennonite minister couple. Lynn tracked down the house's owner, An Keuning, and asked to purchase one of the quilts. An offered to give her one, but Lynn didn't feel right accepting such a gift.
Ten years later, quilting became a popular hobby and her family's American bookstore in Amsterdam was a source for Dutch women wanting to learn about American quilts. Lynn called An again to ask if she could exhibit the quilts. An agreed, and the women became friends. Soon Lynn learned the quilts had been the sole keepers of An's stories about the war.
The quilts had been sent from the United States and Canada by Mennonite relief workers for the comfort of refugees. As An related her stories, Lynn convinced her to write them down. Those stories became the central theme of this book.
The way these two womens' lives intersect will have you believing in serendipity. Lynn spent her childhood in a small Minnesota town in the 1950s. Her Mennonite father was a conscientious objector during World War II and served in a Michigan hospital. After three years of college during the Vietnam War, Lynn became a community organizer for peace and womens' rights. At twenty-one, she went to Europe with her boyfriend to pick up a Volkswagen and drive it to India. But first, they would go to Holland to see the tulips. Lynn has lived there ever since.
An was born in 1922 to a Mennonite family of ceramic-makers in Makkum, The Netherlands. When her best friend in nursing school committed suicide, An resolved to make her life count double for herself and her friend. "Her death gave me resolve to strengthen myself for the assignments I would face in life," she says. Soon, her resolve would be challenged.
The Germans invaded Holland in 1940, and An was drawn into working for the Resistance. At the age of twenty-three, she transported a Jewish baby in an overnight bag. The boat was bombed, and the man next to her was killed. An decided it was a sign that she was saved to take on a larger task. During the occupation, An married a young Mennonite preacher and went to live with him in Irnsum. Their home quickly became a transit stop for hundreds of evacuees. Food was rationed and always hard to find. About 100,000 Dutch people starved to death during the Hunger Winter of 1944. Dutch parents sent their children to the eastern part of Holland in truckloads, hoping they would be fed. An and the other villagers of Irnsum put these children up in farms, warehouses and homes. Once, against her nonviolent principles, she transported guns for the Resistance under her coat and tricked a Nazi guard to let her pass, claiming to be a pregnant woman in labor.
The authors included color photos of nineteen quilts sent by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in the U.S. for the refugees, the same quilts Lynn found on her visit to An's farmhouse in 1980. The MCC is an agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Most of the quilts were sent to large institutions where hundreds of people slept. As Ukrainian Mennonites began leaving Russia after the war, An again opened her home along with others in the village to shelter the refugees. She asked the MCC for blankets and had never seen a quilt before they arrived. Of 35,000 Mennonite refugees from the Ukraine, only 2,000 survived. Many were forcibly returned or died on the way to freedom in Paraguay, Canada and Germany.
In 1994,Lynn's husband, Avo, obtained the quilts as a gift for his wife and paid for new windows for the church where An's husband was a minister.
Royalties from the book will go to continuing MCC relief work and to construct a heritage center in Holland for the Dutch Mennonite commnity. The Dutch Mennonite relief organization is the Foundation for Special Needs (Bijzondere Noden), nicknamed "BN," and is a sister organization to the MCC.
As a beginning quilter, I was enthralled by the stories of quilts bringing comfort to people fleeing their homes, their lives in danger. An's stories are a testament to what ordinary women can do, both the quilters in the U.S. and Canada, and the human comforters like An in Holland. Each quilt is pictured in color and its patterns and unique stitching are described. The quilts are on a three-year tour of the U.S. in many of the communities where they were made. Lynn hopes that some of the wartime quilters will recognize their work.
Passing on the Comfort is a truly heartwarming story about a quiet woman saving lives and the young American who, forty years later, finds her and encourages her older friend to write about her experiences. "A quilt is a blanket with a heartbeat," says Lynn Buller. When you read their story and see the pictures in this book, I think you'll agree.
To learn more about the traveling quilt exhibit and its schedule, go to www.mcc.org/quilts.
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