edited by Tami Hausman

At a time when our futures often seem bleak, we can learn from other people who provided the inspiration to overcome challenges. I always recall one of my personal heroes at this time of year [note to JW: what is it about this time of year that makes you recall her?]. Even though we never met, and her name has been pushed to the back bins of history with the passage of time, Hancia can serve as a lesson to all of us who are trying to navigate troubled times.

In the pre-dawn hours of April XX, 194X,  the alarm system inside the Warsaw Ghetto sounded. Alerted to an imminent attack by Nazi troops sent to liquidate the ghetto, Jewish resistance fighters scrambled to their posts. Hancia, who was considered too valuable to suffer the fate of the ghetto, was escorted by a handful of fighters to safety. Near the tunnel that led to freedom, the group was intercepted by a German detachment. In the ensuing gunfight, Hancia was killed, making her one of the first casualties of the ghetto uprising.

There were dozens of ghetto residents who were just as brave, more daring, and more military intelligent than Hancia. But Hancia had two secret weapons of her own: her endless support for others and her perpetual smile.

Before the war, Hancia was involved in a communal farm that was operated by a youth organization. The organization believed in teaching people how to reconnect with the earth as a path towards the future, a sort of victory garden of their own making. They continued to grow food and establish small farms even during the Holocaust.

During the war, Hancia suffered greatly. Even with the trauma that she suffered, she continued to find a way forward, helping to educate people in makeshift classrooms. Her love for children and her care for their health was apparent. And if you think a Covid lockdown was bad, try living in the ghetto under Nazi control. The endless restrictions. The random executions. The corruption. The famine. The official calorie intake in the Warsaw Ghetto was a mere 187 calories a day! Yet, Hancia and her group managed to find food for its residents, especially children, that kept them alive. If a hungry stranger showed up on their doorstep, he or she received a bowl of soup and a friendly conversation–a reminder that no one was alone.

Additionally, Hancia rescued children from the farms and participated in undercover missions that would raise the hairs on your neck. Even though she experienced great physical abuse, throughout it all, she smiled. She laughed. In fact, there isn’t a single photo in existence of Hancia taken before or during the Holocaust in which she isn’t smiling. Moreover, in most of the photographs, you can tell that she is cracking up the room. In every account of Hancia, the message is clear: people loved being around her. They found her uplifting and a source of hope. Self-educated but a prolific letter writer, in her letters Hancia expressed all the self-doubts that any of us would find familiar. And yet, even in doubt, hope comes through on the written pages. And hope brings light to the darkness.

Today, as we try to save nature, reconnect with the Earth, solve the medical problems of millions who suffer from neglect, and feed the hungry around us, let us remind ourselves that others have navigated great peril. Take time for loved ones, for they are a precious gift. Help the strangers in need, as you, too, may some day be a stranger in need. I urge you to tuck Hancia’s name away in your heart and remember her with a smile. You represent the personification of hope, just as she did. Then carry that hope forward to others whose lives you touch each and every day.

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