Two Men – Adventures in Africa

I am reading the book, Exterminate All The Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, which is not at all what I expected. In yesterday’s reading I found linked two men with books set in the Congo. Henry Morton Stanley, who wrote In Darkest Africa, published in 1890 and Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. I read that both grew up motherless, both had been adopted by benevolent father figures and that both ran away to sea, changed their name, home country and identity. This I thought this a worth topic for my Missing Mom blog. So some historical stuff today.

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Stanley was born in 1841 as John Rowlands in Denbigh, Denbighshire, Wales. His mother Elizabeth Parry was 18 years old at the time of his birth. She abandoned him as a very young baby and cut off all communication. Stanley never knew his father, who died within a few weeks of his birth. There is some doubt as to his true parentage. As his parents were unmarried, his birth certificate describes him as a bastard. His baptism registry indicated that he was the bastard son of John Rowland of Llys Llanrhaidr and Elizabeth Parry of Castle. The stigma of illegitimacy weighed heavily upon him all his life.

The boy John was given his father’s surname of Rowlands and brought up by his grandfather Moses Parry, a once-prosperous butcher who was living in reduced circumstances. He cared for the boy until he died, when John was five. Rowlands stayed with families of cousins and nieces for a short time, but he was eventually sent to the St Asaph Union Workhouse for the Poor. The overcrowding and lack of supervision resulted in his being frequently abused by older boys. Historian Robert Aldrich has alleged that the headmaster of the workhouse raped or sexually assaulted Rowlands, and that the older Rowlands was “incontrovertibly bisexual”. When Rowlands was ten, his mother and two half-siblings stayed for a short while in this workhouse, but he did not recognize them until the headmaster told him who they were.

Rowlands emigrated to the United States in 1859 at age 18. He disembarked at New Orleans and by his own account became friends by accident with Henry Hope Stanley, a wealthy trader. He saw Stanley sitting on a chair outside his store and asked him if he had any job openings. He did so in the British style: “Do you need a boy, sir?” The childless man had indeed been wishing he had a son, and the inquiry led to a job and a close relationship between them. Out of admiration, John took Stanley’s name. Later, he wrote that his adoptive parent died two years after their meeting, but in fact the elder Stanley did not die until 1878. This and other discrepancies in Stanley’s own autobiography lead some to argue that no adoption took place.

Stanley reluctantly joined the American Civil War, first enrolling in the Confederate States Army’s 6th Arkansas Infantry Regiment and fighting in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. After being taken prisoner at Shiloh, he was recruited at Camp Douglas Illinois by its commander Colonel James A Mulligan as a “Galvanized Yankee.” He joined the Union Army on June 4 1862 but was discharged 18 days later because of severe illness.  After recovering, he served on several merchant ships before joining the US Navy in July 1864. He became a record keeper on board the USS Minnesota, and participated in the First Battle of Fort Fisher and the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, which led him into freelance journalism. Stanley and a junior colleague jumped ship on 10 February 1865 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in search of greater adventures.  Stanley may have been the only man to serve in all three of the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy. He is remembered for the line – “Dr Livingstone, I Presume ?” Henry Morton Stanley wrote In Darkest Africa published in 1890. This is how his story intersects with the next one.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Berdychiv Ukraine. His family called him “Konrad”, rather than “Józef”. His father was arrested and imprisoned in Pavilion X of the Warsaw Citadel. Conrad would write: “[I]n the courtyard of this Citadel—characteristically for our nation—my childhood memories begin.”

His father’s sentence was commuted, and the family was sent to Chernihiv in northeast Ukraine, where conditions were much better. However in 1865 his mother died of tuberculosis. His father also died of tuberculosis in 1869 leaving Conrad orphaned at the age of 11. The young Conrad was placed in the care of his mother’s brother.

Since he showed little inclination to study, it was essential that he learn a trade; his uncle thought he could work as a sailor-cum-businessman, who would combine maritime skills with commercial activities. In the autumn of 1871, thirteen-year-old Conrad announced his intention to become a sailor. At the age of 15, he was sent to a boarding house for orphan boys. The owner’s daughter recalled: “He stayed with us ten months… Intellectually he was extremely advanced but [he] disliked school routine, which he found tiring and dull; he used to say… he… planned to become a great writer…. He disliked all restrictions. At home, at school, or in the living room he would sprawl unceremoniously.”

“Living away from one’s natural environment—family, friends, social group, language—even if it results from a conscious decision, usually gives rise to… internal tensions, because it tends to make people less sure of themselves, more vulnerable, less certain of their… position and… value… ” ~ Zdzisław Najder

After nearly four years in France and on French ships, Conrad joined the British merchant marine, enlisting in April 1878. His book Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and like Stanley’s account is set in the Congo. To Conrad’s credit, his contains bitter reflections on colonialism. Conrad regarded the formation of a representative government in Russia as unfeasible and foresaw a transition from autocracy to dictatorship. Conrad’s distrust of democracy sprang from his doubts whether the propagation of democracy as an aim in itself could solve any problems. He thought that, in view of the weakness of human nature and of the “criminal” character of society, democracy offered boundless opportunities for demagogues and charlatans.

Roslï Näf

Roslï Näf

Not a good realization regarding the actions of Switzerland or the Swiss Red Cross during the Nazi occupation in France. After watching the movie Resistance last night which is about Marcel Marceau’s heroic work assisting Jewish children left orphaned by Nazi atrocities, I wanted to know what happened to the children who made it across the border from France into Switzerland. I didn’t actually find that answer but I did discover this woman, Roslï Näf.

She is an example of how Switzerland was swayed by Nazi pressure, which included the Swiss Red Cross. In late 1941, the agency dispatched a team of teachers and nurses on a humanitarian mission to care for a group of about 100 Jewish children who had been hidden in an ancient chateau Vichy-ruled France, known as Chateau de la Hille. A leader of the team was Roslï Näf, a nurse who had previously worked with the renowned German physician Albert Schweitzer.

Chateau de la Hille

In August 1942, when French police rounded up Jews around the country at the demand of German authorities, the 40 eldest children under Naf’s care at the chateau were taken, over her objections, to a French transit camp. She bicycled to the camp, talked her way in and insisted she wouldn’t leave until “my children” were freed. A week later, the French relented and released the children to Naf’s care, just hours before they were to be placed into boxcars for the journey to Auschwitz.

One of the surviving children, whose parents and younger brothers were murdered, Walter H Reed recalled Näf’s sacrifice: “For these acts—protecting the Jewish youngsters, obtaining their release from Le Vernet, and enabling many to escape into Switzerland—Roslï Näf was summoned before the chief of the Swiss Legation in Vichy and dismissed from her post at La Hille.”

In the months immediately after Naf’s heroic act, in late 1942, she and her colleagues from the Swiss Red Cross would assist several groups of teens in escaping from France and heading to Switzerland, where they were allowed to stay. But when a group of five teens tried to escape across the border in the first week of January 1943, German guards caught them.

Inge Joseph Bleier recalls that Näf, with her blonde hair, always had a stern look on her face, had steely blue eyes, and “conveyed a sense of purposefulness and authority.” One of those captured was 17 year old Inge. She managed to escape the Germans by jumping out a bathroom window and then proceeding to flee across the border into Switzerland. She walked far enough that she could see the lights of Geneva, when a Swiss gendarme arrested her.

Inge figured he might send her to a detention camp. But in response to the flow of children and adults escaping from France into Switzerland, the authorities had instituted a new law just a few days earlier requiring any refugee 16 or older to make it at least 10 kilometers into the country before being allowed to stay. Inge hadn’t made it far enough, and so she was returned to the chateau in France. Only one of 30,000 Jews sent back from Swiss border areas to Nazi-controlled France.

Within weeks of the aborted escape, Näf was fired for intervening on behalf of the “Jew children from Chateau la Hille,” according to an internal organization memo. It concluded: “Unanimously agreed the Swiss Red Cross needs to totally distance itself from the director (Näf).” Inge Bleier had realized in hindsight that, after helping Jewish children escape, Näf “was in big trouble. She had been turned into a scapegoat. Her career with the Swiss Red Cross was likely over.” Näf, was never honored by the Red Cross or Switzerland. She died alone in a Danish nursing home at the age of 85. She said shortly before death, that her biggest regret was that “I should have tried harder. There were more children to save.”

But Näf’s colleagues who remained in France continued to help Jewish children to attempt escapes. Ten months after her aborted escape attempt into Switzerland, Inge made a second dash into the country. This time with help from Swiss sympathizers, she was escorted through heavy woods the requisite 10 kilometers. Seven other young Jews were similarly aided in these dangerous cross-border escapes. 

Näf as well as a dozen Swiss colleagues who helped Jews escape to Switzerland from France were mostly forgotten by their own country. When they were referred to at all, it was as “smugglers,” as if to suggest they were sneaking cigarettes, food and other bounty over the border for profit instead of saving lives.

In 2014, a group of Christians in the Vallée de Joux region of French-speaking Switzerland decided to try to bring Switzerland’s murky Holocaust past to light by recognizing people like Näf who had been heroes. Joel Reymond, a local journalist and head of the not-for-profit Association les Passeurs de Memoire, spearheaded a two-year campaign to raise funds for a monument in the lakeside town of Le Pont, a few kilometers from the French border, where much of the “smuggling” occurred.

To his surprise, Reymond tapped into an emerging groundswell of interest among younger people in honoring the Swiss heroes of the war. So on a sunny morning this past September, hundreds turned out in Le Pont to view the unveiling. They included the last surviving “smuggler,” 90-year-old Bernard Bouveret, who worked as a forester during the war years.

The weekend commemorations had the feel of a catharsis. These ordinary Swiss who have eagerly taken up the mantel of transparency and introspection can only hope Swiss bankers and art officials will do the same and finally confront head-on their country’s behavior during the Holocaust.

David E. Gumpert wrote much of the story above and is the author of “Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004).

Chosen ? Special ? Really ?

In my adoption group, one woman wrote –

How are adoptees “chosen” and “special” and “soooo wanted” when hopeful adoptive parents would literally pick ANY baby under the sun?

Partially prompted by A Million Little Things when their adoption agency offers a replacement baby the *same day* they learn the natural mom they had bought decided to parent.

I only watched one episode. The natural mom decides to keep her baby, hopeful adoptive parents are upset, next thing the adoption agency calls saying another woman is in labor and they got “bumped to the front of the line” which sounds like a McDonald’s drive-through lane that dispenses babies. Thankfully, the woman says no… for that episode…

This same woman goes on to explain –

I’m French and was relinquished at birth. I went to an orphanage, for 2 months the birth mom has the right to come back for her baby, and nothing can happen, then legal initiates. I was legally free around 6 months by then they put me in a family that had paid $0 (adoption is always free) and vetted by social services for months.

Now they provide even more help for birth moms to parent, so the number of babies like me is only 700 per year, which discourages adoption as a way around fertility. That would be around 3,500 babies for the whole US, 50 per state.

And instead of foster homes we have a paid social worker taking kids in his home with a stipend on top of salary going to the kid’s needs. It doesn’t prevent hopeful adoptive parents from shopping for a kid abroad and is far from perfect but there is no commercialization of domestic babies, and even surrogacy is illegal.

An adoptive parent shared her perspective –

I am an adoptive parent that is still constantly learning and working through my own insecurities, I believe it all stems from the “meant to be” or “God’s plan” narrative that many/most adoptive parents feed into.

Like any disrupted match (in the eyes of the adoptive parent) is just not the child God has waiting for you. The one that worked out was the one all along. When one really thinks about it, it’s like the adoptee stated – any baby will do and becomes “chosen”. This group has helped me see the issues and concerns with this way of thinking. I am still always reading and learning though.

Another adoptee added –

As an adoptee I never felt chosen or special I felt sadness and confusion. When we were forced to adopt our foster baby we didn’t do any celebration and we didn’t announce it on Facebook etc. we didn’t start a Go Fund Me or beg for money on TikTok or share his journey. Only immediate family know.

Thank god it’s an open adoption and for the first year it was much like a divorced couple but the last year since his mom got married and has a new baby, visits and time with her have been less and less – at her request. My hope is once she settles into a new normal, she will spend more time with him. But I’ve never used those words with him.

And this came from South Africa –

I totally agree an adopted child should never be burdened with the “chosen”, “special” etc narrative. I had a domestic infant adoption with a private social worker. At the time I adopted, I tried to make sure I did NOT “choose” a specific child. The first child I was matched with luckily went home with his aunt. I was so happy for that child.

I was then matched with a different child, and again I tried to keep my heart from attaching to this specific child, in case his parents were able to parent. I was trying to keep in mind that what is best for the child is their family. I felt I was trying to offer a home for a child who needed it, and not attach and try to hold on to a child that could go to their family.

So many hopeful adoptive parents mourn the parents changing their mind – but surely that is the ideal situation.

Finally, this question – what birth mother actually doesn’t “want” her baby?

And this response – they exist but they are FEW and FAR between. The narrative of the droves and droves of unwanted babies in the US that are languishing away for help really burns me. (And I was one of those few, actual unwanted babies).

So what do adoptees actually feel ? We are not chosen. Quite the opposite. We’re discarded.