by Amber Hunter Jesse
I have to tell you about my friend, Hanna Zack Miley. She’s petite with short, snow-white hair and eyes that emanate light. Her small frame contains an enormous soul.
Hanna’s beautifully written memoir, entitled A Garland for Ashes¹, tells one of the most important stories I’ve ever encountered, and it is the primary source material for this article.
In 2013, I had the privilege of joining Hanna on a trip to her hometown in Gemünd, Germany. We walked together to the Jewish Cemetery on the edge of town and came to a memorial stone with her parents' names engraved upon it.
Hitler’s Nazi Regime murdered Markus and Amelie Zack in 1942.
Hanna was a baby when Hitler rose to power in Germany. He despised Jews and fueled nationwide hatred against them.
Still, Hanna’s earliest memories are warm.
Her parents showered their only child with affection. She recalls her mama’s tender expressions and her skillful hands knitting Hanna a dirndl dress with fluffy pom-poms. She remembers sitting close to her papa, cracking matzo pieces into coffee cups, and walking hand-in-hand with him down a cobblestone street to their synagogue.
By the time she was six, Nazis were launching violent attacks against Jews in Germany. On the terrifying night of November 9th, 1938, Hanna was most likely lying between her parents in bed. Rioters burst into her father’s shed and stole his antiques. On that Night-of-Broken-Glass (Kristallnacht²), Nazi mobs destroyed thousands of Jewish properties, including homes, businesses, cemeteries, and synagogues.
Markus and Amalie knew they needed to act fast to protect their little Hannelore.
Great Britain was among the only countries willing to allow Jewish children to enter as refugees³. In desperation, Hanna’s parents secured a ticket for her departure. As they took her to Cologne’s train station, they told her she would be going on a nice trip. They helped their little daughter up the rail car steps. When Hanna turned to wave goodbye, she was shocked to see her parents’ eyes full of tears. She knew then that it would not be a “nice trip.” Her parents had hung a cardboard label around her neck. It identified her as number 8,814 of 10,000 Jewish children rescued on the Kindertransport.⁴
Hanna’s parents had saved her life.
Hanna spent a significant portion of her life with the particularly searing anguish of one whose homeland, language, and parents had been ripped away.
She knew that her parents were gone but did not know the details surrounding their death. As a child and young adult, she tried to manage her trauma by suppressing her memories and fiercely guarding her heart. When painful realities did surface, she was crushed under impossibly heavy burdens. Hanna despaired about all she had lost and the feeling that her parents had abandoned her. She hated Hitler’s Nazis and the German people who were complicit in their atrocities.
When Hanna was a young woman teaching in the English countryside, she heard that an American preacher named Billy Graham would be holding an event nearby. Although initially cautious, her curiosity compelled her to attend. As she sat in an old wooden pew, carefully listening to Graham’s message, it was as if he was speaking directly to her. Hanna’s heart was unlocked and opened.
She describes it this way:
I saw Jesus, hanging dead on the cross, and then, in one luminous moment, I knew he was gloriously alive. I felt his love for me, and I could look with candor at the chaos within my soul... From my soul’s depth, I gave him my shame, my wrongness, my sin, my responses to the evil done to me. I saw him take that unbearably heavy load from me, and I began to understand the meaning and purpose of His death. I experienced a lightness of being.⁵
From that point forward, Hanna has experienced a gradual yet profound process
In her 70’s, she sensed it was time to confront her painful history. She was determined to discover what happened to her parents, and she searched diligently for clues.
Hanna embarked on a pilgrimage to retrace her parents' steps.
Accompanied by her devoted husband George and eight close friends, Hanna followed Markus and Amelie’s footprints — from their home in Germany to the forest in Poland where Nazis viciously ended
Hanna’s fellowship of friends was there each step of the way, both to support and to mourn.
Verena embarked on a journey similar to Hanna’s, to face the past and participate in the process of healing. As a historian and a follower of Jesus, Verena’s life became a School of Forgiveness. She learned to grieve the painful parts of her story and practice repentance for evil acts throughout her family line.
She wrestled for a decade before deciding to forgive her father.⁷
Verena and Hanna have both come to understand that forgiveness in no way minimizes evil. Instead, forgiveness releases the horrible burden of judgment into the hands of God, the Creator, who is both perfectly just and merciful. Even further, forgiveness allows a person to become so free that they’re able to follow this other-worldly command given by Jesus, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”⁸
Hanna and her husband George traveled from Phoenix, Arizona, to her hometown of Gemünd, Germany.
What would forgiveness look like in the places of her deepest pain?
Could healing balm be applied to these old and gaping wounds?
Hanna felt aching anticipation as she turned onto the street where she once lived with her mama and papa. The apple tree from her childhood still raised its branches heavenward in the former Zack family courtyard. She placed two white roses under that tree, one for each of her parents.
From there, Hanna visited the playground where she played as a child. She prayed for the children who had once surrounded and mocked her and other Jewish children with anti-Semitic songs.
Hanna and her traveling companions returned to the train station, where her parents had cried as they sent her away. Hanna describes the moment she stepped onto the railway platform.
I was transported back to the parting with my parents. Our separation was like a carefully sewn garment being torn into two parts. I heard again the sound of the ripping. I saw each piece left with raw, uneven edges and broken threads floating in the air.⁹
What happened after that day?
Hanna’s meticulous research uncovered the distressing details of her parents’ final months and days.
Now, the moment had come for Hanna to join her parents in Chelmno. Verena knelt with Hanna at the locked entrance to that camp. Hanna gripped the iron bars as she peered through to the place where her mama and papa were stripped of their clothing and herded with forty others into a large gray truck. Nazi police rerouted the exhaust pipe to pump carbon monoxide into that mobile gas chamber, poisoning and suffocating them to death. Their lifeless bodies were driven into the forest. Nazis forced Jewish prisoners to pile them into a mass grave. Later, their bodies were dug up and burned.
Hanna’s pilgrimage required yet another monumental step.
On the anniversary of her parents’ death, Hanna entered the Rzuchowski Forest, where Nazis had incinerated their bodies.
Hanna, her husband George, her friend Verena and seven more friends created a Minyan — the ten adults required in Jewish tradition to pray publicly at a burial service. On that rainy day, they lit two flickering memorial candles. Upon a make-shift altar surrounded by a garland of white and pink blossoms, Hanna placed a letter that began with these words:
My beloved Mutti und Vati, Here is Hannelore, the little girl you sent away to save her life.¹²
Along with the letter, she added a Crucifix of Jesus. He was wearing a yellow star.
Hanna and her companions encircled the altar and recited a Jewish Yizkor, a prayer of remembrance for family members who have died.
When Hanna was a child, she had interpreted being sent away by her parents as complete abandonment.
Now, in the forest outside Chelmno, as the rain fell — and as Heaven wept — Hanna could feel just how much her parents loved her.
These golden threads of forgiveness, healing, and hope have continued to weave throughout Hanna’s life.
In 2013, the citizens of Gemünd invited Hanna, as a guest of honor, to the town’s 800th anniversary. They wanted to publicly honor the Jews who had been driven from their village and acknowledge the horrors committed against them. Brass paving stones, called Stolpersteine¹³, were laid in front of Hanna’s childhood home.
Etched upon them are the words, “Here lived” Markus and Amelie Zack, “Died May 3, 1942, Chelmno.”
Two years later, Hanna read passages from her book for the citizens of Bonn, Germany — the city where there had been trials to convict the Nazis at Chelmno for their war crimes. When she had finished reading, a man came to the microphone and told Hanna that his grandfather was a Nazi Officer at Chelmno when her parents were there.
Through his tears, he said, “I don’t know what to say. I can only stand here and ask for forgiveness.”¹⁴
Hanna embraced him with heartfelt forgiveness and love.
The man’s name was Markus, the same as her father.
I often reflect on the time I spent with Hanna and our community of friends at the small Jewish Cemetery in Gemünd. On that crisp November evening, we quietly gazed at the memorial stone Hanna had erected for her parents.
Markus and Amelie Zack were among an estimated six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.¹⁵
Under their names and dates are these words:
You are precious in my eyes and honored, and I love you.¹⁶
Learn more about Hanna:
1. A Garland for Ashes: World War II, the Holocaust,
and One Jewish Survivor’s Long Journey to Forgiveness written by Hanna Miley
2. Kristallnacht | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
3. Refugees | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
4. Kindertransport | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
5. A Garland for Ashes | Chapter 11 | By Hanna Miley
6. Verena and Hanna's Story of Reconciliation | Wittenberg 2017 | Youtube.com
7. Verena's Story | www.wittenberg2017.us
8. Luke 6:27-28 | English Standard Version Bible
9. A Garland for Ashes | Chapter 12 | By Hanna Miley
10. Chelmno | United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
11. A Garland for Ashes | Chapter 19 | By Hanna Miley
12. A Garland for Ashes | Chapter 21 | By Hanna Miley
13. Stolpersteine | Artist Gunter Demnig
14. Maturing Toward Wholeness in the Inner Life | Chapter 1 | By George Miley
15. Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution |
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
16. Isaiah 43:4 | English Standard Version Bible