Non­fic­tion

Balm in Gilead: A Sto­ry from the War

John L. With­ers II

  • Review
By – September 28, 2020

John L. With­ers grew up in the Jim Crow South. He was a small, book­ish, and thought­ful boy men­tored by his fam­i­ly and a kind librar­i­an who rec­og­nized his need for knowl­edge. He attend­ed his small-town col­lege and, as a grad­u­ate stu­dent, was admit­ted to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, where he slow­ly adapt­ed to a new and unfa­mil­iar equal­i­ty with his white peers. Wher­ev­er he went in life, he car­ried a small book to make entries of new ideas, quotes, and books.

Dur­ing World War II, With­ers com­mand­ed the Negro Quar­ter­mas­ter Truck Com­pa­ny 3511, lead­ing the non-com­bat­ant sol­diers through wartorn Ger­many with dig­ni­ty, human­i­ty, and a con­science. In 1945, the com­pa­ny was sent to the recent­ly lib­er­at­ed Dachau Con­cen­tra­tion Camp. What the sol­diers found there haunt­ed them. In the past, their orders had always involved mov­ing sup­plies — now they were there to move the dead. Most of the men knew noth­ing at all about Jews. What was their crime?

When two Jew­ish teens, escapees from the near­by DP Camp, showed up at the army bar­racks and begged for menial work and sanc­tu­ary, the sol­diers took them in. When the sol­diers final­ly approached With­ers with their secret, he strug­gled with his deci­sion as to what to do; he could have been court-mar­tialed and they all could have been dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged for shel­ter­ing the boys. Nev­er­the­less, he coura­geous­ly agreed to do so.

The two Jew­ish boys, nick­named Salomon and Pee Wee, became part of the unit as it moved from vil­lage to vil­lage. They cooked, cleaned, dis­ap­peared when they had to, and slow­ly began to heal and trust again. They learned Eng­lish from the sol­diers, who also pro­tect­ed and cared for them. The boys found work in a Ger­man mechan­i­cal plant after the war, and pre­sent­ed With­ers with a beau­ti­ful album in grat­i­tude for sav­ing and nur­tur­ing them.

After Dachau, With­ers felt he had seen true evil. He felt that while peo­ple wouldn’t believe it had hap­pened, it could in fact hap­pen again. War attacked his beliefs and his basic tenet that all peo­ple had the right to live.

Balm in Gilead is writ­ten by Withers’s son and name­sake. John L. With­ers II had lis­tened to his father’s some­times dis­joint­ed accounts of his expe­ri­ences all his life; he explains he has tak­en some license in the inter­est of clar­i­ty and sought to piece his father’s rem­i­nis­cences togeth­er as best he could. He has gift­ed the read­er with exten­sive details, mul­ti­di­men­sion­al char­ac­ters, and poet­ic lan­guage. The nuanced nar­ra­tive includes the back­sto­ries of many of the sol­diers, a roman­tic Paris inter­lude, the men’s expe­ri­ences in the occu­pied Ger­man towns, and the elder Withers’s post­war life.

The sec­ond part of the book describes the author’s quest to find the boys his father saved. John L. With­ers II was trav­el­ing through Ger­many and passed a sign for Staffel­stein, the town where his father’s com­pa­ny was quar­tered, and the search began. With­ers was award­ed a grant and left his gov­ern­ment posi­tion and secu­ri­ty to pur­sue more trips to Ger­many, enter into cor­re­spon­dence with Yad Vashem and for­eign embassies, and car­ry out exten­sive research. Names and dates from the album giv­en to With­ers by the boys led to Pol­ish Jew­ish agen­cies and sur­vivor net­works — and final­ly result­ed in Salomon and Pee Wee being found.

The pro­longed search, cap­ti­vat­ing in its step-by-step depic­tion, cul­mi­nates in an emo­tion­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing fam­i­ly reunion fifty-five years after the war. The heart­warm­ing scene is enhanced by pho­tos of the event. Though Balm in Gilead is main­ly a sto­ry of World War II, it tack­les the sen­ti­ments and chal­lenges of our present-day world. What is the worth of a per­son? What does a life mean? It’s a sto­ry of race, class, hatred, love, dig­ni­ty, friend­ship, and kindness.

The title of the book comes from a pas­sage in Jere­mi­ah: For the hurt of the daugh­ters of my peo­ple am I hurt. Is there no balm in Gilead?” It also appears in the lyrics of a spir­i­tu­al sung at John L. Withers’s funer­al: There was a balm in Gilead to make the wound­ed whole.”

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has long coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Record­ingSec­re­tary. She cur­rent­ly holds the post of Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor. She has vol­un­teered at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions