Bright Valley of Love

Book about Nazi Genocide of the Handicapped Shows the Power of the Gospel

Bright Valley of Love, a 1976 novel about Hitler’s program to exterminate the sick, weak, and disabled, has recently been brought back into print by Concordia Theological Seminary Press. The book, written by scholar and translator Edna Hong (1913–2007), tells the true story of Bethel, a Lutheran institution in Germany dedicated to caring for people unable to care for themselves, and of Gunther, a longtime Bethel resident.

The book opens shortly after World War I, as six-year-old Gunther, his body deformed by years of malnutrition and neglect, is left at Bethel by family members no longer willing to care for him. Bethel remains Gunther’s home, in every sense of the word, for the rest of his life. Not only does he receive physical care there, but emotional and spiritual care as well. For Gunther and others who are blessed to be at Bethel, it is a place of love and light, but it is only a matter of time until the “bright valley” is darkened by the coming of another world war and Hitler’s evil plan.

What sets Bright Valley of Love apart is its grounding in Christ as the only true and reliable foundation for surviving, even thriving, in a world gripped by Satan. That foundation not only provides the people of Bethel strength to resist the evil all around them; it is what, by way of Bethel’s worship life, provides meaning and purpose for their days, as the regular rhythm of prayer, devotion, and song forms and sustains them in the faith. When Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt, comes knocking at Bethel’s door, threatening its very existence, the now-adult Gunther does what he has done for the past 20 years. He sings:

Through the windows facing the garden, Gunther could see Pastor Fritz … his head buried on his arms. Never had he looked so heartsick, so defeated. Gunther knew that if he did not start singing at once, he … would burst into the wildest weeping, and that he must not. … ‘Put thou thy trust in God,’ he began. … It was the message that somehow had to get through to that despair. (pp. 140–141)

Time Finds a Center

Much earlier in the book, when Gunther is first taken to Bethel, he does not know how to sing. He does not know about God. He does not know, in fact, much of anything, as for most of his life, he has been ignored and confined to bed. Most recently that bed has been in a small back room in the home of his grandmother, who deems him “no good for nothing.” At his grandmother’s house, the passing of time, for Gunther, is marked by meals, toilet trips, doses of “Soothing Syrup” to keep him sedated and manageable, and the weekly appearance of a red checkered tablecloth outside his window, washed every Monday by the neighbor:

Whether it sagged and dripped with rain or fluttered and snapped in the breeze, the red checkered tablecloth filled him with a strange joy. … It was a telegram from another world of something unknown. Yet it was not a banner of pure joy, for it seemed to be telling him also of something missing. Not something lost, but of something he had never had. (pp. 13–14)

Within three days of Gunther’s arrival at Bethel, he gets his first taste of the “something he had never had”:

Before this Sunday was over a most beautiful thing happened to Gunther. Time stopped flowing on endlessly. Time went into orbit around a light and a brightness that somehow explained all the bright pictures that had suddenly bobbed up in his life. All the bright pictures went into orbit, too. For Gunther, time found a center on that Sunday. The misshapen little planet that was Gunther began orbiting around that center. (pp. 30–31)

As Gunther attends church and hears God’s Word for the first time — through the liturgy, hymnody, preaching, and teaching — he is met with the “wildly wonderful realization” that he is not an accident of nature but that he was “intended to be” — that “he was not a piece of human garbage carried along on a gray and endless tide of time” but that “time was for becoming … what he could be.”

The rest of the book is a journey through Gunther’s “becoming.” Before Bethel, his life’s pattern was one of darkness, with the routines reminding him not of his value but of his brokenness. But at Bethel, the habits of daily prayer, weekly worship, and the observance of the feasts and festivals of the church year rehearse Gunther not in despair, but in hope. Having learned that there is a God who loves him, he learns a new language — one that grows out of a life centered on worship:

Every nation has some persons who know the language. … It has to do with grateful hearts. … One would think that in a valley where there is as much suffering as there is in the Valley of Bethel that the language spoken would be the language of complaint. … [But] because the people who live in that valley know a love that has no limit, the voice of thanksgiving is stronger … than the voice of complaint. (p. 42)

Christians who belong to liturgical traditions will find, in Bright Valley of Love, familiar patterns of worship, devotion, and prayer. Those for whom the historic hymns of the church play a significant role in worship life will resonate with the centrality of hymns to this story of human resilience. But all people of the Christian faith — and all people of good will — will be inspired by the story of a boy named Gunther, the loving community that cares for him, and the faith that sustains them all.

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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