“Sister Lipke’s Hand,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 49
It was early April, and I was seeing it through a bus window. The previous year, by this time, the first patches of green with white, pink, and yellow linings had appeared. Today, blurred scenes rushed by; houses, trees, and people took on distorted shapes through the drenched glass. An eagerly awaited April, after a rainy, chilly March, had promised fairer weather. But the clouds and cold rain lingered—like my thoughts—somewhere between the misty tableau and a Sunday afternoon.
“Time to go.” My companion’s warning that we were nearing our bus stop roused me from my reverie. I scooted across the seat to the aisle, grabbed a cold steel support, and squeezed around four workers who quickly slipped into the space left by our departure. We headed toward the back door, navigating ourselves around groups of Hausfrauen returning home from the day’s shopping and schoolchildren clad in yellow rubber and carrying parcels of books and homework, the entire company swaying as we jerked to a stop.
The small wood-and-plastic shelter into which we stepped afforded little protection from the steady, slow drenching of the German spring rain. As we waited for an opening in the drizzle, my companion looked over at me and said, “I feel kind of uneasy about going over to see Sister Lipke today.”
“Know what you mean.”
Sister Lipke was one of the finest pianists I had ever heard. It wasn’t so much the perfection of her technique or the exactness of her keystrokes; it was more a feeling—from the very moment that she sat down to play, her tiny frame almost hidden as her gentle hands caressed the keyboard. Her playing seemed a wedding of physical and spiritual essence; her music took on an ethereal quality.
Why had the Lord allowed Sister Lipke to be hurt? I thought. My anger and sorrow returned when I recalled the purpose of our visit.
First, Sister Lipke had slipped and had fallen and broken her hip. The injury had greatly impaired her walking, and she had been forced to use a cane. And now she had fallen again. This time she had broken her hand, and her doctors had said that it would probably never set and heal properly.
My feelings were only heightened when I remembered Sister Lipke’s testimony, borne so often: “Lieber Brüder und Schwestern … while it may seem to some that I have very little in the way of possessions, the Lord has blessed me through what may often seem as trials. Above all, I am grateful for my most prized possession—my hands—and their continued strength, which allows me to play music and perhaps bring some small joy to others.”
My companion brought me back to reality. “Looks like the rain’s letting up a bit,” he said.
I responded by looking up at the clouds. Although the water still rushed off the Haltestelle where we stood, it looked as if there would be a short respite. So we started off toward Sister Lipke’s home.
After a brisk walk, we neared the apartment. As I stood with a thumb poised over the doorbell, the cold dampness of the tile hallway began seeping in through my worn shoes. I shivered.
After the first two rings, we heard a slow shuffling from inside and then a voice calling, “Wer ist da?”
“It’s the missionaries.”
There was a sound of a chain sliding across metal and of a dead bolt moving back into place. Then the door slowly opened, and we were greeted with a smile.
In one corner of Sister Lipke’s living room stood a cast-iron heater in which a small coal fire burned, lifting some of the chill and dampness from the day. Across the room from it was an old dark-green couch, which was cold to the touch when we first sat down. The end table on the right was covered with various-sized pictures of children and grandchildren. Most prominent of all in the center stood a photo of her late husband, Georg.
The piano stood facing the couch, its once-new oak finish nicked and scarred with age. I thought of the times we had listened to Sister Lipke coax beautiful melodies from the worn keys—and forced my mind back to the reason we had come.
“It’s good to see you both,” she said. “What do you think of our weather?”
“Well, we were hoping that spring would come, but I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer. How are you feeling?”
“I’m just fine,” she said. She got up from the large green armchair she had been sitting in and shuffled into the kitchen. My companion and I looked at each other. We were both uneasy, wondering what to do. The sounds coming from the next room prompted my companion to his feet to help her. They quickly returned, with him carrying a tray on which were three glasses, a bottle of red currant juice, and some Brötchen. I took the tray and laid it on the table next to Sister Lipke’s chair.
As I tasted the brittle bread, I wondered: What could we say to Sister Lipke to help her understand? Where was the justice in what had happened? How could we express our concern and the faint belief that we cannot understand all things? Beyond that, how could I satisfy my own doubts about why it had happened?
After a few minutes, I felt my companion’s penetrating stare, prompting me to end the grim silence.
“Uh”—I cleared my throat—“Uh, Sister Lipke, you know, sometimes it’s hard for us to understand why certain things happen. And, well, uh …” I paused, glancing at the huge white cast on her hand and arm. “We were concerned about your hand. And, well, we were also a little concerned about …”
Sister Lipke smiled at me as she laid her glass softly on the table with her good hand. “Let me tell you a story,” she said.
As she began to speak, she looked from the piano to the china hutch, then finally at the pictures on the end table. She gazed intently at the faded photograph of her husband. I recalled the many stories of hardship and devastation that victims of the war had recounted to us. Always, it seemed, the tales had ended in despair, discouragement, and broken spirits.
“Nearly thirty years ago, we were living in Prussia just outside the city of Posen,” she said. “We lived quite comfortably—not in a small apartment like this, but in a large, two-story farmhouse. The house was well furnished, and since we had a fairly good-sized piece of land, we were able to have a bounteous garden and many flower beds. We had a good number of friends in the community.”
She paused for a moment, looking at the picture. Then she continued. “I shall never forget that cold winter night when the cry came that the Bolshevik army was near. There was near-panic as the sound of the battle drew closer. To the east, the twilight sky was lit up with white flashes and a bright-red glow. Georg rushed me, along with our four sons and two daughters, out to the car. As we were getting ready to leave, he stood looking back into the city as though waiting for something. I looked down the road and soon saw hurrying toward us one of the young elders from the branch with his wife and two little girls. Georg ran to help them get into our car.”
Her eyes shifted; she looked at the floor. “You know, I don’t think he could have left just then—he was such a good man. Georg said that Brother Strasser would drive the car and that we should travel west as fast as we could until we met the Americans.”
There was silence.
“Georg had never really agreed with the war, but he felt that he should serve in the Volkssturm if it ever came to defending the homeland,” she continued. “So he said that he needed to stay in Posen and help and then would follow us as soon as possible. I knew for certain that I would never see him again—and I’m sure that he knew it, also.”
Her eyes turned back to the table. “We traveled as best we could, but our progress was slow. The roads were crowded with people and armies. At each town we came to, we waited as long as we dared, hoping for some word from Georg. After more than a month, as we waited in Cottbus, one of our close friends, Herr Meisner, found us. He had also stayed behind. He told us of the fall of the city and its ravage by the Bolsheviks. When they came to Herr Meisner’s house, they were ready to take his two daughters. Georg stood firmly in their way, arguing that they should let the family go. Their commandant, apparently taken aback momentarily, agreed—then Georg was dragged through the streets and hanged as an example.”
There was a long silence before she continued.
“The next day, our car was confiscated by the Wehrmacht. We continued on foot for nearly four weeks. The weather was very cold and damp, and soon our little group was stricken with the flu. One of Brother Strasser’s little girls died, along with my own little Ilse, who was four at the time. And my golden-haired baby, Hans, breathed his last as I sat rocking him in a hayloft.”
She looked at the pictures on the table more intently. “Finally, we arrived here in Darmstadt. Herr Meisner went to work for the American military in Frankfurt. Brother Strasser was unable to accept the loss of his little Monica and quickly fell away from the Church. The rest of my children have all long since moved away.”
Her eyes again found the picture in the center of the table. “Georg was such a good man. I will always remember what he said to me once, before the war, when we were a young couple with only one son. ‘Eva,’ he said, ‘We must always remember that the Lord loves us. We may not always understand why things happen, but the Lord does love us. And though it is sometimes not easy to find, he always leaves us with some blessing.’”
She turned back to us. “Will you play my hymn for me?”
I knew which one she meant. It was her favorite—“A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” As the notes began, she picked up the tune. “Ein armer Wanderer, reich an Qual …” Her old, high voice sounded angelic.
The song ended, and Sister Lipke sank back down into her chair. I went to the couch and sat down.
After a minute, her gaze caught my eye. “You see, though my fingers can no longer play the notes, I still have my voice.”