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An Armistice Day Legacy

by Olga Bonfiglio

Elly and Bob Nagler grew up an ocean apart but their commitment to peace has strengthened them throughout their 50+ years of marriage. Neither of them stands out particularly in physical appearance. In fact, you might even miss seeing them at local peace vigils, but they're there-every week, twice a week-since October 2002 before the war in Iraq began. And there's no mistaking their devotion to the cause of peace and the depth from which it comes in all that they do and say. It began through their fathers who both fought in World War I.

Elly Nagler's father was a Bavarian soldier and a French prisoner of war. He had hopes of becoming a priest but the war dashed that ambition.

"He had blood on his hands," said Elly, "and didn't feel he could be a priest." Instead, he became a writer, an organizer and eventually secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), a non-governmental inter-faith organization founded in 1919 in London as a response to World War I. IFOR was the first organization of its kind in the world to be committed to peaceful nonviolence in favor of healing and reconciliation.

According to its Web site (www.ifor.org), "the founders of IFOR formulated a vision of the human community based upon the belief that love in action has the power to transform unjust political, social and economic structures."

Elly's father established a branch office for IFOR in Vienna and operated from there until 1938 when Hitler took over Bavaria; then the office had to close. After the war he re-established IFOR. Today IFOR flourishes with a presence in more than 40 countries.

Elly's sister, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, later took over her father's work at IFOR and became an international figure. A prolific writer and speaker, the Vatican asked Hildegard for her input on its important encyclical, Pacem en Terris (Peace on Earth), published in 1963. She has also conducted training programs on nonviolence in Latin America, Africa and Asia and has served as a consultant to leaders like Cory Aquino of the Philippines. As a result of her work, Hildegard was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

In comparison to her father and her sister, Elly doesn't consider herself a peace activist, but rather an "agitator for change."

"I'm just a human being," said Elly, the mother of four daughters and a son. "We should have a responsibility for each other and do all we can to make the world a better place." She thinks that the only way to settle conflict is through nonviolence and living up to our possibilities.

Actually, Elly is no slouch when it comes to peace activism. In 1947 she joined the Quaker youth work camp movement in Austria, Sweden, Mexico and El Salvador to help rebuild houses in villages and to provide assistance in refugee camps that harbored Russians, Germans and Ukrainians.

"I lost half of my heart in El Salvador," said Elly. It's probably one of the reasons the Naglers were so active in the Sanctuary movement of the mid-1980s when they helped harbor a Salvadoran family.

Bob Nagler grew up in Iowa City, the son of a famous hydraulics engineer who consulted on the Hoover Dam and several Mississippi River projects. When he returned from World War I, he vowed always to make the world a better place through his work as well as through his commitment as a peace activist for the Methodist church. He wanted to rid the world of war and to promote nonviolence as a peaceful solution.

In 1933 Bob attended the Epworth League's summer youth camp on Clear Lake, Iowa, a part of the Southern Methodists' religious education program. The theme that year focused on peace and the Oxford Pledge. The children learned that the pledge was derived from the world's first peace movement started in England during the late 1920s as a response to the disastrous global conflict of 1914-1918. Students at Oxford University had taken a pledge that they would "not fight for king and country" as their fathers had in World War I where 40 million people died, half of them civilians.

Bob was among half of the 200 kids at the camp who signed the peace pledge. Part of the reason the pledge has "stuck with him" to this day was because his father died less than three months later, leaving ten-year-old Bob, his mother and two younger siblings.

"My father was my hero," said Bob who sought to remember him by making the Oxford pledge his father's legacy to him. Eventually Bob became a Quaker. His father had worked with them and he knew they lived lives of peace and nonviolence. Besides, they helped other people in need, like his own family.

In 1943, while in the middle of his junior year of college, Bob was drafted into the Army. However, because of his Conscientious Objector status, he was assigned to a Civilian Public Service base camp in North Dakota under the direction of the Quakers. He later volunteered for a starvation experiment in Minnesota and an infectious hepatitis project in Philadelphia, where he became a human "guinea pig" and contracted hepatitis. His work with the Army led him to a career in science and he eventually became a chemistry professor and helped to start a chemistry program at Western Michigan University.

During his tenure at the university, Bob participated in a USAID science training program in Nigeria for a couple of years, which he found to be "the most fulfilling thing I ever did." He worked with the top five percent of all students there.

During the Vietnam War, Bob advised WMU students on Conscientious Objector status and participated in peace demonstrations. Of course, he was under F.B.I. observation for his activities, but he was undeterred. Bob has also worked with the local and national environmental councils and with the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Today, he writes monthly letters to his congressman, a Republican who always votes with the president. Nevertheless, Bob continues to convey his concerns about the war in Iraq and about science, particularly those issues involving the environment and stem cell research. What keeps the Naglers going after all these years? That's easy, they say: the consistency of their actions for peace and their concern for the world.

"You can make an impact on the world with your persistence in doing what you think is right," said Bob. "It is symbolic of your conviction."

Bob dreams that the United Nations will evolve into the meaningful peace organization it was meant to be.

"I'm not discouraged or encouraged about the world's situation," he said pointing out that there are now hundreds of organizations all over the world working for peace, educating people and publishing books on peace.

"Some of this will rub off. Peace activists are responding to those who make war more readily. They know that violence escalates itself and they want to stop it. They realize that other people have rights and opinions and that peace is a constructive activity."

"You can never give up on hope," said Elly, who has seen the total devastation of cities in her youth-twice-through two world wars.

"But we Americans and Europeans need to come off of our superiority complex," said Elly. "We need to realize that human beings have value. We take it for granted that total inequality exists because we don't know how to go about making the world where we see people as our equals. This will take much education."

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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