Johanna Spyri (born 1827- died 1891) was Switzerland’s most beloved author of short stories and childrens’ books. Her most famous book, published in Zurich in 1880, was called “Heidi”. Beloved by readers the world over, it has been translated from German into fifty-two languages. Spyri’s dedication to her book was “written for children and for all those who love children”.
“Heidi” was based upon an 1830 book written by a German teacher, Hermann Adam von Kamp, which he called “Adelaide- das Madchen vom Alpengebirge” (“Adelaide’ The Girl From the Alps”) . As a young girl, Johanna Spyri had read it and was deeply influenced by it. She called his Adelaide her Heidi.
Spyri married a Swiss lawyer and had one son, Bernhard. Tragically, they both died in 1884, a few months apart from one another. Johanna found much comfort in prayer, God seemed to provide her with the solace she needed and she continued to write and to publish for the last seven years of her life.
In 1938 when I was five years old, my father took me to a movie theater to see the film “Heidi” which starred the beautiful young Shirley Temple and the warm and loving Danish actor, Jean Hersholt.
It told the story of a loving relationship between a young child and a grumpy hermit grandfather. I remember that I cried when Heidi was taken away from her grandfather. Their love was akin to the love between me and my zaideh and I cried because I could not bear the thought of being separated from him. My father used to remark to his siblings about me “er hot a farbrente lieb fur unser tatteh” (he has a burning love for our father).
I don’t know of any child who has not read Spyri’s “Heidi”. It is the story of a five year old orphan child living in a Swiss valley being raised by an aunt. When Heidi was eight years old her aunt took her to the Alps and deposited her with her paternal grandfather. He had differences with the local villagers several years before and he left the village to live in a small cottage high up in the Alps.
He was bitter, hurt and angry by the treatment he had received from the villagers and began to live the life of a hermit, far away from people, sustaining himself on goat’s milk and cheese. He had never met his granddaughter and he resented the aunt for bringing her to live with him. He did not know how to care for a child. But Heidi told him, “do not worry, grandfather. I will take care of you. I will cook for you and sweep your floors and clean your clothes for you”. The old grandfather was amazed to hear such words from an eight year old child and a bond of love began to grow between them.
Heidi made a friend in young Peter the goat-herder and he taught her about life on the mountains of the Alps. She visited him at his cottage and was always warmly welcomed by his mother, Brigette, and his old and blind grandmother whom she learned to call “Granny”. Heidi found happiness living with her hermit grandfather until one day her aunt returned and stole her away from him. Heidi was to be taken to Frankfurt to work in the home of the wealthy Stresemann family as a companion to their young disabled daughter, Clara. The family tutor taught Heidi how to read and write, how to be a good and close friend to Clara, and her life in the Stresemann’s Frankfurt home was one of luxury she had never known.
The family’s housekeeper, Fraulein Rottenmeier, disliked Heidi and was resentful of the affection she received from Clara’s parents. She did everything possible to mistreat Heidi, to give her skimpy meals, to make her do chores and even plotted to get rid of Heidi by selling her to gypsies.
Heidi could have been happier in Frankfurt but she longed for her grandfather in the Swiss village of Dorfli and she cried herself to sleep at night thinking of him and wondering who would take care of him.
Clara’s grandmother visited the Stresemann home frequently and came to love young Heidi. She saw that Heidi and Clara were inseparable friends and she saw Clara’s improved spirits since Heidi came to live with the family. One day, the grandmother heard Heidi crying and tried to comfort her. Heidi explained how much she missed her beloved grandfather. And Clara’s grandmother embraced the sad young girl and said to her, “My child, when you feel lonely or are in distress, talk to God. Open up your heart to God. He will hear you and He will help you”.
A year later, Heidi returned to the cottage on the Alps and thrust herself into the open and strong arms of her grandfather. Both of them wept tears of joy. Heidi was re-united with her friend, Peter, and visited him often, bringing gifts of food which she had brought from Germany for his blind grandmother.
Life was enjoyable once again in the pure mountain air of the Swiss Alps. Heidi taught her grandfather how to pray, even though he protested that he was too old to learn. But one day, after many years had passed, he climbed down from his mountain abode and went to the small church in the village.
The villagers who remembered him were delighted to see him and welcomed him back warmly. He was grateful for Heidi’s teachings and for her faith in a loving God.
Months later, the Stresemann family together with Clara came to visit. Clara remained with Heidi and her grandfather for one month. But Peter was angry or jealous that Clara had now consumed so much of Heidi’s attention and one day he pushed her empty wheel-chair down the mountain. Without her wheel-chair, Clara had to learn how to walk, step by step, slowly, slowly. When the Stresemanns returned to bring Clara home to Frankfurt they were astonished at the changes they saw. Clara was healthy and strong. The Alpine air suited her. And when they saw her walking towards them, they wept tears of joy. They promised Heidi that they would assume her care after the death of her old grandfather so that she would never again have to be alone.
Heidi remained with her grandfather. The bonds of love between them were gifts from God. They both prayed together whenever they felt distress and Heidi’s love for the old man strengthened his faith.
When we returned home from the movie theater I threw myself on my bed and wept bitterly. I could not bear the thought of separation from my zaideh. My father took me in his arms and said to me , “Do you remember what Clara’s grandmother taught Heidi? When you are lonely or feeling sad, just talk to God. He will hear you and you will feel better”. Heidi’s love was an inspiration for me. I have never forgotten it.
It reminds us of the love we share with family when we are near them or far away from them. The love of family is God’s great gift to each one of us. It is not something to be taken for granted. And when we are in need of comfort, let us open up our hearts and talk to Him. It helped Heidi . It can surely help all of us.