Zwieback and leprosy

Apr 18, 2019 by

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The beat-up diesel pickup truck sputtered as it came over the hill into view. A half dozen men in torn filthy shirts stood in the bed of the truck, passing a bottle around, their fists pumping the air, yelling, “Lepra de satán . . . que mueran todos . . . guerra contra satán.”

John and Clara Schmidt in 1952 at the Km. 81 leprosy station construction site in Paraguay. — Marlena Fiol

John and Clara Schmidt in 1952 at the Km. 81 leprosy station construction site in Paraguay. — Marlena Fiol

Clara jumped to her feet, nearly tripping on the long canvas apron tied around her waist. With her left elbow, she pushed aside a strand of long brown hair that had escaped her kerchief. Who are they? She dropped the trowel still dripping with adobe sludge from the last brick she was setting, and stood, staring, her mouth agape.

Could she run? Escape? She jerked her head around to take in the rubble of recently cleared land, the thatched-roofed lean-to stacked high with adobe bricks, the tarp on the ground behind her covered with plaster, and the partial wall to her left. There was nowhere to go. Her heart began to race. I knew I shouldn’t have . . . Clara swallowed hard.

The truck slowed as it approached the white woman covered in mud, a dark kerchief haphazardly tied around her head. The men thrust their fists at her and their voices rose to a wild crescendo. “Lepra . . . que mueran . . . trabajo de satán . . .

Following the driver’s lead, a few of them jumped to the ground, grabbed rocks from the truck bed and moved toward Clara. Still shouting, they held the rocks high over their heads. She backed up, grasping her apron as though it might shield her from the angry, foul-smelling men. Her thoughts began to race.

“John, where are you when I need you? What have we gotten ourselves into? I know the Mennonite mission sent us here to do the Lord’s work, but this . . . this . . .”

Clara’s lips trembled. She knew her husband had again gone out on horseback, as he had so often, scouring the land in search of cast-out lepers. She knew he probably wouldn’t be back for days.

Without taking her eyes off the men, Clara sensed by her side the presence of her Paraguayan bricklayer who spoke some English.

“Francisco,” she asked between clenched teeth, “who are these men and what do they want? What are they shouting about?”

“They’re from Itacurubí, señora, just up the road from us here at Km. 81, and they’re saying that you will not live and that they’ll destroy this leprosy hospital you and your husband are building. They refuse to let you bring lepers into their neighborhood.”

The men pulled more rocks off the truck bed. Francisco continued to translate, “They’re saying that they’ve brought these rocks to destroy you and your satanic work here at Km. 81.”

Clara’s chest constricted and her hands shook. She wished she knew how to speak Spanish. Surely she could explain the Lord’s work if she did. Explain that she and the young Dr. John had left their home in the U.S and brought their family all the way to Paraguay to combat this dreaded disease. That they were here to help.

She took a deep breath and slowly turned back to Francisco.

“Please ask them if they would like to have some coffee and zwieback (a Mennonite bread),” she said.

Francisco raised his eyebrows, but relayed the message. The men stopped shouting. Still grasping their rocks, they stared at her. Silent.

Slapping her hands against the sides of her apron to remove some of the mud, Clara walked toward the lean-to where she kept what little provisions she had.

“Here, I have this thermos full of iced coffee and these are zwieback that I baked yesterday. You probably don’t know what zwieback are . . . ”

In her nervousness she forgot that they didn’t understand a word she was saying. “Um . . . Francisco, please tell them I’d like to pray with them before we eat?”

The men didn’t move, their dark eyes darting back and forth between their driver and the white woman who offered food and wanted to pray with them after learning that they were here to kill her and destroy her property.

Clara clasped her trembling hands together.

“Lord, we thank you for your love and protection. Bless this food, we pray, in Christ’s name. Amen.” She held out the bag of zwieback and motioned for the men to come.

The driver said something to the men and one by one they dropped their rocks. They ate zwieback and drank iced coffee with Clara and then quietly left.

They never returned.

That was 1952. In the decades that followed, John and Clara Schmidt gradually built trusting relations with their Paraguayan neighbors. And whenever possible, they reintegrated leprosy patients back into their communities, a revolutionary practice the medical community now embraces and has attributed to their visionary leadership.

I know this because John and Clara were my parents, and Km. 81 is where I grew up.

Marlena Fiol, Ph.D., is a storyteller, scholar and speaker in Tucson, Ariz., and Eugene, Ore., whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her essays and blogs are at

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