Wednesday evening last week, I went to my mother's to spend some time with my uncle on his last night here this year. Spending time with Poul is always fun - he has a seemingly inexhaustible store of really bad jokes.... hang on, here's my favorite. It's better told in person, so feel free to spread it around:
You ask the innocent victim to define the difference between unlawful and illegal. After they very seriously have attempted to navigate the nuances, earnestly explaining their reasoning to you, you end with this sentence: "one is against the law, the other is a sick bird". It's ridiculously funny every single time.
Spending time with Poul is also fascinating - he's had the kind of life many of us dream about. After the war (that’d be World War II), he left the small provincial town in which my mother's family lived so fast you couldn't see him for the smoke and went to Germany to work for the U.S. Army. He has told stories about the ruined infrastructure, the rubble that was once homes, shops, schools and hospitals, about the wounded limping around town, some without legs propelling themselves forward by their arms while seated on a small square piece of wood on which they had affixed four wheels. He has told us stories about being at the
It was in
After the war, Poul continued working for the U.S. Army and has worked all over the world, including
Poul is a gypsy, having not only lived in many countries, but also visited many others on his travels. He once calculated that he has been to 74 different countries in this world and I am beyond envious. On Wednesday evening, he told a story about how he went to Kwai - yes, that one - and walked across the bridge, saw the cemetery where the POWs who built the bridge are buried. My uncle is a piece of living history, carrying memories of times and places that I've only read about in books.
Igrew up hearing stories about the war, about what it was like living in an occupied country. In the town in which my mother grew up, there was an old building transformed into a prison hospital and she used to play in a garden adjacent to the grounds. The wounded German soldiers held there would stand by the fence, looking at the children, speaking to them in German, sometimes showing a picture of their own children, but not understood by the Danish kids. Connection was in smiles exchanged between the vanquished and the children of the liberated. I grew up hearing stories about the time when mor was less than 10 and witnessed an informer being gunned down on the street in bright daylight. Stories about the neighbours hiding Jews in the attic, someone else rowing them across the sound to safety in
We have no idea what this is like, growing up in safety, in countries that are not invaded and occupied. We hear the words "never again", but I don't think we know what it means, what it is that needs to never happen again. In
We say we need to listen to the stories of our parents and grandparents, but as a culture, there isn't much attention paid to anyone over 60. Or to anything that happened more than a few decades ago (if that - Rwanda and Darfur, anyone?). Too often, in this busy world, we don't make time for reflection on the past and without it, we can't see nuances, only two-dimensional white hats and black hats. Without understanding the past, carrying its lessons with us into the present, we are doomed to repeat it.