Monday, September 29, 2008

Thoughts of History and Hats

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 Nuremberg trials when Hermann Goering was on the stand - can you imagine? To be part of such an important moment in history.

It was in Germany that he met his wife Paula, a beautiful young widow with a child. Paula twice lost everything in the war and I've heard the story of how she once escaped with only a suitcase, the clothes on her back and her little girl a toddler, her mother, who was sick and a pregnant sister-in-law. The only reason this little group was allowed on the train taking the wounded soldiers out of the city was because Paula worked for the Red Cross. They were evacuated to the country, where they lived on a farm, barely getting anything to eat and having to work hard in exchange for a few potatoes. It is through knowing Paula that I know not everyone who was a member of the Nazi party agreed with its ideology. Her father was a teacher and had to sign up in order to keep his job and feed his family (and, I suspect, stay out of the camps) - there were no other options.

After the war, Poul continued working for the U.S. Army and has worked all over the world, including England, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He used to travel to the US bases in Greenland three times a year, has flown over a calving glacier in a helicopter and always brought back a reindeer roast for the extended family get-together on Boxing Day. By the way? Rudolph is very, very tasty.

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.

I grew 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 Sweden and about the time the Germans came looking for I don't know what, waking up the family, standing in the hallway where I played so many years later, machine guns at the ready. And she has told stories of what happened after the war, when the women who had been with the soldiers, sometimes to feed their kids, were paraded through the little town, the crowd spitting on their shaved heads.

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 Denmark, every year, we commemorate the occupation and the liberation, every year there are documentaries about the concentration camps, about the resistance and this annual ritual of building memory in new generations helps a little, begins an understanding of what is in the so recent past. And I think growing up in a place where war was so recent, where each story of courage and beauty is accompanied by another of the ugliness and horror of war, where all of it, not just the victory, is still in living memory is why I am a pacifist. I think that having a family member who was "the enemy" has helped me understand that there is no black and white, only shades of grey. That "the enemy" is people, too - people who suffer, people who may not agree with their government, people who have no choice.

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.

1 comment:

Eileen said...

I had to laugh at the comment about Rudolph - you've almost certainly missed it but there has just been uproar in the UK. Lidl, a leading discounter, is selling frozen reindeer steak in the run up to Christmas, even being insensitive enough to advertise the fact in their flyers. "What if children see it?" is the complaint - they'll think Santa has lost his main helper.

So - remove all chickens prior to Easter we wondered?