Remembrance is still important - Keith Roulston editorial
As Canadians mark Remembrance Day, it’s an opportunity to remember those who gave their lives in two World Wars and those who risked theirs, as my father did, in fighting in Italy and Holland.
But we also need to remember the reasons they had to put their lives at risk: to protect democracy from autocratic leaders. We have recently had municipal elections in which the voter turnout was miserably low, as if the lessons of nearly 80 years ago have been forgotten. Also recently, some prominent Americans have made or promoted anti-Semitic statements, stirring up memories of some of the worst of Hitler’s atrocities. It’s particularly disturbing when Black people, such as Kanye West, also known as Ye, and basketball star Kyrie Irving, use their popularity to promote such hateful opinions.
It wasn’t until after they had defeated Nazi Germany that men like my father understood the full extent of the evil they faced.
I recently read After Auschwitz, a book by Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, co-written with Karen Bartlett. Born in Austria, Schloss went to the Netherlands before the war to escape the persecution of Jews by the Nazis who had taken over her homeland. As a schoolgirl, she knew Anne Frank.
Her family managed to dodge persecution by the Nazis after they overran Holland in 1940, but finally their luck ran out and she was sent to Auschwitz/Birkenau on her 15th birthday, May 11, 1944. Her mother probably saved her life, dressing her in her own coat and hat so she looked older and capable of working. She was given a job sorting belongings stripped from people who were killed in the gas chambers (in a place ironically called Canada because it was a land of plenty). Her mother at one time was taken away to be gassed but the wife of a Jewish doctor who was forced to work at the camp saved her from extermination.
But by then, Germany was losing the war and Russians were battling valiantly to fight their way west. Schloss’s father and brother were sent on a march away from the Russians. They died on the journey. She and her mother survived, eventually making it back to Holland, but her teeth were bleeding and she didn’t know if she could still give birth to children.
Ironically, her widowed mother knew Otto Frank, the only surviving member of his family after the death of his wife and daughters Margot and Anne, whose diary was saved by his employee Miep Gies from the hiding place in Otto’s factory. Eva’s mother married Otto in 1953 and helped him promote The Diary of Anne Frank.
I also recently re-watched the old movie Judgement at Nuremberg, written by Abby Mann and starring Spencer Tracy (in one of his last roles), Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Maxmillian Schell – who won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in 1961.
Mann based his script on a true case. By the time this trial of four judges, who had prosecuted crimes for the Nazi government, was held, the Soviet Union had blockaded west Berlin, closing highways that allowed supplies to be taken to the western parts of the city within the Soviet zone in Germany. That meant that, only by flying supplies into the democratic parts of the city could they be maintained from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949. Given this pressure, Allied authorities thought it was best to stop the Nuremberg trials. As a result, it took years before the horrors of the death camps for Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Germans with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples were known in Germany.
In the movie, a frustrated prosecutor shows film of the Allied troops liberating the Nazi death camps, sometimes bulldozing dead human bodies, so starved they barely looked like people, into huge pits.
It’s understandable that people don’t want to recognize how soulless the German officials were (as well as many supposedly “Christian” people in Germany and Poland, Hungary, Holland and France who turned in people). It’s hard to believe people can act so evilly – easier to believe it’s all a plot to take advantage of sensitive, gullible people.
But although we are far from what Nazi Germany became, there are many signs of the same disease in Italy, where a right-
wing government has been elected, France and Germany, where voters continue to flirt with far-right parties and south of the border in the U.S. Meanwhile Russia dreams of expanding its hegemony by conquering Ukraine, and no doubt other parts of the old Soviet empire.
It makes remembering what our previous generations sacrificed more important. My father was away from home for four years. My mother raised a daughter while working in an aircraft parts factory. My sister did without her father for her formative years. We can’t afford to forget sacrifices like these this Remembrance Day.