This column appeared as an Opinion Editorial in The Orangeville Citizen on October 29, 2015. All opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.
Remembrance Day 2015 is fast approaching, and Canadians across the country will soon begin to don their bright red poppies in remembrance of those who died fighting for our freedom. Unfortunately, it seems that the further in the past the wars drift, the fewer people, particularly youth, understand the significance of this symbolic gesture.
Falling away from understanding isn’t a new thing. I can recall as young as Grade 5, classmates saying the wars had nothing to do with us, and wondering why we were expected to attend a ceremony and have silence for people we never knew.
Very few of us had living grandparents or great-grandparents that had been in the wars, and even fewer knew the stories of the horrors they faced. I was often silent about my knowledge; my (biological) mother’s family immigrated from Germany’s post-World War II state of devastation, and at that age, many kids seemed unable to differentiate German people from the Nazis.
For years, my Oma used to mail us stories of our family’s history. As I grew up, I began to ask more questions about the war, and my family’s role. My Uropa (great-grandfather) fought in World War II for Germany, but he did not support the Nazis. He wasn’t given a very easy choice however. His story resonates with many other German families at the time; when the Nazis showed up to recruit, his family was held at gunpoint. If he chose not to fight, his family would die before his eyes.
My Oma can recall the bombing of Hamburg, when the allies claimed they were bombing a military camp, but had found out before giving the order that it was a civilian city.
But the stories of the war I heard also included tales of kindness. My Opa, originally from Poland, would have ended up on a train to a concentration camp if it weren’t for an old neighbour fighting as a Nazi who discovered them and snuck them onto the other train.
I still have somewhere, wrapped up like a treasure, a story my Oma sent me of Uropa in a Prisoner of War camp at Christmastime. For a brief few hours, they were not Nazis and Allies, they were all men, away from their loved ones at Christmas, fighting for a cause that wasn’t necessarily their own. They played soccer together, and ate, and for a brief moment, were once again human beings instead of villainous enemies.
I’ve always believed it’s important to remember for many reasons. It’s important to remember because men and women lost their lives so that we could be free today. So that we could live as different cultures, races and peoples in a world that is home to us all.
It’s important to remember, because many, many people died for a cause that wasn’t theirs, because of an evil that was allowed to slowly grow his power and control.
And it’s important to remember, because when we don’t, we risk going through it all again. We risk allowing ourselves to forget that people on either side of the war are human beings who are fighting for their lives and the lives of their families. We dehumanize the ‘enemy’ to make killing them easier, and we forget that all sides are guilty of horrors.
It’s important to remember, because our hands were not clean in all of it. We, too, had internment camps for Jewish refugees, Germans and Japanese. We treated fellow Canadians, some who had immigrated many, many years before the war as hidden enemies. We bombed civilian cities and committed atrocities as well. When we forget that, when we forget that we were once capable of doing the very things that we were fighting against, we open the door
for ourselves, as a country, to walk down that path again.
But most importantly, we must remember because men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, gave up their lives, their hopes and their dreams to ensure that their families, their loved ones, and the future generations would have a future to come home to. They left what they knew, so that we could have everything they wouldn’t. They gave up their freedom so that we could have ours.
As fewer veterans from these wars remain, they run a higher risk of fading into the forgotten as apathy fades ahead of them. Remind your children, your students and your youth who these men and women are and the importance of what they fought for. Remind them that wearing a poppy and attending a ceremony isn’t a chore, it’s a privilege we would not have were it not for these men and women.
This Remembrance Day, remind those who do not know that the poppy is a sign of remembrance, and a symbol of support for the men and women who continue to put their lives on the line for our country today.