Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Lest we forget"

"It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering..." 

By chance, I met a Holocaust survivor
I met a Holocaust survivor on a warm August day in Chamonix, France as we were doing the tourist thing, wandering about in the shadow of Mont Blanc, and searching for a place to eat.

We finally decided upon a bustling café that had a large outdoor terrace. As my mother took her seat amongst the cramped tables, she accidentally knocked her fork onto the ground A soft-spoken older gentleman at the table beside us reached down to pick it up, politely suggesting that she might like to ask the server for a clean one.  A conversation ensued. 

We learned that the man lived in Paris, and was visiting Chamonix with his grandson, who had taken the gondola up one of the mountains.  As the conversation progressed, we learned that the man was Polish. Two years before the end of World War II, the Nazis had imprisoned him in a concentration camp. He was fourteen years old at the time. Of the twenty-nine members of his family sent to the death camp, only he and his father survived.  He mentioned this horrific period of his life in passing.  Seventy years later, the power of the memory caused his eyes to fill with tears, and he fell silent, lost for a moment in the past.

"Jewish families with bundles of belongings during deportation from the Kovno ghetto to Riga in neighboring Latvia. Kovno, Lithuania, 1942."
Photo Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Some memories never heal
When I think about this gentle man, wearing a long sleeved shirt on a warm August day, perhaps to conceal a number tattooed into his flesh, my mind wanders to the past, to a dark period in human history that I had previously encountered only in books and film. Then, with a jolt, my mind returns to the present, and I think of the son of a friend, who served as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and did duty in Afghanistan, and whose experiences in those places have changed him and his family forever.

I think of the gentle souls, for whom some memories will never heal, and I wonder at the words “lest we forget”, that, here in Canada, we associate with red poppies and the act of remembrance.  For, as my chance encounter with the man at Chamonix illustrates, war is impossible to forget for those who live through it. It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering and the importance of passing down those stories that can orient our hearts towards peace.

“Lest we forget” makes me think of an old veteran that I once saw interviewed around Remembrance Day. For the first time in his life, he spoke about his wartime experience. He broke down on national television as he expressed his feelings of guilt for having survived when most of his comrades had died.  He must have spent a lifetime trying to forget; and although he had tried to block the experience, it hovered over his life threatening to destroy the normalcy he feigned.

There was a time when society expected this old veteran, like so many others, to block the bad memories, when being a man meant ignoring the trauma and getting on with life. Today, we recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, and we are learning that unhealed memoires can reoccur at the most unexpected times and at the slightest provocation – a sight, a sound, a smell, or even a chance encounter with strangers at a café.

The broad strokes of man's inhumanity to man are layered with detail
On Remembrance Day, I will stand with others at the cenotaph, not because there is any danger of forgetting, but because it is important to remember. The broad strokes of man's inhumanity to man are layered with detail. As I stand in silence remembering, I will see, on the canvas of war, a gentle man who bent down to pick up a fork, and touched our hearts that day in Chamonix.  

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