Like most children growing up in Canada during the 1950s and 60s, I knew a lot about WWII history; it hadn’t been long since “the war” ended, and many families had lost uncles and fathers. As teenagers we became aware that war, disease and famine made life hell-on-earth in many parts of the world; in Vietnam and other south-east Asian countries, in much of Africa and on the Indian continent. But most of the time, we felt secure and safe from armed conflict; in Canada we had no compulsory military service, no draft. We had inner controversies that had not yet come fully into the light, but our country was not at war with any other.
I lived and worked in Peru during the early 1970s, and there, I could not deny the poverty and need I saw all around me. When I moved to Merida, I knew guerrilla combat raged in Guatemala and other Central American countries, not so far away from us. Yet, despite this exposure and peripheral experience, I never suffered hardship, and I suppose this is why I did not fully recognise the “red lights” – the clear signs – that significant changes were taking place in the world.
For my 50th birthday in 2003, my sister and I traveled to the Netherlands, and there I met my 90 year old Aunt Gisele. An accomplished artist herself, she told stories about Paris during the period when she – and Picasso, Utrillo and Matisse – were living there. She actually showed me a photo of herself and “Henri.” Everything about her was sprite-like. Even her walk. She didn’t shuffle along like most older women, she tip-toed like a ballet dancer. However, her eyes turned from forget-me-not blue to brooding navy once she started sharing her stories about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII. In the living room of her XVII century home she made me understand the magnitude of Hitler’s iron-hand control over Europe. She told me about the group of Jewish friends she protected throughout the occupation of her city. She showed me where she built false walls, and opened a cavity in a player piano – so they could hide during raids – she told me about what she endured to feed them. And she told me about meeting my father.
In 1939, when he enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, he was underage; just 19 years old, but the Canadian army recruiter did not ask many questions. When Dad was deployed, his Dutch-born father gave him the contacts for his relatives still living there. He hung on to those addresses during his six years of combat. He was not quite 25 years old when he visited Gisele after the liberation of Amsterdam; I’d heard Dad’s version of the story.
“My buddy and I ‘liberated’ supplies from our unit’s kitchen; what else could we do? No one in her apartment weighed more than 80 pounds; they were starving and had nothing at all to eat.” She claimed that the food and other staples he brought saved her life and the lives of everyone in her household. Aunt Gisele’s stories deeply moved me; in fact her example inspired me to write a family memoir, CIRCLES, which was published in 2015, and presented here, in Merida on Remembrance Day of that year. I wanted the future generations of my family to know about her. In truth, her wartime role was immortalized in 2014 by a best-selling Dutch novelist; and another well-known author has researched and published an extensive biography telling about her accomplishments, as well as her foibles. Several catalogues of her art are in print – my slim volume is by no means the definitive book written about her – but CIRCLES is special to me.
Researching and writing about my aunt forced me to look deeper than what lies on the surace. One day I asked Gisele how it had been possible for the Nazis to amass so much power. I could not understand how they managed to spread such evil across much of the world. “It was easy for them,” she said. “They preyed on people’s fear. And “good” people looked away. They didn’t want to get involved; they declined to speak against Hitler because they worried his goons would come after them, which of course did eventually happen.”
I am writing about this today because recently, several people have told me they are tired of talking about the state of our world; they don’t want to read about it or see it on the news. “I have no say; so I am better off to stay away from it all,” said one of them. And to be honest, I agree that the news these days is overwhelming.
But I applaud my friends on Facebook (John, Sean, Patricia and others) who say what they feel about the very worrying state of worldwide politics and policies. And in some of the blogs I follow, people like Richard share their research into controversial issues. “Beating a dead horse,” is the horrible cliché that one person used to describe the actions of those who speak out. I know it is frightening to look closely at what is going on. It seems like a stretch to imagine that history could be repeating itself to this degree. But think about the rise of intolerance, xenophobia, thugs in the streets, and no-holds-barred materialism – many of the same “signs”, present in pre-war Germany, are flashing bright-red warnings now – and we do have our own 21st Century bully, don’t we?
Remembrance Day is on November 11th, and I for one will take time to give thanks for the many freedoms I could easily lose. My friends who tell it like they see it don’t like standing up on a soap box – no one does – but they do so often and with determination. Some say only alarmists think a worldwide conflict could ever happen again. Maybe we need to think again?Shouldn’t each of us try to be aware of what the ill-intentioned voices are saying, and resist complacency?