In 1969 my family went to live in England for a year. It was quite the adventure. We rented a house. Dad worked on his thesis and my brother and sister and I donned school uniforms for the first time.
Of course we travelled a lot. Many weekends and summer holidays we did the touristy things. We also visited war memorials. We visited Flanders Fields and recited the poem. My sister and I picked poppies that grew in a field across from the cemetery and we laid them on the white crosses marking the spot where men gave up their lives so we could be free.
We read “Unknown Soldier” over and over and over on the gravestones. I’ll never forget looking in each direction and seeing so many crosses, each representing a dead soldier. I asked my mother, “Are these all the people that died in the war?” To my mind there were just so many graves. “No,” she said, “Many, many more people than this died in the war.” It broke my heart and I remember crying as my sister and I laid our poppies on their gravestones.
We travelled Europe for three months, living in a small caravan and staying in camp sites. We did all the must see and historic sites and of course everywhere were reminders of the war. I recall climbing inside thick cement foxholes that dotted the coastline of France and touring museum after museum.
At night we’d sit in our caravan around our table and by the light of a small candle Dad told stories. We also read Anne Frank’s book. By the time we visited her hiding place we had talked about her so much it felt like we knew her. I remember the bookcase covering the entrance to her hiding place and the stairs going upward.
In Dachau Germany we saw a prison camp. Mom and Dad had told us about the Nazis and we heard about the horrors of the camps. We knew that men, women and children were horribly treated and murdered. Mom told me about the gas showers and the ovens. I remember being especially horrified about the ovens.
There’s a big difference between seeing and hearing. (I can’t imagine what it was like to actually have lived through it). The Nazis had photographed everything they did. I’ll never forget touring a room that was just filled with photos. People whose bodies were so emancipated they looked like walking corpses; women who had the tops of their skulls cut off or their pregnant abdomens cut open by so-called doctors as they experimented on their helpless human guinea pigs. And the pits, dug deep and wide and at the bottom body after body after body after body. Horror washed over me, but not at what I was seeing, but at the realization that this inhumanity had been carried out by people—by humans--one human to another. I was forever changed that afternoon as I learned the depths of cruelty that humans were capable of.
I think I was traumatized that day. Despite that, I wouldn’t take that shock filled day back for anything. If I carry one small scar for having seen the photographs, the ovens and the gas chambers then so be it. I can live with it. Since that time I’ve been filled with the tragic knowledge that man was not the great being I thought he was.
We returned to tour England again in 1972, and renewed our friendships and saw more of it's history.
No, I will never forget. I hold all those soldiers and citizens, those that died and those that survived, in very high regard. When I see films like Schindler’s List, Paperclip, Shake Hands with the Devil and so on, I applaud these works. New generations need to see, need to know about genocide and holocausts. We must never forget. We must not let it happen again.
A few years back I saw an old man who lived on the streets. I would see him fairly frequently. He walked stooped and used two canes. He wasn’t alright in his mind but I’ll never forget the day I saw him go up to a man in a coffee shop that was wearing camouflage clothing and a beret. The old man saw him and came to life, talking, smiling and nodding. I realized then that he was probably a veteran. I was wondering about what happened to him, why he lived on the streets and was a little bit crazy in the head. Then I heard that inner voice say, “In the war …. he gave everything he had.”