Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Day Of Remembrance: Lest We Forget

“None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free”
- Pearl S. Buck -

I am fortunate enough to have spent my entire life in a peaceful, free society. I have never experienced war personally. I have never witnessed it with my own eyes. I’ve never had to worry about surviving another day, about whether my father would be whisked away in the middle of the night by ‘the enemy’. Of bombs landing in my city and killing someone I love. Of having my home invaded by enemy soldiers. Of losing my freedom, my home, my life. I have, thankfully, lived a happy, secure life that I try to remind myself each day to never take for granted.

My parents, on the other hand, experienced quite a different world in their early years; they lived in the midst of World War II, a war that engaged the majority of the world’s nations, including the most powerful of them. Approximately 60 million people perished during those years, 40 million of which were civilians that mostly died from diseases, starvation, massacres, bombings and genocide. Although both my mother and father spent most of their adult years in the safety of Canada, having arrived here in the late 50s from Greece as young adults, some of their earliest memories were built in a war-torn, economically and emotionally bankrupt country that was ravaged by a world war and a subsequent civil war.

My father was 11 years old when the Italian army invaded Greece on the 28th day of October in 1940, which forced the country to enter World War II. My mother was only 5. Despite having a much smaller (but obviously determined) army, Greece defeated Mussolini’s forces and drove the invading army back into Albania where it originated from. However, despite the courage and tenacity of the Greek army, it did not spare the country from being occupied, because in April of 1941, Hitler sent some of his own troops to join forces with Italy and overcome Greece. These two armies were joined by the Bulgarian army, a brutal occupier whose policy was that of extermination or expulsion. They tried to forcibly Bulgarize as many Greeks as possible; the ones they did not succeed with were either expelled or killed.


Photo downloaded from Wikipedia (Released to the public domain)

Until its liberation in October 1944, the country was devastated by the war, its economy and infrastructure ruined; its people hungry and disillusioned. More than 300,000 Greeks lost their lives during this period, and the country’s long-established Jewish population had been almost completely wiped out. In addition to all that, as soon as World War II ended, a civil war broke out in Greece, which would last until 1949 and leave the country in shambles. It took years for Greece to rebuild itself but in the meantime there were no jobs. There was no food. There was no hope. There was no future. So, in December of 1957, my mother boarded a ship with two of her sisters, leaving behind four other siblings, their parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, townsfolk and all their childhood friends, and headed for Canada. For a better life. They were, she said, filled with fear as they headed for the unknown. But they were also filled with hope for the future.

In my younger years, despite having learned about World War II in school, I failed to associate my parent’s childhood years with that period. Having been born – and having lived my entire life - in Canada, as far as I was concerned our lives had always been here, including my parents. It was only when I became a young adult that I took a sincere interest in hearing about their experiences in what they always referred to as the most difficult years of their lives.

I began to ask questions, encouraging them to share some of their memories during World War II. They told me about the sounds of gunfire they heard from soldiers battling nearby. They told me about Italian, German and Bulgarian soldiers walking through towns, searching for the local men who would run off to hide in the fields after a designated lookout standing on top of a tower sounded a bell to warn of incoming ‘enemy’ soldiers. My mother recalled her own father disappearing into the forest as German troops approached to avoid being picked up by them and face God knew what fate. She spoke about the young German soldier that stopped to give her candy as he marched by her home one day; perhaps the sight of her playing brought to mind a daughter of his own back home. My father told me of the time he ran like the wind down some mountain trails, desperate to get away from the gunfire nearby that he was certain was closing in on him. He remembered having to share a small plate of food with a sibling, and eating as quickly as possible to get his fair share. There was never enough food on these shared plates and fights broke out between siblings if one of them ate faster than the other; one of his brothers, he said, got stabbed by a fork for eating too fast. He talked about the constant hunger, the perpetual despair, the young men in his town that fought in the war and never returned, the women who lost their husbands, the children that lost their parents and the diseases that claimed lives. It was, they both said, a terrible time.

But of all the stories I’d ever been told, nothing has touched my soul (or rocked my world) like the one my mother recounted of her cousin’s experience in a neighbouring small town. Members of a communist movement raided this cousin’s community, slaughtering every resident, including women, children and the elderly. The bodies were callously tossed into the well, one of them being my mother’s cousin, who miraculously survived the massacre. When he was sure the ‘butchers’ had left, my mother’s cousin used the bodies as a ladder, climbing over friends, family members and townsfolk to get to the top of the well. Needless to say that this young man was never the same after this experience.

Listening to the elderly, especially those who have lived through and witnessed World War II, share such remarkable stories, is an amazing experience. I’ve had my fair share of such opportunities because most of the adults that I knew as a child came from different areas of Europe after the war, all with fascinating and distressing memories. A woman I worked with years ago, whose parents had immigrated from Poland, told me about her father having to dig a grave while being held at gunpoint by German soldiers that ordered him to prepare his grave because ‘today, you die’, only to be told after he finished that they were joking. He experienced this horror twice, something he never recovered from psychologically.

As unfortunate as it may be wars - with all their atrocities and with all the grief that they cause - have been a part of this world as long as man has existed. And as much as I hate to say it, they will almost certainly be a part of this world for a long time to come. During these periods, there have always been brave individuals who have joined forces to put an end to these conflicts, to stop the spread of evil, to liberate occupied countries, to help the weak, to fight for freedom. Brave individuals that have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, their lives and their futures so that people like me, and my children, and my children’s children, can live in peace.

Today is remembrance day, a day to commemorate the men and women who have made, and continue to make, these sacrifices on behalf of all of us.

To all these courageous people I say:
“Thank you. I am living the life I have today because of you”


Photo from SXC

4 comments:

  1. Martha, thank you for this excellent post---it moved me to tears. I think it's hard for those of us who have never directly experienced the horrors of war to imagine what it's like. Reading this not only moved me, but made me all the more appreciative of the blessings and freedoms I enjoy---thanks to those who have made sacrifices on my behalf. I am so grateful for that. And I'm grateful that you shared your parents' experiences with us---they were very brave to leave their loved ones behind in their quest for a better life. Amazing, too, that the difficulties and horrors they experienced in their early lives didn't make them bitter--that is a miracle.

    Thanks again for this heartfelt and touching post.

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  2. Excellent post - my family too has some horror stories of war, and to my grandmother there's still nothing scarier than a 'German'. Some of the effects never fade either, to this day she's incapable of throwing out food, any food, and carefully cuts away blemished potatoes and apples trying to save as much as possible - a habit internalized when food was so precious. My grandfather was a very young man when he went to fight, perhaps nineteen or so, and the Russian military was so underprepared and fought so hard to stop the advance of the army, he told stories of scraping mangled human bodies off the tanks so they could keep rolling forward. He came back and drank heavily all his life. That's one of the largest casualties of war that people often don't realize - they're mainly fought by little more than children. What is sad is that I completely agree with you - wars are not finished for mankind, and the lessons of one generation are too soon forgotten by the next.
    Thanks for a great post and sharing your story.

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  3. A very moving post. Your story is well-told.

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  4. Hi Beth, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. It is very hard for most people who have never experienced war to imagine what it’s like. Listening to my parents talk about those days is both fascinating and horrifying. It’s also at times surreal. It astonishes me that people so close to me could have experienced things I watch in movies.

    Most of the people I grew up with were far from being bitter. Making a new life, having enough to eat, having a future to look forward to helped them to forget the difficult times they experienced in their earlier years. Both my parents were two of the simplest, happiest people I knew. I never heard them complain about anything.

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    Tatiana, isn’t it fascinating listening to these stories, although certainly horrifying as well? My mother also doesn’t throw food away easily; most of the time she finds uses for leftovers, and whatever she can feed to the birds instead of tossing out, she does. There were too many young people in the Second World War, around your grandfather’s age at the time; many lost their lives, others lost their souls. I don’t think you can experience such an ugly side of humanity and not be damaged by it.

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    Mary Delle, thank you. As I get older, I find myself wanting to hear more and more stories from the elderly, most of which have the most amazing histories.

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