Heather Conn Blogs

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Never again: the message of Remembrance Day

“You must be the change you want to see in the world”: Mahatma Gandhi

November 11, 2009

This morning, I attended the Remembrance Day ceremonies at my local Royal Canadian Legion, branch 219, in Roberts Creek, BC. The Legion’s 40-year-old president, Rob Marion, shared a touching tale of how the impact of war first affected him. At age 12, he had his first full-time job mowing the lawn at the local cemetery in Thunder Bay, Ont. For the first time, he was assigned to work in the section with Second World War graves. He said it astounded him to see about eight acres of identical white crosses, row after row, stretching before him. On a visceral level, this showed him how many thousands of lives, just from this one area, had been lost. It made me think of the lines from the poem In Flanders Fields: “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow/between the crosses row on row/ . . .”

 

During his talk, Rob said that when he spoke to any veterans of the First and Second World Wars, their common message was: Never again. They did not want to have the horrors of the battlefield repeated anywhere in the world. And yet Canada still fights in Afghanistan . . .

 

The night before, I had watched the excellent documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, made in 2000 through the National Holocaust Museum and narrated by Judi Dench. It’s about the massive kindertransport program, which sent about 300,000 Jewish child refugees from Europe into Great Britain in 1938-39. They ended up in homes all across England, most siblings separated from each other, living in different parts of the country. They could barely speak English, felt homesick, and worried about the safety of their parents back home.

 

The interviews with adults who had been child refugees, now in their seventies, were poignant and heart-wrenching. One man described how, at about age seven, he had knocked on the doors of  many British estates, hoping that he could find a wealthy family who would agree to bring his parents over and give them a work permit. After countless refusals, he ended up at the home of Baron Rothschild, who without hesitation, wrote out a form to create a work permit. Unfortunately, the Second World War broke out soon after and all such immigration plans ended.

 

One ship full of refugee children left England destined for Canada but was torpedoed by the Germans. It didn’t sink and continued southwards to Australia. (I can’t remember its name.) What the documentary didn’t say was that then-Canadian-prime-minister William Lyon Mackenzie King refused to accept that ship load of Jewish children because of prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes.  What a disgraceful historic record for Canada. (You can find out more about this record in the book None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948 by Irving Abella and Harold Troper.)

 

Once the war had ended, many of these children returned to Europe, hoping to reunite with their parents, only to learn that they had died in death camps like Auschwitz. This made their photos and letters shared in the film all the more powerful and evocative.

 

I highly recommend Into the Arms of Strangers for anyone who wants to see the human impact of war and hatred. Ironically, one of the British foster parents mentioned in the documentary hated red hair. The Jewish child staying with him lobbied to have him bring over her sister from Europe. When he asked her what color of hair her sister had, she lied and said: “Like mine.” In fact, the sister was a redhead. Once she arrived in England, he was apparently livid at the deception, but subsequently agreed to “keep” her. As a redhead myself, I found this detail horrifying.

November 11, 2009 at 1:32 pm Comment (1)