(a slightly different version of this post appeared on my facebook page last year.)
The neighbourhood where I grew up has been a community of German immigrants since the before it was even part of Edmonton, back when the cycling path in Mill Creek Ravine was an active railway, and a local community-minded German would go meet new immigrants at the station to welcome them and show them around. Even during and after the wars, Germans would come, and the Lutheran church still offers German services.
The Canadian veterans in my life, mostly old relatives, carefully avoided talking about war. For me, the most visceral stories came from my neighbours. This should not be taken as entirely accurate, because it’s my own memory of someone else’s memory.
In about 2007 Dad and I were renovating our house, building a concrete foundation for an extension to go on top. Our house was originally built in the late forties by our neighbour Paul, who himself was a boy in Germany during the war, and the grandfather of one of my childhood friends. One day Paul came to inspect our work, as he often did, and say that he wasn’t sure it was going to work out, as he often did (when the extension was completed, he told us it looked beautiful), and he brought with him two other elderly German men. After my Dad and I introduced ourselves and described what we were doing, one of the old fellows spoke up, and he began, without any prompting at all, “people ask us why we let it happen.”
He told us the story of the day that the Nazis marched into his town, and his whole town marched out to meet them. Lines were drawn in the town square and the villagers defiantly jeered and chanted. The SS officer walked out in front of the assembled troops, staring unflinchingly at the crowd and said “Fuck Off.”
The crowd roared.
The S.S. officer turned and signaled to his men, who uncovered machine guns mounted to the backs of trucks. He stared out into the crowd again and said “Fuck Off.”
The crowd roared, but not as confidently. Small children were sent or carried home, but the villagers held the line and responded in contempt.
The S.S. officer signaled again and the machine guns boomed across the square, over the heads of the villagers.
“what would YOU do? We fucked off.”
This 70-odd year old man, probably no more than a teenager during the war, carried that story around with him every day. At no provocation, he brought himself to tears in front of strangers, for the shameful crime of being afraid of machine guns and not wanting to get shot. What would you have done? I would have fucked off.
When I think about war, I think about my neighbour, in a country that invaded his own, surrounded by immigrants from a country that his country invaded (My neighbourhood is also a historic French community, many of whom came as refugees during or after the war) and the necessity and impossibility of letting go. I think about how few people can be considered winners in a war, and how there are victims and heroes on each side. how the circumstances that lead to tragedy always seem to be intractable. I think about how you can’t blame a person for wanting to forget about war. We remember because it’s our responsibility to the many who will never have the option of forgetting.