I have this very vivid memory. I’m seven. I’m sitting cross-legged on the gym floor of my elementary school. It’s Remembrance Day and we started our assembly that day a little early. I was in the choir and a little nervous about getting up to sing “Imagine” after the moment of silence and I’m not really sure what the rest of the assembly is about. But then, this small, elderly lady who had been sitting off to the side of the gym stepped up to the podium and changed my world view.
She was a holocaust survivor. And she told us her story.
As a child who had lived a pretty sheltered life, my empathy up until that time had only been extended to playground scuffles and donating toys to kids who weren’t as fortunate as me. I lived in a pretty happy little bubble (as most kids do), and this sweet little old lady shattered it.
What I didn’t know at the time was how much impact that would have on my life. The opportunity to have personal and real connections with people who lived through, fought in and were victims of two major World Wars gave me perspective that you cannot gain through reading a textbook.
It made it real. It made it painful. It made it personal.
World War I ended 97 years ago. World War II ended 70 years ago. This means that the brave men and women who served our country and were fortunate enough to return home to live out their lives have either passed on or are very elderly. For perspective, a soldier that was 18 years old when Canada joined WWII in 1939 would be 76 years old today.
I have had the chance to sit and listen to veterans from both World Wars speak about their experiences. I have watched them sit silently with tears in their eyes at Nov. 11 ceremonies in many different arenas. I have heard them decline the term when someone called them a hero. I have heard the stories of how my husband’s grandmother would get under her desk when the air raid sirens would sound in London when she was a schoolgirl and felt the air go thick when someone would ask his grandparents, who lived in the Netherlands at the time, about life in wartime and be met with pained silence. I have heard the stories of many survivors of concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. I have let a Veteran pin a poppy to my lapel and explain the significance of it to me. I have heard firsthand stories from people my age about life as a soldier on a tour of duty, including one whose military career was ended when he hit a landmine and nearly lost his leg.
I don’t just believe Remembrance Day is important because I’ve been told it is. I KNOW it is important because I have seen, felt and experienced its impact firsthand.
And I fear the impact that the loss of this personal connection to the people who fought their way through these wars (whether as a soldier, a prisoner, a medical officer, a communications operator, a family member left behind, a family caught in the war zone or anyone else who didn’t live it from a distance) will have on future generations. The impact that this will have on my own children.
I don’t want these monumental and horrifying events in history to be just another line in a textbook for them. I want to know that they have had the chance to feel the weight of the words as a veteran honors his fallen brothers and I want them to have their world view expanded in an earth-shattering way like mine was when I was not so much older than they are now. I want them to be truly grateful for the privileged lifestyle they live, with an understanding of just how much it cost.
You can’t get that from a book.
This is why I take them to the Remembrance Day ceremonies. I don’t care that they’re still “so young” or that I might have to hold my hand over their mouth to keep them quiet for the moment of silence that we honor all those who fought and died for us.
Kids are incredibly empathetic. They get it. Have you ever noticed how when you have a bad day, they get extra cuddly or loose with the I-love-yous? Or when you’re really happy and excited about something, they’re suddenly bouncing off the wall and giggling with glee?
So, they’re young. Okay, they might not understand what we’re saying or what this all means. But they are still there, like little sponges. They are soaking up the atmosphere and the emotion surrounding this day. They are learning about respect through the strength of the respect we are showing to our Veterans. They are learning that this day is important, not because I am telling them it is but because they are feeling that it is.
And with any luck, they will get the chance to sit and talk with a Veteran of the World Wars in their childhood or listen to the story of a holocaust survivor.
But if they don’t, it will be up to us to keep the incredible acts and lives of these people alive for our future generations so they don’t get lost. It will be up to us to impart the importance, respect and gratitude that is deserved. Because if we forget, history has a way of repeating itself.
I know this column is a day late, but I hope you all took in the ceremonies yesterday at the legion. And if you didn’t, I hope you will consider paying your respects next year with your kids standing right next to you- snow or not.
For now, though, all I can say is this…
Thank-you to all those who have served our country- past, present and future. You’ve done us all a great service, and we are forever grateful for that.
Lest we forget.
Brianne Zwambag is a full-time boo-boo healer, snack artist, janitor, referee, master storyteller and child stylist in Fort St. John, B.C. who sometimes gets a chance to sit down and write about life, mommyhood and the issues that surround it.