Thoughts on sacrifice and remembrance

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I am so grateful to have no first-hand knowledge of war. Our children and grandchildren also have no first-hand knowledge of war. And so each year I faithfully attend the Remembrance Day services to remember those who sacrificed their lives for us and to say a prayer of thanks for the wonderful country we live in.

We have no war heroes in our family. I was born at the end of World War II so was not aware of food rationing or loved ones marching off. My dad enlisted but was rejected due to health problems. A favourite uncle was disappointed to be stationed in Quebec to teach young recruits basic mechanical skills before being shipped overseas. Another uncle was torpedoed but I was not aware of that bit of history until I was older and he had long since moved away from family.

Other uncles and friends served as conscientious objectors (COs) but, again, I was unaware of their employment until much later and they no longer talked about their experiences.

The Morden schools I went to had Remembrance Day services each year. Those were the years we went to school the morning of November 11 and were dismissed after the service was over, usually on time for us to go to the 11 a. m. public service at the cenotaph. My class, in our navy tunics and white blouses and dark pants and white shirts, was often chosen to recite In Flanders’s Fields by John McRae. Some years I was chosen to recite it on my own. Usually, one or two Legion members talked to us about their experiences in the war and we always sang the old hymn, Faith of our Fathers.

I was disappointed when our children viewed November 11 as just another holiday. Winkler schools did not hold Remembrance Day services during the years we lived there. If possible, we drove to Morden with our children to take part in theirs. Winkler now has a monument to honour the fallen soldiers from their area.

The last few years I taught, we were discouraged from using the poem In Flanders’s Fields.

We were asked to find stories and poems about peace and not war. The line “take up our quarrel with the foe” from In Flander’s Fields does seem to spur us on to get even with those who have wronged us.

My shelves are now full of historical-fiction and non-fiction books about the First and Second World War. I have read about the mud, the poisonous gas attacks and the thousands of unknown graves around Ypres as Germany and the allies fought for the same area of Belgium over and over again. I have read about the ‘battle of Britain’ when Britain was bombed relentlessly for months and London was bombed for 57 days in a row. I have read about the retaliation by Great Britain and the United States against German cities like Dresden and Berlin. I know about D-Day and Juno Beach and the thousands of Canadian soldiers killed before they even set foot on French soil. Everyone knows about the atomic bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I recently saw a documentary about a Japanese citizen who was in both cities when they were struck three days apart and who lived to an old age. The last few years of his life were spent talking to school children about what he had witnessed and experienced in the hopes that such a terrible weapon would never again be used against humanity.

But nothing could prepare me for the pictures I saw in a July 1966 copy of Life magazine. It featured stories and photos about the concentration camps during World War II. Photos of skeletons stacked high and living people who looked like skeletons walking around shocked our senses. I discovered the Nazis were responsible for the wholesale slaughter of people simply for being who there were. The unrelenting rounding-up of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled and others deemed undesirable had no precedent in human history. Hundreds would be shot at once and thrown in mass graves. Thousands were condemned to be worked to death in concentration camps or sent to ovens built especially for the purpose of annihilating people. Six million Jews were killed before World War II was declared over. The ordinary mind cannot grasp the enormity of such evil! Elie Wiesel lived through the camps as a young boy of fifteen. He survived and became an incredibly gifted writer who had an amazing way with words. Yet, he claimed difficulty finding the words to describe what he saw and what he witnessed in his book Night. The memories, though, never left him.

When we had an ironman from Germany staying with us for a few weeks, he told me that the German people are not interested in history because they do not want anyone to question them about their history. When I talked to a German engineer, who had become a United States citizen, he questioned why the world still held Germany in contempt when they had tried to do so much good by taking in more than their share of refugees over the years. A young student I had, whose Dad came from Germany, always corrected me if I ever said, “the Germans………” on teaching about World War II.

“The Nazis, Mrs. Dyck,” he said.

I can understand why the ordinary German, despite the fact, he or she was not even born during the war, wants to dissociate him or herself from the Nazis. A German lawyer being tried at the Neurenburg trials stated, “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased.”

But among my many books, I also have amazing stories of ordinary Germans who risked their lives and that of their families helping others. Books have been written about Corrie Ten Boom from Rotterdam, The Netherlands and Oskar Schindler from Poland and Czechoslovakia and others who exhibited great courage and bravery in saving their workers, their friends and their neighbours. And then there are others no one has ever heard about.

I only recently read about Franz Stigler in the book A Higher Call written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander. Franz was a German pilot in World War II. He was not planning to leave his job training young pilots until his adored older brother was killed during the early days of the war. Franz was credited with over 400 combat missions. He was shot down many times and wounded 4 times. He shot down 45 allied planes but that is not why he is remembered. He is remembered for accompanying a severely damaged American bomber across Germany’s fortified borders towards the channel leading to England. Charlie Brown was the pilot and he was flying his first mission.

Joe Galloway from The New York Times writes, “From the horrors of the most savage war in history emerges this beautiful story of a brotherhood between enemies.”

The book blurb that intrigued my imagination read, “December 1943: A badly damaged American bomber struggles to fly over wartime Germany. At the controls is 21 year old Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown. Half his crew lie wounded or dead on this, their first mission.

Suddenly a Messerschmitt fighter pulls up on the bomber’s tail. The pilot is German ace Franz Steigler, and he can destroy the young American crew with the squeeze of a trigger.”

What happened next would defy my imagination and later be called, “the most incredible encounter between enemies in World War II”.

The author asks the profound question, “Can good men be found on both sides of a bad war?”

With this book he provides the answer.

When he flew his required missions, Charlie returned to the United States. In 1953, after struggling for a few years in war-torn Germany, Franz immigrated to Vancouver, Canada. Both pilots married, had children and got on with their lives. They both, though, could not forget the long ago incident that haunted their dreams and surfaced at odd moments. Both pilots had never publicly talked about that event. Charlie, because his commanders thought it might lead other pilots to falsely assume they would not be shot down under similar circumstances. Franz, because he would have surely faced the firing squad. Charlie wondered why a German pilot not only spared his life but guided him to safety. Franz wondered why Charlie had not bailed out and if that severely damaged bomber and its wounded crew had returned home safely.

Through various pilot related reunions they both attended in North America and World War II magazines they subscribed to, they finally succeeded in connecting in 1989. The visual of that fateful day was still firmly entrenched in each of their minds. When Franz asked Charlie why he had not parachuted, he replied that he had a dead crew member and the others were wounded. He could not abandon them. When Charlie asked Franz why he had not shot him down, he replied,

“I didn’t have the heart to finish off you and your brave men.” He told others, “I flew beside them for a long time as they were desperately trying to get home.”

He had a commanding officer in Africa who had said, “if I ever hear of one my pilots shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot him myself.” To Franz these men in their disabled plane were like men in parachutes.

Charlie and Franz became good friends and Franz wrote in a book he gave to Charlie, “The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.” They visited as often as possible and even holidayed together until Franz died in March of 2008 and Charlie died in November of 2008.

Stories such as these restore my faith in humanity. I want to believe along with Anne Frank who writes in her diary, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.”

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