Archive for the 'war' Category


1918 – 2011

I remember the first time I said a full sentence to her in the language she could understand.

Ich lade Euch herzlich ein, inviting my mother-in-law and wife to lunch, rolling my tongue seven times in my mouth to make sure I got it right the first time.

It was summer, 1997 and we’d just moved to Germany, still waiting for the shipping container to pass the Suez Canal.

Oma went on a lot of our trips back then.  She’d take care of the little red-haired girl while we went off to the sand dunes, or cook up for breakfast when we were still flaked out from overnight duty.

She had a long life.

Born when the First World War was still in its dying months, she became a young wife in the middle of the next, marrying a soldier on home from leave who left for the Russian campaign a week later.

Pushed out of her home in the East by the threat of advancing Russian forces, she carried her first daughter in the middle of winter over streams and borders to arrive in the west and give birth in the dying days of World War II nine months later.

Her soldier husband had no idea of her ordeal, nor did she of what had happened to him.  Nursing a baby girl to her first steps unable to know whether her love still saw the sunrise, flung between the limits of hope and despair without a word one way or another.

Until one day nearly a year-and-a-half later she opened an envelope from the Red Cross, knowing it was either from or about him, afraid to discover what was inside before reading in scratchy script:

My dear wife and daughter,

I now have the great pleasure to give you a sign of life.  I can tell you that I am doing well and am still healthy, and hope you are too.  I wish you all the best and send my most heartfelt greetings.  Yours ever,

It took still another year and a half for him to finally return from a prisoner of war camp on the Caspian Sea near Baku, in present-day Azerbaijan.  She said he’d become a brute in his years of fighting and imprisonment, couldn’t remember at first how to conduct himself in company or at table.

If, from then on, she led a quiet life in the countryside as a wife and mother, it must have been to make up for the way it began.

Her second daughter, my wife, came along a few years later.  At the time they were living with two other families in a house you’d swear wouldn’t fit a childless couple.  But her husband was a carpenter and builder, and they moved 51 years ago into the new house she lived until suffering a stroke and, two days later, passing away the day before Christmas.

Still on my way by train, I was told to take a taxi at the station and go straight to the hospital because there was no time for them to leave her bedside.

Arriving at the hospital I walked up the stairs to the first floor and opened the door to room 201.  She lay peacefully, a red rose placed below her folded hands.  The whole family was there.   I said little, but did what I could to console them one by one.

In this way it was a Christmas like no other for us.  The funeral was held on my wife’s birthday, Christmas dinner – for the first time, just the three of us – on New Year’s Eve.

It’s a time for looking back and looking ahead.

I was chatting the other day with an old friend from Montreal.  She said we’re all at that age when our parents are getting old and dying.

She said: I don’t want to get old.

Nor do I, I said.  But I don’t much like the alternative, either.


One day I’ll see inside the Yorkshire Air Museum

My whole reason for being in York one year ago was to go to the Yorkshire Air Museum to see the Canadian section and look up any information in their archives about my uncle Vince.  

But as I walked back to the hotel after a glorious first afternoon out in the snow, I started to realise that after waiting a decade or so to even make the trip and travelling half the length of the country just to get there, I was probably going to make it to the front door, but no further.  It wasn’t exactly high tourist season already – part of the reason I’d chosen to go in winter in the first place – but with the city looking much like an ol’ Mother Hubbard gingerbread house, I called the museum to make sure they were open.

I got an answering machine and the usual message about opening and closing times, but nothing more.

Not good.

What the hell, I thought, might as well give it a try and if nothing else at least I’ve seen the place.  So the next morning I headed back over a bridge into town for the stop for the half-hour bus ride out to the museum’s airport hangars.

The bus driver was pretty clear about what he thought of my idea of going to the museum.

“Yoo’ be’er looook i’ u’ I do’ owt ump rfhu toda'” he said, pointing to the sky.

“Yeah, you’re right about that,” I said.  “But I have to go out there to see it anyway.”

Seeing as how the bus route had been changed on account of the snow, the bus driver didn’t charge me for the trip out, which I found quite friendly.  He and I – there was nobody else – quickly passed through the outskirts of York to arrive at the corner where he’d drop me off.  Normally I’d have taken another bus directly to the museum, but it wasn’t running.  Did I need any other clues the museum would be closed?

Since the sidewalk was covered in snowbank, I walked about a mile and a half at the side of the road to finally arrive at the museum entrance.   Deserted.  Already I could see planes – a massive bomber covered in snow was pretty hard to miss – but there wasn’t a soul around.

Placing my boots in a couple of tire tracks I crunched through the empty parking lot and  looked around to find a few planes, a hangar or two, and acres and acres of white.

But around a corner and across a small field I came across what must be the Canadian section.   The plane with two maple leaf flags is probably a Canadian-built Avro, but if you know it’s not, please tell me.  Of course I couldn’t go inside the building, so was left to contemplate from a respectful distance the course of history and my family’s small part in it.

Near the plane is a modest plaque of the Canadian Memorial Hangar:

Per ardua ad astra – Through struggle to the stars: the motto of the Royal Air Force but also others including the RCAF.

Despite the blinding morning sun I was by now freezing cold, so turning in my tracks I headed back for the trudge along the road whence I came to catch the bus back to York, telling myself I’d be back one day.


Frozen out in York: how I never made it all the way

Some of my posts take ages to get published.  This is the first of a series of four of them, about a trip during a massive snowstorm one year ago this week that I took to York, England.

All I wanted to to was get to the Yorkshire Air Museum to muse over a piece of family history.

On the night of March 30-31, 1944, during the Nuremburg bombing raid, the Halifax bomber in which my uncle Vince was flying was shot down 7km north of Frankfurt, Germany.  He managed to bail out, but was captured along with three others of his crew and confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  After he was liberated he made it back to Canada, started a family and lived his life.  Despite the amazing nature of his ordeal, uncle Vince told us all very, very little about what happened during his war years.  There were whispers to us when visiting that asking him wasn’t what he’d want, that he didn’t like to talk about it.

So the family legends out of what might have happened to him only grew.  They were ALL wildly off the mark, but they remained stuck in my mind, and it was precisely this shroud over the facts that instilled a fascination for my uncle Vince.  He was the only one of the three boys on my father’s side to go to war.  My father – the eldest – was excused on medical grounds, while the youngest of the three was in still in air force training in Canada when the war ended.

A few years ago my uncle Vince’s widow was asked to attend a ceremony at a flight museum  in York, England commemorating the Canadian airmen who served in the war.  I’d always wanted to go to see how my uncle is mentioned there, and to marvel at the reconstructed Halifax bomber family legend says holds pieces of the plane he’d been shot down in.

But I never seemed to find the right time to go to York until one week at the beginning of December last year.

You might remember that week one year ago now.  A fistful of winter.  It’s not that it snowed that much, but this is England, remember.  The British bureaucrats in colonial times made sure that railway station roofs in subtropical Malaysia were built to withstand the weight of three feet of wet snow, but as soon as a few flakes start to build up on the railway tracks back home even today, the whole country’s system screeches to a halt.

No, wait.  First they make sure to get you on the train and half-way to your destination, and then they shut it down.

So it was on my way to York after having hopped to London from Hamburg to stay with a friend for a couple of days.   Things didn’t look bad pulling out of the station on time, and once we left the bleak wastelands of London’s sprawl the trip north through the blankets of snow was an endlessly changing panorama of slow-laden trees and hedgerows stitching together the rolling hills.

But after a few delays and false starts, the train came to a full stop about an hour short of York.  Before they finally announced that we couldn’t proceed owing to snow blocking a level-crossing gate, I’d imagined the worst.  On a lot of lines in England, if there’s any build-up of snow on the tracks the contact between the “third rail” – the one with all the juice running the train – and the train itself gets clogged up with ice, and it all just stops, and they have to close the line until it can be cleared.  This can take hours or even days if the weather doesn’t change.

Tomorrow: visiting the Air Museum.  Or not.


To the holocaust deniers: come to Buchenwald

It was perhaps fitting that we should come upon Buchenwald through damp drizzle and fog, the autumn cold another burden on the stark emptiness of the place.

Buchenwald concentration camp gate

We’d been in nearby Weimar a week already, but until then had somehow found excuses not to go.  Now we were there, hesitating still, the half-open entrance gate with its cynical message, “to each his own” staring at us, if not inviting us in.

Nothing here invites you in.

An empty sweep of concrete foundations, each with a lone, low marker, some draped in flowers, are most of what is left.  That and the main museum, where the stories of who lived and died there, the perpetrators and the victims, are told in words and silent remnants, some in minute detail.

Thousands of buttons unearthed from a dump are displayed in a long, low case along with combs, dental retainers, shaving brushes – the wood rotting, the remnant brush a mere stubble.

Cold, hard metal cases enclose photos of men and women in prisoners’ garb, frontal and profile: mute, dead.

An empty cart used to carry bodies to the crematorium lies open and gaping.

Though Buchenwald was more a forced labour camp for the production of munitions and not designated a death camp, death lingers here like foul mist.

Buchenwald concentration camp cart post

Sifting through the displays and wandering among the desolation, I kept recalling the words of Barack Obama as he stood in Buchenwald this past spring:

“To this day there are those who insist the Holocaust never happened.  This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.”

I’m glad we went to Buchenwald, because I also learned something you don’t usually associate with the place.

The Soviets used the camp for five years after the war as a kind of ready-made prison of their own, warehousing former Nazis but also those who opposed the new repressive regime that was slowly overtaking the old.  Buchenwald was one of 10 camps the Soviets operated in that way.  I didn’t know any of that story before coming here.

It was only upon realisation that the existence of the camps would have seriously imperiled the new East German government’s image that they were dismantled.  The East Germans prefered to hush up talk of those years, but since German reunification that story, like thousands of others, is now being told in a relatively new museum opened in 1997.

A memorial to the un-named Soviet victims unearthed many years later is just beside the new museum.  As you enter the forest, you’re confronted with an array of randomly spaced stainless steel poles.  Each stands as a silent reminder that a body was found on that spot.  There are so many,  I couldn’t count them all.

Buchenwald concentration camp Soviet forest cemetery


Black and white and shades of decay

A while back I took the little red-haired girl into downtown Hamburg, stopping on the way to finally explore this huge, hulking mass of concrete about a mile west of the city centre. We must have ridden by it a hundred times already in the ten years we’ve lived here, but never went for a look inside.

hamburg-bunker-2.jpgIt was built during the war and used to be a bunker. It’s one of many scattered throughout the city, most of which are now painted over and dressed up to blend so easily into the surrounding streets, you can go by them every day without noticing what it was originally built for. But this one is not only so much bigger than the others, it sits alone at the edge of a huge empty lot. You can’t miss it.

It was designed both for air raid flak defenses and as a bomb shelter for residents, completely self-contained with its own water, power generation and sewage removal systems.

Local legend has it that the British occupation forces wanted to level it after the war, but gave up after a few attempts to crack the two-metre-thick walls. Others say the concrete didn’t actually set to its hardest state until the 1970s – four decades after its construction – a claim I can neither verify nor refute, and neither can they, I bet.

Today it’s stuffed full of music stores stuffed with all kinds of musical instruments, but I liked just walking around inside, poking into corners and opening doors we probably shouldn’t have, wondering what it must have been like to scurry like rats into bunkers like these from a hail of bombs that over two nights in the middle of summer 1943 killed 50-thousand people in this city alone.

I wanted to climb up to the top of the staircase to see if we could go out onto the roof, but my daughter was having none of it. I could tell what was bugging her. It was kind of creepy walking through creaky old metal doorways, down dimly lit corridors and up spiral staircases of cold, bare concrete, and I wasn’t helping matters much with my off-track mutterings of the folly of man, the use of fear and demonisation of the enemy in preparation for war, how some people rightly or wrongly compare what’s happening in the United States of America today with what happened in Germany before things got really crazy, how some people today speak of Muslims – yes, the boys and girls sitting beside her in school – the way Hitler used to talk about the Jews, the concept of forced labour and its use in building the structure we were standing in, another enduring reminder of the extreme lengths human beings are willing to go in the pursuit of killing each other.

All she wanted to do that day was to hang out in the sunshine near the lake, and here I was dragging her through a bunker giving a rambling political science and history lesson. I can’t wait to take her down south near Munich to Dachau, and try to explain the unexplainable.


© 2008 lettershometoyou

PS: For a fabulous collection of b&w photographs of old industrial sites and urban decay, visit telefunker, a photoblogger from Belgium.


The French Anne Frank? A new holocaust diary is published

Amazing story and a book recommendation in one, so I thought I’d pass it along.

It’s about the diary of a young Jewish girl living in a major European city during the Nazi occupation of her country. Described as beautifully written and quite personal, it details her life and that of her family members leading up to their deportation to the death camps.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Anne Frank, right?


No, it’s Hélène Berr, the diary of whom has become an instant best-seller after its recent publication in France nearly 65 years after her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Comparisons to Anne Frank are inevitable. But while Frank detailed a life spent in hiding from the Nazis in her Amsterdam home, Berr tells a story of everyday life under the German occupation in Paris.

Before being sent away to die along with most of the rest of her family, she gave it to the family cook, who passed it along to Berr’s fiancé, who eventually gave it to Berr’s niece. After an editor noticed a group of girls gathered around a display case trying to read the diary at a Paris holocaust exhibition, the niece was approached with the idea of publishing, but it took another five years to come out in book form.

The book sold more than 26,000 copies in its first three days of sale in France. Rights had already been sold in 15 countries before the French publication, but an English translation is slated to come out only in September. I can’t wait that long, so I’m going to pick it up at and hope to translate an extract or two over the coming weeks.

© 2008 lettershometoyou


So where were you on September 11, 2001?

Sometime around three in the afternoon Central European Summer Time on September 11, 2001, I was trying to get the key into the front door with one hand while holding on to my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter with the other.

Suddenly our downstairs neighbour – a colleague of my wife and friend to us both – was standing beside me shaking, tears in her eyes.

She was babbling.

There’s something horrible going on, she said. In New York. Planes have smashed into the World Trade Center!

It was the first I’d heard of it, and I looked right into her eyes and said the first thing that came to me:

Weltkrieg. World War.

I pushed open the door and my mother, who was over from Canada visiting, was sitting on the couch pointing at the television.

You’re not going to believe this, she said.

Mom, turn it off, I said. Please, just turn it OFF.

I had visions of having to drag a frightened and screaming child onto planes for the next five years if what was playing out before us got burned into her psyche.


That’s where we’re still at, six years later.

And if you look at the piece of theatre played out in New York today, you have to ask yourself: do we have to do this every year? Can’t we just move on?

Six or 60 years from now, will we still see acted out this same old ritual? Will we still have to watch these ceremonies laid before us, hear these names recited, these stories retold over and over until a solid layer of myth keeps it alive long after that day’s last survivor is gone and buried?

Of course we will. Get used to it. September 11 the tragedy is now September 11 the myth, the 9-11 emotional patriotic emergency code, the story that will now be passed from one generation to the next: we survived, we came back, we went after them.

After whom? The Iraqis, of course. They were behind it, weren’t they? And even if they weren’t, their involvement would have to be invented.

Tell me if you hear anybody in favour of this eternal war on terror saying today that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks. Because as long as the mistaken perception that it did lives on, these memorials will always have a purpose.

September 11 has taken on the same role for Americans which November 11 always used to be for Canadians.

We call it Remembrance Day. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Canadians stand for a minute’s silence to honour the soldiers who died in the two world wars.

Because November 11 is a statutory holiday, we schoolchildren held the ceremony the day before.

There’d be plastic poppies on pins, poems and prayers and a few bent, grey-haired guys from the Royal Canadian Legion up in front, their jackets pressed clean and chests twinkling with medals. One of the Grade Sevens would have the honour of standing up and reading In Flanders Fields.

I always got the feeling the whole thing was somehow wrong, that we should work toward ending war instead of playing up the heroism, the pageantry, the myths. The Vietnam war was still going on with everyone asking: what was it good for, what was it proving, where was it leading?

Still asking the same questions.

© 2007 lettershometoyou

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The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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