Sermon by Diane Rollert, 8 November 2015
I am so grateful to Vera, one of our World War II survivors, for speaking during our Remembrance Day service. She is one of the greatest models of resilience I know. I am amazed to think of her as a 16 year-old girl in 1944 in France, as her father is deported to Auschwitz, and her mother, who was not Jewish, joins the French resistance. Vera once told me that her mother’s survival was a daily miracle. Vera, herself, was sent into hiding at a local college, virtually orphaned by the war. When her school was requisitioned and closed by a division of the third Reich, she became a courier for the local resistance network, thanks to an old racing bicycle. As a happy end, both her parents survived and all four of their great-grand-children were born here in peaceful Canada.
Those who witnessed the war, who still remember, are treasures to us.
For the past five or six years, whenever I would visit my father in the US, I’d do a series of video interviews. I did this until my father died this past May. Some of what I filmed has been lost, but what remains is a window into my father’s soul. These are my own treasures of remembrance. As I watch them now, I am struck by how often my father chose to speak about his experiences as a soldier in WWII.
I didn’t grow up hearing my father’s war stories. For much of his life, it was a subject he avoided. It was too painful to share. But as my father came to the last years of his life, these were the memories that were the strongest and seemed to matter the most to him. He had lived the happiest and saddest, most frightening moments of his life over such a short period of time. At the age of 18, he found himself in combat in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. Two years, later, he was shipped back home as a changed young man, only 20 years old. In one of my videos, I had to stop the camera. My father had begun crying as he remembered how the troops were told of the death of US president Franklin Roosevelt. Nearly 70 years later, these were the memories that remained for my father when so much else was lost.
Each year on Remembrance Day, I find myself coming back to my father’s memories, and I know that I’ve spoken to you about this many times before. Maybe you get tired of me reflecting on this. But those years shaped who my father was and who his children would become. Our demons haunt us from the father who drowned much of his emotion in alcohol. He was proud of what he had done and he was also regretful.
On this day, I also remember my late mother-in-law, Myriam, who grew up in Trieste, Italy. She too was often silent about her wartime memories, yet I remember one remarkable afternoon as I sat rocking my newborn son. Perhaps seeing her first grandchild suddenly opened up what she had long kept to herself. She began to tell me her stories of fear, of the soldiers of different armies occupying her family home. She lived mostly alone with her grandmother and, as a young girl of 16, had to stand up to the invading strangers. She remembered the local butcher hung in the window of his shop for being a traitor.
All she wanted for her children was a peaceful life. She didn’t want them to know the pain of war, not even through her memories. She refrained from teaching her children to speak Italian when they were young. She wanted to them to grow up as children of a new, safe world, far from the horror she had seen. My father-in-law once told my husband and his sister that they would have to be patient with their mother in their teen years. She had never experienced a real adolescence. The war had stolen her childhood. Who knows who my father or mother-in-law might have been had they not come of age in war.
When my father died, Vera came to the memorial. I was so touched by her presence. After the service she held my hand and she said to me, “You have no idea what a generation we were. We had been through so much. We survived, and that taught us that we could be capable of anything. We created great music, great art, literature, we saw no limits.”
I think of my father, of my mother-in-law, of Vera. I have not lived through war myself, but these are people in my life who have, and whose lives very much touch my own. I have been witness to their stories, to the effects of the losses they knew, and to the incredible resilience they have had to have come of age in wartime and to have been able to go on to forge new lives. Even my father, who lived with so much unspoken pain, went on to write beautiful music after the war, including many choral compositions that called out for peace. Peace was probably the most common theme in his music.
Just the other day, I was watching a documentary about the children of Aleppo, Syria, made in 2014. The filmmakers spend time with several families that had chosen to stay with their children in dangerous war zones. These children laugh and play as innocents one moment, and then speak knowledgeably about shrapnel and the various sounds that different kinds of shelling and bombs make.
One twelve-year old child says, “I would like to see Syrian without snipers. We would swim, go to school. The teachers would come back. Aleppo would be for all of us. Not half for the regime and half for the Free Syrian Army. Syria would belong to all of us, the people. This is how I would love Syria to be.”
As it is for so many children in war zones, many of these children will not survive. Many may never recover from their experiences of war. We now know that post-traumatic stress disorder is very real. We know how much gets passed from generation to generation, not just through stories, but through the day-to-day emotional and spiritual dysfunction that is one of the worst fallouts of war. Yet some of these children may become survivors whose resilience gives birth to peaceful generations. Perhaps, they will be the wise ones who teach their children the preciousness of peace. This is what our own experiences have taught us: There can be hope.
As Canada prepares to welcome many Syrian refugees, it is easy to understand the worry and concern that some people have expressed. How can we possibly help people who have gone through so much truly integrate into Canadian or Quebec life? Are we naïve to think that we can do this easily? These are fair questions and reasonable concerns. In the best of conditions, integration into a new society always has its challenges. Add to that the trauma of war, and we know that the challenges are huge.
It helps to remind ourselves of the Vietnamese refugee crisis, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when millions of Vietnamese were fleeing their war ravaged country in makeshift boats. Canada ultimately welcomed more than 100,000 Vietnamese Boat People (including about 13,000 in Quebec), during a time when the country was facing an economic downturn. The US welcomed about 1 million. Both countries had been initially resistant to accepting so many people who some feared might be dangerous Communists. Yet the vast majority of refugees who arrived integrated well into both societies.
We know from the many stories we have witnessed that human beings have a remarkable ability to rise up from the ashes. This is what makes our annual observance of Remembrance Day so important. May we never forget the folly of war, and may we ever remember that we can forge new lives in peace.
Amen. Blessed be. Namasté.
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