I have a bit of a complicated relationship with Remembrance Day. Growing up, there were ceremonies at school every year. The focus always seemed to be on World War II. (In fact, I seem to remember feeling that war was a thing of the past.) I remember classmates talking in class about grandfathers or other relatives who had been at war, who had died, or who hadn’t. I felt painfully awkward…because the side of my family I know best is my dad’s side. The German side. No one ever said anything, but as a child I always had this sense that my family was on the wrong side.
I know very little of my German family’s experience of World War II. When I visited my Oma and Opa, I saw the rusted old bike leaning against the fence on one side of the yard, obscured by weeds; every autumn it became increasingly buried in the fallen leaves of the giant chestnut tree. That bicycle wasn’t to be moved because, rumour had it, it had saved Opa’s life more than once during the war.
I really don’t know what role Opa played in the war effort in Germany. I have a vague notion that it was his language skills that were used, since he was multi-lingual. (I grew up believing he spoke seven languages, but my dad made a joke once that Opa’s languages are a bit like a fishing story, growing with each retelling. So, really, I have no idea how many languages he spoke.) (But wherever did he learn Chinese in the first place?)
My Oma would sometimes tell a story of the years following the war. She lived in Berlin with her two sons, my uncles; food was not plentiful and certainly not very exotic. I think perhaps it was my uncle Diethelm (but perhaps it was Friedhard?) who figures in the story, seeing an orange for the first time around the age of five and thinking it was a ball, having never seen an orange before.
I always felt it was taboo to ask my family about their experiences during the war years, so I never asked. I don’t think I felt this way just because they are German. I know Michael has said that his Grandpa wouldn’t talk about his war experiences, either. And, though unable to fully imagine the horror of fighting in a war, I can imagine why none of them would want to talk about it.
On the other side of the world, what was the war like for my family in Taiwan? At the beginning of the Second World War, Taiwan had been occupied by Japan for 44 years. I have only a few stories about what life was like. How my grandmother was one of only a handful of non-Japanese students who made high enough marks to make it into a prestigious school. How her pierced ears made her a target for mockery, being called a barbarian because piercing was not a Japanese custom. How my grandfather’s brother went off to fight (in what war?) and never came home again. How my grandfather himself studied medicine and became a doctor in Japan. That the Japanese ran horrific prisoner of war camps. Tidbits, really.
And so, for many years, the not talking and not asking aspect of Remembrance Day left me feeling, more than anything, ignorant. Like there are things I can’t honour and pay my respects to, because I don’t know a thing about them.
This is not to say that I feel nothing on Remembrance Day. The speeches and ceremony never fail to get me right in the gut, never fail to highlight the great cost of the sacrifice made by those who fought, and the price paid by the families they left behind.
And of course I now know that World War II is not the only war of significance to remember, nor is war a thing of the past. I haven’t had a chance to participate in a Remembrance Day ceremony in many years, but today Jade accompanied Michael to the ceremony here in Whitehorse. I hope, as my kids grow up, I can help fill in some of the blanks I didn’t have the courage to ask about while I was growing up. So they can know what it is they are remembering and what they are honouring.