Survivor

I have been thinking about him a lot lately, his story, his words, everything about him, in fact, every once in a while, when I feel angry, I think of him.

You see, a long time ago, when I was in grade 10, we had to read Anne Frank, if you haven’t read it, you have probably been living under a rock. We were taking a trip to the Holocaust exhibit at the museum downtown, it was something I was absolutely terrified to see. I had studied WW2, my grandfather fought in the war, was shot down, and joined the French resistance. I had never met him, but he was in odd history books here and there. What was disturbing for me, was the loss of humanity. I could not, and still cannot understand, how hate can grow to the point of violence, and in the case of WW2, the mass murder.

We entered the museum, and we were led to the various photos. It was a stark reminder, that no one, and I mean no one ever wanted this to happen again. That kind of hate had no business being part of society, that we needed to read, learn and understand our past, to make sure we avoided this.

We were then led into a room. Chairs in rows, an aisle in the middle, facing one way. We were told to sit. My class filed in, and we sat. More people came, and sat in the back. We were introduced to a small, balding man, with a short sleeve dress shirt, grey flannel pants, and carefully polished black shoes.

He stood in the front, and began to tell his story. He pointed to a series of numbers on his arm…

He was 10 years old when he and his family were rounded up, with yellow stars on their coats, with nothing but what they could carry, and stuffed into a train. He described children crying, parents holding onto each other and their children, standing, unable to move. The smell of urine and feses. There was bucket in the corner, overflowing. If you had to go, you had to do so in front of everyone in the car.

At 10, he held onto his Mother’s hand, having already seen his Father die in front of him, and watched the light go out of his Mother’s eyes. They were off to their deaths. He described being separated from his Mother, hearing screams in another room, full well knowing that soldiers were having their way with women, before shaving their heads, and tattooing their arms.

He held onto his brother’s hand, but eventually, they were separated too. Scared and alone, he made a promise, that everyday, he would try to survive.

Since he was 10, he became an errand boy for the some of the soldiers, a job that came with not stop physical abuse, including being locked in a cage with a couple of German Sheppard’s to fight, for the soldiers entertainment.

The more the gentleman spoke, the more one young man in the back heckled. The older gentleman stopped his story, and asked the young man to stand up. He did. He had a shaved head, tight jeans, a leather jacket with a visible and bold swastika emblazoned on the arm of his jacket. He was a skin head. At that time, there was a small group of teens in Ottawa, who identified themselves as that.

The older man, instead of getting angry, began to give him a history lesson about the swastikas, Hitler and WW2. The young skin head, walked out of the room. No one knew what happened to the skin head. We turned back to the survivor telling his story, and he simply told us
“I survived, I don’t know how. I lost my whole family, but vowed to have my own, and to tell my story so no one forgets history.”

The story, that man, stuck with me. He is still in my head. With so much information available at our fingertips, I can’t understand, how hate can spread again.

 

5 Diplomats, Barefoot, drinking whiskey and talking politics

After 7 years of my early life being abroad, my first experience of Canadian wilderness was at our family cottage. Having had no freedoms, having never seen a forest or a clean lake, we spent a hot ride in our Ford Ltd, packed to the brim with bedding, food, water and books. My Father would be anxious to get up there, wanting to leave the house as early as possible. My Mother, dragging behind slightly, needing to make sure we didn’t forget anything, including dog food. The first time, my first view of this beutiful piece of land, I noticed how quiet it was, how, how dark it seemed with the clouds rolled in, and just how happy my parents seemed. My Father, happily away from phones, electricity and politics, would unwind with a stack of books. The book pile would decrease in size each day, and my Father would get more cheerful by the minute. He wouldn’t put on shoes, would wear old shorts, and t-shirts. He would shed his diplomatic distance and let go, just a little bit.

It would happen mid week. Another diplomat, who my Father was good friends with would show up to fish, and stay at the next cottage, another would join. Soon there would be 5 senior diplomats. 4 happened to be newly retired, except for my Father, who wwould sit politely asking about the fish, full well knowing, they weren’t there to fish. They would laugh, then break out the whiskey. My Mother would get us all down to the dock, to keep swimming. We could hear the laughter from the dock. My Father rarely let go, always slightly guarded, worried that someone would overhear. The cottage was different, there was no one around, no electricity, no way anyone could hear.

I would take breaks to run up and get Oreos, or water, and hear bits and pieces of war stories that no one knew about. Wild stories of defections of famous people, incidences that would make your blood curdle. Between the laughter, would be serious conversations about loss, about stress, about safety and security.

The first time I did it, I felt rather guilty, like I was eavesdropping on something so intimate, I crouched beside the open window that looked onto the screened-in porch, and overheard them all talking about guilt. The guilt that no one outside of the diplomatic circle would ever understand, keeping secrets crippled them, made them hard, made them unable to bond with their kids or wives. They had split personalities, and were relieved when they could retire, but also missed their sense of belonging in the department. My Father, never saying anything, listened. I had wondered if that is what he felt. He was distant, and often times, sentimental yet removed at the same time. A strange combination for me to understand as a child.

There it was, 5 men, dressed in cottage clothing, no suits, no shoes, sharing whiskey’s, while talking about their experience. From an early age, I knew this yearly ritual was important. I didn’t understand why, until later in life. It was group therapy. The only kind of therapy a group of ex diplomats and a then current one could have, away from civilization, away from ears (except for mine), away from the department. They never fished, they would bring their bottles of whiskey in their tackle boxes. The ice that they claimed would be for their caught fish, was for their whiskey.

As I get older, I realize how much more important those times were for my Father. Being able to let go, and express some sort of emotion as a release. I wonder if there are groups of diplomats today that meet, and do the same thing up at a cottage somewhere!

Dip Kid