I can still recall waves of sheer amazement when my late grandfather reached into a previously locked cabinet, carefully moved some items out of his way and brought forth the focus of my 10-year-old self’s wild wonderment.
Wrapped in a shred of white oilcloth was the last of his mementos from his time in western Europe in service of the Allies bent on defeating the Nazi scourge. A member of the Royal Air Force’s 127 Spitfire Wing that looked after the aircraft on the ground so they could dominate in the skies over France, Holland and Belgium, grandad had scrounged a few Luger pistols one of the more sought after trophies for soldiers fighting in the European theatre before returning home.
Through the post war years, he had given one away to a close friend and turned another over to a collector. This last gun was on its way somewhere too but the 1980’s kid who worshiped at the alter of GI Joe and the A Team was offered a final look.
I remember its weight. I can still recall the cross etching in the gun’s black handle as I ran my fingers across it. And I can remember not being as excited as I thought I would be upon finally viewing this oft-discussed and never before seen hand gun.
There was a pit in my stomach as my grandfather explained to me why he came home with these guns and why he was getting rid of the last one.
Breaking out more standard trophies such as a German artillery helmet or an Iron Cross medal was a practice reserved for special and rare occasions around Remembrance Day or Victory in Europe Day and as the years wore on and as I’d listen to my grandfather’s war stories, I’d often wonder about the soldier who was awarded these medals. The human who holstered the P08 Luger. The man in the trenches who wore that unmistakable drab olive helmet.
But that ponderance didn’t come full circle for me until many years later when my grandfather finally shared a pair of never before seen and never discussed items-his war journal and a photo album with German writing on it. After his passing and in subsequent editions of Canada’s Oldest Community Newspaper, I’ve transcribed and shared my grandfather’s journal that described arriving on the beaches of Normandy just over a week after D-Day and standing for inspection by Sir Winston Churchill. Being pelted by anti-personal bombs when “Jerry” would come over during the twilight hours to disrupt the Spitfire Aerodromes was another of the more thrilling entries.
But what hasn’t been discussed was the photo album.
My grandfather never explained to me how it came into his possession but it was clearly from inside Germany. A studio portrait of a Nazi officer, scenes of family times in the sunshine with the Alps in the far off distance littered the pages.
But there was a page in that album that has stayed resolute in my mind over the past few weeks and months. Whoever took these scenic black and white photographs decided one day to head down to the local train station and snap a few photos of grim faced soldiers. And boxcars with barbed wire on them. And lines of humanity being herded towards an unknown fate.
On one page, the majesty of Alps. The next? The beginning stages of Hitler’s Final Solution.
The recent and drastic uptick of anti semitism in North America, Saturday’s supper between the leader of the Republican Party and a pair of avowed anti semites at Mar-a-lago and the lack of immediate outcry from leaders of the GOP have me thinking back to those photos and wondering when in Hitler’s Germany did it become comfortable amongst the people to watch antipathy manifest from jokes to scapegoating to open prejudice to raging hatred and then, finally, into action?
We could drone on about the 45th President of the United States and ask openly if he’s stupid or a liar-Too stupid not to know what Kanye West and Nick Fuentes stand for or a liar in his denial- but we have enough hate closer to home. Invoking Talia Epstein’s passionate and raw recount from 2019 of her anti semitic experiences at schools in Prince Edward County prove the rearing of hate’s ugly head and a less than full throated outcry by the entire community against such words isn’t the solitary domain of Donald Trump’s fan club.
Hate and fascism are on the rise. In Europe and here in North America, there those using it as a gas lighting power play and as a means to generate profit in plain sight.
Brave souls from across the globe joined and fought back against this insidious darkness in the middle of the last century.
But both those who survived the armed conflict and the concentration camps have all but left this mortal coil. While their stories and the images endure, sadly (as clearly evidenced by recent events) so does the hate that bound those pieces together.
All will be lost if that hate is allowed to fester any longer.
PICTURING OUR COMMUNITY