Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lest We Forget

Remembrance Day was an institution in my childhood. Although I had the day off school, my mom would dress us all up, poppies proudly displayed, and we'd go to the local Remembrance Day service. When we moved towns, we started watching the broadcast from the Cenotaph in Ottawa. And yes, we faithfully observed the two minutes of silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

This was (and still is) an important day to my mother. She was a teen during World War II and her father fought in both of the "great" wars, running away at the age of 15 to join the first one and insisting on serving in the second. She wanted to be sure that her children understood the sacrifice made by her father, her uncles, her cousins, and her friends, many of whom did not return. She wanted us to remember.

In 2010, it's easy to be distanced from war and its effects. The main personal effect we feel are gas prices at the pump (based on tensions in the Middle East), not food rations or curfews or loss of loved ones (unless we do have loved ones in active service). Our society has been through the peace-loving '60's and the diplomacy of the Cold War. We prefer making love to war and we frown on interference, whenever possible.

It's a different time and place.

And yet, each year, on November 11, we're given a day to remember, if we choose to do so.

Here are some places to start.

Books for Children (and their Parents)

Many of these books are emotionally moving - I do suggest that you read them with your children until they are old enough to manage strong emotions on their own.

In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield, illustrated by Janet Wilson. The book mixes together McCrae's poem with the story of John McCrae's service. It's well-done and explains why we wear the poppy on Remembrance Day.

Hanna's Suitcase by Karen Levine is a true story about a Jewish family, uncovered by a group of Japanese children in association with a children's Holocaust education centre in Tokyo. The story is intense in some ways, as expected, but because the story is about WW II and the present, some of the intensity is diffused. This is also a stage play and is being made into a television movie.

We haven't read it yet, but Marty Layne recommends When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. It's a story of a 9-year-old girl and her family who become refugees during WW II.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is a beautifully written book about a child in Denmark whose family harbour a Jewish family prior to smuggling them out of Nazi-held territory. It won the Newbery Medal.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr is also a book based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki's fight against leukemia after Hiroshima was bombed. It's a beautiful story (sad, of course, but hopeful) and you'll find your whole family wanting to make a bunch of paper cranes.

A few other books that look promising are A Poppy is to Remember, A Bear in War, and Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion

No longer in print, The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito is about a girl in Vancouver who witnesses the internment of Japanese-Canadians. On the same topic is Naomi's Road by Joy Kogawa.

L.M. Montgomery's book Rilla of Ingleside (first published in 1921) is a poignant story of how war affected the Blythe family. It's not a book that comes readily to mind when thinking about books on this topic, but it is based on Montgomery's own experience of WW I as a Canadian woman.

One of my favourite books (that I read when I was 13, so perhaps your kids could wait for it) is I am David by Anne Holm. It's a story of a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp in Italy and how his life unfolds.

Another book for older readers (I was 15 when I read it) is Erich Maria Remarque's amazing book, All Quiet on the Western Front. The book is written from the perspective of a young German soldier in WW I.

If your children are ready for factual information, there are a couple of picture books (photography) about certain battles in WW I and WW II that are new and well done.

Passchendaele: Canada's Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders by Norman Leach. Leach served as the advisor on the film of the same title and he doesn't hold back in terms of images, so please preview with your own children in mind.

The other book is Dieppe by Hugh Brewster, who has also written On Juno Beach and At Vimy Ridge. It's a Scholastic book and the photos are fine.

Of course, Eye Witness Books (by DK Publishing) have books on both WW I and WW II.

Living History

My grandfather fought in both WW I and WW II... and survived them both. At this time of the year, I like to pull out his dog tag and photographs and google his name on the internet (last year, I found several stories about his exploits in Italy, some humorous and some valiant, as someone had scanned and uploaded his regiment's newsletters). I don't try to glorify or romanticize war through his story, as we also talk about how he suffered from PTSD for years after he came home from the war (he was wounded in Ortona, Italy). Knowing "his" story changes what war feels like to me - it makes it tangible and not so far away. We also like to talk about my mother as a teenager during the war and the sacrifices she and my grandmother had to make while my grandfather was overseas.

If you have anyone in your family who fought in or lived through a war, it's a good time to get their stories, look at their photos, imagine their lives.

Here are some places to start:

Canadian Virtual War Memorial
Canadian Genealogy Centre

A Thought About Poppies

This seems to be the first year ever for the white poppy in Canada, perhaps because we haven't had the civilian casualties in (modern) war that other countries have suffered.

"Many people are choosing to wear red poppies to remember veterans and white poppies to remember civilian casualties. Both symbols serve to renew their commitment to work for peace and remember the true costs and causes of war." Canadian Voice of Women for Peace

The traditional red poppy in Canada has an additional purpose: not to glorify war but to honour those men and women who sacrificed so much, sometimes everything, in difficult times.

"Today the volunteer donations from the distribution of millions of poppies is an important source of revenue for the Royal Canadian Legion that goes toward helping ex-servicemen and women buy food, and obtain shelter and medical attention."  CBC: Remembrance Day

"Lest we forget" has two meanings for me... respectfully remembering those who served and remembering the horrors of war in the hope that they can be avoided in the future.

I've always seen the red poppy as a reminder of peace. I'll continue to wear mine in that spirit.

Websites With More Information about Canada in War and Peacetime

Canada at War

Library and Archives Canada 

Veterans Affairs Canada including the Canadian Books of Remembrance

Canadian War Museum

Japanese Canadian History

You can look for Remembrance Day Ceremonies taking place in your Canadian City here.