Preparations have been under way for the yearly Remembrance Day ceremony at the high school where I teach. Students and teachers are working together, planning how to commemorate meaningfully the importance of the day.
I quietly observe and am reminded of last year’s experience, when my personal story gained momentum, when I felt the courage, the inner push, to accept the organizing committee’s invitation to speak to the school assembly and community.
This dedication to my father and to the men, women and children who have died in wars was in process for many years, perhaps too many.
I am German. I have lived in Canada since 1985.
In the past, the sentiment of feeling alone, always left with my own thoughts and memories, lingered on and on, year after year. I feared speaking about my father as a victim of the Second World War during a Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony.
It has not always been easy being a German in a Canadian school setting.
My accent, my heritage, my traditions point to my identity. Stereotypes about Germany, Hitler, Nazis, bratwurst and sauerkraut were the immediate connection my students made with my culture. Not surprisingly, occasionally I found swastikas scratched in students’ desks or doodled in their exercise books; I even saw the odd Hitler salute in my earlier days of teaching.
Times have changed and those stereotypes are appropriately addressed. Beyond that, I have changed to find the courage to stand in front of a school assembly and speak about my father’s experience during the Second World War.
Imagine you are hungry. You have not had anything to eat for days. There is no food around. Would you eat candles? Wax candles, just to get something into your stomach?
Imagine growing up in a family of four brothers and three of you are drafted into the army during the Second World War. Your older brother is missing in action, your younger brother is killed by an explosion and you survive with great hardship.
This was my father’s reality. He ate candles to survive. He lost his two brothers during the war.
My father was born in 1916 in a small village in the southern part of Germany. In 1918, when he was only 2, his father, my grandfather, was killed in the First World War.
My father never knew his father. His mother, then alone with four children, remarried and started a new family with a man who had lost his wife during the war. This blended family grew to eight children and struggled to endure through depression, trauma and loss after the First World War.
Life continued and soon the family was confronted by the looming Second World War. My father, along with his two brothers and too many young men, were drafted and forced to fight for an oppressive, dictatorial Nazi government. This regime not only killed and destroyed the lives of countless citizens and people all over the world, it also traumatized my home country and its surviving citizens. Both my parents carried their emotional wounds long past the war.
While my father was on the front, his mother died. He was not given permission to go back to his village to attend her funeral. When the war finally came to an end and Germany surrendered to the Allied forces, my father was taken prisoner by the Soviet Union and imprisoned for four years. He returned home in 1949, and it was only then that he visited his mother’s grave for the first time and stood silent at his brothers’ memorial.
After my father’s release from Russian imprisonment, his stepfather took him aside and said: “So, Otto, what are you going to do now? Get on with your life! That’s what you’ll do. Find a job. Make some money. There is no sitting around. Find yourself a woman, get married and start a family.”
My father did just that, but at what cost?
There was no time to process the violence of war. There was no time to mourn the loss of his mother and his two brothers. There was no time to mourn the death of many relatives and comrades from the battlefield.
Somehow, in spite of all this tragedy, my father managed to get on with living. Beneath the surface, however, he lived a life interrupted, frozen by nightmares, anger and forgotten dreams. Psychological wounds do not heal, but fester. He married my mother in 1952 and I am one of their four children. He died in 1999.
I remain a quiet observer this Remembrance Day, inwardly less agitated and alone since having told my story about my father last year.
A French philosopher once said that because the dead are frozen in silence, everything will start again from the beginning. How frightening are those words, yet so true in our world.
When I think of my father and all the other men, women and children who have died during wars, fighting for world peace, I feel that we commemorate this day because we don’t want the dead to be frozen in silence.
We want to make it possible to hear their voices. We want to listen to them, feel with them, imagine their lives and struggles and, hopefully one day, carry their songs and their stories into a world of peace.
Claudia Scheuermann lives in Vancouver.