The Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz once said, “Obviously, all biographies are false.” Milosz, who was cited by the Nobel committee as a writer who “voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts,” had been in Warsaw when it was bombarded during the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and endured a fraught, terrifying few years.
Perhaps his remark about biographies was about the impossibility of capturing those “exposed conditions” neatly and dryly when others write about those extreme conflicts. And only the voices of those who survived can be accurate. We need to think about this every Remembrance Day, and about those whose voices were never really heard.
Black Liberators WWII (Thursday, History Television, 9 p.m.) makes some headway in telling us about individual voices who weren’t truly heard: the Black Canadian and Caribbean soldiers who served during the Second World War. These are veterans whose lives had already endured prejudice, but who nevertheless played extraordinary roles in Canada’s military mission. At one point, the army accepted Black Canadian volunteers, but the air force and Navy did not. Sam Estwick, a fiercely determined young man from Glace Bay, N.S., profiled in the program, helped change that.
Among those who talk eloquently is John Olbey, a surviving Black veteran of that war. “We were full of bravado,” he says ruefully, and notes that he and a buddy turned up at the recruitment centre in Windsor, Ont., in their zoot suits and hats. He eventually joined a tank crew and served in the Battle for Caen after the Allied invasion in June, 1944. In his fading voice he’s remarkably wry, but his sense of being appalled by war never left him.
The program also profiles, among others, Black Canadian Gertrude Daniels, described as a “Rosie the Riveter” in the Canadian war effort. She worked days as a babysitter and then took the night shift at a Montreal factory riveting the wings of aircraft. Later, she married the returning vet Welsford Daniels. Narrated by Shad and made in conjunction with The Legacy Voices Project, it’s a fine, eye-opening program.
Fight to the Finish (Thursday, History, 7:30 p.m.) has aired before, but it’s essential viewing. The elderly men and women featured are among the last living witnesses to battles, to destruction, to the failures and triumphs. We need to hang on their every word. Preoccupied as we are by current events and our personal circumstance, we must pay attention. The power and beauty of the special (made by Barry Stevens) is its plain, uncluttered style. Made with naturalistic verve, it allows more than 50 Canadian veterans to share their memories and thoughts. There is no punditry, no fussy overexplanation of context. The veterans talk and there is footage of the war itself, much of it in colour.
A thread that is woven through the hour concerns a group of inexperienced soldiers sent off to defend Hong Kong, then a British colony. “We didn’t know where we were going,” one man says. And then, “We didn’t actually have any idea why we were there.” They were there a short time, then the Japanese war planes came. About 80,000 Japanese troops were part of that operation and their actions were brutal.
Connected to that story thread is The Fence (streams CBC Gem), made to commemorate the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Hong Kong on Dec. 8, 1941, in which Japanese forces attacked the Allied soldiers defending the city. It is easily one of the most powerful documentaries to watch on this Remembrance Day or any other day.
About 2,000 Canadian troops were in Hong Kong when the Japanese army came; there was one savage battle, and most were interned. One veteran says, “People didn’t know anything about us for four years, whether we were all dead or what had happened.” Survival was their focus under horrendous conditions and ceaseless ill-treatment. Canadian filmmaker Viveka Melki does an astounding job, delving deep into a painful history and explaining how a revisionist-history movement in Japan tries to erase this particular portion of the past.
One veteran remembers with remarkable calm when the enemy invaded a hospital for wounded soldiers: “They killed the doctors, raped and murdered the nurses and then killed all the injured soldiers.” A total of 1,689 Canadian soldiers became prisoners of war. Some starved to death as prisoners. In the end, you know that none of these biographical stories are in the least bit false.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said war veteran John Olbey died recently at age 99. He is alive.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.