Jerry Amernic is the author of several books, including the novel The Last Witness.
The other night, I watched Saving Private Ryan. It was Memorial Day in the United States. The opening sequence depicting the landings at Normandy on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – is riveting. Although the film never mentions Canada, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division penetrated further inland at Juno Beach on D-Day than did the Yanks or Brits at the four beaches they tackled.
The biggest military invasion in history, D-Day turned the tide of the Second World War. The 359 Canadian dead and 715 wounded were among 10,000 Allied casualties that day, and next week is the 75th anniversary. It will be the last one with actual veterans, which means there will soon be no more witnesses and that can be a dangerous thing.
We all know the words Lest we forget, but I fear that young people today know little, if anything, about D-Day and the Second World War. This became obvious to me when I taught college. They just don’t know. But when the last combatant is gone, knowing what happened and why it happened will be crucial.
My father served in the war, but was stationed in Newfoundland and never saw combat. I have his dog tag tucked away in a velvet pouch with other things from his youth. While I was born in the 1950s, I learned about Canada’s war effort in school and from my work as a journalist.
I once did a magazine profile on retired major-general Richard Rohmer who showed me his Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for his service as a reconnaissance pilot. Mr. Rohmer saw the entire Normandy invasion from the skies that day and told me about it.
Another time, I covered the last annual reunion of a group of Belgian citizens and the Canadian soldiers who liberated them in 1945. I still remember the camaraderie, the kinship and the love that existed among them.
A few years ago, I wrote a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust. It takes place in 2039 when my protagonist is 100 years old, but knowledge of past history is remote. My agent shopped it around, and one editor turned it down because he didn’t buy the premise about society becoming ignorant about the Holocaust in a generation. The editor said he had to suspend disbelief.
After my novel was rejected by that publisher, a videographer and I interviewed students at a Toronto university and asked them questions about the Holocaust. We asked them about the Allies. We asked if they knew about Churchill and FDR. We asked about D-Day. With few exceptions, these kids knew practically nothing. The video we made has gone viral around the world.
When I asked if they knew what happened on D-Day, their responses ranged from, “It happened in England,” to “It was a place where a lot of bombs went off,” to them just shaking their heads.
My daughter is a high-school teacher, has taught history and is dedicated to her job. But the problem might be rooted in the fact that the young have so many options today, not just in school but outside as well, and maybe there is no room for knowing about the past.
I have a 576-page document from the Ontario Ministry of Education. It’s supposed to explain what is taught in Grades 10 and 11 in high schools in the area of Canadian and World Studies, and it uses phrases such as “Concepts of Disciplinary Thinking across Subjects.”
Frankly, when it comes to teaching history – or any subject – I don’t care what it says in a document about what is supposed to be covered in the curriculum. The fact is that, for whatever the reason, young people who graduate from Ontario high schools do not know seem to know basic history.
Two weeks ago, I attended the funeral of Milton Berger. He was 94. Milt was a long-time Toronto city councillor and we met when I was a young newspaper reporter covering municipal politics. He was also the father-in-law of a close friend.
Milt was said to be the first Holocaust survivor to serve as a politician in Ontario. When he was 17 he was sent to Auschwitz.
Lest we forget? It’s time for us to wake up and ensure that our young know why we have the freedoms too many take for granted. Having them not know disrespects those who made the sacrifice – such as the men at Juno Beach – and may even foretell a future that we don’t want to imagine.