Our parents tell us stories from their lives and we absorb some of the elements, twisting and marrying details actual and imagined into a narrative that we replay for ourselves (and perhaps our own children), long after our parents are gone and no longer able to fill in the blanks.
This is a story about a kind group of soldiers.
My mother was 14 when the Nazis invaded Poland, where she lived. She was Jewish, so what followed was the ghetto and concentration camps. Her life was saved when, with things worsening for the Germans and labour desperately needed, she was transported in the late summer of 1944 from Auschwitz into Germany to build munitions for her enslavers.
In late March, with the Allies advancing, SS guards at this factory began marching my mother and hundreds of other exhausted, emaciated female prisoners toward Bergen-Belsen. After three days on this death march, they were told by locals in the village of Kaunitz, south of Bielefeld, that British and U.S. soldiers were nearby. The guards disappeared. It was April 1, 1945.
The U.S. soldiers rolled in and gave the starving women food – sandwiches, chocolate! – and the best news: You are free.
But it was this detail that always stayed with me: The soldiers smiled at them. Not the evil, sadistic grins to which these women had become accustomed, but smiles of kindness. After six years of the worst brutality imaginable, to be looked at with compassion rather than disgust, to be seen as a human being – and by men in uniform, no less – this was an inconceivable development, and a first crucial step on the long, uphill road toward healing.
My mother's sister was also there and she told me this week that the Americans helped secure temporary housing for the Jewish women in the village. When a resident told the women to sleep on the floor of her home rather than in beds, an officer intervened. "My friends sleep in the bed," he told the woman.
"My friends." Can you imagine what it felt like to hear that after all those years of humiliation?
My mother died nearly 10 years ago, and I never thought, stupid me, to write down the details of this story (or many of her other experiences during the war). But this year, on the 70th anniversary of her liberation, I began thinking quite seriously about the possibility of tracking down those anonymous soldiers (or their descendants) who granted her freedom – and kindness. Some of these men might still be alive; perhaps they might still remember that remarkable morning.
To do that, I would need to confirm the sketchy information I had from my mother. Were they actually U.S. soldiers? Did she even have the date right? The location?
In response to a query, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration forwarded some links. Reading this material was a revelation. The same details from my mother's stories were recounted here, too: Slave labourers from a munitions factory, April 1, Kaunitz, U.S. soldiers who distributed chocolate. Also – the kindness.
"And they would jump off the tanks and they were kissing us. Us dirty and lousy ones," a survivor, identified as Anna Kaletska (real name Anna Kovitzka), recounted in a 1946 interview with pioneering Holocaust researcher David Boder. "'Do not weep,' they would say. But we wept more and again."
It is my mother's liberation story that churns inside me as I approach a veteran of the Second World War, stationed at the entrance to a supermarket or bank with his little tray of poppies. Year after year, these men have become a proxy for those U.S. soldiers I can probably never thank. (I have not yet launched my search for them in earnest.) Their numbers are shrinking, of course. This year, in my three (thus far) purchases of poppies (all lost), I have not yet encountered a Second World War veteran. (The Canadian Legion has about 25,000 veterans and cadets on poppy duty this year, but does not know how many from the Second World War are participating.) As someone who would literally not exist had it not been for the Allied soldiers who fought in that war, it has been profoundly upsetting to read about our Unremembered – at least 59 Canadian soldiers and veterans who killed themselves after returning from Afghanistan. Clearly suffering, they were re-victimized by systemic abandonment.
Every year around this time, we start to hear about special offers for veterans. In Vancouver, cars displaying B.C. veteran license plates can park for free at meters and city-owned lots for a week. In Toronto, the TTC is offering free rides on Remembrance Day for current and former members of Canada's military plus one companion.
I find these minor freebies to be frankly a little insulting. It is a nice gesture, but can we not do better for our veterans than some complimentary parking and a couple of bus tokens once a year?
This was a week of new beginnings; giggling throat singers and sunny ways. A Sikh Defence Minister, in a turban. This spirit of change must extend to how we treat the people who put their lives on the line for this country. Whatever you think of the Afghanistan mission, the men and women who put their boots on the ground for us deserve our reverence – not neglect.