Why you visit your grandparents # Part 2

My father was not born yet, but three of his siblings were. This is a story that gave me goosebumps to hear, and even more to write. This is how I imagine it – a story of such gravity that had it not occurred – my grandparents’ lives, and in turn my father’s, and then my own life would not be as it is now.

The sirens had been sounding regularly for days, and every time they sounded, the people of Rotterdam waited for what might come after they stopped. So many times my father’s family had huddled together – my grandparents, my two aunties and my uncle. They would sit together in the centre of the house, in the hallway, and wait.

Each time the sirens began, my Opa would leave his young family briefly, to go and open the front door. He left it ajar so that anyone passing by, should the need arise, could find shelter in their house.

One day, as the sirens rang out, my Opa went to the front door. He unlocked it, pushed it ajar, and glanced out into the street. There was a man there. A man Opa had never seen before – which was strange as Opa was a store owner, and knew everyone in the street. The man was dressed very well, in a good suit, and he greeted my Opa from outside the front door.

“Where do you take shelter,” asked the man, “when the sirens sound?”

“In the middle of the house,” replied my Opa, “in the hallway.”

The man in the nice suit shook his head. “No, no, you should stay under the stairs – under the stairs is strong, your family will be safer there.”

“Thank you,” said my Opa, and nodded goodbye, leaving the door ajar behind him, and leaving the man in the street, he returned to his wife and children in the hallway.

“Apparently we should be under the stairs,” he told his wife, “it’s stronger there, and safer.”

My Oma nodded, “I guess that makes sense – let’s go.”

When the sirens ended, most of Rotterdam was flattened. My grandparents, my two aunties and uncle emerged from where they had huddled under the stairs, not unscathed – but alive and not seriously injured. All around them was dirt and stone.

Oma held my Uncle Peter, whose face would remain scarred from that day onwards.“Who told you that we should stay under the stairs?” she asked her husband.

“A man who was passing in the street. I had never seen him before.” Opa kicked some rubble near his toe, and looked around where his house, the hallway, and the stairs had once stood. “He was wearing a very nice suit.”

 

I know the stranger could have been just a man, who cared enough to stop and comment as the sirens sounded in Rotterdam on that day. But my father’s family would have been wiped out had he not stopped, and not commented. In my wild erratic fancy, the man is a time traveller, an ancestor of mine, an alien or a clairvoyant. Either way, my father’s family owe him their lives – and yet all this, this whole story was told after my Oma began, “Well, it’s quite a funny story that…”

(Maybe I will end up learning, speaking, and teaching my children Dutch… just in case.)

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The loss of which we are unaware

I recently watched footage of the killer Anders Breivik entering a room with the Press watching on, and my heart did a brief flip as I realised that the ‘applause’ I thought I was hearing, was the constant clicking of the photographers’ cameras. This man is responsible for the horrific Oslo bombing and subsequent shooting massacre of 69 youths who were the young political thinkers of their nation. These victims were the next generation’s decision makers, policy changers, revolutionaries, leaders.

While Breivik’s justice is coming one year on, this week – decades after the crimes – we are witnessing the trial of Ratko Mladic, the man who oversaw the slaughter and persecution of Muslims and Croats, from what he considered Serbian territory, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebenica in July 1995.

8,000 men and boys. 8,000 brains, bodies, loves, hates, hearts, dreams, hobbies, thoughts, memories, habits, sleeping patterns, skills… 8,000 lives that could have – would have – been something.

That’s this much potential the world never saw live and die naturally:

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These men did not have to die.

This year, we lost (yet another) teenager to bullying-induced suicide. A gorgeous young woman decided to end her life, after posting a sad, but beautifully made YouTube video, flipping through small placards of her message that explained her story, her hurt, and her abuse.

How does this happen? An obviously intelligent, talented young woman has taken herself out of this world. Her death will be greatly felt amongst her family and friends, as she has already imprinted her personality and style in her school and social groups.

[Action taken this week against workplace bullying (“Brodie’s Law”) is a welcome movement in the hope of stopping bullying and associated deaths in the workplace.]

In World War One, C.S.Lewis fought alongside J.R.R.Tolkien. What void would exist in the literary history – and present – of the world had these men perished alongside the many that did?

More importantly – what if the man, shelled on the front line, who was advancing next to the writer of the Lord of the Rings, had been a great composer, a great sportsmen, a wonderful father? That man has been taken from the world because of war. Because of hate, greed, intolerance or just plain stupidity. THESE are the losses that we cry for, when we cry over war.

At my uncle’s funeral, we heard eulogies from his family and his ex-wife, with whom he shares a son. She declared him as ‘the very best of men’. And that he was. He never wrote a book, or discovered something in the science realm, but he worked nights in the infectious diseases unit without telling her, to feed the family. He cared for all his family relentlessly, and gave money to charities when he had none for himself. His loss is a great loss to his loved ones, and his friends, and his community.

Every child that breathes in this world has potential. Whether they are wearing elite school blazers, or playing hacki sack alone in the Himalayas. When you look out over the 25 heads in a Primary School, or Secondary School classroom, each of those bodies is a brain and soul worthy of ‘having a go’ in this life.

In a country far away, or living next door to you, could be the next Tolkien, or the next Obama, or the next Fred Hollows, or the next Cathy Freeman.

About 40 children have died since you started reading this blog. They would have died due to poverty or disease that could have been stopped. They might have died in Syria, victims of cruel oppression and relentless violence, or they could have died in the most remote regions of Nepal, where access to toilets and clean water might have saved them.

That’s this many lives:

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…that could have changed the world – and what they could have done and who they could have been, we will never know.

PS. I am a Buddhist. I believe that we come and go into and out of this world, and even in a short visit, we can do great good and spread great love. But this horrible sadness we feel when we know it is just too soon – it is not right that we lose beautiful lives due to war, genocide or conditions that could be avoided. I guess this is the lesson we learn.

At War with History

I think that’s it. I can’t go to war museums anymore.

Today I added the Edinburgh War Museum to a morbid list of conflict related exhibitions that is really, becoming rather extensive. Within a matter of months I’ve attended: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, the Moscow Contemporary History Museum (which actually just focuses on wars and revolutions), and the Imperial War Museum in London (which included special Holocaust and Genocide sections). I’ve also been to the Hiroshima Peace Park Museum at least three times in my life, to the cities of Uzbekistan and China to hear the tales about Genghis Khan and Timur Lane – the ‘mighty’ conquerors who are responsible for the deaths of millions – and recently visited Montenegro and Croatia where I was inundated with information about the conflict there that led to the division of what was Yugoslavia. I also satisfied my bizarre obsession with religious martyrs, violence, and relics of the Saints, by attending the special exhibition at the British Museum that is currently running. Ooh, and I forgot Pompeii and Herculaneum, where thousands were buried or suffocated by the ash and gas of the erupting Mt Vesuvius.

You haven’t even been to Auschwitz yet, I hear you say, or even the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne. No, I haven’t, and you know what – despite my usual assertions that the past must be learnt, the children of now need to know the gruesome acts that were committed long (and not so long) ago, and how to learn about these atrocities I must face them with strength and soak up all the information on offer and all that…

I just don’t think I can.

Sometimes I wake up feeling as though I am in a puddle. Just sitting there. Not happy, not sad, just here. I have a wonderful life, I am lucky, and I am healthy. But sometimes I just feel like shit.

Today I was almost out of the War Museum which is a part of the Edinburgh Castle, a magnificent, historically rich, living monument, and I came across the first item to have been exhibited there. A small pocket bible, which was being carried by a Scottish soldier, while he was fighting in a war the Scots didn’t even want to be a part of, but had to follow England into. He was shot, by a German soldier, who then sent the bible to the family of the man he had killed. I read the small ticket about the item, and walked outside. I felt sick. Like I would actually throw up.

I think that bible was the mouse that sank the boat, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the thing that sent me over the edge.

Last week, after watching the special Genocide movie playing in the Imperial War Museum in London, and playing with the awesome interactive screens that took you through every Genocide event that has occurred since 1500 and something, we took on the Holocaust section.

At first it was so interesting, stimulating, and morbidly amazing. My religious interest was excited by the history of Jewish victimisation, and then my interest in Genetics thoroughly intrigued by the Nazi ideas of making the perfect race, through breeding, physiognomy, eye colour, hair colour etc.

Then it gets weird, painful, shocking. Moreover, confusing. How did this happen? How could they euthanize sick people, old people, mentally and physically disabled people? I’m not even at the piles of bodies and the room of shoes yet. But I’m sickened and confused. I literally cannot understand how a man dreamed of making the perfect race, by forced ‘natural selection’, and other humans decided to play along.

There was a timely exit situated just as we were coming to when Germany invaded Poland. It was perhaps three quarters of the way through the exhibition. Another couple left prematurely ahead of us, the woman wiping her eyes as we followed them out.

Lighten up, I hear you say, have an avocado! Get some sunshine! You’ve got it great! The world is wonderful!

I just think, I’ve had enough of the sad bits of history and the depressing bits of the world. My war buff boyfriend can go into these museums by himself, and I am going to find somewhere else to visit.

Where can I find a museum of fun?