October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment
Remembrance Day hasn’t meant as much to me in past years as it does today. I would pay my respects at a local ceremony, wear my red poppy on my collar, observe my moment of silence for those who’ve given their lives to give me mine… I knew in my head that it was a significant day, but my only connection to why came from textbooks in school, articles I read in newspapers or magazines or stories told through TV shows or movies. It’s difficult to grasp the heart of why we remember when it wasn’t something I had experienced first hand.
This morning, my first read was from Peter Mansbridge on why he remembers on November 11th. I thought about the many sites I’ve visited during my travels this year that have caused me pause.
In May, I spent two weeks in Malaga, Spain. One day, I took a walk out along the beach and followed the path on past the city limits and along the coast. After walking about an hour I looked up to see a sign that read “Paseo de los Canadienses.” It’s a promenade in tribute to the humanitarian aid Canadian Dr Norman Bethune provided during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
In September, I found myself in Germany. A walking tour through Hamburg brought us to what had once been an impressive cathedral, now left in ruins after it had been hit by a bomb. We also visited a chocolate factory that was once the location where the gas for the gas chambers in the Nazi camps was made.
A week later, through the vivid storytelling of my tour guide Kate with Fat City Bike Tours, I visited the Berlin Wall and the Cold War era of Berlin.
The tour took us through the division of Germany and Berlin after WWII, the tensions between East and West that lead to the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961, many of the stories of families separated and its unforeseen fall in 1989.
The Cold War is said to have ended in 1991. I never realized how close I came to growing up in a world entangled in another World War.
We also visited the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, a concentration camp a short train ride outside of Berlin. It was a heavy day, retracing the footsteps of WWII prisoners, standing within feet of a gas chamber used in the last 80 years for mass murder.
In early October, I walked across a pontoon bridge in Antwerp with thousands of other Antwerpians. It was the 100th anniversary commemorating a pontoon bridge that was built that same weekend in 1914 to help the Belgian King and many of the city’s inhabitants escape invasion by the Germans in WWI. More than 1.5 million people fled the city–many thousands via that bridge, waiting in a lineup a lot longer than the one I was in to cross the 370 metre temporary flotation.
I imagined having to leave many of my belongings behind, not having the weeks to go through them that I had as I prepared to pack up my house and put what I wanted to keep in a storage unit.
Also in Antwerp, around the back of The Steen Castle, the oldest standing building in the city, I came upon a plaque commemorating the role Canadian troops played in the liberation of the city during WWII.
The plaque reads:
On 16 September 1944, 550 soldiers of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI), 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Denis Whitaker, DSO, advanced into Antwerp to prevent the enemy from destroying the port facilities. For the next three weeks the RHLI, supported by the Belgian Resistance under the command of Colonel Eugene Colson, fought a number of actions to secure the harbour’s vital equipment. Accompanied by the Resistance, the Canadians then began the advance to Woensdrecht and Zuid-Beveland (The Netherlands) as part of the overall offensive to free the approaches to Antwerp.
On 28 November 1944, a Canadian supply ship became the first vessel to steam up the river Scheldt into Antwerp harbour, bringing the essential materials that contributed significantly to the Allied victory. Of the almost 13,000 allied casualties in this campaign, 6,500 were Canadian.
4 September 1944-4 September 2004
When you turn a corner and find a tribute to one or many Canadians who’ve given their lives to impact that part of the world for the better; when you sit in a centuries-old cathedral that is nothing now but shattered walls and rubble and still wears the black marks from an exploded bomb; when you walk in the footsteps of people who only 100 years ago were fleeing a city under fire; when you encounter a wall that came down in your lifetime but you were too young to understand what was happening and what it meant at the time; or when you read the more recent headlines about the targeted attacks on Canadian Parliament and military, the reason why we remember becomes crystal clear.
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the country in which I live, for every person who has stood up to protect the rights and freedoms that support the life I’m fortunate to lead and for the past and present roles Canadians play in protecting those rights and freedoms beyond our borders.