Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Cycle Repeats Itself

And now, a slightly comic denouement to the previous post, to serve as a virtual sorbet and make the transition to future silliness more palatable...

Mark is a friend of mine (former boss, actually) who lives in the U.K. and is a tremendous history buff. He sent me an e-mail telling me he enjoyed Opa's story, and added this: More WWII info for Fenya; apparently if German tourists get 'uppity' (a habit they find hard to break) in Holland the Dutch say 'can my grandad have his bicycle back?' as the occupying forces left in such a hurry they stole every mode of transport they could get their hands on!

Needless to say, I found this pretty funny, and told a few people at work, a few of my mates, the wife and so forth. That evening, she was on the phone with my father-in-law to thank him for the tale, and put me on the phone to tell him Mark's anecdote, which I related with glee.

"It's true," he said. "I had a bicycle near the end of the war. It was old, and worn out, and all the leather had come off the seat. Springs were all sticking out of it, so it hurt my bottom to ride it. But near the end of the war, a drunken German soldier came to the farm and just told me, 'Kid, I need that bicycle.' And I said, 'Take it.' And he rode off, and that was that."

Now, I figure a dilapidated bicycle is a small price to pay to hasten the departure of occupation forces, sad as it is to be taking a toy from a 12 year old Dutch boy. But there had to be some measure of satisfaction in knowing that if you wanted to, you could probably track the guy down by his funny walk after he rode it all the way to the border in a semi-anesthetized state, right?

And I am just waiting for the inappropriate moment when my daughter asks some visiting German person, "Can my granddad have his bicycle back? No, seriously..."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Theories of Relative-ity

My daughter, Fenya, is in the 5th grade, and has recently started a Social Studies unit on the Holocaust. Knowing that both of my wife's parents were in Holland during the war, she asked my wife to inquire if Oma or Opa knew anyone who had been taken away during the occupation.

Now, like a lot of people, I have a hard time categorizing my relationship with my father-in-law. Do I tell you we have drastically different ways about experiencing the world and the people in it? Or the fact that the very first words he said to me after being introduced and shaking hands was, "Soft hands"? Despite all that, however, he can be an easy fellow to respect. What he may lack in diplomacy he more than makes up for in honesty and clear language, and is an intelligent and inquisitive man with tremendous memory and insight.

He wrote the following to Fenya, and for a man of few words who does not have a lot of cause to write, he tells an important story about values, and risk, and familial connections to historic events in a way I can only describe as brilliantly succinct, and I wanted to share it with you.

March 27, 2009

Dear Fenya,

You asked your mom whether I knew people of the Jewish religion who were taken by the Germans and died (or were gassed) in a concentration camp in Germany or Poland. I knew an old Jewish couple who came to Mom and Dad’s farm periodically for some food. My Mom knew them very well because they had a small store from where they sold yarn to knit socks, vests, sweaters etc. I picture them as being in their seventies and were marked by a yellow star (the Star of David on their clothing). The Star of David, King of Israel from the Old Testament, and is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. From about 1942 on until they were rounded up they were to be identified by the Star of David and a curfew was imposed on them; they were not allowed on the street between 9 pm and 7 am by the German occupation in Europe. They knew that they were earmarked for destruction. The man said one time to my Mom, ‘there is no reason for us to ask anybody to hide us, we are old anyway.’

There were several Jewish people in our town who had small businesses from which they eked out a living. Your Great-Uncle Hendrik Torsius and his wife took a Jewish family into hiding for 3 years; a man and his wife and their two teenaged daughters. They lived in an out of the way area at the time. He built a sort of chicken coop and made it appear for anybody’s eyes like a big pile of straw which would be used for bedding for cattle in the wintertime. They lived in very close quarters but survived for 3 years by hiding in this way.

One time the German army came around checking the area farms. Your Great-Uncle asked the soldier who was to check out his place what he was looking for and told him there was nothing to be found; ‘You might as well leave.’ Luckily, he left.

After the war, the family was given the distinction by the nation of Israel as being Righteous Gentiles, and a tree was planted in their honor in Israel.

Your Great-Uncle’s family put their lives on the line to save that family. If that Jewish family would have been found, both families would have been shot dead.

Opa Top,
(Gerrit Top)
High River, Alberta

Opa and Oma both experienced some terrible things during World War II. Opa barely missed being deported to work in concentration camps like Neuengamme and Birkenau in 1944. Over 600 young men and boys were shipped out, and only 49 returned after the war. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putten) I hope he can be convinced to write about that experience at some point, but I will certainly understand if he doesn't. In fact, this warcrime is so well known, he rarely even identifies himself as being from Putten.

At any rate, I am very grateful to my father-in-law, for connecting my daughter so directly to an act of heroism during a historic tragedy, and for reminding us that we are not so far removed from its effects as we might like to think.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why Start a Blog?

Really, there is not a lot of incentive to start up a blog at this point in my life. I am hardly a unique demographic, either amongst internet users in general or bloggers in specific. There are already plenty out there, so it is not like I'm filling any sort of need, right?

Well, maybe my needs.

I've always enjoyed writing, and I wish I had taken steps in my younger days that could have led me to a career doing it, but I was never committed enough to be a journalist, or competitive enough to work in advertising, nor imaginative enough to come up with any other viable options. I wrote a few short stories here and there, mostly for training material or gaming background, or my own enjoyment and that of my friends, and once, years ago, I wrote a screenplay with a co-worker for a contest. But then comes work and a family, and writing takes a back seat to less strenuous or more sociable recreation, and your axe grows dull, and you content yourself with critiquing the writing you encounter in books and movies and television.

But it still needs to get out.

Within my circle of friends are a number of gents who are very handy with the verbage, some professionally so, and when they throw a word of praise (or better yet, an expression of jealousy) for a turn of phrase or an idea I've expressed in one of our G-mail threads, it makes my day. Seriously. Like many insecure humans, I get about 50 miles per pat-on-the-head, and praise from people you respect the way I respect my mates is more priceless than those MasterCard commercials could ever know.

So I find myself running on in my e-mails from time to time. Grandstanding. Soapboxing. Waxing eloquent, or at least, attempting to do so. Even when it doesn't generate feedback, I still enjoy it, still picture the reader smiling at his workplace or imagine the spontaneous generation of a soft chuckle or thoughtful nod. I mean, there is certainly no pressing need to proof a second draft of an e-mail being added to a thread entitled, "Anyone doing anything this Saturday?", is there?

And thus I end up here, taking the leap, and starting a blog. I am pretty sure there is no need for another electronic raconteur here on 'teh internets', but I am damned sure there is room. A chance to post some insights, share some stories, vent some spleen, and who knows what else.

If the axe gets sharp, who knows what might be done with it?