Tag Archives: second world war

Irena Sendler: What to do when the world ends

Irena_Sendlerowa_1942And so the world didn’t end yesterday. The internet has treated it all as something of a joke, and probably rightly so, but what happens when the world does go to hell? What happens when society seems to be collapsing around you?

Irena Sendler was a social worker in forties Poland, a time when the ravages of Nazism and World War II were scarring Europe. Not global armageddon, sure, but the end of one world and the violent birth of another. A world in which innocent people were loaded into trains on their way to the Camps.Not an end of the world in which everything is snuffed out; no, this was an apocalypse people lived through, an apocalypse in which choices had to be made.

Sendler volunteered in the Warsaw Ghetto, volunteered to check for signs of typhus. This was tolerated by the Nazis, as no-one wanted the disease to spread beyond the Ghetto, but this allowed Sendler to smuggle children out to safety, in sacks and toolboxes and packages. In doing so, she saved 2,500 children from genocide.

The Gestapo eventually caught up with her, but strategic bribery saved her from execution. After the war she was declared to be one of the Righteous Among the Nations and was reportedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, She died in 2008 at the age of 98.

She’s not a household name on the level of Oskar Schindler, and I hope this post can do something towards rectifying that, but in the wake of an apocalypse deferred, it’s worth remembering those who stared down the darkness and made the right decisions when society was going to hell; worth remembering the stories that hold us together when the world is falling apart.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

Photograph by Angelo Celedon

It’s January 27th, Holocaust Memorial Day.

The Holocaust happened a long time ago, of course, and so scarred the psyche of humanity that we like to take comfort in the idea that it couldn’t happen again. That’s nonsense, of course, because attempted genocide happens with terrifying frequency, and while it’s easy to see why many victims of the Holocaust want to consign it to the past, “Never Forget” is a powerful weapon against history repeating itself. A couple of years ago, the BBC archive made available Richard Dimbleby’s report on the liberation of the concentration camp at Belsen. Apparently it almost didn’t get broadcast – the powers that be couldn’t believe that Dimbleby wasn’t exaggerating.

The terrifying thing is, some people still think the events described were a myth.

But, as the theme of this year’s events is ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’, It’s also a time to remember the heroes who shone in dark times. Like Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portugese consul to Bordeaux during the Nazi invasion of France. In definance of his government’s orders, he started issuing visas to Jews and other people escaping Hitler’s tyranny, including the Belgian cabinet. As the article points out, Mendes saved more people than Oskar Schindler but he remains fairly unknown today, a situation which the families of those he helped are now trying to change. Hopefully this will result in greater acknowledgement of what he did.

Of course, as a Brit, I’d also like to mention Frank Foley, the ‘British Schindler’; in March 2010, a medal of honour was given to 27 Britons (most of them posthumously) who worked to save people from the Holocaust, similar to Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations honour. I didn’t realise that, after the war, Foley lived, died and was buried in Stourbridge, just seven miles from where I live. That proximity brings Foley’s story home – this was real and happened to people who could, conceivably, have walked past my parents on the street.

There’s also Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved tens of thousands of Jews but who was arrested by the Soviet Union after they entered Budapest – he died as a result of this, although circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery. Heroism doesn’t always result in medals and parades.

All this makes me wonder what I’d do in the same situation – like everyone else, I’d like to say I’d do the right thing, but put the Nazi war machine behind me and goodness knows what would happen to all those high ideals. But as the rabbinic quotation goes, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” While we’re not faced with living in Nazi-occupied Europe, we still have the opportunity to do something to help others. Maybe it’s just a case of figuring out what that is and doing it – most of the above don’t seem to have prevaricated too much, they just got on with handing out passports. And yet sometimes handing out passports, or speaking out, or helping a neighbour can have painful consequences. Holocaust Mememorial Day teaches us that sometimes those consequences have to be faced. And when that happens we can start to dream, if not say, “Never again.”

 

Memorial Day 2011

In the car park of a local church there’s a spot where, once the Remembrance Day wreaths are removed, the outline of a cross can still be seen, a shadow on the tarmac. I always walk around it, and I’d guess others do too, because there’s almost something sacred about it, partly because hey, it’s a cross, but also what it represents in terms of civic society – a memorial to those fallen in battle, a reminder of those who are serving their country as we speak.

Here in the UK we remember the war dead in November, but in the States today is Memorial Day. I don’t think it matters on which day we pause and reflect and remember, but to do so is important to our national psyches. And in this day and age, when war seems sometimes to be nothjng but an extension of political agendas, it’s perhaps doubly important to remember that those men and women fighting and dying for their countries, are individuals, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, real people with real lives and not some faceless arm of government policy, not some exciting backdrop to CNN reports from Afghanistan. Ordinary people like my great-uncle who was captured at Dunkirk all those years ago and lived out the remainder of the war as a POW.

I know it’s easy to sentimentalise this sort of thing; I hate it when tabloids patronisingly refer to “our boys” and “our girls”. They’re getting shot at, getting torn into by explosions, and seeing things you ‘d hope no-one would ever have to see. I’d think they’ve earned the right and the dignity to be called men and women, not boys and girls.

Anyway, whether you’re in America or not, take time to think about whatever your connection is to conflict and war, be it historical or current. Let this Memorial Day be a time to put a human face on the people serving, and hope and pray for their safety and their futures. And that they’d be able to return home soon.

Hitler vs the Third Dimension – IN 3D!

I’m not yet won over by the whole 3D thing – I liked Avatar’s effects, but, say, Clash of the Titans saw acting that barely qualified as 2D. However, I’m a bit more sympathetic towards it since I read this BBC article on how 3D technology helped defeat the Nazis

Nuclear Power in Japanese Popular Culture

Hope this isn’t an inappropiate link, given that the power station crisis in Japan is still ongoing, but this is a good article on the country’s ambiguous relationship with nuclear power and how that manifests in popular culture. We see Godzilla as a man in a suit stomping over model towns, but to a country that faced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there’s a deeper resonance to all those monsters…

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.