It is ANZAC Day in Australia on the 25th April
Originally this was the day to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) involvement in the First World War, however with the passing of time it has expanded to acknowledge all Australian lives lost at War.
As a teenager, I have memories of my father heading off to the ANZAC Day march in the city centre, but as he never talked about it, and as he literally staggered home, I always saw it as nothing more than another opportunity to get inebriated.There is an Australian attitude; any excuse for a piss up! I never really contemplated the connection between the need to get drunk, and the memories he may have carried. My father died when I was 18, so I hadn’t reached an age where I had asked him about this in any meaningful way.
I’ve always been afraid of the reality of war, which started beaming through our television sets with the Vietnam War, and continued with East Timor, Cambodia, Lebanon, Ethiopia and Somalia, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, The Gulf War, Iran, Rwandan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Syria. And these are only the ones I remember.
I grew up on Hogan’s Heroes and other war films depicting the fearlessness of the Resistance. The buffoonery of Colonel Klink and Sargent Shultz softened the reality of the German occupation and this war in all its brutality, thus earned a place within my imaginary play. My sisters and I would ponder and pose the question what would we do in this situation; would we be brave enough to risk our lives for a moral rightness, or would we turn away protecting our own at the ultimate cost for another?
Late last year, heading to the Netherlands to visit with my in-laws, I discovered they lived next door to a 92-year-old woman who was part of the Resistance. This non- assuming but extraordinary woman had helped smuggle Canadian and English pilots who had been shot down, out of Europe. How many I don’t know. Near the end of the war she was captured and sentenced to death. As the allies advanced she was moved from camp to camp and at the eleventh hour her papers being mislaid; sparing her life as her colleague was executed. She would have been in her late teens early 20’s. Here was someone who had lived through dilemma’s I only ever want to imagine. Unable to ask due to the limitation of language I wondered how she came to the decisions and actions she did? How did being around so much murder and death shape her? I wonder how this experienced informed her life… her children’s lives? Here I was witnessing someone at the end of their life, her choices and consequences known and playing out to the end. Perhaps like many people she said very little about her experiences, and kept it hidden, allowing it to remain the silent influencer. I will be left to ponder, but from the brief encounter we had, I can say, there was a lot of light in this woman.
I think about a dear friend who told me recently of her grandfather who at 18, survived the Holocaust, only to discover his whole family had been murdered. As my friend has grown older, she is often caught off guard by the enormity of him being the sole surviving ancestor. The tenuousness of her family’s existence, ever present. Sometimes it can feel like he was the beginning of her lineage, not almost the end of it. Then she remembers all who had come before and imagines what they must have endured. And here she is, now. Here. She says she still doesn’t know if this is liberating or a deep burden to bear; perhaps it is both.
My thoughts float to my family history. My father was barely 18 when he enlisted for the Second World War. He spent time in Papua New Guinea. His ‘story’ was he had originally been assigned to the kitchen crew, however, on realising what a bad cook he was he was transferred to the medical corps, where he assisted on basic autopsies. He had worked as a lab assistant at a local hospital before enlisting, so this may have been a truer account of how he ended up where he did. At the end of his service and under The Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, he entered Sydney University. Coming from a dirt-poor, working class family, he would never have been afforded this opportunity without doing this time in the Service. This is where he met my mother, who came from a privileged wealthy family, thus possessing an entitlement that many a woman of her generation did not; the possibility of an University education. It could be said, that this lineage of 5 children and 11 grand children, owes our existence to my fathers time at War.
I choose to focus on these stories this ANZAC day, as a reminder of the resilience and potential within the human spirit. I want to think about those who survived. Those who were born out of these stories, the families and the scars and legacies inherited. Of all the 18 year olds who faced and survived an unspeakable, who took a crossroad that shaped their generations to come.
We all know too well there is so much pain and destruction in war. Even writing this seems grossly simplistic. We see it on our television sets every day, on the news, in documentary as well as fiction. There is the obvious carnage, but the silent trauma that is carried down the generations shapes us. Sometimes it decimates families, but sometimes the light grows stronger.