Today I Remember My Opa - A WWII Veteran

A photo of my Opa's hands with his cane.

A photo of my Opa's hands with his cane.

This morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11 a.m., millions of Canadians will pause in silence to mark the end of World War One, 98 years ago. It is a time for us to remember and honour those who fought and fell, as well as those who lived to tell their stories of the atrocities of war. It is a time for us to reflect on the privilege we have to live in Canada and the price our fellow countrymen/women paid for us to live in freedom. Although I don’t endorse war, I can’t deny that I benefit from those who have gone and do go to war on behalf of my country.

My remembrance moves past WWI and extends into the other armed and unarmed conflicts our country and people have been involved in. I pause to remember the millions of casualties and the destruction and devastation violence brings to our world.

This year, I am also making a concerted effort to remember by Opa (Grandpa) who fought in World War Two. At the age of 17, he volunteered to join the army to fight on the front. He tells stories of being in the trenches and seeing those beside him fall to take their last breathes in the dirt and mud while shells and bombs flew overhead. He tells stories of being captured, tortured and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp. After years of malnutrition and forced labour, he was allowed to return home to parents who didn’t recognize him. His only sibling, however, never returned home. 

My Opa never tells these stories without emphasizing his belief that God protected him through it all. He would say that in the last moment, God always held His hand over him. He has told these stories to me so many times that I could recite them. They are a big part of my family story, but there’s more to it. I have somewhat of a confession.

My Opa fought for Germany.

Yes, my Opa fought for the wrong side. He volunteered to defend his country, a country led by Adolf Hitler with an agenda of racial superiority and genocide. Although my Opa has always said that he didn’t know about the concentration camps, medical experiments and other horrors committed by the Nazi regime, he had his part to play in it. He believed that he was defending his country against an evil that was coming to destroy his home. And I don’t think he was the only German soldier who believed the propaganda and simply followed orders without knowing the bigger picture.

This has been a big point of tension in my life so far. We learned about WWII in school, and when people heard of my half-German heritage, it wasn’t long before I heard the word “Nazi” directed at me. I never took it seriously, and I don’t think I was ever meant to, but it has made me wonder if my family history would be better left in the closet.

As a proud Canadian with immigrant parents, I see how easily we can demonize people who are different from us. If I saw my Opa the way the allies portrayed Germans to be in WWII, it wouldn't be farfetched for me to believe I had demon blood in me. But my Opa (the only grandparent I ever knew), is one of the most selfless, loving and kind people I know. He never hesitates to do special things for us or to spend time with us. He’s like any grandparent who wants the best for their family. And if you ever want any funny tag-lines, he’s your man!

So, how can I remember? How can I honour our Canadian veterans while at the same time honouring my Opa? It makes little sense to honour the victor and the enemy. I’ve had to ask this question every year, but until now I have chosen to ignore it. I’m done with that. Here is what I’ve come up with so far:

Today, as I choose to pause and remember, I am reminded of the sin of violence and how evil pulls us into wars that destroy countries, families and people. As I remember, I pray for the families that have lost their loved ones because of war. All experienced loss; the winners, the losers and the innocent. Parents lost children. Children lost parents. Spouses lost Spouses. It doesn’t matter what side you are on, the grief is the same.

As I remember, I refuse to glorify war. I refuse to demonize people simply because they fight to protect what is important to them. It is always more complicated than that. Although some believe that war is necessary to protect our freedom, that doesn’t stop me from mourning the loss and destruction war brings with it.

But I would also never justify the evils of the Nazi regime. Something had to be done to stop Hitler, and although we can look back and see other ways in which countries could have stepped in, they didn’t do it the way we think would have worked best. I have no problem pausing to remember those who fought to stop regimes like Nazi Germany. From a national perspective, there seems to have been no better alternative.

I also have no problem remembering my Opa. Not as a soldier who did good for his country, but as a casualty of a nation and an ideology that taught hate, discrimination, fear, and the superiority of one race. My Opa, along with millions of other Germans, went along with what Hitler was doing, some standing by and others fully involved. But I believe that if he saw the full picture, he would have never gone along with it.

I know this because of the journey of un-learning and healing he has gone through since the war. His travels around the world have introduced him to all kinds of people. He always told us how he learned that, contrary to what Germany taught him, all people were just like him. He learned to love the people he was taught to hate.

My mother (my Opa’s only living child), has had to walk this road of healing and reconciliation her whole life as well. I often remember her deliberate effort to reach out and love people who were different from her. One of those people was Mrs. King (not her real name). 

Mrs. King is a Holocaust survivor.

I still remember in Toronto, when my mom, Mrs. King and myself went to a concert during Holocaust education week. It was a powerful moment for me, sitting beside a Holocaust survivor and hearing parts of her story. She knew ours, but that didn’t seem to bother her. Something more powerful broke through the hate and violence my Opa's country once had for her people. My fear that she was holding us accountable for what Nazi Germany had done was quickly laid to rest.

Not only has this relationship been healing for our family, it has also been healing for Mrs. King. On one of my Opa’s visits to Canada a few years ago, he met Mrs. King for coffee in our home. They shared stories, took pictures and shook hands. This story deserves more attention elsewhere, but that image of healing and reconciliation will stick with my family, especially my mother, forever.

Today, as I pause, I am reminded that there is more healing and reconciling to be done. I am reminded that, as a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for peace and justice. My prayer is that God would use my story, and our stories, as tools through which God's reconciling love would flow through us to the world.