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Why Wear a Red Poppy?


One supposes that most people who wear poppies as a public declaration of remembrance at this time of year, do not think that their gesture has political implications. Perhaps they are wearing their grief on their sleeves, which may be irritating for purists, but they are not declaring victory to those who were defeated by rubbing salt in an old wound.

The red poppy is an international symbol recognized in any country, even Germany. It is easy to overlook the rather obvious fact that German soldiers, and those of the Axis powers, were part of tortuous, violent acts perpetrated on humankind. One doesn’t have to be Jewish to contemplate the horror of the Holocaust and feel complete revulsion at the injustice that provoked it. A red poppy should remind us of Schindler’s list too, but we can forgive ourselves if the Canadian poem that captured the moment and symbolism for World War I and the great wars that followed shone a light on soldiers who had died, rather than people who had died.

Count me among the purists who choose to think of the sacrifices of so many without making a public declaration about it. That public declaration is the point of it, of course, but it leaves out too many people; civilians who fought in the Resistance, who died in the camps, who emigrated to Canada because families were lost and homes obliterated.

I think of my parents who lived through the London Blitz. Mother was a nurse at Middlesex Hospital. Dad was a navigator on Sterling and Lancaster bombers. Dad kept his medals under socks in a drawer. I never saw him wear them, even on Remembrance Day. He was proud, but he understood what he and others of his generation had done, the full ramification of it.

The war left Dad and Mum with ambivalent feelings about faith and God. They were clearly conflicted. Mum had been raised in the Church of England by a family with social position, a large home, and servants. Dad was raised Presbyterian on a farm in Grimsby Ontario. One can only speculate about the difficulties that cultural distinction created. They decided that their four children should make independent choices about God as adults. They did not raise us as Christians with a church affiliation. Perhaps the fact that both sides in the War imagined that God was their ally left them profoundly disillusioned.

Mum told me that dad would awaken during the night, flailing his arms, tormented from a nightmare that had replayed one of many terrifying moments of his war experience. In the years since, I think of the thousands of others, soldiers and civilians, who must have awakened from dreams just as disturbing. I think of my late Polish mother-in-law, who endured passage to Canada with everything she owned on her back. I imagine her standing on the dock in Montreal with her name pinned to her chest, like a Star of David, marking her as a Displaced Person, as she queued with hundreds of other refugees, with no home or family. I try to imagine what she was thinking as she shuffled to the table where someone with a vague smile was waiting to speak to her in a language she did not yet understand.

Now, I have done it too. This post is a public declaration, an emotion tugging on my sleeve to delete it.

(This post was first published 9th Nov., 2013, lost then found.  G.B.)

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Professional. Retired. Canadian.

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