I find as Remembrance Day approaches that I don't spend much time thinking of soldiers. Rather, I think of all of the innocent people whose lives were and are turned upside down because of whatever strange reasons people have for deciding that fighting is better than talking. Mostly, I think of my dad who was a small child in southern Ukraine when the second world war started. He was five years old. Eventually, toward the end of the war in Europe, when the line between the Soviets and the Germans swept over their village and the region in general, his family lost everything they had. They had to decide whether to stay and deal with the Soviet army or follow along with the retreating Germans.
Since they were German speakers and since they had heard terrible stories about other German speaking Mennonites who had been swept up by the red army they decided to leave with the retreating Germans. I don't know all of the details but my understanding is that they mostly walked the 1600 km from where they lived near Dnipropetrovs'k, Ukraine to Poland and eventually to Germany.
In Germany, after the war, they lived on the land of a Baron at Gut Wilhelmsburg, as refugees, or Displaced Persons (DPs) as they were then known. Gut Whilhelmsburg is about 1900 km from their home town in Ukraine, where they had all spent their entire lives to that time.
Eventually, my father, with his immediate family, was able to make his way to Canada (via Pier 21 in Halifax) to the Niagara Peninsula where he had some relatives living already.
The photo is from his time with the German Baron. It shows my Dad in 1946, 11 years old, with some of the other kids living there as well. They all attended school together. He's on the right end of the middle row. Apparently, one day, the Baron roaming about on some kind of inspection stopped, and indicating my father said, "Das Blag sitzt da und reisst Mund und Nase auf und tut nichts!", Who's that kid sitting with his mouth and nose open doing nothing? He turned out to be a hard worker later in life, and expected nothing less from us.
There are many other stories we've heard from that time. Stories of seeing airplanes bombing and strafing the lines of refugees. Stories of eating rotten potatoes from garbage piles. Stories too, though, of getting a chance to splash and swim in a bomb crater and of seeing German soldiers using hand grenades to fish in the river. What a terrible, amazing, pointless thing to happen. And yet, it lead to me.
So, here's to all of the innocents. You deserve better.
Many years later, in the 1980s or 90s my dad met a man, here in Canada, who was visiting from Germany. That man was speaking german and that always caught my dad's ear. They chatted and came to believe that the German fellow had been a soldier in the area where my dad had lived in Ukraine. There were some unique local features that they both remembered.