Reflections on a family’s war involvement

Sometimes, I spend so much time telling other people’s stories that I forget about those in my own family.

Sometimes, I spend so much time telling other people’s stories that I forget about those in my own family.

I spoke last week with Stuart Reitsma, a Korean war veteran, and Don Macrae, who lived in Britain as a child during the Second World War. Their stories had almost nothing in common, reflecting different perspectives during wartime, and very different wars. However, both were incredible stories.

Like every other Canadian, I studied the wars when I was in school. I read about the battles, learned the dates, and watched movies about them. I memorized the words of “In Flanders Fields”.

It was one thing to read about the atrocities of war. It was another thing completely to speak to a veteran who saw them with his own eyes, or to someone whose childhood included regular air raids.

My maternal grandfather is a veteran. He joined the Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He has a poppy on his license plate. A black-and-white photo of him in his airman’s uniform hangs in his house, alongside a photo of his marriage to my grandmother, and photos of his grandchildren’s graduations.

I’ve never asked him about his experience, and now I wonder why. I only know he was 17 when he joined the air force, and that he changed his birth certificate so he could join.

My paternal grandfather lived in Nazi-occupied Holland. In 1944, a large part of the country, including where he lived, was hit with a famine. The Germans had cut off all food shipments to the area to punish the Dutch for not helping them with their war effort. My grandfather nearly starved to death. In his own words, he could “play piano on my ribs”.

He immigrated to Canada after the war. Stacks of canned food fill his kitchen cupboards, and he grows many fruits and vegetables in his backyard. He wastes no food, not even animal bones, which he boils to make soup stock.

I have never asked him about this period in his life. My knowledge of it comes from my father, who has a strong interest in our family history. Still, most of his interest involves generations that go further back than his own father.

Sometimes, the most obvious stories are the hardest ones to see.

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