Thursday, 11 November 2010

Of Poppies

Today is Remembrance Day.

I have qualms with calling it “Poppy Day” or even sometimes “Armistice Day”, because I’ve always felt that was missing the point.

This is the day we Remember, and as fewer and fewer of us are left who actually do remember from personal experience, it is becoming more and more important that the torch is passed on to those generations born after 1945.

This isn’t a day of tribute. We, in this country, do owe a debt of gratitude to those soldiers who fought and died to keep us British and free of foreign rule, but we also owe the same debt to almost everyone of that generation. The contribution of non-combatants; those ambulance drivers, medics, code-breakers, munitions factory workers, Land Girls, and everyone who kept the country running while the soldiers were away; cannot be discounted. Yet we have a day to remember those who died... and a lot of people have forgotten why we do that. Not because they deserve more thanks than those who survived, but because it is important to remember the toll that warfare takes. It is important to remember how high is the price that can be valued in human lives.

The best way we can pay tribute to those men and women who have lost their lives to conflict is to make sure that no-one ever has to pay that price again. And for us to be able to do that, we need to remember the horror, not the glory of warfare. Because it’s all too easy to see the ritual, and the Last Post in the same light as all the other ceremonies and rituals we have in this country – something in the nature of a school assembly that must be endured before we get a half-day holiday.

This year, back in September, I went to Europe, and while I was in Poland, I spent a day at Osweçim – the little town that we know by its German name: Auschwitz. The experience was a harrowing one, but one I am glad that I had. You hear about it in history lessons, but hearing about it, and actually seeing the gas-chambers, the rows upon rows of huts and places where huts once were at Birkenhau, the tiny cramped cells in the prison block where people were made to stand five at a time without light and barely any air, the scaffold and the firing wall, the piles of personal effects still kept in the museum, the piles of clothing and human hair, it is a very different experience. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like before liberation, and even attempting is painful.

Poland is a beautiful place. The countryside in September is almost like Britain. You can walk around the little gravel streets between the red-brick huts, down the rows of trees and grass, and for a moment think that this is just another Autumn day. And then you remember. You are standing in the place where, literally, millions of people were murdered. Not one by one, but en mass. This was a cold, clinical, destruction line; a factory for death. It is chilling to think that such atrocities happened in a place that so looks like my home country. The thought that struck me most was; if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere. And that is why we cannot become complacent. We cannot think that it can’t happen, wouldn’t happen here, not here, because it did. It happened in a place just like home – which was home to some – and we cannot forget that, or else it will happen again.

I have heard that the experience of seeing the battlefields in Belgium is a similar experience, and I hope one day to see those as well. Because it is important that we understand, and more importantly, that we Remember.

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