On the cold first day of January 2015, I stood on the tarmac at the Birmingham, Alabama, airport at 10:24 a.m. Like a colt in a bare, winter meadow, the wind blew freely around the runways. The Delta personnel on the ground passed around earplugs to each of our small group of about 10, explaining that when the plane turned off the runway to pull into its slot, it would be loud. We spotted the plane coming in for a landing from the east. My sister was on that flight in order to join our group; when she boarded in Atlanta, she introduced herself to Major Choi as instructed. They would be the only passengers to exit the plane until the ceremony ended.
The flight was bringing the remains of my father’s first cousin, Major Peyton Mathis, Jr., home at last after being MIA and presumed dead for 70 years. Major Choi was on the flight to escort those remains, to be transferred to the family with the Honor Guard on the ground, in a formal ceremony, as the Delta passengers watched from their windows. (See the previous post for details leading to this Homecoming.) This formal military ceremony was structured, yes, but very moving and emotional; members of our small group were not the only ones to fight back tears.
I wondered, “This is the first day of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Could this New Year’s Day ceremony for Peyton be the first event of this anniversary year?”
Many Alabama news outlets ran this bitter-sweet story of a U.S. flyer returning to his home to be laid to rest after 70 years hidden on Guadalcanal; it also ran in a few national print publications. But none remarked on its place in the context of this year’s anniversary.
Oh, yes, anniversaries of all stripes come and go and come and go. Some anniversaries go out with a whimper; some, like one’s birthday, simply end. Some are simply too big to be ignored; they should arrive as a supernova, having built up over the eons like those mega-dense white dwarf stars in our Universe that carry a dense mass disguised by its camouflaged power. I hope that the next five years of World War II anniversaries do not pass unwatched until we look around only to realize we have lost all those veterans and sufferers and survivors and wives and support workers who link us to such a monumental history lesson. I hope fervently that my granddaughters, who will be young adults when the 100th Anniversary of World War II arrives, will feel deeply their direct connection to that history.
To have even childhood memories of World War II, you have to have been born before about 1938. My father returned home in 1945; I was short of two. Even Baby Boomers, born between 1944 and 1964, could have only indirect memories, and it’s frightening to think how few of that group will still be around to celebrate the 75th and 100th anniversaries.
World War II -- its history, its lessons for humanity, its survivors and its fallen -- is simply too important to fade into a misty past.
If only one event could stand for all the lessons the War holds for humanity, it would be this one:
On January 27, a weather event in the northeast captivated the media and their viewers/listeners for hours and days while a truly monumental event was taking place in Poland. That day marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi death camps. Some 300 survivors were there, and many expressed their sorrowful recognition that fewer and fewer will be able to attend future anniversaries. Many expressed their greatest fear – not that they would not be able to attend future anniversaries, but that humanity could forget.
Seventy years ago that day, a contingent of the Russian Army arrived at Auschwitz not knowing what they were going to find. What they found was beyond gruesome, beyond horror, beyond human.
Survivor Roman Kent presented his moving account of his experience with his call to remember:
I am often asked how long I was in Auschwitz. My answer is I do not know. But what I do know is that one minute in Auschwitz was like a day; a day was like a year; a month, an eternity. How many eternities can one person have in a single lifetime. I don’t know that either.Kent quoted from Primo Levi’s excruciating Survival in Auschwitz (1947), as he repeated the need to never forget.
“Remember”: this was the work my father frequently uttered to me during the Holocaust. . . . How can I ever forget. . .? I wondered if the cries from youngsters [torn from their mothers] ever penetrated Heaven’s Gate. . . .We survivors DO NOT WANT OUR PAST TO BE OUR CHILDREN’S FUTURE. . . .
Levi defined how Auschwitz should be remembered in a 1986 interview with The New Republic:
The war can be explained, but Auschwitz has nothing to do with the war; it was not an episode in it, nor an extreme form of it. War is always a terrible fact, to be deprecated; but it is in us, it has its rationality, we “understand” it. There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred. It is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man, it is a poison fruit sprung form the deadly trunk of fascism, although outside and beyond fascism itself. If understanding is impossible, however, knowledge is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again: even our consciences.
The 2005 PBS “Frontline” presentation Memory of the Camps, created from footage found in stored in a vault of London's Imperial War Museum, can be viewed on line here.
HBO’s “Night Will Fall,” made from the original footage taken by British film makers, under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, is currently running; check for local airing times. We must remember.