“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness” – Elie Wiesel
Those big moments in history. The French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution. WW1. The Depression. WW2. (and specifically) The Holocaust. The Rape of Nanking. The Russian Invasion of Germany. The bombing of Britain. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The Vietnam War. The Civil Right’s Movements. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The AIDS crisis. 9/11? (etc, etc…)
Ring a bell?
These are events you learn about in high school, right? I hope so.
In the class that I TA for I’ve encountered a lack of historical knowledge in some – if not most – of my students. I’m not too worried about this, but, I have to say, it is a little – maybe just a little – disconcerting.
I remember being in grade 11 history class. It was a hot May day and we were all learning about the Holocaust. Our teacher was showing a documentary on Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, perhaps two of the worst concentration camps in the set during the war. Not shortly after, in a class later that week, we watched Schindler’s List. Both were starkly real, one emphasized through the medium of film, the emotional memory of victims. The purpose was not to prep us for an essay or exam, but to simply show us what happened during the Holocaust. To make us witnesses, in a sense.
“I didn’t have a choice: I had to see” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I have been lucky enough to have two grandparents who remembered World War Two. My grandfather was a prisoner of the Japanese and was sent to a work camp called Hakodate, where he suffered starvation and regular beatings. After four years of being imprisoned in the camp, the Americans rescued the remaining prisoners, including my grandfather, and transported them to San Francisco, which had opened up several veterans’ medical centres to help survivors, well, survive. My grandmother made bombs in factories throughout England. After working three weeks in a factory in Coventry, the town was bombed by the Germans. Many of her friends and co-workers were killed. By the time World War Two had ended my grandparents’ circle of friends and family was greatly lessened. How did they die? Starvation, beatings, malaria, suicide, and, occasionally, during air raids.
The losses in World War Two were substantial, almost unthinkable. The atrocities were beyond comprehension. What is more, after World War Two, came the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and, to top it all off, the numerous genocides of the past thirty years (Bosnian-Herzegovinian War, Rwanda, Cambodia, and, most recently, the Syrian War). Here is a list of genocides in the 20th century if you are interested:
What makes these genocides more real to us is when we can actually see what happened. Without this knowledge the numbers are simply body counts, without faces or bodies. They are bodies without names.
To see a perplexed look on a student’s face when I mention “Nagasaki” is a little much. Then, there is all of the complexities tied in with Nagasaki. For instance, what the atomic bombs did to Japan’s society and how it transformed their sense of history. The bombs and bullets were not directed near as much at the Japanese military as they were at the regular people, which is why Nagasaki was simply horrific.
I am not a history major, I am a literature major. I learn through story. I learn through connecting a story to people and places. I learn through reading into the emotions and psychologies of characters. To me, history is emotional recollection. The best sources are the witnesses and the survivors. Historians try to place all these ‘stories’ into a context and into a chronological order. It is up to those who read and learn history to connect the facts and figures with the names and faces. It is up to those who bring history into the classroom, including English TAs and professors, to use the emotional recollections of survivors to retell the story that is history.
My grandfather told his-story. His story was written in a series of notebooks that chronicled his whole experience in the prison camp (quite a difficult read) and his long return home to England (also a difficult read). Through my grandfather’s retelling of his history, my brother and I were able gather a sense of how World War Two had shaped our family, including why we were in Canada and not England (there was no work, even for veterans). Perhaps this is why I am a little disconcerted why students sometimes don’t know about major events in history. You have the internet – look it up. Instead of wasting hours on Facebook and whatnot, look some stuff up. With the plethora of information available on the internet, anyone can gather what the world has been and what it is becoming.
What it is becoming. Clearly, there is a connection between past events and our future. Therefore, what does it say when people have little to no idea – or couldn’t care less – about the past. How you access the past is up to you, but is essentially to put the modern world in perspective. People may view the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Slave trade as horrible, but in our world today their are similar atrocities being committed everyday, if not every minute and hour for the same reasons: money, national feuds (money), religion (money), etc. The quickest way to dissolve a divide is through either, a, killing it or, b, communicating over it. The fences constructed, whether national boundaries, spiritual taboos, class divides, sex and sexuality differences, are merely just that, fences. Break them down with words and love.
Here, I think I found something useful: http://www.standnow.org/learn/conflict
Because it hasn’t ended. History continues and we all have stories to tell. Current Civil Right’s movements are no doubt going to be in the books that chronicle our times. Corporate control throughout the globe has lead to a word of exploitation and affluence – a beautiful, dark divide. A world of illusion. Wealth results from the inequality and lack of others. So, we have no shortage of problems to attend to (ones that we will be always be attending to, it seems).
How can you help? Knowledge. Live that knowledge. We can be more than just witnesses.