The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month… a jaunty, poetic summing-up of years of heartache, bloody frustration, of useless waste.
A day to remember what? To remember littered fields, aching throats calling to lost comrades, the heart-stopping drone of overhead engines? To look around the dinner table and remember those who should have filled the empty seats?
We were not there. It was not us. What do we have to remember?
At 14, my baba’s family was driven from their village by invading troops, only avoiding being deported to a concentration camp because a sympathetic priest had torn up their identity papers which were marked with the Star of David. Escaping into the forest to search for food one day, they came back to discover that their entire village had been shot. They were the lucky ones: escaping death, they spent years instead in Nazi work camps, toiling in a munitions factory where my baba was partially blinded at 16 by a bomb exploding in her face.
She came to Canada at the end of the 40s, having been married in the work camps to a young man she met in a bible study they had there. She was alone – her family was scattered throughout work camps in Germany, her eldest sister deported to Siberia. She spoke no English, knew no faces in the crowd as she came down the ship’s ramp. She worked hard. She worked wherever and whenever she could, determined that her family would be cared for.
I was not there. That was not me. What do I have to remember?
I remember Baba.
When my cousins and I were small, Baba was to be partially feared for her unbending rules, partially giggled at for the proclamations of these rules in Ukrainian-covered English. As I grew older, I began to see my Baba as the young girl who was and who lost everything, as the woman who rebuilt her life and her family using everything she had left. Through her cooking, I saw how family is knit together around the dinner table. Through her clothes, I saw how the smallest amount of something is always enough to be shared and made into something new. Through her language, I learned the richness of family history and the love of a land that is my home, though I have only traveled there by heart, not by plane. And even through her rules, I grew to see the fierce determination of a heart that longed to protect her family from losing everything she had lost.
Not simply the eleventh hour. But a life well-lived, and the choice to carry on.