Anzac Day Story Illustrations
Journalists always seem to come up with new angles for Anzac Day stories. This year, much is being written of the damage done to service people on the front line. Thankfully these days it’s recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although I imagine there are still some who stubbornly refuse to accept there’s anything wrong that a a couple of beers with ‘the mates’ won’t fix. Things are very different from the days of past conflicts, such as WW1, WW11, Korea and Vietnam.
Here, my thoughts go to my own father, who lied about his age, signed up for the NZ Navy, quickly found himself being trained in radar, then rostered from allied ship, to allied ship, (English, New Zealand, Australian and American), teaching other sailors the finer points of radar. Unlike his Rat of Tobruk older brother, he came back as damaged goods, his wife and family trying to understand the problem. I recall at the age of 15yrs, going to see his aunt, in the quest for answers. I was shocked when she told me, he’d been a very funny teenager, with a great sense of humour, this was not the bloke I knew. On his return from the war, she’d found him a very different, very quiet man.
I’ve never forgotten the stories of my mother’s eldest brother, he’d served at Gallipoli. As a young boy of seven or eight, his tales both horrified and astounded me. He opened up one morning when I questioned why he vehemently didn’t want me to have Vegemite on my toast, telling me it smelt like the dead bodies lying on the fields.
Years later, I was fortunate enough to become friends with a lovely couple, he an ex SAS soldier. It turned out she had deliberately sought out the friendship, as she knew her husband needed to talk with a bloke who thought it was OK to laugh, cry and show emotion. Indirectly, that led to me offering to help organise an SAS fund raiser for the widows and children of soldiers killed in action. And now and then, I’ve come across broken men, the same age as me, who’d found themselves in the disaster that was Vietnam. There but for the grace of the dice! There was a ballot in my day, If your birthday came up, you were conscripted. It didn’t, I wasn’t.
In recent years, I’ve come to know Germany very well, indeed my fiance is German and I’ve seen what it’s like to be history’s reviled loser. There is no open celebration of sacrifice and bravery in Deutschland , just small graves in little villages and constant reminders, both self-inflicted and imposed by others, of the dark hell of the Nazi era. We proudly display our flags, although not with the mad excess of our American cousins, but the Germans have only recently given themselves permission to fly their flags at home and at sports matches. The dreadful bogan “Australia, love it of F#@$ Off” car stickers would bring a jail sentence in Germany.
Trying to explain Anzac Day to my German friends is difficult, as I understand only too well, they cannot find a way to immortalise their own service people in the way we can. Theirs is a very different remembrance, 365 days a year. Outside the Reichstag in Berlin, a small monument of stones immortalises the members of Parliament who stood up to the Nazis and were executed. Then of course, there are the soul-shattering concentration camps, such as Dachau and Auschwitz. Everyone who has the opportunity to visit one of these camps should do so, but beware, there are no words to adequately describe the drained, exhausted feeling as you leave.
For me, the most unsettling, poignant, incredible ‘monument’ in Germany, is a simple suburban railway station in Berlin. Grunewald Station is picture postcard perfect, surrounded by beautiful, elegant house and bustling with trains and commuters. But as you walk along the passage feeding the various platforms, there is one with no lights, no public address speakers and no people. Gleis 17 – Platform 17.
At the top of the stairs, it’s as if you’ve entered another world. There are two platform areas with four tracks. The platforms are covered in rusted / rust coloured metal and trees grow over the tracks at either end. It’s obvious no trains ever stop here. It’s forlornly beautiful in a strange, unsettling way. Then as you walk along the platform, piercing reality knocks the breath out of you. The metal overlay is divided into sections, each one has a date, the number of people and their destination. I defy anyone to read, “12th October 1944, 31 Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz” and not have harrowing tears well up in their eyes. Yes, this was the final stage of a terrible journey to Hitler’s Final Solution. The horror mounts as you try to make sense of this history at a suburban railway station and the eternal question circles and circles through your mind, “How did this happen?”
Historians and the Germans will try to find the answers for eternity.
I leave shaken with the lady who is now my fiance. She was right, as emotionally exhausting as it was, I had to see it. It is the most moving WW11 memorial I have ever seen. But more that that, any nation capable of confronting their past in the way the Germans do, makes them a friend worth having and a people to admire.
20 minutes later, back in Berlin and a short walk across the grass in front of the Reichstag, we come to Wilhelmstrasse, accurately signposted as the Topography of Terrors. Razed to the ground at the end of the war, this was the Gestapo Headquarters. It’s possible to stand in a basement section where people were routinely tortured and summarily shot. I do.
I look up. And find that sometimes, we learn nothing. A section of the Berlin Wall stands right over the Gestapo ruins, as a monument to on-going insanity. How could the Russians, who lost 20 million people in WW11, construct another evil on top of such evil?
12 months later, I’m back in Berlin, for an open-air concert to be held at Waldbuhne Stadium, once a potent symbol of the Nazis. Hitler had it built for the 1936 Olympics, later, he had a private box there, where he would attend orchestral concerts.
This concert would surely make the evil bastard writhe in hell. A Montreal Jew of Russian stock, is performing this night. Leonard Cohen.
As you walk towards the stadium, the imposing concrete menace of Nazi architecture stands over you, then you enter the arena walking down 90 or so stairs. We were very lucky with middle seats in Row 3, amongst many friends, Cohen fans from around the world. One young woman, in her early 20s, held my arm saying, “ God, I can’t believe I made it in here. My heart was pounding, tears running down my cheeks, I couldn’t breath, but I’m here! I’m here!” From Israel, she had lost many of her family during the Nazi era and this journey was still terrifying. We drank wine to a better world and sacrifices made.
Then he was there, a little elderly, Jewish gnome, singing “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” in the very heart of Nazi territory. By the time he got to the second chorus, 25,000 Germans (and a sprinkling of interlopers, such as me), were on their feet, singing … “Then we take Berlin!” The significance was lost on no one, everywhere you looked, people were in tears, including me – seven months later, the tears still glisten as I write this. Every time the band reached the chorus line, Cohen, with a huge grin, would remove his hat, stop singing and let the audience go. As he wrote so many years ago … “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
So as dawn filters through the long white clouds of New Zealand, then streaks across the vast Australian island continent and people gather to hear the Last Post, Anzac Day must be a remembrance of loss, it must never be a celebration of war, but there can be no doubt that individual selfless, physical and emotional sacrifice has brought us a better world.
All Good Things