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  • Writer's pictureJane St. Anthony

"Ancient" History

On Victory in Europe (VE) Day in England, my son and his girlfriend biked from village to village because she loves to see the “bunting.” Decorations made of fabric, paper, cardboard and plastic adorn homes. Strings of colorful triangular flags are gathered and draped into swags. May 8th was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, a national holiday in many European countries. VE Day reminded me of my connections with the Second World War; my father came home, and my mother’s brother didn’t. It reminded me of this quote from a woman who survived the Holocaust: “To children studying history, there’s no difference between something that happened 60 years ago or 600 years ago.” At age 22, I was still one of those children. Three months after college graduation, a friend and I packed our bulky backpacks and flew to Luxembourg, where we were greeted by my older brother’s Belgian host parents and their son Paul. (My brother had been an exchange student with them in 1962.) On our way to their village, the father stopped at Bastogne in southern Belgium so we could view the U.S. Sherman tank and statue of General Anthony McAuliffe. The monument honored him and U.S. soldiers who defended Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The family thought this was something I would appreciate. I wondered why we had stopped. To me, the war was ancient history. After all, it had ended four years before I was born. My father never mentioned it. We went back to the car after I had stared at the memorial for what I thought a respectful duration. For me, the most memorable part of that car ride was Paul, who entertained us by blowing cigarette smoke out of his ears. Much later I learned that a son of my brother’s Belgian host family, Jos, was born on May 5, 1940, five days before the start of the war. Paul was born almost two years before the bombing of Dresden. “So our childhood years were all about WWII stories,” Paul wrote recently, “told by our parents and relatives, evening after evening, year after year. There was no TV until 1953! The American soldiers who were encamped in our house [told us of] their horrible experiences in the Battle of the Bulge during that winter.” What does this all mean? It means that I didn’t appreciate what Belgians appreciated about my country and its sacrifice. It means this rumination began with bunting and turned into something else: To me, WWII was history, even though it had ended only four years before I was born. And finally, I’ve never forgotten that cigarette smoke can escape through a person’s ears.

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