I picked up the book “Resistance” by Nechama Tec a few days ago in anticipation of Remembrance Day. My hope was that it would help me focus my mind and my spirit on the idea of sacrifice as I took the time to remember those who gave their lives for the sake of our freedom today.
To be honest I did not grow up learning to value or show interest in the Remembrance Day Celebration. A part of this was not having anyone in my family who was connected to the war or military service. Getting married changed this for me.
My Grandfather in-law, who recently passed away, was a World War 2 Vet, and over the past 12 years we (as a family) have faithfully made the trek out to the Selkirk Arena to participate in the Remembrance Day service. This year was no exception. For the first time however, my Grandfather in-law did not have a wreath layed in his memory. This reminded me of how fleeting the stuff of history can be and how quickly time moves forward. It also showed me that when we do take the time to remember it can slow down time enough so that we are able to learn something from the people that helped pave the way before us.
Remembering My Grandfather-In-Law
When we flew to Ukraine two years ago to complete our adoption we took some time out of a very busy process to visit Jen’s family village (just outside of Lviv). The desire was to take the opportunity, while we were down there, to build a connection with Jen’s own family history. A big motivation for this was the chance to gain some insight into who her grandfather actually was, and so following this visit to the village we decided to continue on to Auschwitz.
Jen’s Grandfather never talked much about the war. If he said anything at all it came in bite size snippets that were often encased in humorous stories. Jen has said this a few times, but it felt like the war had changed him in ways that he was unable to express, which I suppose should be expected. Taking this journey did help to offer some insight into the struggles he likely faced and the toll it must have taken on this man and his emotional well being. I can only imagine, and even then my imagination can only take me so far.
Tec explains in the beginning pages of his book “Resistance” that he needed a way of responding to the most common question he has come up against in his personal research on the plight of the Jewish people during the war:
“Why did the Jewish people not fight back?”
This book essentially looks to shed light on a great misunderstanding when it comes to how people respond and fight back in the face of tragedy and war, which for Tec comes down to an understanding of the word resistance.
According to Vic, the idea of resistance is far more nuanced than we often realize, and fighting back is much more than simply an act of defending oneself against an outside threat. First, the most important thing to recognize about resistance is that it is not an individual act but rather a communal act. It always involves a community and a concern for others. Secondly, resistance is also, by nature, active and intentional. It is a movement that intends to accomplish something.
In the case of the Jewish resistance to the Nazi terror, Tec first pulls back the curtain of history to help us see how the Nazi force was incredibly intentional in crippling the ability of the Jews (both men and women) to fight back. Their strategy, of locating, dispersing to the ghetto’s, and eventually deportation (and execution) essentially divided the numbers, fostered an environment of uncertainty, and allowed the Nazi’s to deport (both Jews and non-Jews) at their weakest point. It was an exercise of control that was intended to eliminate the possibility of resistance before it was even able to gain momentum.
By helping us understand the reality of their situation, Vic then goes on to show, through personal stories and up-close encounters (with the eventual resisting force that fought back at Aushwitchz, the underground, the stories of the forest, and the woman couriers to name a few), that in the midst of such a horrible injustice we actually find an example of incredible strength and a resistance movement that was focused primarily on protecting the integrity of its people for the sake of future generations.
According to Vic, far too often resistance (in our modern mind) is demonstrated as violent action and hostility, heightened emotional response, vocal push-back, the protection of personal rights, and angry picket signs. The Jewish people, and the Christians who stood with them, help to show us a different kind of resistance, a resistance that, for many, faced the loss of everything they once knew and held close- even the ability to fight back to begin with. This was a resistance that found the courage to see what, in the face of such loss, they might be able to do to ensure the future of their children. This was a resistance that refused to lose sight of their heritage even when mass execution was threatening to erase it from existence. This was a resistance that looked to uphold and to demonstrate the beliefs, values, and virtues of their people, even when oppression demanded a different reaction.
In the midst of such a great horror, Vic reveals a people who did not simply give themselves over to their oppressor, even as their voices were effectively silenced. They did fight back. They continued to work together to circumvent the trappings of the Nazi strategy and continued to have hope that something good was going to come out of the mess. They truly were an example of what it means to lose your life for the sake of another.
In this season of remembrance may we remember what it means to demonstrate such integrity, to speak with action rather than words, and to always see the celebration of our freedom (the freedom that people like my Grandfather in-law fought for) in light of the needs of the marginalized and the oppressed rather than as a proclamation of our personal rights.
The war left my Grandfather in silence. Putting his life on the line for the sake of others continues to be the action that broke the silence. If remembering the sacrifice of my Grandfather has taught me anything, it is that two minutes of silence can be worth far more than a thousand words. Allowing this silence to move me to action is worth a million more.