A Big Brokenhearted World

Foto: sxc.hu

If one were to describe a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, words would prove scarce and furthermore heartless and impersonal in comparison to the overall experience it provides. Although the concept of “museum” in itself is more about facts and less about emotions, the Imperial War Museum stands for much more than just the history of war, as by trying to depict the world conflagrations that shattered humankind it also puts forward something even more important – a testimonial of what war does to people’s lives. The kind of testimonial that can cause grief, amazement or shock, but it cannot possibly leave one indifferent.

The Museum includes 4 floors, one Ground Floor and one Lower Ground, each of them illustrating different periods of history and vividly recreating all the elements of the respective eras, hence providing the visitor with a sense of truly witnessing history in a retrospective.

The Ground Floor is dedicated to Children’s War, analyzing the impact of war on a child’s world. An utterly unique and often neglected topic, as usually the war is examined through the eyes of people who were an active part to it. Of men who served on the battlefield, on women who soothed their wounds, almost never of children, of those who knew too little about battlefields and guns but so much about losing a parent, losing one’s home or losing one’s childhood.

The quotes written on the walls and extracted from children’s letters to their parents, from stories of people and from autobiographies are so heartbreaking in their simplicity that even without showing any exhibit from that period, merely with bare white walls and those quotes written on them, ”Children’s War” would still have been an incredible experience.

As I took my time and patiently studied each, trying to understand and relate to the feelings of the children who wrote them, I was secretly trying to discover in them something that would help me understand my mother’s experience. I am the daughter of a deportee. My mother spent her entire childhood in a deportation camp and for political reasons my grandparents were evacuated from their house three times. As soon as they managed to get their lives back on track, they would be evacuated again and be left to start from scratch. This is why, while I was reading the quotes, they all made me think of my mother and, in addition, of my grandfather and of all the people like him, who died with the grief of having forever lost the right to a place to call “home”.

All the time I was evacuated I used to tell myself that one day the
war would be over and I could go back home.
After the war…I made my way back to where we used to live.
The whole area had been obliterated during the Blitz and I was quite unable to find the spot where our house once stood.
That happened more than 50 years ago, but somehow I am still waiting to go home
Jim Bartley, evacuee

This is precisely one of the reasons for which what the Imperial War Museum did with the “Children’s War” is extraordinary; it recreated war through the eyes of a child, presenting its atrocities with utmost clarity. Every person who ever embraced the idea of waging war as a means of solving things should spend an hour at the Ground Floor of the Imperial War Museum; it will guarantee him a different perspective on things.

“It’s a soldier, Mummy, with a kit bag. I think it’s your husband!”
Boy seeing his father for the first time;

Going up to the higher floors, the 4th Floor gathers the exhibition of “Crimes Against Humanity”, which entails a 30-minutes-documentary about the bloodshed in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, or East-Timor. The facts presented there are amazing in their cruelty. Finding out that 60% of the children in Rwanda have seen a person killed before their eyes and that over 40% have seen a member of their family killed before their eyes, truly leads one into questioning whether justice really resides in remembrance. From the viewpoint of history, how could these children ever balance the need of remembering what happened to their parents against the need of letting go as a chance of leading a normal life? This is why one always wonders if people ever learn their lesson when it comes to the tragedies that have shattered the world or if the “Never Again” that we endorse after each major catastrophe remains more of an intention and less of a reality.

Although the 4th floor and implicitly the 30-minutes-documentary about the genocide was not recommended for children under 16 years of age, one would have been surprised to see a group of teenagers who had chosen the projection-hall as a hang-out place, for joking and having a good time. Analyzing their behavior was indeed a bitter enterprise.

While on the screen the stories of people who survived incredible crimes and tortures were unfolding, while victims of rape from Rwanda were remembering their suffering in trembling voices, children with dreary eyes were remembering their dead parents and survivors of the Holocaust were talking about the inhumane conditions in the concentration camps, the teenagers were laughing out loud, throwing empty Coke cans at one another and running around the projection hall. At the same time the narrators, among whom broadcaster Fergal Keane and African affairs expert Alison Des Forges, were talking about remembrance and about the need of teaching our children how not to repeat our mistakes.

This sad episode can only make one even more convinced of the need of lucid recollection, of the need of reconstructing the course of the events and furthermore of teaching one’s children about it. Of the need of “Never Again” assumed not only as an attractively formulated slogan but as an inspiration for actions meant to prevent crimes like these from ever taking place again.

As the visit continued with the Holocaust Exhibition, something totally unique happened during the one hour and a half spent there. It was probably the first time in my life I ever felt like shedding tears while merely looking at picture in an exhibition hall. It all simply got to me – all the images of suffering people, all the pain conveyed by the testimonials, all the unavoidable thoughts of the somewhat similar burden my grandparents had to carry.

Probably the most disturbing thing of all about the Holocaust is simply the thought of how it all started. The thought that human mind can cause pain and suffering infinitely more easily than doing good and that what we call catastrophes are merely the product of human minds laid in the service of evil rather than of the good.

Looking back to history, it was the conditions in Germany after the war that had allowed the Nazi Party to flourish. The defeat in the First World War had shocked most Germans and the transformation of Germany into a democracy had discontented them, all building into the conception of Germany having been “stabbed in the back” by Communists and Jews, as one of the Communist leaders of the revolution was Jewish. Feeding into this prejudice and in the context of economic depression plaguing the society, the Nazi party seemed to be offering not only a political but an ideological support that appealed to people’s nationalist side. The price, however, was infinitely too high.

As the Nazis founded their state on the idea of a “Master Race”/Herrenvolk, superior to all others and made up of Germans and northern Europe neighbors, especially the blond and blue-eyed Nordics, their entire ideology was based on the claim that the so-called inferior races threatened to subvert the Aryan culture and “pollute” the Aryan bloodlines.

Therefore, the purpose of the Holocaust was cleansing Germany and Europe of these supposedly alien influences. Drawing a parallel between the Holocaust and the other crimes against humanity like those in Rwanda, Yugoslavia or the sadly still-ongoing Darfur, everything started from the evil conception of “cleansing” away elements of a society, regardless of the fact that those “elements” are not merely disposable objects, but actual people. The same patterns repeated over and over again, the same allegedly “noble” cause of doing away with “bad elements”, ridding the society of them in order to secure its flourishing. Even the term “cleansing” of a society is chosen in a positive connotation, as if it would legitimize the throwaway of some of its members.

Reading about the deportations of Jewish people to the concentration camps brought back again memories of my family, of the way the communist regime packed up people, including children and old people in cattle wagons, in freezing cold, transporting them to deportation camps as they were deemed enemies of the society. Nevertheless, I am grateful that, unlike Holocaust victims, my family was at least granted the right to life. This is one more reason that makes the Imperial War Museum so utterly important, as by illustrating the war and its wrongs in their entirety it reminds us that no ideology should ever be allowed to gain its legitimacy based on crime.

Going out of the Holocaust Exhibition and exiting the Imperial War Museum, a quote written in big red letters on the black wall caught my eye. Just one sentence that I recognized with sheer surprise to be the life-motto that I had chosen during my high school years and that stayed with me ever since. Reading that quote on the wall, after 3 hours spent in a time-bubble of history, really laid things in an incredible perspective and it reminded me of my reasons for being there. Of the reasons behind some of the choices I’ve made in my life so far. It brought me back to the real values that one must never forget nor forsake, because indeed, “For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing” (Edmund Burke 1729-1797).

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