History Matters

October 2014

In High School my least favourite subject was social studies. By the time I reached my last required year of history, I barely went to class, especially when it was first block. When I did go, I was sure to be equipped with a giant mug of green tea and the daily newspaper’s crossword.

Don’t worry, I turned out just fine. Fast forward 7 years and I was graduating with my bachelor of arts degree as class valedictorian.

A few months before that happened, I was sitting in a great hall surrounded by citizens, survivors of cruel pasts, family members of those who did not survive, historians, facilitators, and note takers. That day I was wearing the note taker hat at one of the dozens of round tables. It was a dialogue for reconciliation in Canada, the first of its kind. It is here I heard a man deliver a speech in which he said ‘We will not move forward together until we can decided upon a collective past’. It was that moment where I first saw the significance behind the endless names, places, and dates that I had been told to memorize in High School.

For me, recognizing that history matters first translated into the simple action of starting my graduation speech with a First Nation’s land acknowledgment. The practice of acknowledging the First Nation’s land that we freely use is a small act, but maybe it will help the first phase of deciding on a collective past.

Now, half a year later, the lesson has sunk in, in two ways.

History matters. I felt it in the moment my Oma’s best friend from childhood took my hand in both of hers. She looked at me in a way that made me realize that staying in Bavaria was about to become much more meaningful than a ticket to Oktoberfest.

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On my third day staying in Haag, my Heimat Kunde, or heritage lesson, was scheduled.  Heimat Kunde is a portion of school set aside for children to learn where they came from. Staying with a German school teacher meant it was now my turn, just a few years late.

I first got to see where my Great Aunt and Uncle lived. One of the boys they grew up with is still living in the same house today.

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We then went to my favourite stop. This was the front door to my Oma’s home when she was a young girl. She lived in this Gaftthaus with her Mother and sisters.
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I walked with my Oma’s two best friends through the fields they all played in together.

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I picked up chestnuts that had fallen from the tree in her front yard.  They hold special meaning to the three girls.

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I saw the path she took to school, where she learned, and where she prayed.

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As we left her Church, rain started pouring down and a rainbow emerged.
We finished the lesson at the house of a few others who knew my Oma when she was young. We sat in a yellow sunroom in the garden, shielded by the rain, enjoying coffee and apfle strudle.

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As we left, so did the rain and the rainbow. It left us with the most perfect view of the sun setting over Haag.
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That day I got to experience part of my heritage for the first time. Before this day I had only heard stories. That day, along with the month that followed, helped me understand who I am in a new way; a lesson  I had not expected and eagerly accepted.

Later that week, I learned that history matters in a more difficult way.

Only an hour from Haag is where Dachau Concentration Camp can be found. This was the first camp established, and one of the last to be liberated. Walking through the gates with the message “Arbeit macht frei”, work shall set you free, I felt the coldness of the open gravel field where roll call took place for 12 years. (the sign in the iron gate was stolen a few weeks after my visit)

I couldn’t take any photos here. It was not something I wanted to look at again and photos would simply fail to capture the story and meaning of Dachau.

It was a drafty and grey day. As I walked through the camp, the hours went by, and my thumb became more and more reluctant to hit ‘play’ on the audio guide control. My steps became heavy moving from the prison, to the barracks, to the crematorium. It was a somber and reflective car ride home.

History absolutely matters, including our own not-so-distant past in Canada. My curiosity about how Canada is approaching reconciliation grew after that visit and I have been trying to link my experiences to home since. After WWII there was silence among two generations, and once stories and questions started, many answers had already been lost.  Although I think reconciliation acceptance and finding equality will, and should take generations to accomplish in Canada, (I think it has been rushed), I am happy the conversation has started.

Perhaps my fellow Canadians reading this will choose to acknowledge First Nation’s land more frequently, more publicly, or for the first time, to help us begin to move forward together.

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