A Jew – feeling in Dresden

On my way to Berlin Germany this week my intention was to write about the experience of a Jew being in that city. This was not my first visit but my third – the second since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And then my friend formerly of East Berlin took me to spend a day in Dresden situated in the former East Germany (GDR). What do you know about Dresden? Possibly more than I did. All I knew is that it was flattened in the concluding year of WWII. I assumed that it must have been a key military target of the Allied forces, destroying the Nazi’s remaining capability to produce the necessities of a war effort nearing defeat. The massive bombing campaign in Dresden, one of the most widespread and devastating a German city experienced during WWII, took place in February 1945. The dead numbered anywhere from 35,000 to 135,000 and written about in the book, Slaughterhouse-Five, by American author Kurt Vonnegut who himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombarding.

Central Dresden today is a spectacular city to visit, situated on the Elbe River, lined on cobblestone roads with several centuries old churches, museums and other edifices that were repairable after the war. It is a city instantly recognizable as distinctly European with its classic architecture. Walking in and around the Dresden city centre however I quickly learned to categorize buildings built during the time of GDR and those of pre-WWII – classics and otherwise. Buildings constructed during the GDR period are exceptionally utilitarian, featureless and uniform. And there are a lot of them. I then learned to appreciate the magnitude of the Allied destruction. I also learned that my earlier assumption was in fact incorrect.

There was minimal wartime production in Dresden. It was purportedly targeted to hasten the end of the war in Europe – to bring the Germans to their knees and to exhort retribution for Luftwaffe bombings of Allied cities – such as London. And whether or not that is the real reason – it really doesn’t matter to me. Since most able-bodied German men were fighting in the war, the majority of the casualties were children, women, the elderly or refugees – the latter contributing to the sizeable historical disagreement on the actual number of dead in the Dresden aerial bombings of February 1945.

For many Jews today, the thought of visiting Germany is still not to be contemplated. This is especially true for the ever-decreasing number of Holocaust survivors. Their losses suffered are unimaginable. They remember the pain if not the unhealed bitterness and hatred of the past resonating in their soul. The children of survivors too, in one way or another have had this passed down to them. It is not for us to judge any of their understandable emotions.

Walking the streets of Dresden and trying to imagine what it could have been like under that indiscriminate bombardment was overwhelming at times. I can’t rejoice or let alone condone the death of thousands of people to somehow compensate for the death of my brethren – the millions of Jew’s massacred by the Nazi’s. I am sorry if that offends anyone. But the sooner we stop using the labels “us” and “them”, the sooner we cease to be desensitized to the death of our “enemies”, the sooner we drop the insidious oft and abused term “enemy”, the sooner we will see suffering as suffering regardless of who is the victim and the sooner we can see ourselves in the face of the other – we will then have inner peace.

Why I spoilt my ballot: Be True to Yourself – Even When Voting

Canadian federal elections take place on Monday October 19th and I encourage every eligible voter to exercise their right to cast a ballot. It seems odd that in 2015 there still exist countries where free and fair elections are not the norm, or where the process is flawed if not downright fraudulent. I have voted in each and every federal election since 1979 when to my great dismay, Joe Clark defeated the once charismatic but tired Pierre Trudeau. I was in Ottawa attending Carleton University when the short-lived Clark government fell necessitating another election shortly thereafter in February 1980. As I look back to that election I recall casting my first protest vote – I voted for the Rhinoceros Party. I did other silly things that year – like jumping out of a plane, but I digress. I hadn’t registered another protest vote until this past week – where I voted at an advance poll.

For reasons not for this space, I am personally dismayed by all the available political choices in this election. I am more than dismayed; I am appalled, disappointed, repulsed and generally fatigued by the cast of characters put before us to represent us in Parliament – leaders and candidates alike. I take the privilege of voting quite seriously as you should glean by my steadfast commitment to cast my vote ever since 1979 – my first year of eligibility. So what I am to do? Well, like most things in life, I realize that I actually have a choice.

A choice! What a novel concept. I have free choice legitimately exercised within the boundaries of the law and acting responsibly to not be like sheep doing what everyone else is doing or what is expected of me. And, as I noted, voting is serious business to me. I took the time and diligence to register well in advance, I walked the seven minutes to that advance poll (I choose not to drive), I produced the proper identification, I was handed my ballot and then proceeded to the voting booth. Then I resolutely acted as I chose to and marked up my ballot – spoiling it by leaving a very direct and pointed message on it. According to Elections Canada a spoilt ballot is collected and counted as such. In extreme cases a disproportionately high number of spoilt ballots can invalidate an election.

I am not suggesting for a minute that you follow my lead. This decision I took was a very personal one to me. But how many times in the course of our day do we act like sheep without even thinking? Acting by rote, not knowing why we do – we just aimlessly do. Where is the meaning and purpose in life by taking that course of action? We are only kidding ourselves if we don’t act with purposeful intent; full in the recognition and accepting the responsibility of the beautiful gift of life we have received. I try to listen to my “inner voice” especially when I am feeling lost – and it happens often. I know that I possess the ability to not simply react but to contemplate what I am doing first. There is pain and uncertainty at times that is for sure, but choosing to think about my actions brings light to my journey. When faced with the ups and downs of life, I pause and accept those feelings whatever they are; I concede the impermanence of life and that gives me both the courage and strength to be true to myself – even in the voting booth.

Who Was I ?

We think we know who we are. Who beside ourselves better understands our true essence and what fundamentally makes us tick? Yet how often do we yearn for someone to “get us?” We want that so badly in a partner. For many it is a life journey to seek and to find that individual to know us almost as much as we know ourselves. And truth be told – we are barking up the wrong tree.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Friends and Family book launch of a very dear and long-time buddy of mine. It was a wonderful event attended by many people I also knew from countless years ago. And then I saw Janice (name changed). Janice and I met and became good friends in residence at Carleton University. We traveled in the same circles during our time at Carleton. Although we both live in Toronto we had seen each other only a couple of times since then. Once, at a funeral in Quebec City for a terribly young mutual friend who tragically died in a cycling accident ever so shortly after we finished our studies in Ottawa. I had forgotten that Janice and I, accompanied by additional friends, made that long drive together from Ottawa to the funeral. Janice reminded me of that. The years then separated us – temporarily forgetting one another. And then Facebook arrived. For many of our generation, it has become a primary channel to reawaken and reconnect past relationships. These rekindled relationships often took on a diminished status, lacking the intensity of what they once were – yet the nostalgia was too powerful a force to ignore. So Janice and I became reacquainted on Facebook and once again became “friends”. However, it became immediately apparent that something had changed – something quite different from our past. Janice and I found ourselves, via our Facebook posts and replies, on opposite ends of the political spectrum – she on the left and me on the right. Unfortunately, our political differences and those of some of her friends and I clashed rather badly. This new form of “friendship” was strained and could not withstand the acrimony – nostalgia was no match for enmity.

I was genuinely pleased and relieved to see Janice at this momentous event. We exchanged pleasantries, I introduced her to my date, and I was overwhelmed at the opportunity to make amends. I told my date how Janice and I were former Facebook friends but due to my poor and now regrettable attitude I expressed on Facebook several years ago, we severed that friendship. Janice also reminded me that it was her decision to “unfriend” me! “You were mean. You were not the Stu I used to know. What happened to him?” she sadly reflected.

I am grateful that Janice gave me an opportunity to provide her with insights into my journey of self-awareness and self-discovery over these past few years. My date was catching elements of this for the first time as well – which was quite cool to observe out of the corner of my eye. Janice heard my sincere contrition. She felt it in my voice and saw it in my eyes. At least I hope that is an accurate observation.

We think we know ourselves. Sometimes we don’t know ourselves as much as we believe. But it is never too late to relearn and to discover that beautiful lesson.

And yes – Janice and I are once again Facebook friends – and hopefully to become real friends once again. Thank you “Janice.”