This May 8, 2020, celebrates 75 years since Victory in Europe, V-E Day. The day in which the fight with Germany was officially over and the war machine put into action by Adolf Hitler finally surrendered unconditionally. The war with Japan would continue for almost another four months, but this day, this V-E Day, would signify forevermore the day when the world, the people at home could start reliving their lives.
There’s clearly a connection to the events of today that we should look at further. During World War II, those people at home, especially in the United Kingdom, had their lives transformed. Food was rationed, access to regular activities was curtailed, and normal, daily routines faced upheaval. Whether it was heading to the communal shelters as German planes dropped bombs indiscriminately, or having nightly blackouts and wardens enforcing curfews. This was a cloud to be lived under with little hope of timely reprieve.
No COVID Celebration
Today, many of us are confined to our homes, limited in our activities and access to goods and services, and there is a threat … a threat that these restrictions may not be lifted any time soon. Of course, data so far indicates that the Coronavirus is nowhere near as lethal as initial models suggested. But that doesn’t mean that millions if not billions of people across the planet are hoping and praying for this to be over, for the threat to life (no matter how small) be gone, so that things can return to normal.
Will there be street parties? Will there be parades and confetti and streamers? Maybe not. When the crisis has passed, there may still be restrictions in place. It’s a story that lacks a conclusion; it’s a piece of music that has no resounding crescendo. Unlike V-E Day, we will not be celebrating the triumph of an enemy vanquished. At best, we will continue our lives, slightly poorer, slightly more aware that our rights and liberties can be so easily removed. Or will we?
When Germany and her allies unconditionally surrendered, there were enormous celebrations across Europe, and in America. As President Harry S. Truman enjoyed his 61st birthday, he wrote to Winston Churchill, saying, “With warm affection, we hail our comrades-in-arms across the Atlantic.” He considered it to be a “great birthday present.” King George the VI presided over parties outside Buckingham Palace.
But it was not all parades and parties attended by hundreds and thousands of newly liberated souls. There were private celebrations, tears of joy and relief from individuals, as they realized that their lives could now continue with a little less fear, a little less hopelessness. And these are the stories that are the most interesting. These are the stories that we will most connect with when COVID-19 is but a distant memory – the quiet moments of joy as we can once again embrace a loved-one and bid hale and hearty welcome to visiting friends. These will be private celebrations, and more special perhaps because of their exclusivity.
When we emerge from this Coronavirus cocoon, we should take care not to compare our minor suffering, our inconvenience, to such a grand liberation. Perhaps we can take a moment to understand that what we have suffered, although important to us, is not even on the same scale. Yet celebrate we must, for any small victory is worthy of cheer, but let us share it with those who had it so much worse. Let our celebrations not overshadow the relief and tears of those who survived to Victory in Europe.
On May 8, 1945, a train controlled by SS officers stopped on its way to Theresienstadt. A 16-year-old Polish boy, Arek Hersh, described what happened:
“We came to a railway station in a place called Roudnice, a few miles from Theresienstadt. After a few minutes we were ordered to get off the train …
I saw that on the other side of the transport a Czech policeman was giving boys some bread and meat. One of the Ukrainian SS guards also saw this, and he turned his rifle round to get hold of the barrel to hit one of the starving boys in the head. A Czech policeman saw what was happening and drew his revolver. He pointed it at the SS guard and said, ‘If you touch this child, I will shoot you.’ I saw the SS guard immediately put his rifle down and walk away: An SS guard taking orders from someone else.
It was difficult to comprehend that we had survived. I remember how we asked one another what we felt at that moment, as if to make sure it wasn’t just a dream.”
Another story of subdued celebration was taking place in the Kanburi POW camp in Thailand. British officers, listening on their secret radio, had heard the news of Victory in Europe. While prisoners actually in Europe could cheer and applaud, knowing that their fight was over, for those in Kanburi, which was under Japanese control, showing any sign that they had heard the news meant almost certain death.
Prior to this event, a signals officer named Eric Lomax had been discovered hiding a radio and a sketched map of the Burma-Siam railway, known as the Death Railway. He was beaten and unspeakably tortured for this. Other stories of officers being murdered for hiding radio equipment are well-known. In Kanburi, even just a small smile would have alerted the guards that something was amiss. Imagine knowing that your ordeal was almost over, but that any sign of relief could spell your death.
In a factory in the Sudetenland, Oscar Schindler stood on the shop floor with 1,200 workers, many of whom were Jews that he had saved. They have heard that Churchill has announced the end of the war in Europe, but outside there was gunfire. The workers knew that the SS could capture them and force them on a march to escape the allied forces, during which time they could be killed, die of starvation, or worse. They wanted to take up arms to defend the factory, but Schindler, knowing they would be slaughtered in any attack, urged them to wait patiently for midnight and the ceasefire to take effect.
Having escaped the atrocities of the concentration camps, to wait quietly, in fear, while the world begins its V-E Day celebration must have been mental anguish few of us could comprehend. Schindler gives each worker vodka and cigarettes to calm them. The SS attack never came.
Today, let’s remember that when our own victory over COVID-19 is won, when the world begins the long process of returning to normalcy, perhaps we should stop and consider that our sacrifices have not been so great. And that for every street party, or heaving celebration in a bar, at a beach, or a park, there will be some who are breathing sighs of relief that we can’t or don’t really know.
Celebrate, yes, for every victory reinforces that we are here and that we are alive. But spare a thought for others. Offer a prayer if you will, for those not as fortunate.
Read more from Mark Angelides.
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