Poland Remembered IV

By Stu Whitley

This is the fourth in a four-part series.

During his entire life, my father has adhered to a habit of
truth—‘truth’ in that he has not been afraid to question the ‘why’ of a
thing. This included the way in which the past influences the future,
and his determination to manage events to the extent that it has been

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it,” he’d say.

was nowhere more apparent than in his decision to emigrate to Canada to
seek a better future for all of us. Three homes in three countries
within the span of a decade:

my childhood in England dropped
below the horizon of the grey Atlantic
en route to a different life in a new world
well I remember a worn train groaning
to a halt for us in a remote northern town
of tarred felt paper, clapboard and tin

two brothers and I jostled our way
to the smoke green Pullman cars
only to be yanked back sharply
by a skinny old man in a pillbox cap
declaiming ‘Canadian National Railway’
no boys, your car is at the front of these
it wouldn’t do: you don’t belong in there

much later, on that long trip, bored
we three made our boyish way through
swaying seats and lurching platforms
breathless with the hint of danger wrought
by clattering track that passed by angry cliffs
and furious streams and forests full of mystery

then through a window’d door
the last car, un-upholstered seats
of sickly green, and silently sat upon by –
Indians! and better yet: children, boys
of our age and state of boredom

we made to pass, but lanky leg of
authority barred our way. same old man
brass-buttoned and watch-and-fob:
no boys: you don’t belong in there:
Indian cars is for Indians only

years later, recounting this to disbelievers
I complained to my father: child warrior he,
survivor of Nazi slave camp and unspoken horror
hmmm. says he. I do remember. isn’t it something
… what we do to one another?

world, new world. War-time, post-war. Some of the same measures of
cruelty by which humans can diminish, isolate and otherwise mistreat
one another replay themselves infinitely, it seems. The lessons of past
generations do not seem to take hold with us. Perhaps that is a
function of our scientific age, which dismisses anything which is not
provable or measurable. It is a frustration that was felt by Bertrand
Russell, who wrote in his autobiography in 1967:

is a possibility in human minds of something mysterious as night wind,
deep as the sea, calm as the stars, and as strong as death, a mystic
contemplation … Those who have known it cannot believe in wars any
longer … if I could give to others what has come to me in this way, I
could make them too feel the futility of fighting. But I do not know
how to communicate it …

The Poles have it right, I
think. By maintaining the close relationship with the past through
ritual and remembrance, a stronger bond with the values that bind them
as a people is forged. Our collective fate, which flows in the hidden
dimensions of events, seems to involve forces beyond our perception or,
worse, our control.

The three fates of Greek mythology had but
one eye between them, which they passed around to each other. Like
them, we are not blind all of the time, but now and then, it becomes
possible to see into the order of things, the why of things. One of
those instances occurs when we take the time to pay attention to the
experiences and lessons of our ancestors.

© 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.