Carrying on the legacy of Remembrance Day in honour of my grandfather

Keeping my grandfather's stories of freedom, acceptance, and bravery alive

Sasha thinks veterans like her grandfather can teach us a lot about the importance of freedom.
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I’m worried that my generation is forgetting the importance of Remembrance Day. As we move further away from World Wars I and II, I fear the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers and veterans will soon become meaningless, or worse, forgotten. 

With fewer veterans around to share their personal memories, it’s becoming increasingly important to make sure their firsthand stories are documented and shared. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have grown up with a parent or grandparent who fought in one of the World Wars—wars that gained us the freedoms we have today.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I grew up with a front-row seat view to what WWII was like through the eyes of someone who lived through it himself: my grandfather, Alan Freeman. 

From storming the beaches on D-Day to the liberation of Holland to even finding a hidden family of Dutch Jews beneath the floorboards of a farmhouse, my grandfather was among the men and women who selflessly defended their country and the rights and freedoms of others. 

I’m reminded of his courage every day, but especially on Nov. 11. 

I’m reminded of his courage every day, but especially on Nov. 11. 

My late grandfather was one of the few Jewish soldiers in the British Army. His story, since told to Historica Canada’s Memory Project, reminds me and readers alike of his generation’s courage.  

The thing about my grandfather was, like many veterans, he didn’t like talking about the War. Whenever my mother asked if he wanted to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, he would say, “It was a terrible time in the world. I don’t want to go.” 

Despite his refusal to talk about his experiences, it was a moment in time that defined him as a young man and characterized the rest of his life. 

You’d only need to walk a few steps through the door of my grandparents’ apartment to know my grandfather was a war veteran. He told his story through pictures, mementos, and keepsakes from his time spent in the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards of the British Army. 

All around his den were pictures, medals, and certificates of honour, and his beloved uniform beret. 

I remember taking his beret to school once for show-and-tell. When he found out, I was certain he was going to call in a security team to ensure I brought it back in one piece. For someone who didn’t like talking about the war, the thought alone of losing a piece of it seemed to devastate him. 

At 18, my grandfather was eager to join the army. In fact, he worried it would end before he got a chance to enlist. Each day, he’d read the local newspaper in Middlesbrough, England to learn about the British army’s progress. If they won a battle, he would always say, “Oh no! This is going to be over before I can serve!” 

There was no doubt in his mind that enlisting was the right thing to do. When he joined in 1942, he became a member of his platoon’s tank crew as a driver and a gunner. 

There was no doubt in his mind that enlisting was the right thing to do. When he joined in 1942, he became a member of his platoon’s tank crew as a driver and a gunner. 

One of his most poignant memories was of an experience that took place in a small Dutch village called Varsseveld during the liberation of Holland. In 2010, my grandfather recounted the story in an interview for the Memory Project.  

“Everything got quiet and I noticed a little kid tugging at the sleeves of the infantry as they walked by […] I jumped out of the tank and I walked over and the kid shook me. I thought he was asking for gum or chocolate. And he said, ‘Are you Jewish?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ 

So he grabs me, runs into a field nearby and into a barn, stamps on the floor that was covered in straw and up popped the trap door. There were two kids in there, plus him and the mother. They’d been living under the floorboards for I don’t know how long […] she made me kneel down and blessed me for saving her.”

Fast-forward several decades later. After the war, my grandfather tried to find the family he’d discovered in that barn so many years ago. 

While in Amsterdam on a trip, my grandfather did a little of his own digging, and learned that one of the brothers had immigrated to Burlington, Ontario. However, the man didn’t want anyone to know where he was. He even anglicized his Jewish-sounding name out of fear that what happened to the Dutch Jews would happen again. 

Even when my grandfather tried to reach out to him over the phone, the gentleman was quick to hang up—reluctant to reminisce about the past. 

This man’s ongoing fear of anti-Semitism startled my grandfather. He believed enough time had passed that there was no longer any real need to worry. 

My grandfather, who passed in 2015, would be saddened to discover the oppressive, anti-Semitic acts that have taken place in communities around the world, and at Queen’s. 

The people of the “greatest generation” fought too long and too hard to resist various forms of oppression for their efforts to be forgotten. If we fail to remember the stories of those who experienced World Wars I and II and the evils our ancestors fought against, we’re doomed to re-live similar prejudice and hatred. 

Knowing and learning from stories like my grandfather’s has made a remarkable difference for my own understanding of what happened during the War. Efforts to collect similar stories can serve future generations and strengthen their connections to the past. 

There are hundreds of veterans with stories like my grandfather’s, and many never get the opportunity to share them with younger generations. These stories prove how valuable veterans’ memories are for sustaining the meaning of Remembrance Day, and keeping the important roles of those before us alive.

This Remembrance Day, don’t just buy a poppy to honour a veteran. Spend a few minutes asking those veterans about their service defending our country. 

This Remembrance Day, don’t just buy a poppy to honour a veteran. 

We might not all have close relatives to share their stories of the past with us, but for those of us who do, we play an important role: to carry on their legacy so that we may never forget. 

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