Went by the Imperial War Museum this morning. All those years in the Elephant and I didn’t even realize that it was there until recently – a ten minute walk from the Pink Elephant shopping centre.
Big main hall with a Spitfire and a Meschershmitt fighter hanging from the ceiling. Tanks, APV’s lined up in rows on the ground floor. Cutout of a Lancaster, a Halifax, a Japanese Zero. Kids running through the cut-out of the Lancaster, pointing at the tanks, peering at the photographs.
Amazing how small these spaces inside the bombers are, how bizarre it must have been to be cooped up in those spaces for hours at a time, the flak going off all around, (and at night, flying in formation, one of the biggest risks I heard wasn’t even flak, but the possibility of flying into other bombers – their wings came so close and the bombers were so unwieldy, they often slammed into each other then dived towards the ground). A squadron of those same Meschershmitts coming in for your gunner or your pilot. Dropping your payload, then heading back for the long, dangerous journey home.
Going through that same routine night after night.
A lot of Canadians crewed the Lancastars. They might have even been the majority. I met an old guy in Toronto once who’d been a tail gunner. Since tail gunners were killed at an amazing rate (How the fuck did they decided who was going to be tail gunner? Was it just your lot?), he was lucky to be alive. I was sent down by the company I worked for to paint his house. He and his wife had an unremarkable condo by the lakefront with beige-brown walls and heavy, typically Toronto middle-class furniture – tacky browns, tans, the couch covered in plastic.
He seemed a bit simple and his wife kept upbraiding him for forgetting things. Not in a mean way, but she was obviously tired of saying the same things over and over. She even took me aside to say, “Pay him no mind. He’ll forget your name as soon as you tell him. It’s just the way he is now . . .”
Upstairs, I was fucking around with the thermostat, pissed because the cover wouldn’t come off and irritated with the old guy for hanging around staring at me blankly. I swore:
“Calm down there, young fella,” the old guy said, coming into focus for a moment. Afraid that I’d offended him, I pointed at the framed picture of a Lancaster on his wall.
“I used to build those as a kid.”
“Oh yeah?” He said, obviously pleased that I knew what a Lancaster was. “I used to fly in ‘em! In World War II, over Germany! Used to be a tail gunner!”
“You flew in a Lancaster and here I was making a big deal out of the thermostat.” I said, ashamed now for losing control in front of him. We both laughed at this. Later on, his wife backed him up. “Oh yes, he flew in one of the bombers. He still sees some of his flying buddies down at the Legion.”
After the airplanes, I stopped in at the Holocaust Museum. No kids in there. Funny, you think you’ve heard all about the Holocaust, that it’s become part of the background noise of our culture you hear about it so much, then you see it all laid out again – complete with a scale replica of Auschwitz with the ‘goods’ yard, the factory-like sleeping quarters and the gas chambers at the far end so prisoners had to march in a long queue past the tracks and into an underground hovel (flowers and trees in front of the chamber compound so the prisoners wouldn’t suspect what was really there) which led to the gas chambers.
Then TV footage – news clips of a ranting Hitler, with his grating Austrian accent. Goebels, his skin wrapped tightly over his skull like a mummy. Clips of British soldiers in I guess Dachau. The ordinary soldier’s horror at discovering what had happened in the camps. I was almost in tears and in fact had to struggle to control my emotions throughout. It is still that inconceivable that this happened, in a culture not so far from ours, in a generation so close to our own.
My only quibble: the 1.5 ‘non-Jewish’ Poles killed by the Nazis are mentioned as an afterthought. Were they somehow less important? Was their murder any less a crime? And, since the Nazi plan to was to begin by exterminating the Jews then move on to the Slavs, Poles, Ukranians and so on region by region, in the greatest killing machine ever known – were their deaths any less symbolic?