By Lissa Cancilla
This past month 16 very fortunate RSS students witnessed the significance of contributions made by fellow Canadians on the battlefields of Europe during the twentieth century.
The group travelled from Berlin to Amsterdam, through Flanders Fields and northern France, culminating in Paris. Along the way they stopped to pay their respects at a concentration camp, as well as many memorials, battlefields, museums, and historic sites. Our European guides noted the quiet respect that descended upon the group as they explored these sites. In their red jackets they resembled poppies, moving gently amongst the white grave markers and immaculately kept green grass and foliage.
The students made indelible connections everywhere they went. At the cemeteries they were moved by the ‘Known unto God’ inscriptions that revealed the challenges in identifying the fallen. One student unexpectedly found a family descendant. Others were brought to tears by the emotional accolades left by families, as well as the gifts left behind by others at the gravesites. We acknowledged one of Revelstoke’s own fallen comrades. Private John Collia died in action 100 years ago in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. We were able to place a handmade wreath created by his great-niece, Rosemary Tracy, at his gravesite. It was incredibly moving to actually connect with a Revelstokian so far from home, yet so close to our hearts.
The past met the future when technology allowed one student to text Private Collia’s great-great-nephew to let him know that we had indeed found his family member’s final resting place. History came alive as we moved with wonder through the trenches and witnessed for ourselves the very battlefield, with craters and artillery still intact, at Vimy Ridge. The irony of being able to run free on this glorious sunny day at the spectacular memorial site was not lost upon our group. While on the beaches of Normandy at Juno, a group of us kicked off our shoes and ran down the beach to acknowledge those that had gone before us in this incredible turning point battle that enabled the Allies to liberate France. There was something indescribable about standing with our feet in the water, being washed by the tide’s timeless rhythm, looking out to England acknowledging the Herculean efforts of those that played a role on D-Day, 1944.
There were lighter moments to balance the intensity of the history we experienced. The midnight train to Amsterdam in the crowded sleeper cars was an unforgettably hilarious experience! The students were in awe at the beauty and uniqueness of Amsterdam, as well as the very real likelihood of being run down by the plethora of cyclists. They marveled at the respect, recognition, and even reduced prices, they earned everywhere just by being ‘Canadian.’ Belgian waffles…need I say more? The students cheered as they saw the Eiffel Tower come into view, and the evening that we climbed this iron wonder was filled with a celebratory spirit. The Louvre provoked curiosity and allowed for phrases not usually heard in Revelstoke, such as, “I will meet you at the Sphinx in 10 minutes.”
There were people and places that seemed at first to be oddly out-of-place, yet which added to the surreal context, such as the modern-day high tech amusement park right in the middle of the old village square in Ypres, Belgium. The contrast of war and peace at the Menin Gate Memorial ceremony when we came face to face with Guest Speaker Phan Thi Kim Phuc, immortalized forever in the Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph taken of her during the Vietnam War running naked after a napalm attack, will forever be etched in our minds. The very fact that we were participating in this memorial ceremony that has been held nightly since November 11, 1929, to pay tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town, was truly awe-inspiring.
Some moments were simply just hard to process, such as walking alongside the remains of the Berlin Wall that divided that city for so long, or passing through the bookcase and climbing the staircase to the secret hiding place of Anne Frank’s family during the Second World War. While walking through the gates of the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp, many students commented that they felt like they were being observed.
Still, after all these years, these places resonate a historical significance that must not, and will not, be forgotten.
Here are photos of the students in Europe: