Sunday, November 11, 2012

Making the Past Come Alive

I have been astounded and impressed by the marvelous photos that Sergey Larenkov has produced and shared over the internet. In case you are unaware, this Leningrad native has taken old postcards and archived photographs, especially of World War II, and superimposed them upon modern photos he takes himself. This one above is of Omaha Beach during D-Day, June 6, 1944, blended with Larenkov's own photo of modern Omaha Beach.

I only discovered Larenkov's work the past few months, but each photo has so much story. I stare at the fresh faced boys under the soldier's helmets. I wonder what they wrote to their sweethearts in their letters sent off that morning in the post. Was it that much different than what the modern soldier sends today in email or skype? And yet those boys died over fifty years ago, or have become pale, wrinkled veterans in wheelchairs, unheroic in the eyes of the modern young man who slays opponents on his wii or Xbox or PS3.

Yet, seeing them with the modern trappings that are so familiar just a few pixels away, somehow make these fellows in khaki so much more...REAL.

Now, I grew up with a father who idolized World War II veterans. The father he never knew served in the South Pacific as did his four brothers. I grew up listening to tales from my great-uncles.  I know how my Uncle Chuck (the oldest) served on submarines (because he was so short, all the other uncles tell me). I know how when the youngest, Doc, enlisted up at sixteen, the middle three all signed up so they could "watch over the baby". I know the tremor in my father's voice that comes right before the climax in each story.

I remember every holiday, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, as well as Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, my dad would go down to the video store and rent a stack of movies about the men he most admired. We watched "The Longest Day" (D-Day), "Tora, Tora, Tora" (attack on Pearl Harbor), "The Great Escape" (POW camps), "The Guns of Navarone", "The Dirty Dozen", "Stalag 17", "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" are all part of the fabric of my childhood, my heritage. Yet, John Wayne and Eddie Albert, and Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson fade away when I stare at these photos.

This is real.

It happened.

And when I stare at the photo of Adolph Hitler during the occupation of Paris with the Eiffel Tower  in the background, I get chills. Because, that is not some actor looking fierce or silly in a movie. That man was there, in Paris, in Berlin, in all these places that are now beautiful and healed in another century.

We have forgotten, perhaps, the men and women who fought in uniform, the men and women who resisted, the men and women who risked their own safety to hide others. We forget that people died horrible deaths on the beaches, in the trenches, in the concentrations camps.

I have forgotten. At times, I have let my lovely modern world lull me into thinking that this could never happen again, that it is in the past. But the past is real and we must learn the lessons from those who have gone before.

As George Santayana has written, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

I hope that the past is always kept fresh enough in our memory that we can glean lessons from it in each generation. I know I've passed on to my sons the stories of their great-grandfather and great-uncles. But now they are into action movies and think a hero dresses in an iron suit or pounds villains with green fists. I think I'm going to go reserve "The Longest Day" or "The Dirty Dozen" on my library's web page now. While I'm there, I think I'll find a few more books that are age-appropriate for sharing these important stories. I think I'll dust off my book of 'Yad Vashem' (honored individuals that hid/helped Jews). I think I'll open up a conversation and tell a few more stories.

I need to share some history with my boys this weekend.


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