Yellow Stars & Uniforms

By noon on Wednesday, Eastern time, I knew. Knew that two Canadian Armed Forces members had been killed in just three days, taking me back to the distressing place of hearing of war dead and casualties in Afghanistan. Knew that they were murdered in Canada, by Canadians, taking me to a place I had never even imagined.

Later on Wednesday, Canadian Armed Forces members were ordered not to wear their uniforms unnecessarily outside their workplaces. In the uncertainty about the extent of the attack, it made sense as a Force protection measure.

What made less sense, perhaps, was my reaction. I didn’t want them to stop wearing their uniforms: I wanted to put one on too. If they were a target, I wanted to be one too. Fight my gang, fight me.

I trace this reaction to a story that has inspired me for years. When Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, they issued an edict requiring all Danish Jews to wear an armband emblazoned with the Star of David. But the Germans were unprepared for the reaction they got: the King and a significant proportion of the population started wearing the armbands, too.

It’s a great story. There’s just one thing. It never happened.  

At least, it didn’t happen exactly like that. Never mind that the story’s been told many times, by Victor Borge, Hannah Arendt, Leon Uris, and Joan Baez, among others. I’ve told the story, too, just as it was told to me. And why not? It’s a great story.

“An incident of nonviolent, but dramatic, triumph of good over grossest evil is universally appealing.”

The truth is more complex. Although the Germans never issued the edict, and Denmark’s King never wore a yellow star, he did put himself at personal risk to make arrangements with Sweden to accept Danish Jews as refugees. Although some were deported, apparently none died in concentration camps. And there were other places in Europe where non-Jews stepped up.

“There were documented cases of non-Jews wearing yellow stars to protest Nazi anti-Semitism in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and even Germany itself, but not in Denmark, where the Yellow Star was never instituted, perhaps for fear of raising too much anti-German feeling.”

Of course, it took horrific force to defeat the Nazis. A non-Jew wearing a yellow star wasn’t sufficient. But it may have been part of what was necessary.

And, of course, I can’t put on a uniform to share this new danger that Canadian Armed Forces members are facing, be it temporary or part of their “new normal.” Standing in solidarity will be a little more complex than that. And exactly what it looks like, I don’t know yet.

But at least I have something to aspire to: that 70 years from now, people will be inspired by our non-violent, but dramatic, triumph over evil.

Even if I know it can’t happen exactly like that.

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12 Comments

  1. Jim Taylor

    In years past, I used SAS as my preferred airline (The Observer got discounts) which usually gave me a night’s stopover in Copenhagen. I used that time to walk around the city. One of the most moving sights is a photo of a massive crowd filling downtown Copenhagen. The Nazis had banned the King from taking his traditional Christmas Day ride through the streets, and banned the people from coming out to celebrate with him, if he did. The old b-and-w photo looks down on a miniscule monarch on horseback, almost engulfed in thousands and thousands of Danes, all defying a dictat.
    Jim

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Yes, the article linked in my piece refers to the King riding unescorted through the streets – well, unescorted by security, I guess! This sort of non-violent resistance (non-violent only as long as those with the guns refrain from using them) speaks to one of your recent posts about what it takes to be free, part of which is refusing to be enslaved. Even to entertaining that thought.

  2. I was moved by the sight, on Friday, of so many people standing around the War Memorial and gently placing flowers, a circle of them all around the statue. And, as I waited for a bus on Wellington, I saw people just standing and looking up at Parliament or looking at the road between the Memorial and Parliament, giving tribute, too.
    A sad day for Canada and Canadians who are not exempt from terrorism (even if in these two cases, it seems, it was terror by singular lunacy/anger), but we are exempt from one thing, I hope. It is the reaction of the undramatic Canadian who shot Wednesday’s murderer. In the video of The Sergeant-at-Arms Vickers receiving a standing ovation by the House of Commons, I was struck by his humility, his nodding in acknowledgment, his utter lack of pride or excitement at “getting the bad guy.”
    Can you imagine the scene south of the border? They would be metaphorically (if not actually) shooting their bullets into the air, shouting and laughing. I have never been so proud to be a Canadian and ashamed to instantly suspect that war-lust reaction from my country of birth.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – I think many of us want to “do something”, to bear witness somehow. Not everyone is a Don Cherry fan but he was bang on last night, I thought, when he said, in effect, OK, if you respect these two soldiers, then put your money where your mouth is: here. As for the hypothetical war-lust reaction of Americans – I don’t know. Not among most, I suspect. As we’ve noted more than once, our virtues carried to excess become our vices. Perhaps the Amercian patriotism that puts our tepid Canadian expressions (and feelings?) to shame, has that as its downside.

  3. Mike Saker

    I experienced an order to ditch the uniform under much different circumstances back in 1972. In those days, Canadian Forces members at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa only wore their uniforms one day a week, with different organizations spread over Monday to Thursday, resulting in a trickle of uniforms seen by the public, who frankly could care less. One day, out of the blue, an order came out saying that we were to all wear uniform Monday-Thursday, with Friday in civvies. What was this all about?? We concluded that it was the Chief of Defence Staff wanting to remind us all that we were in the military, and not civilian riff-raff (sorry about that, folks). But sir, don’t you realize that there is a federal election in three weeks’ time and the Liberals have been feeling the wrath of the federal bureaucracy during the campaign, in particular that of Defence? Oops, No!! Quick, rescind the order! A few weeks after the election, which reduced the Liberals to a minority government, the order was resurrected. I vividly recall walking down Sparks St. one noon hour in uniform when Mitchell Sharp (Justice minister??) stepped out of a building and gave me a very cold glare as we passed each other. If looks could kill….. That was the first time that I felt the impact the uniform could have in that town. Kind of like rubbing salt in a wound? Today, we live in a much different world and respect for the uniform is totally different. That’s nice to see. Just a light historical note at a very sad time.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Mike – Yes, I remember hearing about the days when there was an attempt (so it seemed) to minimize military visibility in Ottawa. Quite different now, indeed. I also saw Mitchell Sharp on the street once – we were coming out of a restaurant he and his wife were going into. He was a tiny guy – I bet you could have taken him if it had come to that.

  4. A military presence has never made me feel safer. I was 4 and my sister 3 when our photos were taken at the memorial where Cpl Nathan Cirillo was killed. We had watched a parade of soldiers celebrating the victory in Japan; my sister had almost been trampled when one of my parents lost a grip on her hand. We were at eye-level with the khaki-clad knees and thick boots pounding the pavement. It would take another 30 years for me to realize that the atomic energy plant Dad had designed (or helped to design) during my short lifetime and the most sweeping slaughter of civilians in a war a few weeks earlier were directly linked as the reasons for celebration on that sunny day in 1945. Canada was located far from WW II Europe and far from Japan, but what happened there came home to us then — and again last week. In the insanity of one distraught or disaffected young man who shot Nathan Cirillo and in the unsuspecting corporal who was trained to kill fellow humans on command, whether his target be a Jihadist or a schizophrenic, we see the very elements of war. Neither of those young men symbolizes peace or a way of establishing a lasting peace that would truly allow people to feel safer. Both staked their lives — and lost them — on the notion that guns offer a solution to a chronic human problem. But we tend to gloss over that fundamental error and to take sides, missing the opportunity to improve on the past. The preposterous images of Stephen Harper hiding in a closet while his caucus sharpened flag poles into lances tell us how far from sanity — or maturity — our leaders’ imaginations lie. The peace on Parliament Hill, where our family gathered to celebrate our daughter’s wedding, was an illusion. Or a delusion. That realization shocked me last week; but at the age of 4 I knew better — those uniforms meant terror. I dreamed about pursuit by enemies for decades afterwards. “Each man’s death diminishes me, / For I am involved in mankind. / Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee.” [John Donne]

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – We don’t do very well with mental illness, that’s for sure – especially of the kind that leads to dangerous delusions, or delusions of danger. I don’t suppose any police officers or soldiers want to hurt the mentally ill, but by the time it comes down to armed confrontations on the street, it’s often too late for everyone. Just as it can be too late in the short term to promote “the things that make for peace” when an armed conflict is underway. I take figurative shots at politicans for not taking the long view: I’m not sure I do any better.

  5. Reaction?
    One thing Canada or any other country must not do is overreact, if you do that then the so-called Terrorist has won.

    Just look at UK and USA for example, would you say liberties have been stifled more in the wake of any Terror related incident? I would say yes, and each time that happens our civil liberties are reduced more and more, so there must be a balanced response to such acts and not a move to guns on the street continually, when this happens the Terrorist has won.

    To Canada, this was a heinous cowardly act on that poor lad/Soldier (Nathan) and yes it’s one too many, but think before you react, you have much more to lose in the long run if you don’t tread carefully.

    The UK and USA have battened down the hatches and overreacted too much, I know I live here in UK and I see just how much Middle Eastern War has affected everything.

    Cameras everywhere in the UK and more to follow. Recently here in Scotland the new “Police Scotland” as it’s called now, Chief Inspector decided to give all gun trained Police officers weapons, they did this without consulting the people, he was told rapidly by us Scots “We don’t wan’t this!” And thankfully he has now withdrawn the firearms from the streets, Scotland has never had this gun culture and we pride ourselves that we don’t need it, but I fear that was a tester and mission creep on behalf of the Police and Government to test our resolve at such things, but we must keep our streets free of guns.

    So you know most of my friends who have flown to the USA recently said they would not go back due to their treatment at Airports and nonsensical delays due to overreaction on security.

    These quotes spring to mind. ‘Fear is the mind killer’ and ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself’. So who’s making us scared, the Terrorist or the Government?

    They might want to readdress just what caused this so called Terrorism from the Middle East in the first place.

    I’ll leave you with this;

    You can’t go stirring a Hornet’s nest without being stung!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Douglas – There are lots of voices here arguing for a steady hand – what that means, of course, depends on who you talk to! I’d be interested to know how Israel handles being under more or less constant pressure – how they’ve addressed the issue of personal liberty as well as national security, in a much more extreme environment than we’re in. I sure don’t disagree that there are good reasons to stay out of other people’s countries (militarily, I mean) but now there are voices from across the political spectrum arguing for tackling ISIS. Some argue it from a national security perspective and some from a “stop the atrocities” perspective. Both arguments have merit, I think, but the long-term consequences of action (and even, maybe, some of the short-term ones) look like not being too palatable. It’s a tough call. I wonder if the Congolese would, on balance, appreciate a little UN intervention, or if the Cambodians would have, back in the day when their government was turning their countryside into a mass grave.

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