Wartime Oral History

Vera Frenkel thinks an army of archivists, armed with nothing more than microphones and tape recorders, should be dispatched to Legion halls and living rooms across Canada to capture the voices and memories of the country's surviving war veterans.

"I have a great respect for oral history," says the celebrated Toronto artist. "There should be a program in Ottawa, and every other city in the country, of recording [veterans' stories], so that we hear their voices and their memories.

"They can be seemingly trivial memories, they don't have to be grandiose. I think the larger patterns [of history] would emerge through the day-to-day." After all, she says, "if one generation goes mute, the next generation can't hear them."


Fleeing the Nazis

Frenkel knows firsthand the difficulties of remembering and commemorating war.

Born in Bratislava, Frenkel was an infant in 1939 when her Jewish parents fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia at the start of the Second World War. Most of her aunts, uncles and extended family decided not to flee, and all died in concentration camps as a result. Growing up in England, and later in Montréal, Frenkel says her parents rarely spoke about the Holocaust or the war, and were also reluctant to discuss with their children the terrible fate of their relatives.

"That whole generation had difficulty talking about what they'd lost and experienced, partly because it was too painful to relive it, and also because they wanted our generation not to be traumatized by it," she says. Yet, that silence, says Frenkel, still wound itself "like a thread of grief through our lives."

Stolen War Art

One of Canada's most distinguished new media artists, Frenkel devoted herself in the 1990s to commemorating another kind of wartime loss the looting of Europe's art treasures by the Nazis, and the subsequent disappearance of many famous works. The result was Frenkel's internationally acclaimed video installation called the Body Missing project, in which various artists and writers discuss Hitler's unfulfilled plan to house the Nazis' plundered art inside a grand museum planned during the 1940s but never built in Hitler's hometown of Linz, Austria.

When Frenkel visited Linz for the project, she tried without success to track down the apartment where Hitler grew up.

"Everybody there was exceptionally friendly," she recalls. "But there was a collective block to memory in that town. Nobody could tell me where Hitler used to live.

"Memory of war is like that," she says. "No matter which side of war is at issue its evil source, its murdered civilians, its returning warriors most witnesses of such tragedy are deeply reluctant to keep their memories alive, preferring to bury them in the past than to explain and preserve them for future generations.”


Wartime Trauma

Frenkel remembers her father's unexpected reunion one day in Montréal with his best friend from Czechoslovakia, whose own wife and children had been killed in the death camps.

"This man had made a new life for himself," says Frenkel. "He had a whole new wife and family, and he would never refer to, nor would he let my father ever refer to, the family he'd lost in the concentration camps.

"The refusal of survivors to disclose their war experiences, [even] to their children, is a well-documented trope of trauma," she says. "Silence was for many, including my parents, a passport to sanity. But it was clear that behind the routine facades, and the to-and-fro of everyday life, were many tears and voids."

Frenkel says Canada's ageing veterans must tell their wartime memories, not just to their families, but to their country, if remembrance is to have any real meaning after they're gone.

"It's very hard to commemorate war," she says. "It's a tightrope no matter which way you look.

"But I would like to hear those voices. If that's done in any significant way, then we'd have a 'weather-front of memory' an entire generation marking its moment in history."

(See also The Memory Project.)