What Kind of Triumph are we Talking About?

What Kind of Triumph are we Talking About?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

One good thing about getting older is that your memory is long, in this case historical memory based on facts, on events you have experienced. You remember things that are new to a millennial generation, and to the even younger people who are succeeding them. For example, the media announcements that our current leader is envisioning a military march to showcase our American strength set off warning bells for me. Liberty bells, you might say.

I was born in 1936. The first, never forgotten, military march I ever witnessed was in the arms of my father in Canada in 1939 when I was three years old. As we viewed the march of young soldiers parading in unison in Montreal’s streets through the slatted venetian blinds of his dental office, my father said to me, “I’ll soon be a soldier along with those young men, Corinki” (his pet name for me). “I’ll be in a uniform like that.”

And soon he was. Although he was a married man with two children and didn’t have to go, my father volunteered to fight Hitler along with other Canadians who answered Britain’s call for help from their allies in the Commonwealth (if you’ve seen the movie, “The Darkest Hour,” you’ll understand why). Canada – then the Dominion of Canada — entered World War II in 1939. The U.S., isolationist at the time, really didn’t want to be part of a European War, but was compelled to do so after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I still remember my mother almost collapsing when my father — now in military uniform instead of a white lab coat — told her he would be deployed overseas, and my father scooping her into his arms and carrying her into the living room. Children remember things like that long after the event has faded into history.

The next march that is engraved in my memory took place on a movie screen when I was a student at McGill University, which I entered at age 16. Our class was shown an infamous, controversial movie in order, despite its content, to demonstrate the best propaganda film ever made. An artful film made specifically in 1935 by writer/producer/director Leni Riefenstal as highly effective propaganda for the Third Reich, it was called “The Triumph of the Will.” It documented the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. When I close my eyes today, I can still see the mesmerizing, filmed waves of uniformed men marching or raising their hands in a synchronized Nazi salute.

In 1932, before this propaganda film was made, my school teacher mother toured Europe with her graduating Macdonald College classmates. Along with another Jewish teacher, she was barred by German authorities from attending a celebratory party in Berlin given in the Canadian teachers’ honor. At the time, she didn’t understand why, but by the next year, 1933, Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party had already come to power in Germany. By 1936, Berlin was showcasing Germany’s victorious athletes as its government hosted the memorable Olympic games. Last night, I watched a current generation of superb Olympic athletes as they were televised competing in South Korea. Among the global athletes from over 170 countries, were those of the U.S., Canada, Israel, the U.K., Australia, Germany, Italy, Russia (under the banner of the Olympics instead) and, of course, the many countries of Asia, including Japan, China and both Koreas.

So that is how my personal memories of marches (aside from the annual Santa Claus parade in Montreal) are associated with imminent warfare, war in which thousands of valiant young people would be killed or wounded, sometimes beyond repair. That is why my warning bells are sounding.

Historical memory is a good thing. It can be very helpful to have some elders around to caution against the dangers of nationalistic pride taken to an extreme, especially when expressed in needless, costly marches to demonstrate a military strength of which the world is already, often sadly, all too aware.

Shabbat shalom!

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.