Sunday, May 5, 2013

Indonesia, Australia, The Netherlands, The United States, Ethiopia. What Drives Us Across Continents. Cultures and Generations?

My kids, and my daughter in particular, drive me in many respects.  Her arrival into our lives and hearts opened a window into the inequities in the world that I can’t easily close.  I feel guilty; I feel responsible; I feel moved to act.  I can’t even fully explain it.  I just need to do something. 

When I was getting ready for our Open Hearts Big Dreams event supporting Ethiopia Reads, I reviewed my friend Yadesa’s blog for potential biographical information for the program.  He created another amazing piece we featured in the live auction.  He was an important catalyst in making the event a reality as well as its evolution into something bigger than either of us initially imagined.  I came across an interview after he won the contest where he told how he was robbed his father and older brother early in his life.  He found, through his accomplishment, a way to share it with them and honor them .  I realized, this is likely part of what drives him. 
The African Union Flag flying at an Ethiopia Reads School
When I was visiting my sisters and parents later that same month, my father wanted to make a family announcement. He stepped up to a table as a hush fell over the room. He had packets in front of him meticulously organized. In them, I learned, were photos and descriptions of two medals of Honor posthumously awarded to my grandfather. My father was seven when his father was faced with a choice: stand up for freedom and country, and risk almost certain capture, or escape. He as not a soldier; he was an engineer.  He chose to stand up on condition that his wife and his five children and the families of those he worked with were flown to safety from Indonesia to Australia. My grandfather stayed behind and blew up the radio station where he worked before the arrival of Japanese troupes. I get chill bumps on my arms and tears in my eyes every time I describe it. I can’t imagine what he or my grandmother (who flew with her 5 children on a cargo plane) went through. As he anticipated, he was captured and spent four long years in a Japanese concentration camp. His diaries, written on the back of soldiers’match book covers, detail a harrowing, soul sucking experience.
My grandparents
My father was young. I don’t think he comprehended the full magnitude of the war time events, unlike his mother and two older brothers.  He relayed how he played with parrots and wandered the countryside.  He enjoyed what little boys do when faced with a beautiful country with amazing animals and sights.  However, he often brought up his father as we were growing up.  I recall being shown the journals my grandfather maintained.  They were heartbreaking and also uplifting as he remembered his beloved wife and children as well as chronicled his dark existence and his efforts to survive – both physically and mentally.  
My Oma (grandmother) tooks pictures each year with their children until they were re-united.

When my father retired, he made it his mission to research the details of the period leading up, to as well as those most difficult years.  He interviewed family members and friends as he endeavored to learn.  He scoured archives and little known accounts of that theatre of WWII.  The culmination was a book reflecting his family’s personal journey.  At his eldest brother’s funeral last year, he shared some of this story in his eulogy since this brother had become part father then.  Afterwards, one of my cousins, a career Dutch military man,  shared how the story moved him and requested a copy.  He then submitted it, along with other supporting materials, to the decision makers for recipients of Medals of Honor.
My mother relayed to me that my normally, unemotional , mathematician dad’s eyes filled with tears when he received word that his work had led to this wonderful and well-earned honor being bestowed on my grandfather.  I didn’t get the chance to know my grandfather personally since he died when I was three.  However, I felt like I knew him through my father’s tireless efforts over the years.  Wanting to do fully understand and tell his father's story drove him until he achieved his goal, which was beyond anything he original contemplated.  I think my "Opa" would be proud and I know I am.   What drives us is a powerful thing and connects us across continents, cultures and generations. 

Opa (my dad) enjoying time with three of his grandkids.

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