By Bill Fox/Columnist
Strong symbols can make us all feel physically ill. I never knew until one memorable event with my friend “Tina” who was an Auschwitz survivor. She was captured by the Nazis as a young girl, and was kept alive as a “companion” for them. Can you imagine the details of her captivity?
When the war ended she was adopted by relatives in Canada and became a successful teacher. One day, Tina and several friends decided to try a new steak house in the local town. When the dinner was put in front of Tina, she catapulted to the washroom and was violently ill. She was not able to return to work for several days. What was it that made Tina ill? The site of the steak or the blood? No, the steak was placed on a steel plate. That was the way Tina’s food was presented to her in the concentration camp. The sight of that plate brought back all the horrifying, hidden away memories of her youth.
In the 70’s, I recall seeing a picture of a young student putting a flower in the muzzle of a soldier’s gun. As I recall just days before, four Kent State University students were killed and nine were injured on May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd gathered to protest the Vietnam War. The symbolic gesture said to me that peace, not guns, was the way to go forward. As a result of the killings, a student-led strike forced the temporary closure of colleges and universities across the U.S. The power of numbers!
Likewise, one the most influential photos of my generation was that of the “Napalm Girl,” caught in a moment of desperation in 1972.
“Whatever your age, you’ve probably seen this photo. It’s a hard image to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin.”
The photo encapsulated the terror of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. That girl is Kim Phuc. She was nine years old in 1972 when she was photographed, screaming in pain, after planes dropped napalm near her village. She now lives in Ajax and, among other pursuits, she gives inspirational talks to students.
Recently we have all seen a disturbing video showing a Minneapolis police officer with his knee pinned on the neck of a moaning black man, who later died.
“I cannot breathe! I cannot breathe!” George Floyd yelled and “Don’t kill me!”
Now, the story of Tina makes me sick. The circumstances of the concentration camps and the murdering of millions of innocent citizens by the Nazis because they were Jewish makes me sick. Man’s inhumanity to man sickens me.
The Napalm girl’s story should sicken us all with the ravages that wars can bring even on innocent children.
Then the story of the Kent State killings resulted simply because these peaceful student protestors were not dispersing as fast as some soldiers thought they should. What is happening when you can’t even attend a peaceful gathering protesting some of society’s ills? Have things improved?
The Minneapolis officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck had 18 previous complaints against him.
I can only imagine that for many minorities, the image of this senseless act recalls memories of when they have been the victims of racism. A black police officer with 24 years experience said he could not watch the whole video.
As I have mentioned previously, I was fortunate to spend many days with John Howard Griffin. In 1959, John was a sociologist and was trying to discover the reason that many young black men in the deep southern USA were committing suicide. He was told that unless he was black he would never appreciate the life these young people had. He decided he would take necessary steps to change his skin colour temporarily to see first hand what this racism was all about. His book, Black Like Me, is his journal of his experiences. I would hope it might be on everyone’s reading list today. John often mentioned how he loved Toronto and the fact that so many cultures lived in harmony – is this true still today?
I’m feeling sick at email@example.com if you care to comment.