Remembrance Day. Honouring both sides of my family history. / by Robyn Rapske

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November 11th, “Remembrance Day” in Canada and the commonwealth, has been celebrated since the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1919, honouring the end of devastating WWI in 1918. On this day, we are supposed to take time to remember those who served in our armies, fighting so that we can be ‘free’ today. Specifically those in WWI, but I believe it is now extended to remembering veterans of WWII, and by extension, any Canadian veteran who has fought to keep peace since then.

My first memory of Remembrance Day was at an assembly in Middle School. I held a small candle and stood with my choir-mates in a line against the wall of our gymnasium singing “One Little Candle”

“If we'd all say a prayer that the world would be free
A wonderful dawn of a new day we'd see...
And if everyone lit just one little candle
What a bright world this would be”

I also recall hearing the words “In Flanders Fields, where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row....” to mark the beginning of John McCrae’s famous war-time poem.

It was important that children like me were taught to remember the deaths and the lives of those who fought in wars. We were taught to appreciate their sacrifices that allowed us to live safely in our country today.

I grew up understanding that Canadians had died in the pursuit of peace. I internalised the sense that we were the force of good, and that we’d triumphed over evil.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in my life, things got more complicated for me.

I turned over a few stones of my family’s history to be confronted by things that I wasn’t sure how to process.

Yes, the majority of my family currently lives in a country deemed to be on the ‘good side’ of WWI and WWII. But, many came from Germany and German-speaking Poland. Many of them after WWII.

….Weren’t the Germans considered “bad” in both WWI and WWII?? Isn’t that why the League of Nations punished Germany in the Treaty of Versailles after WWI, so that they would not continue their ‘evil’ ways? Isn’t Germany the birthplace of Nazis and of the Holocaust?

Yes, my one grandfather served in the Canadian Military during WWII, but my other grandfather was, at the same time, a member of the Nazi German Military, along with many of his relatives. Recently I learned that the Polish Army also contained one of my relatives in WWI, which was definitely not on the ‘right’ side as I should understand it.

How do I face these facts on a day like Remembrance Day?

Do I remember my one Grandfather’s involvement with the ‘good’ side, and ignore the experiences of my family that were on the ‘bad’ side?

Due to migraine this November 11th, I sat at home for hours without much other than my thoughts, and I figured out how to process this.

I know that the topics of war, military involvement, and the experiences of veterans is very sensitive. It involves people making huge sacrifices, it creates very complicated decisions, it is steeped large amounts of politics and power-struggles, and it also contains immense pain for a lot of people.

I am of a generation in Canada that enjoys peace-time. I am looking backwards in history to WWI and WWII, to a time that western cultures reflect on frequently. I do not know enough about current wars that Canada is involved in, to have a proper opinion on those. I also don’t know anyone currently in military service in Canada. So I’m not speaking about how I feel regarding current wars.

However, I do speak to my own experience. Being connected to both sides, and remembering these globe-changing wars with complicated emotions.

My grandfather, who held me gently in his arms after I was born, bought me Christmas gifts, attended weddings, thanked God every day for the food on his plate and the safety of his family--was on the ‘wrong’ side with a gun.

If soldiers hadn’t continued killing men like my grandfather, I would not have freedom and peace today.

How do I hold this painful paradox?

Canadians and other Allied forces died in these wars. So did many of my family who were in Germany and Poland, part of the Axis and Central Powers. I would like to mourn both, but am I allowed on Remembrance Day?

What I decided this Remembrance day, and what I will try to keep at the forefront of my brain, is the reality that everyone involved suffered from the effects WWI and WWII to some degree. The ‘good’ guys, the ‘bad’ guys, and every person stuck in the path of war. It is not an Indiana Jones movie, or a war-glorifying video game, where the enemy has been stripped of humanity and no longer garners compassion.

Real war is real pain for so many. Good and bad sides. Also, evil is evil not just because it creates victims, but also because it also creates perpetrators of more evil. Those who might have been peaceful citizens became murderers for their country. Both good and bad sides became killers of their fellow humans because of these wars.

Canadians had to keep fighting for the end of this disastrous reality. As soon as it did end, they were free to choose peace instead. It gave them that chance.

As well, their triumphs also allowed my German and Polish relatives the option of peace, which they used to move to Canada. It brought both sides offers of freedom from killing.

I am so grateful that the Allied Forces fought to put an end to both WWI and WWII so that we could have peace in Canada.

But, I am also grateful that they fought so my relatives, who were the ‘bad guys’, could also have peace.

I remember the WWI and WWII veterans, for all they did. Including providing the safety and freedom of my relatives.

Every Remembrance Day, I am going to remember both sides, thank God that it’s over, and express gratitude to those who stopped it all.

The stories and photos that I’ve included from my family below were real people with real pain, and I wish each of them never had to touch wartime. I wish none of them were involved in the murder of their fellow humans.

Each person in a war is a human to me, and I am grateful for anyone who fought so that their fellow humans could have peace.

“If we'd all say a prayer that the world would be free
A wonderful dawn of a new day we'd see...
And if everyone lit just one little candle
What a bright world this would be”


I have only a few stories of my family in the war to offer, but these are some of the things that I remember being told. Experiences that colour the reality of my family.

My maternal grandmother was trying to live a peaceful life in what was called “East Prussia” at the time of WWII. The Russians, who were waging war on the power of Germany, were coming her way and my grandmother’s family had to flee. They were German speakers in the wrong place at the wrong time. While fleeing, their train was under fire from Russian fighter pilots. Shots riddled the train-car my grandmother was on, and she watched as her mother was hit and bled to death. I only learned about this through my mother later in my life as my grandparents did not wish to relive the war if they could avoid it.

  My Grandma Tutschek on the boat coming to Canada after the war

My Grandma Tutschek on the boat coming to Canada after the war

My grandfather, who my grandmother had yet to meet until they came to Canada, was German, and of an age that demanded he join the army. I don’t know my grandfather’s feelings towards Nazis while they rose to power, but I do know that he did not enjoy being in the German Forces. My belief is that he was probably swept up into the army like thousands of other men--unsure, maybe disagreeing, maybe seeing some truth in the governments convictions, but ultimately fearing the deathly repercussions of even contemplating refusal to be in the war. My grandfather was lucky to have poor eyesight, as it prevented him from being in regular duties. He was a telephone line runner, ensuring communication between groups. I believe he still had to kill others while he on duty, but very infrequently, and only if necessary for his survival--it was not something he wanted to do.

  My Grandpa Tutschek, in his German Army uniform

My Grandpa Tutschek, in his German Army uniform

  My Grandpa Tutschek at the top, while in the army.

My Grandpa Tutschek at the top, while in the army.

Both my grandmother and my grandfather came to Canada after surviving WWII, and chose not to speak of it very much. Due to the war experience, my grandfather was very quiet, and didn’t talk much about his past, and my grandmother had some anxiety and health struggles, but overall they were very happy with their safety, their quiet lives, and the peace that they found in a new country. I grew up knowing a quiet couple that treasured me and my brother, and liked things peaceful around the home. Both my grandparents passed away in my early 20’s.

  My Grandma and Grandpa Tutschek, married in Canada

My Grandma and Grandpa Tutschek, married in Canada

My paternal grandfather was in the Canadian Forces but never had to land in Europe. However, knowing who he was, I believe the threat of one day being required to kill another person would have weighed heavily on him. I was 5 when he passed away, but I continue to hear stories about the respect he had in his Vancouver community, his kindness to others, and his deeply held convictions to follow Jesus. I am sad I didn’t really get to know him, and so I treasure the scrapbooks that my grandmother made for her grandkids with photos and stories of our family.

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His wife, my now 89 year old grandma, the matriarch of our family, was born and raised in Vancouver, but her mother and father moved here from Poland. It is her father that served in the Polish Army during WWI. My grandma said her father moved here after the war because he was tired of being in Poland, where was land constantly being fought over by German, Russian, and Polish governments. He found it very unsettling and wished for a happier, safer, and better life. He came to Canada and met my great grandmother here, being married only 5 days after meeting each other. She had been living in Warsaw, Poland, and had come to Canada on her own, I imagine also leaving behind the constantly stressed country of her birth.

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