It is not unusual for my summer plans to include a trip to the beach, but this summer was special. I would be visiting beaches with names like Dieppe, Omaha, and Juno: beaches of Normandy, France. If you love history like I do, then you know how significant those names are.
In many ways it was a dream come true—professionally and personally. I have been a teacher for 20 years. This summer, I was given the chance to literally walk in the footsteps of Canadian soldiers, from both world wars. No longer would these battle sites be places in a book. Sites and events that I have spoken about for years in a classroom would be places I would see and experience.
This past July, I flew to France and met with 25 other Canadian educators to attend an institute designed by the Juno Beach Centre, the only Canadian museum located on the D-Day Beaches of Normandy. My trip would include not only a tour of historic beaches, but also other battle sites from the Normandy Campaign and sites from World War I, including Beaumont-Hamel and the iconic Vimy Ridge. Accompanying our group, were two military historians, so there were plenty of opportunities for a bunch of history teachers to “geek out” over the events.
I knew that it would be an amazing educational experience, and I suspected that it would be emotional. But I am not sure I imagined how awed I would be by this experience. There were plenty of facts and figures—but that is not why we were really there. We were there to talk about and understand the events of the past.
We pondered tough questions about those tragic events that shaped our history. We discussed how we could best educate our students about the past. But mostly, I think, we wanted to pay our respects. Towards the end of my trip, I came to think of this trip as a sort of pilgrimage, a Canadian pilgrimage. And some of us had ghosts to visit.
So many destinies intersected during those fateful years of war. So many trajectories changed course. I, like so many, am a product of those altered courses. One’s own history rarely rolls out like a movie or a storybook. I think, at first anyways, it’s made up of bits and pieces: a photograph, a letter, a comment here, a story there.
When I was a little girl, yellow tulips filled our garden on the farm. I was told that the tulips were sent to my grandfather, from Holland, because my grandfather had helped the people of Holland in World War II. A family in the Netherlands kept in contact with my grandparents, and I remember that a man from that Dutch family visited us once.
My grandfather, Phillip Jankoski, was a World War II veteran. Simply put, if he hadn’t returned from the war, then I wouldn’t be here.
But it’s not that simple. I remember the tulips and the letters from Holland; I remember attending the Remembrance Day ceremonies in the hall where Grandpa was dressed in his Legion uniform. I know that a few days before my grandfather died, he pulled out his beret, a part of his uniform from the war, and he placed it on his table where our family found it after he died.
Those tiny affects stay with me. My grandfather never left me any details; he left me with a feeling. A feeling that the war had made a difference in his life. But now I want to know the details. The type of information that the adult version of me wants to know, but the younger version of me didn’t take the time to find out, when my grandfather was still alive.
In some ways, I was hoping that this trip to France would help me piece together the broader picture. His story is part of my story. Or at least one side of the story.
While my father’s father was serving his country, my mother’s mother was fighting for her life as a Nazi prisoner. When the Nazi’s rolled through Eastern Europe in 1941, it was their plan to annihilate the Jewish population, but also, to exploit the non-Jewish population as a source of slave labour.
Eastern Europe was supposed to provide Hitler with the “lebensraum” or living space he believed his people needed. My grandmother, Anastasia Chudyk, was a young woman in the Ukraine at the time, and a mother to a five-year-old son. She was taken from her village by the Nazis, and forced to work at a farm in Northern Germany for the duration of the war.
She made it out alive; of course, or I wouldn’t be writing this story. She was a survivor. I don’t know if she ever shared her entire life story with anyone. In fact, I don’t think she thought of herself as having a story to tell—the war was just a matter of fact; she was one of the “lucky” ones. And yet she had lived through such tragedy.
But all I have is a blurry picture of the events, bits of a story here, a comment there, and lots of missing pieces. As a young person I could not fully comprehend the gravity of her history. Imagine: my grandmother survived the tyrant Stalin, only to end up with Hitler, but somehow she survived. I am amazed at her strength.
Her story, unfortunately, is not unlike many harrowing tales of war survivors. But she is my grandmother, and I wish I knew more. I regret not having asked her more questions about her experiences. I do recall her telling us how she remembered being liberated by the Allies, and it was later, in a Red Cross camp in Poland, that she made contact with her sister in Canada, and that is how she eventually made her way to our beloved country.
She never saw her family, her son, in the Ukraine again.
My Baba’s (grandmother’s) story has left me with many questions and now as an adult I would like to put the pieces together to fully understand the events of her life. My trip this summer was a way to bring me closer to her story.
I knew of course, that I wouldn’t be in Germany, but my trip brought me surprisingly close. The day I walked into the Juno Beach Centre, I was drawn to an exhibit highlighting Canada’s role in liberating Belgium, Holland, and Germany. And there on the large displayed map, was the town of Oldenburg—I froze, it was a name I remembered, a place my Baba had spoken of.
Oldenburg is a city in Northern Germany, not far from the Dutch border. The historian at the museum confirmed that forced labour was done in that area during the war. I was also able to confirm that the Allies had liberated Oldenburg—not just any Allied soldiers—but Canadian soldiers. My Baba’s story of Allied soldiers and an exhibit in a museum 70 years later, coming together so that I could put another piece of the puzzle in place.
Sometimes World War II seems like a long time ago, and then sometimes it is right in front of you. My daughter Eve is named after two people. Her first name is after the sister that brought my Baba to Canada, and her second name is Anastasia.
History is not always about the past; it lives with us.
Major Charles Osbourne Dalton and Major Hume Elliot Dalton were brothers and members of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. Both were commanders of two assault companies that stormed Juno Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. Charles was shot that morning on the beach. Elliot managed to clear the sea wall and fight through the day to complete his company’s objectives. He received news that his brother Charles was dead, but Elliot continued fighting. A few days later, Elliot was blown up by a mortar, but he survived. He was sent back to England to recover from his wounds and much to his surprise he was reunited with his brother Charles, who hadn’t died after all, but was only wounded. Both returned to their regiment to fight in the war and they both made it home. Elliot Dalton died in 1994 and Charles Dalton died in 1998.