Epidemics always shake our faith in our own power, as they remind us of the relative fragility of the “human condition,” to use an expression that is dear to Hannah Arendt. They remind us that we should not underestimate what nature can unleash on us, as well as the need to rethink the way we act and behave. There are many early examples of this in classical literature, as well as in the religious texts of different cultures, which show us the pain and anguish that the idea of disease often fills humans with, most particularly when it is considered to be a divine punishment for our reprehensible actions, as was often the case in the past.
In our day and age, we have gone beyond this deific interpretation of ancient times, as our faith in scientific progress has gratefully turned our minds to the development and production of a Coronavirus vaccine that can be administered to a significant portion of our global community within the next year. That said, looking to the past can actually be invaluable in that it can help us avoid repeating prior mistakes while reminding us that we are not alone in our current troubles, as there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, we humans have a deep anthropological connection with the men and women who lived in previous centuries, thanks to the uninterrupted thread of history and our common experiences.
When we read accounts of past epidemics, regardless of their relative seriousness in terms of public health, it is striking to realize how certain aspects of the situation we are now experiencing are not as extraordinary as we might imagine. Daniel Defoe, English author best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, describes the trials and tribulations of the Great Plague of London of 1665, which he lived through as a child, in his book A Journal of the Plague Year. This testimonial speaks directly to readers in 2020, as the public initiatives intended to curb the disease and the feelings of individuals of his era are all too familiar to us – think of the lockdown, the ban on public performances, the spreading of the disease by asymptomatic carriers, the social distancing and other measures we must follow, the considerable fines imposed on those who infringe the restrictions on gatherings, or the fear of contracting the illness when we leave the house to do something as simple and fundamental as buying groceries. All of that was already there in the 17th century.
Defoe laments that the poor are the section of the population most adversely affected by the epidemic and he implores us to come together as a society and reconsider our individual needs, as well as our collective priorities: “The plague year should reconcile all our differences; a close conversing with diseases that threaten death should remove the animosities among us and bring us to see with different eyes than those which we looked on things with before.” Perhaps inspired by the author, or at least in the same tradition, Renu Mandhane, a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, has recently stated that “Canada must put human rights at the centre of its COVID-19 response,” and she has expressed her delight at the considerate way in which people have reacted to the health crisis: “I can’t think of another time in my life that families, neighbours, communities and countries have put aside ideology to work together to face a common threat.”
Given the commemorations associated with November 11, this month is particularly apt to reflect on the past. On the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the Senior School dedicated its Remembrance Day assembly, held online this time given the situation, to the pivotal year of 1945. By tracing the steps of Canadian troops on the battlefields of Germany and their decisive role in the liberation of the Netherlands, we memorialized the tenacity and bravery of our soldiers. We remembered the fact that they crossed an ocean to fight for people they did not even know “because they shared the values of liberty, peace and democracy,” to quote the words of Canada’s Governor General in an address delivered in the presence of the Dutch royal family on the occasion of a ceremony devoted to the Battle of the Scheldt. In our assembly, we also recalled that the early months of 1945 witnessed the liberation of the extermination camps, a moment when the entire world started to realize the true extent of the abominations of the Holocaust.
Several students and teachers read out letters by Canadian soldiers who participated in the war, as well as excerpts from first-person accounts of the horrors of Nazism written by Primo Levi, Jorge Semprun, Ginette Kolinka, Paul Celan and Marguerite Duras. If Tiger L. played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 at the beginning, Jordi Savall’s rendition of “El Maleh Rahamim,” over images of the liberation of the different camps, added a touch of solemnity and emotion to the moment. The assembly also included a recording of General de Gaulle’s speech to the nation on May 8, 1945, as well as a wide range of photographic material and relevant paintings by such artists as Joan Miró, Alex Colville and David Olère.
To open the second part, the commemoration proper, the Honorable Caroline Mulroney (Minister of Francophone Affairs for Ontario) and Her Excellency Kareen Rispal (Ambassador of France to Canada) were so kind as to express their good wishes to our school’s students and staff on the occasion of our Remembrance assembly. This year we chose Henry George Johnston as the figure to represent the soldiers who fought to defend our collective freedom. After training in Ontario, this Alberta-born trooper took part in the Normandy landings and was killed in action in January 1945, during the campaign to free the Netherlands. He was only 29 years old. Buried as an unknown soldier at the time, his body has recently been identified thanks to a program of the Canadian Department of National Defence, and a special headstone rededication ceremony will be held in his honour. Following John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” the Act of Remembrance and the wreath laying, Talina P. played the Last Post and, after a minute of silence, she sounded the Reveille. Our Première citoyenne, Maggie W., then pronounced the Commitment to Remember on behalf of the new generations, which constituted the final moment of the assembly.
In my view, it is precisely by reflecting on all of the matters above that young people can begin to understand the men and women who have suffered disease or different degrees of outrage or injustice in their own flesh. Indeed, developing a deep sense of history is the necessary starting point to be able to understand the world today and plan for a better tomorrow. That is why the historical dimension of learning, which could be described as an anthropological journey into the lives and times of the people who preceded us, is at the core of the universalist humanism characterizing our educational program at TFS.
As a Ukrainian proverb says, “Dwell on the past and lose an eye. Forget the past and lose both eyes.” While it can be painful to look to previous centuries, it is nonetheless vital.