I was struck silent by the inscription on the gravestone that sat just a few feet in front of me on this quiet Friday morning in northern France.
In a sense, that shouldn’t be surprising. This was my first visit to a military cemetery inside or outside of Canada, and it was scheduled as part of a celebration which honoured soldiers of Acadian descent that had sacrificed their lives to protect the towns, villages and communities scattered across the English Channel coastline on D-Day.
Our visit to the Canadian cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer, not far from Centre Juno Beach, was already guaranteed to be an emotional affair. After all, it’s impossible to be surrounded by thousands of soldiers’ graves without being profoundly impacted.
The words carved on this particular grave marker, however, have permanently lodged themselves into my brain. They have also resurfaced countless times since the horrific events that unfolded in Charlottesville, North Carolina earlier this month, to say nothing of President Trump’s ill-advised flip-flopping on that awful Saturday afternoon’s participants.
Underneath the maple leaf signifying the soldier’s Canadian birthplace and the simple name “G. Meltz,” there was a Star of David with a Hebrew inscription, confirming that this young man – only 25 when he was killed in action – identified himself as being Jewish.
And then I read the words that I will never forget, and cannot afford to forget: “DEEPLY MOURNED BY HIS WIFE AND FAMILY, HE DIED SO JEWRY SHALL SUFFER NO MORE.”
The enormity and gravity of this moment seemed incompatible with the warm, sunny weather and gentle breeze that greeted us on this Normandy morning.
Thinking back on the bravery of young Mr. Meltz – and his family’s insistence that his death was not in vain – it’s also sobering, and downright frustrating, that we as a society have allowed even the smallest remnants of Nazism, white supremacy and similar abominations to remain active within our world.
For that matter, we’ve even reduced these ideologies to objects of ridicule or punchlines, as opposed to festering sores that should be forcibly removed from the planet.
Lately I’ve found myself flashing back to a Theo Moudakis cartoon published by The Halifax Daily News in 1994, in response to the discovery of a Klu Klux Klan cell in our provincial capital. Moudakis’ recurring superhero character, Captain Nova Scotia, showed up to destroy “the evil KKK” – depicted by a flabby, bespectacled milquetoast in a white hood and robe – but then stopped the action and griped to the cartoonist that his target was far too easy to defeat: “Couldn’t you get me some Girl Guides to do battle with instead?”
Around the same time period, my beloved MAD Magazine ran a video-game spoof that depicted clumsy Nazis and Klansmen bumbling their way through a digital pillow-fight, featuring the tagline: “You’ll pee your pants laughing!”
Three decades earlier, MAD had sparked controversy by running a five-page parody of the CBS sitcom Hogan’s Heroes , a show that actually attempted to mine laughs out of the concept of Allied prisoners of war constantly bamboozling the klutzy Nazis that oversaw their German prison camp. I can’t believe any TV network would air a series like this for even one season, let along the six that Hogan’s Heroes lasted. I’m even more astounded that Mel Brooks’ film The Producers – featuring the supposedly-doomed-to-fail Broadway musical Springtime For Hitler – reached theatres in 1967, and become an iconic movie classic. I should note that Brooks himself is Jewish.
More recently, we’ve had our fair share of “stumblebum Hitler” in such comedy staples as The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy . The latter series depicted Nazis as Police Academy -style morons in a 2008 time-travel episode, while a more recent swipe at supposed Nazi sympathizer Walt Disney featured Peter and Lois Griffin visiting a Disneyland-style mock-up of the Auschwitz death camp.
And what have we gained from decades’ worth of shrugging off neo-Nazis, Klansmen and similar movements as disorganized clowns or figures of the distant past?
Sadly, as the events of Charlottesville and the lingering presence of the alt-right in Canada and the U.S. has shown us, our ignorance of the real dangers the KKK and Nazism pose – even in small doses – has given way to a new generation of hatred and bigotry.
We can no longer afford to laugh, shrug or hope for the best. We must take a public stand against anyone who would claim any kind of moral superiority over anyone else, or cling to the concept that any sector of society can be bought, sold, streamlined or eliminated.
Our own gravestones may not end up in a military cemetery, but I hope our life story includes the reality that we, too, acted – in even the smallest way – to end another’s suffering.