I am sure many of you saw the news article about the last known service member from World War I passing away earlier this week. To many, this is a quaint human interest story. A brief blip in the passage of time. The end of an era to others perhaps.
To a student of history, this event is something else entirely. It is a cause for alarm and even borders on being a tragedy. Why? Because an invaluable resource, a person with firsthand knowledge of the events who can give live testimony to what was witnessed, has been lost to the sands of time.
Some may try to say that live, first person accounts are less important in the modern age thanks to the wealth of information we have available to us in the form of records, letters, recordings, etc. The problem with that is that all history is revisionist. History is written by the winners and survivors. Rarely is history complete and unbiased. The biases and opinions of the historian inevitably color their reporting of the events. It taints their interpretation of those precious records that do survive after the death of those that created them. That doesn’t even take into account those historians who abandon any pretense of objectivity.
So, we have lost the last living witness to a major historical event that shaped much of what has transpired in our times today. Even if the last living witness were the most prolific writer and recorded every memory or thought she had regarding her experiences, those records can be lost, destroyed, suppressed or censored. Historians no longer have someone alive to challenge them and say, “You got it wrong.”
Very soon, much sooner than we care to consider, we will lose the last of The Greatest Generation. Already, we see people who adamantly deny that The Holocaust every happened. We have endless debates about Pearl Harbor. The ending of the war with atomic weapons has already been revised from a decision that saved the lives of millions to a horror for which America should be ashamed. If you have access to veterans of World War II or survivors of The Holocaust, I encourage you to spend time with them. Get their stories. Record them if you can. Do what you can to keep their stories alive.
I had the opportunity in college to hear a Holocaust survivor speak. His story was at the same time chilling and inspiring. It was a story of determination, resilience, ingenuity, defiance, endurance and so much more. He told us of how he learned to say he knew a certain skill even if he had never even if had had no experience in it at all because the Germans would take those with the skill, put them to work and gas the rest. He told us of how the prisoners working as slaves would surreptitiously sabotage aircraft or ammunition or whatever they were being forced to manufacture. The history of those events became real to me that day hearing him speak. No longer could they be denied. There was someone right in front of me who had lived through it. How do you convey that to a high school freshman who can’t be bothered to do the dishes or take out the trash because their eyes are glued to a smart phone or an iPad or some such?
"And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'" — 1984 by George Orwell