Headline News

Artist shares lessons learned from life during wartime

November 9, 2021

By Nate Smelle

Each year at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 people across Canada gather around the flag in honour of those who fought and those who died to defend this nation’s interests. Aside from the images and reports of carnage from conflict zones around the world appearing in the daily news, most of the individuals rallying behind the Canadian Armed Forces on Remembrance Day have never experienced the utterly terrifying reality of war.

Although for the majority of the crowd that will assemble on Nov. 11 will be inspired to do so by second and third-hand accounts of war, for a small number of individuals it will be their firsthand experience of life during wartime motivating them to honour those who serve.

At almost 90 yeas of age, Estonian-born artist and Coe Hill resident Arne Roosman  is among this faction whose eyes have witnessed the horrors of war in person.

In 1939, the Second World War raged on, and tensions arising from this conflict began to flare up in Roosman’s homeland of Estonia. In light of this escalation,  Roosman’s family found themselves faced with a potentially life or death situation: emigrate to Joseph Stalin’s Russia where they could be sent to Siberia because of his grandmother German heritage; or, move the family to Adolf Hitler’s Germany where they would not be persecuted for their Germanic roots.

At that time,  Roosman  said there were strange rumours surfacing about the disappearance of Jewish people in Germany. Likewise, he said there were also disturbing rumours of similar atrocities being committed against dissidents in Russia.

According to  Roosman, his uncle had tried to emigrate to Germany in 1939, but was turned away because only his grandmother was of German descent. With the allied forces ramping up their efforts to stop the Nazis, he said Hitler decided to get rid of this red tape a year later, making it possible for his family to enter the country. In 1940, Roosman and his family crossed the Baltic Sea in search of safety in his grandmother’s homeland of Germany.

At just eight-years-old,  Roosman  said he learned that the “walls had ears.” Taught by his parents to be careful with what he said at all times, he recalls how formative and frightening this lesson was for him as a child.

“There was so much political talk when we left Estonia,” said  Roosman.
“The grown-ups were always whispering. There was always fear because when you are living in such a secret society that is sort of led by secrets and whisperings, there is a constant threat.”

Every time Roosman and his siblings heard their parents and the adults whisper, he said they knew it was important so they would listen more attentively. As a child, he said this secrecy inspired both curiosity and fear.

“There are so many ‘whys’ and they all induce some sort of fear,” explained  Roosman.
“Partly, I think it is a fear of the unknown, because suddenly you are being introduced so that becomes an everyday thing for you – the anxiety.”

Before leaving on their journey to Germany,  Roosman  remembers his parents scratching the faces off of anyone in their family photo albums who might garner the attention of any German or Russian troops they could encounter on their way. When questioned about the people in the photos by the authorities on either side, he said the adults would conveniently lie to ease the soldiers’ concerns and diffuse any potential confrontations.

The fear and anxiety  Roosman  and his family experienced in Estonia and en route to Schwerin, Germany did not disappear when they arrived at their destination. After settling in the city,  Roosman  said he visited the local museum and became enthralled with a majestic looking set of tin soldiers on display. Looking back on how these toys fascinated him, he now realizes that his pro-war indoctrination actually began in Estonia when he was two-years-old and had his own tin army.

“That also brings you the fear because that’s all connected with dying,” said  Roosman. “You understand heroes die differently from other people because dying seems to have to do with pain, and who would want to have pain? Pain is a thing you don’t want. But, there are those glorious uniforms that hide the pain in a way. It’s all dressed up as if pain is a worthwhile thing because you are giving your life for your fatherland. It’s not for your sister who will cry, or your mother who will be devastated when you die in war.”

Explaining further how these contradictions confused him as a child,  Roosman  continued, “You make your armies because that’s where the glory is. At the same time, you see a war veteran coming back without a leg and on crutches, so you also understand the pain. But, you don’t understand the combination, because of what we call indoctrination. The idea actually is bread into you that if there is a conflict everything bad as a good side. Society at that time was so focussed on wars for hundreds of years that every village lost somebody.”

Roosman’s confusing indoctrination continued over the next four years while he attended school in Schwerin. Every morning, he said the school’s headmaster would come into class and greet the children with the words: “Heil Hitler! Our Saviour Jesus Christ was not a Jew.”

Attempting to educate oneself under such dire circumstances was an exercise in futility, explained  Roosman. While living in Schwerin, he remembers all too well what life during wartime was like for a child living in Germany during the Second World War. The sounds of gunfire, bombs falling, seeing bodies hung from lampposts by the Nazis, watching corpses float by in the river; these type of gruesome encounters were all a part of his day-to-day routine. Being constantly surrounded by, and immersed in such formidable violence provoked an early end to his childhood, Roosman said.

Not enjoying his Nazi-led schooling, on occasion Roosman would use his wartime duties as a reason to skip class. For instance, it was his obligation as a child to inform the fire brigade if his family home was bombed and he survived. If somehow the bomb did not ignite, Roosman said he was supposed to take the bomb and throw it out the hole in the roof. These duties provided a great reason to “play hooky” when he became frustrated with the corrupt indoctrination he was receiving on a daily basis during the war. Fortunately, Schwerin avoided heavy bombardment thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross, and Roosman did not have to complete this dangerous chore.

“We got a few bombs, but they were sort of leftovers,” Roosman said. “Whenever they flew back home to England, the British fleets while they were up in the air had to drop their bombs. They couldn’t land with their bombs, as it would be unsafe.”

During his time in Schwerin, Roosman observed the degrading discrimination dished out by the Nazis. For example, he said Polish people were made to wear a purple and yellow patch with a “P” on it, while the French had a similar patch with a letter “F” in the middle. Describing the nature of this oppression in more detail, Roosman said, “That was Hitler’s third Reich. The Polish could actually walk on the sidewalk, but the French with the “F” we’re not supposed to walk on the sidewalk. They all had the good old French uniforms – the prisoners of war that were working in Germany by the thousands. Every town was full of these French workers, and they all had to walk on the road because they might bump into ‘pure Germans.’ Ouch! The Jews of course had the Star of David, and that was a big one. It said ‘Jude’ in the middle, and it was spelled to look like Hebrew characters.”

After the war was over, Roosman found himself opening up to the idea of “true freedom.” This is where his education, really began, he said. Having been told by the Nazis that they were fighting for German independence and freedom, Roosman realized that everything he had been taught at school in Schwerin was a lie. This realization and understanding of what it truly means to be free came to him when he noticed the stark difference between the Nazis and the socialist government of Sweden at the age of 16. Disturbed and disgusted by what he observed during the Second World War, Roosman felt compelled to embrace pacifism.

“Never mind the walls, because there’s only one kind of justice, and that is justice for all. If walls have ears, then they should listen; let the walls listen and learn,” Roosman said. “We are all told to listen and learn, so I was listening and learning. All of a sudden I was growing up with that wonderful literature of the English, picking up on the Greeks wonderful idea of democracy.”

Since coming to Canada – the “cradle of democracy” as he calls it – Roosman said he has recognized people and the governments they elect are devaluing the notion of government for the people and by the people.

“Something happened to democracy,” declared Roosman.

“Democracy doesn’t really count any more, and we are back to a tyrannical kind of behaviour.”

Worst of all, Roosman said, is how willing, even eager, so many Canadians seem to be to embrace the corporate brand of fascism former U.S. president Donald Trump continues to try and sell humanity. Highlighting how the People’s Party of Canada and far-right Conservatives are selling a similar brand of snake oil as Trump is and Hitler was; and, how the PPC appears to be gaining support across Canada, he is saddened and frustrated by how easily people can be manipulated into sowing the seeds of fascism. For Roosman, the painful lessons he learned from his firsthand experience of the war as a child living in Nazi Germany will never be forgotten. By sharing what he learned, he hopes to encourage the next generation not to continue making the same deadly mistakes over and over again.



Page Reader Press Enter to Read Page Content Out Loud Press Enter to Pause or Restart Reading Page Content Out Loud Press Enter to Stop Reading Page Content Out Loud Screen Reader Support