Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Voices from the Past

Long before it became fashionable, my father intermittently kept a journal. He began it in 1937–8 when he was 21 to 22 years old. He was starting on a momentous stage in his life and wanted to record his aims, his progress, his reflections, and (to some extent) his experiences.

Journal page describing Hitler’s speech
I have no idea whether he ever went back and reread what he had written years before. I knew nothing about it until I collected up his papers after his death, thirty-five and a half years ago. There was a great deal that was interesting in the journal, so I began to transcribe it. But it seemed that he hardly threw anything away. Along with the journal I found many pocket diaries, the earliest also from 1937 and 1938. More recently I decided to transcribe the entries from these as well: I thought that they would cast light on the journal. My father’s handwriting was at times almost illegible, so the cross-references help with interpretation. Frequently I wondered if this was the best use of my time, but the insights into both the man and his times became more and more interesting.

I have another treasure too. There’s a whole series of letters from his brothers and sisters covering very much the same period, and recently a cousin of mine sent me photocopies of several more letters, this time from my father to her mother (his sister) and some other family members. Set alongside the journal and the diaries, a 3-D picture is beginning to emerge.

When I was growing up, I hardly knew my father’s family. He had six siblings (and as a result  I have 15 cousins), but he was the only one to come to this country. He came at a very young age to gain a postgraduate degree and build a career, possibly in public health (though in the end he took a slightly different direction). He came from a humble family, the only one to pass through higher education. He was determined both to better himself intellectually and culturally and to uplift the whole family. They in turn made sacrifices to give him this opportunity.

The materials I have described give me a window into a close and loving family; the loneliness of a young man in a strange country who has left not only his family but also his fiancee behind; the family’s support and encouragement, willing him to make the very best of himself.

And also: what a time to arrive in Europe! On his way to England he visited Italy and Germany and saw at first hand what was happening. After a visit home in 1938 he returned to experience the Munich crisis. Gas masks were issued, sandbags piled against buildings, anti-aircraft guns were in the London parks. He describes the atmosphere in the streets, and a speech by Hitler which he heard on the radio. He records his determination to undergo medical training in the event of war.

It is both sobering and heartening to be able to read the thoughts of these young people on the brink of dark events that they could hardly guess at. They come to me and my family as we too peer into a future that looks pretty dark, though, please God, not as dark as 1939–45.

And this seems to me one of the best reasons for keeping some kind of journal and for preserving family correspondence. If your recorded thoughts are of the right quality, and especially, if as a Christian they witness to the grace of God changing and directing your life, they will enrich, encourage, and inspire your children or grandchildren when they are up against challenges similar to those that you met and endured long before.

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