They lived through WWII. What they learned can help us during COVID-19 battle

At the end of her life, my grandmother liked to listen to Vera Lynn. They were the same songs she listened to when she was welding destroyers as a young woman in Southampton during the war, when her hometown was bombed during the Blitz. Every day Vera Lynn would remind her that there would always be an England, that there would be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, and that they would meet again. Vera never offered timelines. She just said that it would happen some “sunny day.”

“Keep smiling through, just like you always do, till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away,” she advised.

The record has always felt like a relic of another time to me. But ever since the pandemic began, I hear the uncertainty in every song. It was always there, just as it was in my grandmother’s stories, but I never picked up on it before. Perhaps because I had the advantage of history. I knew the war was over. I never really considered what it was like for her generation to spend years living with the daily grind of fear and so many unknowns.

Many people in Toronto do know what that feels like. Many in the city come from places where they have endured war, disaster, systemic failures.

Even still, COVID-19 “connects all of us around the world in a way that simply hasn’t happened since the world wars and other major catastrophes,” says Aisha Ahmad, a professor of international security at the University of Toronto.

Fighting a virus is different from fighting a war, but both require endurance, fortitude, and resiliency, says historian Tim Cook, who has written 12 books about Canada’s military history. (His latest, “The Fight for History,” which explores Canada’s memory of the Second World War over 75 years, was delayed by the pandemic and will be released later this year.)

“One of the things history can remind us is the people at the time didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” says Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum. “It’s chilling to think of the years and years of those casualty lists being published in the newspapers and the Canadians living with that uncertainty.”

In her message to the Commonwealth in early April about COVID-19, the Queen invoked the spirit of the Blitz with a nod to Dame Vera Lynn.

“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

Streams of “We’ll meet again” have since increased by more than 55 per cent worldwide, according to Spotify, and a newly released duet of the song is rising up the U.K.’s charts.

May 8 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Most of the people who remember that conflict are in their 90s and older — a demographic especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Some dealt with the struggle on the home front, while others were overseas. They have stories to tell about how they got though that grim uncertainty all those years ago, and advice for how we might do the same as the world finds itself in a different kind of battle.

Jim Parks served with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles regiment during the Second World War and was part of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944. By the end of the war, he was a sergeant.

Jim Parks, 95

As the machine-gun spray came across the water, Jim Parks swam to shore, swallowing big gulps of the English Channel as he tried to stay low and avoid the bullets. He was 19, it was D-Day, and the landing craft tank he’d been in minutes before had hit a mine.

He was part of a group that was supposed to go in two minutes before the assault infantry, but now his landing craft was sinking, and he was in the water, getting sideswiped by bulky machinery, trying not to die by a bullet or drowning. His vision kept flickering with blasts of white.

Everything he needed had sunk. His mind was a haze, but he made it to shore, and recognized a farmer he knew from his regiment, dead on the beach. Parks lay next to him, and took his gun and supplies for a chance at survival.

Those days after June 6, 1944, were a blur of calm and chaos, grateful French locals passing out cognac one moment, German counter-attacks the next.

At one point, Park found himself inside a Normandy farmhouse where another regiment was stationed. Not all of war is “noise and thunder,” he says. As he sipped his tea in the quiet, he wondered what the hell he was doing. How would he get out of this?

The question came up often as his Royal Winnipeg Rifles battled their way through northwest Europe. He was blown through windows, buried in trenches from mortar blasts, hit with shrapnel.

But Parks always felt like he would make it. He lived through a lot of scrapes during the Depression, and he figured he could survive this, too. “You always had the feeling you’d come up on the plus side, but you were always worried you wouldn’t.”

Now 95, he lives north of Toronto in the country. Normally, he stays in shape with swimming and workouts at the gym, but with the pandemic, he and his son work out at home. He’s been watching replays of old Blue Jays games.

Parks said in times of crisis, you just have to “focus ahead.” He knows that is hard to do. “Things that are bad will always get better,” he says. He has always found comfort in the idea that stormy waters eventually calm. It’s been very stormy these days with all the sadness, isolation and death of this pandemic, he says, but “it’s got to get better.”

Sisters Wynne Doorey, 91, inside, and Eileen Kirouac, 89,  visit each other every day, either greeting each other through the window or taking walks. The sisters lived through the Blitz in England. They live two doors down from each other in Oakville.

Wynne Doorey, 91, and Eileen Kirouac, 89

Wynne Doorey and her sister Eileen Kirouac still remember the wet soil smell of their bomb shelter on the outskirts of Manchester.

They were 10 and 8 when the war began, and during 1941 they spent many nights in the Anderson shelter. Their mother would bring a candle and magazines, and every hour, she would run inside the house to check on their bedridden grandmother. Their father was in the army.

“She had to kind of bring us up by herself,” Eileen says. “She was a tough one, she made us stronger that way.”

One night, returning from her house check, their mother opened the blackout curtain: “You must see this,” she said. “You’ll never forget it.”

The night sky was lit up like a summer day, as the Germans dropped incendiary bombs to light up Manchester, so they could aim for certain targets.

Wynne has heard the pandemic compared to the war, but they were very different experiences to live through. Back then, they could go out. They worked. They went to school. There were air raids and bombings. There were food rations. Eileen said she was five foot one at age 11, and never grew any taller.

Their mother moved to Canada in the 1950s for a job, and the sisters soon followed with their families. For the last 16 years, they have lived two doors down from each other in Oakville. Together, they’ve lost their husbands, and gone through two of the biggest events in their lifetimes — the war and the pandemic.

They visit each other every day, standing on the lawn and talking through the windows. Their families help with groceries.

They go for walks together with masks, keeping two metres apart, and every day they share their dinners — with each sister dropping off a plate for the other on the doorstep. On a recent Tuesday, it was Wynne’s turn to cook, and Eileen was looking forward to the barbecued chicken.

“We’re very close,” Eileen says. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Wynne has learned that all things pass. Her advice is to be grateful, help if you can, be kind and friendly. She waves at people passing by her window.

They carry on. “It must be bred in us.”

Bert Kahrel was a young teenager living in occupied Netherlands during the war and now lives in Ottawa. During the pandemic, he is staying active by walking one kilometre every day on his balcony.

Albert “Bert” Kahrel, 91

The German soldiers didn’t do bad things every day, but they did enough terrible things that you knew they weren’t your friends, Bert Kahrel remembers of his youth in occupied Heemstede, in the northern Netherlands.

He remembers his father coming home for dinner, shaken, after being forced to watch the execution of eight Dutch citizens on the street. He remembers the nice Jewish couple and their daughters on their street who disappeared. The disappearances always happened at night. “The next morning, you got up and they weren’t there anymore,” he says.

He was 12 when the war began. His mother was part of the resistance, and he helped deliver underground newspapers. As the local resistance grew, tension increased. In September 1944, the Germans implemented a curfew. During that last winter, there was no electricity or gas, and hardly anything to eat.

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“People were concerned, but life went on,” he says. “As children you became careful and inventive,” he says.

In November 1944, he tried to cut down a tree for two older ladies across the street who needed heat. He and a friend quietly walked into a copse of trees at 4 a.m., when curfew lifted. The Germans considered the trees camouflage and forbade cutting.

They had a sleigh and a plan — and sawed quietly until they ran into nails in the tree. They had to use a much noisier hammer and wedge to finish, and were caught by a German military police officer and a Dutch citizen. The officer took Kahrel’s identity card, and told him to come to headquarters the next day to retrieve it.

From there, he was taken to prison in a nearby city, where he realized he had illegal newspapers in his pocket. He knew he could be shot for that, so he chewed the papers and spit them into a bucket before he was searched.

After several days, Kahrel was released, likely because of his age he thinks.

In those uncertain days, there was always hope, because everyone knew the Germans would lose, he says. But even when the end felt near, you were never free of danger.

“That is the same with coronavirus,” he says. “You are always afraid of contamination.”

During the war, you could walk outside and see your friends, as long as it wasn’t curfew. These days, he is “cooped up” in his Ottawa apartment. He walks one kilometre on his balcony every day. Normally, he volunteers at the Canadian War Museum, where he likes to talk to children, especially those in awe of the weapons. He likes to remind them what those guns and flamethrowers do to people.

His story will be featured in the museum’s upcoming “Forever Changed — Stories from the Second World War” that was due to open this May, on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Like everything else, it has been postponed.

Kahrel says the pandemic creates different problems, but just like war, you still need to be careful about something you have no control over.

His advice is keep yourself busy. Try to maintain a normal life.

“For me it is always, my whole life, the power of positive thinking.”

Last May, Ed Stafford and his daughter returned to Italy to mark the 75th anniversary of the Italian campaign. Stafford is now 99.

Ed Stafford, 99

Speaking from the Kingsway Retirement Residence in Toronto, Ed Stafford, 99, reflects that the army was “a great life, until they started shooting at you.”

In 1941 he enlisted with his friend Walter, the two boys hitchhiking up to Camp Borden to join the Governor General’s Horse Guards, an armoured reconnaissance regiment. He enjoyed the companionship, but the reality of the war hit him once they were in Italy.

“You constantly have that on your mind that it’s maybe your last day, and I suppose you can’t forget it,” he says.

He drove a scout car, transporting officers and ammunition to and from the front lines. He lost some of his best friends, but he carried on every day because he had to. After a while, it felt like the war would last forever.

In April 1945, his close friend died in Holland. The war was practically over, and Stafford still wonders why the Germans attacked that day. If they had stayed where they were, they could have walked home when hostilities ended a few weeks later.

“You lose so many of your friends,” he says, “They were good friends and now they’re gone. But it almost became a routine — you’re expecting it, who’s next?”

All he could do was keep going, which is the same advice he has for people now. Stafford and his wife both live at the Kingsway. He is mostly sticking to his room and has been watching a lot of television to pass the time.

It is good to keep moving. “I try to do that,” he laughs. “It’s getting harder every day.”

He used to teach line dancing in Oakville. He has all his line dance music with him, and occasionally he’ll take a speaker to the garden and play big band music. The weather hasn’t been ideal, he concedes, but if it’s nice, he’ll draws a crowd. Once in a while, he’ll dance one of the old routines, but mostly everyone just listens to the music, keeping a good distance from each other. “People here just love that music.”

International security professor Aisha Ahmad has done a lot of research in war zones, including Afghanistan and Somalia. While many people imagine war as gunfire and explosions, she knows that “in between those moments, there is great loneliness and confinement,” while outside the door is “a ubiquitous threat, and a great deal of uncertainty.”

Some say that comparing the pandemic to a war is a stretch, since we’re only being asked to sit at home. But Ahmad said that being stuck is what war feels like for many people who are unable to go to school or play in the park, unable to see friends, unable to control their lives, worried for the lives of their family, unable to mourn their dead with regular rituals. These are all “very valid concerns,” she says.

Even though plague and war are different, you need the “same type of psychological resilience” to get through long quiet periods.

Ahmad is practising radical acceptance — taking life on the terms she is offered today, even if it’s not what she expected or imagined.

She also finds in times of isolation, having a good imagination is a “saving grace and should be indulged.”

Dame Vera Lynn turned 103 in March. On the eve of her birthday, she gave a statement to her local newspaper, advising people to stay positive, calm, and follow the government’s advice.

“In these uncertain times, I am taken back to my time during World War II, when we all pulled together and looked after each other,” she said. “It is this spirit that we all need to find again to weather the storm of the coronavirus.”

After the Queen’s message in early April, Lynn released a duet of “We’ll Meet Again” with British opera singer Katherine Jenkins, using Lynn’s wartime vocals. The proceeds from the single benefit Britain’s National Health Service. It peaked at No. 2 on the UK’s official single downloads chart, behind The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” and ahead of Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” and currently sits at No. 43 in its fourth week.

Katie Daubs
Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs