Past and Present (JB)

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julianabjornsdottir_dlI am greatly interested in history. To me, history is the definitive power of humanity, and a gift far too often regarded as something of diminished importance in comparison to the presence.

History is the key that stores our deepest secrets but when asked will give them away in a heartbeat. History is a documentation of human behavior, victories and defeats. It holds us hostage and fills us with pride.

My late maternal grandfather was a wise man. His interest in history and languages was early on passed on to me. I was unaware of it at the time but looking back, there are so many traits of his that I have taken up in my adult years.

His passion for reading and not only fiction but history books is one we share. He was a man who could recite every verse of the longest poems in Icelandic literature and that trait he has passed on to my older sister.

I recall as a little girl on Christmas Day arriving at my grandparents’ house with my parents and my sisters for the annual family gathering. My grandfather would be sitting in his office—a dark room with an impressive antique desk behind which a grand raven book cabinet stood tall filled with books in every corner lined up accordingly. On his desk rested an old-fashion librarian lamp casting a strong light onto the paper he’d have spread on the desktop.

I would walk up the two steps up to the living room and walk slowly into the dim office, my little feet itching a little from the hard black and navy carpet, to greet him. I’d often find myself sitting down in the comfy lounger in the corner of the small office and watch him go about his independent studies. He would send a smile my way so affectionate and kind, and answer me when I asked him what he was doing.

His interest was in family history. He would retrace the family tree on both sides, his and my grandmother’s centuries back and was exceptionally knowledgeable.

I, however, developed an interest in European history, in particular World War II. I was struck by the morbid destruction of human goodwill and the multitudes of grotesque horror so utterly unimaginable.

At first it was the history itself, the events and the terrifying number of deaths recorded.

Then I got a little bit older and it was the people, the ordinary citizens whose lives were thrown into the middle of a devastating hurricane, that interested me. After all, they were just like you and me. No different except they were born in the wrong place in the wrong period, so to speak.

To what side they belonged was irrelevant. What mattered was that this was a tragedy that changed the face of Europe and the world. I still watch documentaries about the World War II and have also become interested in World War I.

In both instances, I take a long deep look at the faces of people who appear on the screen. The people whose lives were destroyed and forever changed and even ended in death before the nightmare finally ended are those very faces drifting across the screen. It’s this thought, and perhaps it is a morbid one, that continues to draw me into deeper exploration of the period.

My grandfather was a great man who possessed the best of human qualities. He was compassionate, kind and gentle. He was a man who applied his intelligence to understand his past and his background.

Quite recently, I came across a video clip from the war years in Iceland. A film crew from the present day CIA must have come here to film the work that the soldiers were doing and the focus was on the men in uniform.

The critical mind of the one who recognizes the occasional fallacies in the clip understands the propaganda value of this sort of documentation. Perhaps it was necessary at the time to keep up the morale and not sink into depression and hopelessness. After all, hope is the last surviving power for a man or a woman crippled by hostile circumstances.

Earlier that same night, I watched another documentary on National Geographic about the same war. As always, I focused on the people, the faces of people and was haunted by the eternal questions of ‘who are they?’ and ’who do they love?’

What I regret so much is not having asked my grandfather about the war. He understood the value of conveying history to the next generation and I am certain he would have been able to paint a picture on the blank canvas that hunts me in my greed for more and deeper knowledge of the human condition.

I have so many questions for him that remain unanswered despite my greatest diligence to draw from his experience and analysis of history.

He understood history for what it was and what it is: A great force and a discipliner for each and every generation.

The man who empowered me with the enthusiasm to learn passed away in 1997. His passion for history burns within me and I shall keep the flame alive, and maybe, just maybe, a young person poses a question about a past to which I may have the answer in a few decades time.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – julianabjornsdottir@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.