Today is May 17th. A big day in Norway. It’s our Constitution day, and it is celebrated from early morning to late night. It’s a day to be proud of our country.
I had the honor of giving a speech at the small community of Ekne today. In this community was an infamous concentration camp during the war, thousands were held there, many were executed. I had my speech at the monument in the forest near the camp. It is a somber feeling to stand there and try to say something that wake people’s hearts up.
This is what I shared: (Feel free to skip the first few paragraphs if you are not Norwegian. And remember, it the speech was done for the Wegians, so a bit of patriotism is OK)
This is a day when we can allow ourselves to be proud of our country more than any other day of the year. We celebrate that we are Norwegian. We celebrate that we are free. We celebrate that we are rich. We celebrate that it is spring. We celebrate that summer is almost here.
There is a lot we can celebrate. We have a lot to be proud of. There are many reasons to gather together on a day like this.
We may even allow ourselves to become national romantic. The birch tree that casts it’s green light over the black field where the farmer is ploughing and sowing. Children dressed in light clothes running down the road picking flowers for mom. The sound of seagulls, the smell of cow’s manure. It’s as if one can hear Grieg play in the background and there is a motive to paint behind every curve.
For more than 20 years I spent 17th of May in other countries. But even there the day had to be celebrated, and one will never feel more Norwegian than when in a foreign country. With my green national costume I did get some attention on the streets of Tokyo, and we did while walking in a parade during the hot season in Thailand as well. Without a hint of embarrassment I told the Japanese and the Thais that we were celebrating being Norwegian.
It feels good to belong and to be proud of one’s country. It is OK to see our flag in the wind with a blue sky and a birch tree as a backdrop and say: There cannot be a more beautiful flag in the whole world.
We love Norway. We love being Norwegian. We are thankful to all who have helped build our country into what it is today.
But here we are on one of Norway’s history’s saddest places. “You cannot hear the birds sing here,” I have been told. I don’t know if this is true, but if the birds have stopped singing here in Falstadskog, then their silence is a witness to a time we cannot forget, a time of sorrow, fear, suffering, pain, despair and hatred so intense that words cannot describe it. We cannot forget, must not forget, the Falstadskog’s silent witness about man’s cruelty.
How could this happen, we wonder. How could a man and a machine like Hitler and his military machine get the power and influence they did get? Where were the ones who could have stopped him? Why did they not do anything? How could the Nazi’s ice-cold ideology get any kind of following here in Norway? We knew better. Then we give ourselves a pat on the shoulder and say: It could not happen again today.
A month ago I sat with Naw Muu Wah in a small village in Burma. She is a Karen woman who had walked for four days to meet me. On her back she had carried her youngest child, a two-year old daughter. Together with her was another woman. Nay Say Ler Wah. She had walked for five days to meet me.
The women had come to tell their stories. “Let the world know,” was their encouragement. The same kind of encouragement I had gotten many times before. Naw Muu Wah’s husband had seen the soldiers come and warned the village. But when he had hid their sewing machine and ran back to get food for the family to eat while they were running, he met the soldiers. “They shot him right there, in front of our house.”
“Do you know why they do this,” I asked. The answer was tragic and startling. “My whole life they have persecuted us. They have done a lot of evil to my family. They have killed my husband, my brother, my cousin, my brother in law and my father. I don’t know why they do this to us. We don’t know what they want from us. The Burma Army never tell us anything and never explain anything.”
“Do you know what I feel like? Like I am a bird that is not allowed to fly.”
The other woman. Naw Sey Ler Wah, had a similar story. Her husband was shot while her village fled. He was going to warn the surrounding villages, and was delayed. That became his death. “We have not eaten anything bur rice and salt for a year now,” she said. She has five children to care for. “My husband used to hunt so we would get fish and meat occasionally, but we don’t anymore.”
The stories from Burma are as tragic as the stories from WWII. The victims just as innocent.
How could it have happened, people may be asking 70 years from now. How could innocent people be killed this way and the world not do anything?
It’s easy to think about world history’s tragic stories and tell ourselves that we would have never taken part in such cruelty, such injustice, such dishonesty. It is easy to put the blame on others for what has gone wrong. Then we can take a comfortable seat in the recliner and think that at least the world is no worse with us in it. We are innocent, we are honest, we are well off and we appreciate our privileges. We create no waves, neither good nor bad ones. Slowly, but surely we cover ourselves with a blanket of what I think is our time’s biggest dangers: Indifference.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel’s Peace Prize laureate and a Jew from Romania who spent time in Nazi concentration camps said this: I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference.
Have we come to a place in our prosperous lives that we think we deserve our peace and our freedom? That it in a way belongs to us, without any commitments? If this is our attitude, we have stepped shamefully wrong.
Our well-known poet, Arnulf Overland admonishes us in his most famous poem:
(This is not so articulate in English as in Norwegian. I don’t have the gift of poetry translation)
You cannot sleep! You cannot sleep!
You must not sit so comfortably in your home and say:
How sad, poor them.
You cannot endure well the injustice that does not affect yourself.
We are here today, in the world’s best country and we are the recipients of privileges most of the world only dream of. What do we do with what we have received? What do we do with what the ones who died in Falstadskog and other concentration camps gave their lives for? Do we take it for granted? Do we think that it is our reward and we need not share with anybody?
We have received our lives as a gift, our freedom and our riches. Of course most of us have worked honest hours to earn the money to pay for our benefits, our houses, our vacations. But so has a woman in Calcutta or a man on the streets of Romania.
This is my challenge to the people on Ekne, a community that in many ways comes across as a small paradise, with spectacular nature, a store, a school, a choir, a community where children and youth can feel safe, with organizations and activities to choose from:
Don’t grow dull and indifferent. Don’s sleep! Invite an immigrant home for dinner and hear his story. Engage and learn. Meet refugees from Burma and take them for a hike. Write to our government who so boldly has announced that the situation in Burma now is satisfactory. Get involved!
This is a day to rejoice, to dress up, to celebrate that we are Norwegian. It is a day for hotdogs, ice cream and games. It is a day for music, Norwegian flags, blisters, scabs and stained clothes. But it is also a day to remember. Remember the ones who gave us this freedom, and the ones who are still fighting for theirs.