Learning about your heritage and history can be a powerful catalyst inspiring you to get on with it. We get a little vision of what our lives may have been like if we had lived in a different time. Perhaps we think we could have been certain of the characters in the past if time and space and fate had twisted slightly differently. We also know how big a difference the cards you're dealt make, and how the experiences we have shape us. It is nice to think we have control over the decisions we make, but we don't have quite as much control over the decisions we are presented with.
Two movies I watched recently stirred something deep. 'Selma' is a powerful retelling of the Civil Rights Fight in America. I had not heard of this specific part of history, but the images were almost identical to a picture that is burnt into most South Africans minds - that of the body of Hector Pieterson being carried. Although South Africa became analogous with racism and the poster child for the fight against Apartheid, the idea of 'Self Determination' and living separately was a universal struggle. Visiting Australia now, I became aware of the White Australia Policy which only ended in 1973.
'Woman in Gold' tells the story of a woman who left everything behind when the Nazi's invaded Vienna. The Austrian government were trying to process restitution claims for artworks that had been stolen. She was making a claim. Part of the dark history of the invasion was that many (if not most) welcomed the Nazi's when they arrived. It would be easier for people to claim the atrocities were committed by others and they were just innocent bystanders. Easier, but not true. One of the characters has to process the fact that his father, a man he loved and grew up admiring, turned out to have been a Nazi.
I think the world is wonderful and full of incredible people. But we have a very messy history. It is easy to separate our story and apportion blame. The truth is that we have no idea how we would have behaved in a different time and place. Since circumstance and experience seem much more powerful determinants of the decisions we make than genetics, it seems to me that the history of everyone is our history. We have shared similar struggles, we have made similar mistakes, we have fought similar prejudices and we have overcome.
I was told last night of Memento Park in Budapest. This open air museum houses 42 of the statues that were removed from Budapest after the fall of communism. A quote by the architect of the project, 'This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give us the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.'
Memento Park isn't a lesson just for the descendants of those portrayed. Selma isn't a story of a bridge towards American Progress. Those related to those who sympathised with the Nazi's shouldn't be the only ones wary that that could happen again. Hector Pieterson's death isn't a uniquely South African tale.
The where of story seems not particularly relevant. Even which genetic path lead from there to you is pretty arbitrary. History is ours. The good bits and the bad bits.