D-Day saved Rotary, too!
By Ted Streuli
Vitali is in most ways a typical 21-year-old hockey player. He spends his time playing video games, hanging out with his friends and trying to meet 21-year-old girls. Especially the ones who happen to like hockey.
Vitali — Vito, as we call him — grew up in Cherepovets, a city about the size of Tulsa halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Jobs in Cherepovets are mostly at the factories; the major industries are iron and steel. The only other industry of note is chemicals; the city is home to PhosAgro, which supplies all of Russia and most of Europe with phosphate-based fertilizers and some related products.
Vito is a smart young man. He’s politically aware and attuned to the many ways life differs in the west. In the years he’s been in America to play hockey, he has been able to see the obvious: cars are better here, the standard of living is better, the government is less involved. He pokes fun at Russian corruption, and we have a running joke about doing things “the Russian way.”
He’s been living with us in Edmond since 2017 and in the U.S. since 2015. But it has only been this year that Vito has begun to notice more subtle differences and he is astonished at the breadth of what Americans consider freedom. More than anything he’s taken by our dedication to the First Amendment. He frequently watches a news program, reads a newspaper or watches “Saturday Night Live” and exclaims, “I cannot believe you can say that! If you said that on TV in Russia, you would be in jail already.”
The freedom conversation grew this week with attention turned to the 75th anniversary of D-day. Vito said something about how we – Russia – won World War II. They did, of course, as much as America and Great Britain did, but I’d never thought of it from the Russian point of view.
Rotary has been on my mind lately. I’m a third-time Rotarian, having belonged to clubs in Alvin, Texas and Guerneville, California before joining Club 29. But this time around I’m more interested in Rotary’s greater cause and, in order to understand it, its history.
As freedom was the topic this week, I looked up Rotary’s history in World War II. There wasn’t much of one in Eurpoe; Rotary clubs were forced to disband in Germany, Japan, and other Axis countries.
The right to assemble and the right to speak publicly are fundamental to every Rotary club and that made them a threat to the National-Socialist Party, the group more commonly known as the Nazis.
The Hamburg club, Germany’s first to form, dissolved in 1937. It was the first to come back, being readmitted on June 7, 1949 — exactly 70 years ago.
In 2002, the Hamburg club was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding. Edouard Willems, governor of the 61st District (Belgium) at the time, was among the speakers who helped mark the return of Rotary in Germany. There are now about 41,000 Rotarians in Germany, where membership grew more than 27 percent between 2003 and 2013.
Willems recounted peacefully waiting out the war in his villa on the Belgian coast until the war’s effects arrived on his doorstep. German friends were put on special trains and never again seen by Willems or his other friends.
“Suddenly the drama of the war opened,” he said. “And on the day tens of thousands of friendships were recklessly broken all over the world.”
Two hours after the trains left, Willems and his wife received a bouquet of white roses from a young Hamburg girl they had befriended. Attached was a note that said, “As a token of earnest friendship.”
“The message meant that nations may be divided, that blood may be shed, that the tragedies of public life may ruin home materially and morally, but that there should be a place for love and friendship among the ruins,” Willems told the assembled guests.
“Let us never forget,” he said, “that it is the primordial duty of Rotary to cultivate the white roses of friendship.”