I experienced something greater than excitement alone this past weekend: transcendence. There are pause points in the pursuit of knowledge where we are required to contemplate what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. It is in one of those points, I think, where we realize we are learning for our own good and not just by the will of others. These moments of transcendence highlight our interests, prove our future and are preserved in our memories forever.
For me, that happened this weekend in the green, quiet and hilly region of Normandy. Normandy is exceptionally known for its creamy butter and apple desserts, but we cannot forget that it is the focal area of two major events in history: the capital region and burial place of William the Conqueror and, of course, the site of D-Day, that fateful but victorious day for the Allied Powers.
While my visit to Normandy was full of frequent visits to delicious chocolate stores and peaceful hillside jogging, it is the cold and distant past that made me freeze in my tracks sometimes.
In the Stillness of Memory
When I ran across Omaha Beach and felt that icy water over my legs, there was a chill beyond physicality. I was with my friends looking for seashells, but I was also walking on the graves of soldiers, and I knew that buried beneath that seashell-covered beach was a memory of lamented courage … and blood.
I am not sure if I could ever hold that bravery for myself, but I guess I have never been asked to do so. If the time came, would I be willing to parade my life on the front line like an unsuspecting worm crossing the eyes of a million crows? Hopefully that time will never come, but I believe that if so, I would have adequate cause to have that kind of courage.
Throughout the weekend, I also walked in the bunkers of Point de Hoc, where the Nazi army of World War II shot American Rangers off the cliffs, one by one. I read accounts of Nazis with their overconfidence and well-fed stomachs that were posted (photo right) by other accounts of starved and tortured Jewish people. I saw an original sketch from Dimitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (photo above left), which quietly rebelled against the last major Nazi attempt to invade Russia (the city of Leningrad) … actually premiered during the invasion.
Cathedrals were never meant to take bullet holes, statues of angels still need their heads, little children died so violently; 50 million died in World War II. We are so fortunate today, and we have to remember these events to retain our morality and sense of being.
Just like how the ocean tries to overcome land, so does the guilty willingness to forget the past succeed. Yet we maintain white crosses, white Stars of David and white columns that encourage our peaceful co-existence while simultaneously reminding us of the wrongs we have done to one another. We cannot forget D-Day, the rage at Pont du Hoc, or the mass destruction of innocent towns like Caen or Bayeux.
But it is my opinion that to this day, sadly, our history books shamefully prove that we are creatures of habit.
It was disparaging to see my grandmother’s maiden name on a plaque in the La Cambe German Cemetary. Please do not mistake this, however, as I almost did. It is not that every German soldier was in agreement with the Nazi party. Perhaps the most moving symbol of this is the accounts that describe young German boys calling for their mothers while half of their stomachs were literally blown off. Bleeding helplessly in the eyes of American soldiers, some of them uttered in their last breaths that they did not want to join the war, and that they were forced to do so under Nazi rule. One account even retells the cries of a teenage German soldier asking for his mother.
Hence today why Germans feel that the defeat of Nazi Germany was liberation for not just the rest of the world but Germany as well. I know this may sound obvious to a certain crowd of readers, but it is important I reiterate that fact to ensure the reality of the situation.
However, no matter the reality of the state of Germany, due to the post-war feelings that were not so warm and happy, the agreement was that at the German cemetery of Normandy (called Le Cambe), the crosses had to be dark. So, you will see that the cemetery is incredibly somber, and that there is a sense of dark morbidity, guilt, and dissolution within the memories the cemetery wishes to convey. The red roses and lilies that line the graveyard are stunning; I think they remind us of the blood so freely spilled.
Also, the town of Le Havre, a port city in northern France, was occupied by Germans, but it was actually the hastiness of the British that destroyed it and its people almost completely. According to its history, the German command wanted to evacuate its people, but the British did not want to waste time. Because of rebuilding and decline of wealth in post-World War II, Le Havre is scantily dressed in modern-day architecture, but it still remains as an essential economic center (hence the Del Monte ship that bustled into the harbor). The industrial air of Le Havre reflects its rebuilding after being bombed over 132 times during WWII. May no one ever have to experience that again.
We have indeed seen wars since WWII, but I believe no other war has reached the death toll seen in that last great war. However, we did learn that we can indeed destroy ourselves, and for now, we must hope that we are really aware and in control of our lives in a safe, positive way. We just simply cannot afford another world war. (Photo right: Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt about uranium)
On the contrary, I really do wonder. The world is armed; someone is waiting for the right time. It is my hope that there is at least an ounce of humanitarianism left, and that those thoughts of destruction are just threats and not actual plans.
Normandy left me with new feelings.
A List of Facts:
Early 1920s: Hitler gains popularity with the Populist party due to the demand for strong leadership in the dark economic aftermath of World War I.
1925: Hitler publishes Mein Kampf.
1931: Great Depression begins and hits the United States, Britain, Germany, and France terribly hard.
• The agricultural areas of France were thriving and were forced to send food to the city while those of the United States were deeply poor and threatened.
• Germany was the weakest country, and no one would bail them out.
• Britain’s economy waivers off and on the gold standard, seeking help from the US.
1935: The first concentration camps open.
1939: Hitler occupies Poland.
1940: Hilter occupies Paris.
1941: United States declares war on Japan.
1942: Nuclear reactor built in Chicago.
• Leningrad invaded unsuccessfully by Germany (after unsuccessful attempts to again Moscow and Stalingrad)
1945: Hitler commits suicide.