Yesterday, as you may have noticed, we assigned a special blog post to our Piette team: how different has it been for you so far to be in the places where history happened, as opposed to reading about them in books or videos?
The seed of this assignment planted itself in my mind when I was looking for something meaningful to bring back from Normandy for my classroom, or for my French courses. I looked around in the museums’ gift shops to find DVDs, memorabilia, books, workbooks, comic strips, or replicas. I became frustrated because none of these things could convey exactly the… the… what was it?
It was something that could not be transmitted in any other way than by experiencing the place. It was a deep, very deep and complex feeling that only the soft sound of the wind and waves over the solemn and simple graves at the D-day cemetery could produce. It was the awe when looking at the remnants of the artificial harbor at Arromanches, right there, still standing. Combined with documentaries shown in the museums, these experiences allowed me to literally com-prehend the confusion, the panic, the horror, but also the determination, the courage, and the love that accompanied these boys on the D-day beaches 70 years ago. From instant drowning on the beach to walking through Paris two months later, anything was possible.
I thought to myself “Good, I’m getting something from this… wait — that was the major purpose of this program to being with! To make history tangible. To make us more aware global citizens. To give us a deeper sense of history, time, and their lessons. Well, it’s happening!”
Little did I know what the Memorial in Caen would do to me the next day.
The main part of the Caen Memorial is dedicated to World War II as a whole. Its structure makes it unique. It leads the visitor on a chronological path that spirals downwards as time passes, from the roaring 1920s at the top, to the dark years of occupation and total war down at the bottom. Down low, right after the war declaration in 1939, there is a passage through a large, dark, and almost empty sphere, with only one huge image facing the visitor: Adolf Hitler climbing long stairs towards power.
After that, the soundscape and memorabilia tell the story. Everyone in our group spent a long time in that tunnel of history. It was an important moment, as close as I could get to understanding all of this. It culminated when I read on the wall a letter written to his wife by a German soldier who had to execute numerous women, children, and babies. At first it was difficult, he wrote. But then, you got used to it. And in fact, that death was better than the death these babies would have had with gas or torture, he continued.
Had I read this letter in a book at home, I would have been shocked, but in a very abstract way. Yesterday, when I read it, tears suddenly rolled on my cheeks, just like that. My chest burned. I felt it in my bones. There, there was the confusion. There was the horror. There was the unfathomable. But not in isolation. Because I had been at the American cemetery the day before, because I had heard the wind there, because I had seen the harbor at Arromanches, because I had seen the films in the auditorium, because I had walked on Omaha Beach, this letter was able to act as a catalyst, and I touched the unfathomable. No matter how much I write about it, you will not feel it. You have to go there and be open.
What’s the point, you say?
Understanding the lessons. Being warned. Gaining compassion. Gaining perspective. Acting as engaged citizens. Leading as peacemakers. As I noticed in the museum because of its great presentation, the substrate of World War II, what made it possible, was a combination of factors that is frighteningly similar to characteristics of our current world: a financial crisis, followed by an economic crisis, accompanied by the rise of political extremes, followed by the casual invasion of territories without much reaction from the international community, for peace’s sake… rings a bell?
As a nice closure, I realized that the name of the place is not, as I kept saying, the Caen War Memorial, but the Caen Memorial for Peace. Indeed.