Seated in our bright red and half-empty coach bus (actually more than half-empty because its max occupancy is 50!), we traveled to the Mémorial de Caen on Wednesday.The museum covers the time span from the end of WWI through WWII and the Shoah (the wall text in the museum used this term instead of Holocaust) and then through the Cold War. Rather than brushing over these topics lightly or in a dry manner, the museum utilized engaging medias such as music and videos and primary source photos, text, and artifacts.
The earliest memory I have of learning about WWII and the Shoah was in fifth grade when my class read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. I have studied the events or read literature about them in almost every school year since then but I have never seen any color photos. And so when I was walking through the museum and saw a whole wall covered with a photograph showing a faint blue sky and a woman in a burgundy coat, I stopped. In the photo, this short and elderly woman walked down a sidewalk in the same direction as a taller and younger woman. They moved in such close proximity to each other that they could be mistaken for walking and talking together but a small yellow star on burgundy coat-woman’s chest informed me that these women were actually miles apart. For on her chest was the Star of David, a symbol of her religion but also of her perceived inferiority to those in power at the time. I stopped and stared at this image for a few minutes. The black and white photos and paintings and sketches that permeate my education make the past seem even more distant than it is. Therefore, it escapes my memory that in the near past and on the same Earth where I go to a school full of resources and opportunity and live with my loving family, atrocities fueled by hate and ignorance have occurred. It is even easier to forget that these events are occurring today, at the moment that I write this and at the same moment that you read this because they often happen silently or in distant places. Viewing photos and reading letters and diary entries like those in the museum offers a (re-)awareness about these injustices.
And while these tangible objects set off a chain of knowing about the past so does visiting actual historical sites… The Mémorial de Caen was partly built on top of a bunker where a German Nazi plotted during WWII and visitors could walk through the bunker to examine artifacts from D-Day. The dark, tubular, and subterranean hallway sent shivers up my spine. I walked through with my arms crossed, swiftly moving towards the exit. On the last wall of the long hallway were projected images of Anne Frank and excerpts from her infamous diary. Her placement at the end of the hallway was quite poignant as the plotting that occurred in the dark hallway contributed to the end of her life. At the same time, moving towards her felt hopeful. Full of light and optimism, Anne Frank was one of the many lives lost during the Shoah. Walking towards her felt like moving from darkness towards hope and resolution, two things that should there should be more of in this world.