Tag Archives: WWII

In color

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.

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To be involved

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

One of the many reasons why I was excited to embark on this journey throughout France even before the trip began was the ability for me to interact with the history and culture of the country.   Quite a bit of the information that I have been engaging with during this trip is information that I have either learned and later forgotten or learned and remembered in classes or through reading and researching.  However, the experience of being taught a topic on a PowerPoint or in a book pales in comparison to the possibilities that self – learning allows.  For example, I was aware of the fact that 50,000,000 million people were casualties of World War II.  However, being able to encounter a piece of that history by looking out at the burial sites in Caen made it all the more powerful.  The fact that I could walk over to a grave and see the name, hometown, and date of birth and death, gave each of those soldiers a personal story that I’ll always keep in mind when talking about WWII now.

Another example is when we visited the Louvre.  I had never seen the Mona Lisa in person though of course I had known about its marvelous prestige.  When we reached the Louvre, I made a relative beeline to the Mona Lisa and after taking a few pictures of the famous painting, I just stared at it, attempting to take in each and every detail in my mind’s eye.  From that experience, I was able to understand why the Mona Lisa is considered an impressive work of art while the rest of my visit to the Louvre made me ponder what made one work of art so significantly better than another.  Questions such as, how do certain pieces of art reach higher levels of prestige than others, when all of the pieces of art are considered to be in the upper echelon and if the current method of viewing art is conducive to truly appreciating these works of art reverberated with me not only when I was in the Louvre, but in my quiet moments afterwards.

The point of this is to say when one is physically, intellectually, and emotionally engaged in learning, the ideas and concepts stick with you more effectively and the best way for one to engage in learning in all of these ways is to actively interact with the topics at hand.   I wouldn’t be able to look at World War II from the eyes of a young soldier who is scared and just wants to come home or debate the merits of the current art viewing methods nearly as effectively as I can now because I have these memories to lean on.  When you actively engage with what you’re learning, you care about it.  Instead of just trying to remember statistics, dates, and details, I now care about what I have been learning on a deeper, more emotional level, which allows me to think about these topics on a deeper, more questioning level.  I want to learn and being involved in the learning personally ensures that I will never forget it.

Stripes, Normandy, and such

I’m not usually this enthusiastic about stars, stripes, and brass instruments, which is not to say that I’m not patriotic, but simply that I’m cynical. But since my cynicism is the driving force behind this blog post, bear with me.

“Live free or die.”

This nicely condensed quote conveys a major American ideal, one that in my opinion is sometimes considered a given in our society when it is actually a striking idea. In any case, American society embraces freedom in every respect, fighting for Constitutional rights given to its citizens even when the majority of them (us) will not need to exercise each right.

This, then, may have been the reason behind my legitimate confusion as to why the French government “capitulated” to the Germans in World War II. For better or quite often for worse, the American government rarely capitulates unless it is to ensure the freedom of its people, most recently in the case of Sgt. Bowe Berghdahl. So while I wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to send American soldiers to fight against Germany, I rather unfairly refused to understand why the French surrendered.

It wasn’t until we reached the towns in Normandy that I understood that no French person could have been truly ambivalent towards their occupation. With Allied forces bombing their homes and their ways of life overturned by German troops, change barreled its way through their lives. The French people must have been terrified both before the invasion as well as after 1940.

As we drove through the Norman towns, both the French flag and the flag of the country that liberated it flew from many houses, as well as in the town square. Watching French soldiers visit the World War II museums, I had a much greater respect for what gratitude on this scale looks like.

In the American cemetery for those who lost their lives in the war, there is a quote from René Coty, a former president of France, which reads, “Nous n’oublions pas, nous n’oublierons jamais, la dette d’infinie gratitude que nous avons contractée envers ceux qui ont tout donne pour notre liberation.” Roughly translated, this says, “we do not forget, we will never forget, the infinite debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have given everything for our liberation.”

The French have done the most important things they could have done, which is to respect the troops that gave them back their liberty and to uphold the restored democracy with everything in their power.

Beauty and sadness in Normandy

We just finished up our second day in Normandy, and tomorrow we depart for the Loire Valley. Our experiences here could not have been more different from our experiences in Paris, though I think we all continue to be dazzled by France’s beauty.

ImageI think a number of people in our group were particularly taken with our stop at the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny. It’s clear that many of the students knew more about Monet than I did, but for me it was a surprise to learn that he was as equally skilled at gardening as he was at painting. The gardens he kept were stunningly beautiful, and to walk through them is as close as one can come to physically entering into one of his paintings. His gardens are rich and lush, and they dazzle the eye with their masterful manipulation of light and color. To take a walk through Monet’s gardens is to better understand his genius as an artist.

ImageAs much as I enjoyed our visit to Giverny, I was even more moved by today’s visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach. More than 9,000 American soldiers from WWII are buried here, many of whom lost their lives during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 or in the fighting that followed over the course of the next several weeks. Since my own father fought in the European Theater, this visit was especially meaningful for me. He didn’t join the war until after D-Day, but just being there really brought home the sacrifice that all the young men–boys really–of that generation made during that war. Looking out over the choppy sea, you can almost feel the ghostly presence of the nearly 200,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches on that grey, stormy day, straight into the teeth of German machine gun fire. And the field of white crosses, while beautiful, evokes an incredible sense of sadness and respect not only for those who died but for those who survived what had to be a nightmarish day of horror.

AfteImager Omaha Beach, we visited the small town of Arromanches where we went to the Musee Du Debarquement. Here I learned far more than I ever knew about the incredible engineering feats undertaken to ensure the success of the D-Day invasion–most notably the creation of an artificial port that allowed supplies and reinforcements to be brought ashore immediately following the capture of the beach. This was a task that had to be completed in a matter of days while under heavy fire, and the fact that the Allies were able to pull it off is an amazing testament to the ingenuity and cooperation of the generals, admirals, engineers and political leaders of America, Britain and Canada. It was so heartwarming to see how much the people of this region of France appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of all involved, even to this day. In fact, I would hazard to say the people here know far more about the details of the D-Day invasion than the average Amercian.

ImageOur final stop in Normandy was the picturesque town of Bayeux, where we viewed the Tapestry of Bayeux–another incredibly important historical artifact that I’d never heard of. This was a last minute addition to our itinerary–thanks to Dr. Wheeler–and what a fantastic addition it was. This tapestry is over 200 feet long and was created in 1070 to commemorate William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. What makes the tapestry special, besides its size and its age, is that it consists of more than 50 scenes that depict the full story of this conquest. Unlike most pieces of medieval and even ancient art that depict a specific event, this tapestry conveys a whole narrative. At the time it was created, it was a perfect way to share that narrative with a population that was largely illiterate. That the tapestry has survived more than 900 years is practically a miracle. Getting a chance to view it up close was a special treat for all of us.