No one told me that January is the wrong time to visit Normandy (until afterwards, that is). Most of the places we went to visit were closed. It was cold and wet and rainy. It took more than three hours each way. But I haven’t been to France in fifteen years, and who knows (especially after this trip) when I will go again.
Our driver was an older gentleman, a retired executive who kept himself busy as a tour guide. As we left Paris, he enthusiastically pointed out the sights. This palace and that. This chalet and that. Napoleons’ and Louis’ and the rest. I finally told him, nicely, that as Americans, we had a somewhat different attitude toward kings. When that didn’t work, I told him we’d be closing our eyes.
But as we got closer and found one place after another closed down, I started asking questions. He was old enough to remember World War II, or at least to have learned about it, as I did, from my parents and relatives who fought in the war. His father was a doctor, from right there.
I guess I should have known.
France had stayed out of the war, wisely he thought. After all, look at how many French soldiers died in World War I. Marshall Petain, soldier, appeaser, chief of state of Vichy France, was right to make his peace with Hitler in 1940. Look how many lives he saved. It hardly seemed right that he was prosecuted for treason after the war.
What about the Jews? I asked him. Really, he didn’t know. Didn’t know?
There were many righteous men and women in France who tried to save their Jewish countrymen and -women. Clearly, that did not include my driver’s family. Nor the Vichy government. All told, 76,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps in France. Refugees were among the first to be rounded up. Pity those who thought they would find refuge from Hitler in France. They were as much in the dark as I was. They paid with their lives. All but 2,500 of those sent to the camps in France died.
The only place open was the American cemetery and the small museum adjacent to it. Our driver apologized. It hardly seemed worth the trip, he said. Wrong again.
You might remember the cemetery from the opening scenes in “Saving Private Ryan.”
But seeing it is different.
I stood there with my 18-year-old son. The rain poured down. We stared at row after row of crosses, interspersed with stars of David. The museum, simple, powerful, told the story of these brave Americans, many of them no older than my son.
Omaha Beach is quiet. Even on a rainy day, it is beautiful. But it was not beautiful on D-Day. The ocean was dyed red with the blood of brave Americans who waded from their boats into enemy fire — kids who gave their lives to save each other, to liberate the French, to defeat evil.
On that day, as the tape in the museum says, they carried the fate of the free world — “the entire free world” — on their young shoulders.
They saved the world.
My friend Annie was the one who told me to go to Normandy. She is the child of survivors, born in Munich after the war. She said that standing in that cemetery, she was overcome with pride to be an immigrant to this country.
For all our problems, we are still the luckiest people on the face of the globe. And one of the reasons for that is because of those young soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom — and for the freedom of people like my driver and his family. He may not know enough to appreciate that. But I do. God bless America.