I am in Normandy with two friends for the week. I seem to be the only person I know who, until Wednesday, had not made a visit to the WWII beaches, the American Cemetery, and the Memorial Museum in Caen. Even though they’d already been, my friends insisted we had to spend one day visiting these memorial sites. So, on Wednesday, with the skies threatening rain, we set off. First stop: Caen.
Once you hit the outskirts of Caen, there are numerous signs guiding you to the Memorial. It is a large rectangular building fronted by the flags of the many Allies and surrounded by green.
Inside the front doors is a huge entry way with a Boutique on the left and a Bistro for light snacking in front on the mezzanine. Below that is the ticket counter and on the right is a restaurant for a sit-down lunch and the auditorium that runs a film “1944: Sauver l’Europe (Saving Europe)” every 30 minutes.
We bought out our tickets, tucked all our belongings into a locker and set out for a journey through history that began with 1918 and how Europe and Germany were set up for the totalitarian take-over of Germany and the next World War.
The museum is designed so that the spaces are chronological. The exhibits take on the form of newspapers, photos, uniforms behind glass; short videos remastered from the 1930s and 40s; detailed explanations in English, French, German and Spanish on the walls. There are photos of Hitler that I’d never seen before and ordinary soldiers that have survived the years and give illustration to the explanatory words.
I began by reading everything, looking at everything, soaking in old and new information. When I got to the area that detailed the extermination of the Jews, I had to skip those rooms. It’s the part of WWII I know most about. With the world once again on the precipice of vanquishing huge populations of non-white people, I can barely stand to voluntarily look at the past and it’s horrendous consequences. As I looked at the horrifying map of the trains that led to the death camps, I found it ironic that I loved a similar map of the paths of all the pilgrims walking to Compostale in Spain.
I moved on to the next rooms and realized I’d been in the museum for almost 90 minutes, reading, looking, absorbing history. I was exhausted. My brain went on strike and even though I had sat down at almost every video, my feet ached. For me, this museum would be better experienced as a two day venture. Being lucky enough to live in Paris, I could return.
I walked to the end of the exhibit on the bottom floor and found that my friend, Susan, had come to the same conclusion. So we found our way to the Bistro – a large space with many tables that seemed to be able to accommodate everyone. Her husband joined us for a light snack: he had lasagne and salad and she had the most gorgeous bruschetta I’ve ever seen. At the Bookstore/Boutique, I bought The Longest Day, a film my mother had taken me to see when I was fifteen years old and had never seen again. I plan to watch it and “Band of Brothers”, the TV series that I’ve seen three times and never gets old.
We piled back into our rented Peugeot and headed for Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. There are five landing beaches on this part of the Normandy coast. Omaha and Utah beaches are the two where the Americans landed. Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches are where the English and the Canadians landed. In between Omaha and Utah is Pointe du Hoc.
As the rain came down harder, we told each other how great this was. “We are having the true 3D experience. When the troops landed on June 6th, it was raining hard.” Once we arrived at Omaha beach, stepped out of the car and into the cold, biting, stinging rain, we were miserable. The only way to get some respite was to stand on the side of the large monument memorialising the beach.
Within five minutes, the strength of the wind and the sleet-like stinging of the rain caused us to re-access what we were planning to do. To see anything, we had to step back into the unkind weather. Susan’s husband, Dewey, suggested we give up on Omaha and head to Pointe du Hoc. “Anything that will get us back in the car.”
We drove about 8km along the coast and arrived at Pointe du Hoc at 4pm. Here, on June 6th, 1944, parts of the 2nd Ranger Battilion scaled the cliffs seizing German artillery hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches. They surprised the Germans who never thought they’d attempt the cliffs. They held on against fierce counterattacks. The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission on January 11, 1979 for perpetual care and maintenance.
After going through TSA-like security check, we entered a small building called The Sacrifice Gallery and watched a video with personal stories of the “sacrifices that made the Allied victory possible. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men that participated in the Pointe du Hoc mission on June 6, only 90 were still able to bear arms when relieved on June 8”–Brochure of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
We began the walk along the point. We came to a bunker that was taken from the Germans and became the command post of the Rangers, medical aid station and morgue. We could see, 75 years later, the huge holes in the ground that cannon balls had made. These provided some shelter for the Americans. Because of the rain and wind, we didn’t make it far enough to actually see the scale of the cliffs. Photos showed the rope ladders that had been thrown up and the soldiers climbing to get to the top. It is breathtaking and heart pounding to see what was done by the Allied Forces to save the world from totalitarianism.
I called this blog Don’t Stop Before the Miracle because so often in my attempts to break a bad habit or do something that seemed beyond my skill level, people would say to me: Don’t stop before the miracle. I took that to mean that I should just keep trying with the belief that I could succeed. As I walked through the Memorial in Caen and the beaches on the coast, I couldn’t help thinking what an example, at such a terrible cost, of continued efforts to do the right thing. At one point, all hope of the Allies winning the war seemed lost but, in the end, they prevailed. It was a miracle. And today I pray for our world and that a second miracle is in the offing. I will do my part.