May 21-June 1 2009 / France: French History Seen Along the Seine
Medieval Times to World War II, and Much More
Here I am in France! At--where am I? near Bayeux, at the Chateau la Cheneviere, our hotel for the next three nights. It is a tender morning, the doves are cooing urgently outside my long open window, which looks onto a large deep green lawn and from there beyond to a blanket of fog on the rank of low hills beyond.
I will have to learn to type on this tiny keyboard.
Not a good start yesterday, poorly organized if at all at the airport, hours of waiting and uncertainty. The supposedly experienced country guide has one of those awful harsh voices and is often unintelligible, plus apparently never having done this before, though I know this is not true. So simple to tell people what is going on...Thus complains the former tour director!
We drove for several hours across that gracious landscape that I had traversed in the ether in Google Earth, the surreally brilliant colors of this countryside—saturated green. Fields spotted with pure white cattle. The stone houses which take on such gravitas by virtue of their material, and their age. To an American, everything here is fairy-tale like. Stout cleverly made walls, and they have seen so much for so long.
Lunch in what was it? The place of the Chateau de le Roche-Guyon, an impossible affair, gigantic (as if for a giant), built into the limestone cliffs, its mass intimidating because it appeared too large, as if for some oversized being. Steeply peaked roof, and lawn overrun by school kids on a field trip at the end of the year.
Some signs of D-Day, a statue of Dwight Eisenhower, with an American flag, to greet us at the entrance to Bayeux. His hands out in welcome. The guide says, Here we do not call it the invasion of Normandy, we call it the liberation. She refers to WWII as “the last war.” Ah, not for us.
We are to have a talk about D-Day, this morning, by a National Geographic person, actually the editor of the French edition thereof, and then, remarkably, by a man who was here at the time. He served as a translator and was in the French Resistance. What would any of us do, in the extremis of invasion? [See the image of this remarkable man, M. Heintz, the French resisteur in World War II, at the upper left of this page.)
The countryside is surreal. The intense color, the neat cows and stone houses. At home indeed we would call it a fairy-tale scene. But here it is where they live.
I hope I can keep this up every day.
Can I do this justice??
The blood in the earth. The elegant and tailored landscape which hides so much. The sounds of doves—I am walking in the green green so-tailored lawn early this morning, the grass is moist and all the trees are so so tidy and tailored. Those doves are the descendants of those of the past who would surely have cooed, in the early light over a despairing landscape, if they had not fled at the sounds of bombing and crying, their trees destroyed, their peace destroyed. But just as weeds grow in the worst of places—oh well, “worst” to us but to them it is their found habitat, the doves will coo where they find themselves.
Everybody or perhaps most of us—in this group, has memories of World War II. My uncle, my father, do you remember...? Neither my father nor my uncles fought in that war. But yes, I remember the day the war ended, I remember collecting newspapers, collecting bacon fat, rationing—all kinds of things!-- blackouts, all the things we did on the home front. For this war,” the good war”, we call it, and “the last war” as they seem to call it here.
Today is the day we are to see the tangible remnants of that war. A sign points to “Overlord Assaut.” There are signs to Saint Lo, to Caen.
Oh. To make a tourist attraction of a place of death: Gettysburg, Auschwitz...Omaha Beach...in the gift shop at the museum, snowglobes of Omaha Beach where perhaps 5000 people died.
Here are the hedgerows, high, and thick with plants. The things that gave them the huge challenge, AFTER they survived the scaling of cliffs, the death-beach. Then they had to try to progress through the hedgerows. Death everywhere.
At the museum in Caen, the Peace Museum, our guide for today, a man of 89, M. Andre Heintz, shows us how the architect of the museum has used symbolism to design it. In front of the entrance flutters a row of flags of the thirteen countries which eventually sent troops. And there is a gigantic cruel rent in the limestone fabric of the entry wall, to show how a lifeway was ripped in pieces, a wound in the wall, the quiet rural life torn asunder. He tells us how Caen was bombed 27 times, and how he helped carry the wounded and dying to succor, for three days. How 7000 people were killed. Now he, living, tells us the tale. It is hard to consider what his eyes and heart have seen. He seems a vigorous fellow, and tells his stories very well.
We also have another Frenchman, the editor of NatGeo France. He also tells stories, but this morning his lecture on D-day was fragmented, came in fits and starts. How can anyone who is an editor not be able to tell a story?
I do not want to be rushed through any of this. I have to be very attentive, though, about making my own trip, because the French guide is hard to understand and very vague about times, etc., and of course I do not want to get lost or be late. But I'll go my own way.
We see a film. On the split screen, the Americans, Brits and Canadians (all of a piece) are on one side and the Germans on the other. Activities on each side are matched for time and as to what they were about. The German film is heroic in the Soviet mode, and Allies are cheery, casual, natural. Forthright. It is hard to watch them as you also see the Germans preparing their formidable coastal barriers--
All this, the terrible terrible noises, the screaming, the swearing, the explosions and crashes and blood, all that was right here where we are sitting in this dark movie theater in our comfortable seats.
The stout limestone houses seen in the film, on the edge of the beach, the terrible beaches, are there still, or descendants of them.
M. Heintz tells us, as we walk through the exhibits of life on the—I was going to say home front but the home front was the front—life for civilians, that the government distributed free gas masks for all, but that if you wanted one for your dog or cat, you had to pay.
It has come to me that the memories here, on and for the land, are similar for us only to those from our Civil War. At home I walked the Bloody Cornfield at Antietam. At home almost 150 years have passed and yet still there I saw the man at Carnton Plantation, in Tennessee, looking among the graves for his family member. So here, only 70 years have passed, and here is this man in whose mind's eye all is fresh.
At home, our landscape has almost covered all of it, the war fought on our land. Here, it's all still raw and only partially healed. Our little female French guide tells me about family members, a grandfather who had to billet German soldiers; they were pleasant enough, nice to the kids, but when they required something or other unless he gave it, they would execute a townsperson. So what could he do? For this collaboration he was imprisoned after the war. Then came his daughter's future father-in-law, who would having nothing to do with him. Explanations had to be made, and it was a good thing for his daughter that he had been imprisoned. In this way families were torn. Were you a sympathizer? a collaborateur? A partisan? A resisteur?
This horrible disconnect: Here are images of the death camps, and Kristallnacht, and now we must go to lunch in the cafeteria.
After lunch I go to the American garden. It is built over where the German headquarters were bunkered in tunnels.
In the garden, it says: “From the heart of our land flows the blood of our youth given to you in the name of freedom. A wall under a waterfall is covered with memorial plaques from so many states. I am filled with sad pride. This one time, they died for something truly important. The garden is filled with North American plants.
On the facade of the Peace Museum it says, of Caen, “Pain brought me down. Brotherhood helped me rise. Out of my wounds flowed the river of freedom.”
We drive slowly by the German cemetery. Its stones are dark brown, granite. A German mother would have wept for her sons who died in a strange land, like the British soldiers interred at the Old North Bridge at Concord, Massachusetts. German students come each summer to maintain the cemetery.
We come to Pointe de Hoc, where they tried to come up the sheer cliffs. It didn't work well. The grappling hooks which they had so cleverly designed failed since the bombs had crumbled the tops of the cliffs which the hooks were to grasp. The extending ladder, brought across the water and beach at such cost, did not reach to the top since the base of the cliff was filled with rubble from bombs and thus the ladder could not be set up properly. What bitter, bitter disappointments they had! And yet they did, they did come up.
The land above the cliffs is deeply scarred by horrible deep pits, now softened and disguised by a grassy blanket. They are bomb craters, many dozens of them. Visiting children, over the years, have worn straight dirt paths down one side and up the other, in each of them, running down full tilt and scrambling up the other side. Just to do it, you know, for fun. It is the Ascension Day holiday, just now, and so there are lots of families here. It seems a strange place for children. What have their parents told them about why they are here, I wonder?
M. Heintz takes us round the paths, explaining about how here are the German gun emplacements, here the underground bunkers, here are the remains of those bunkers, here the great clumps of concrete, where the bombs threw them. But all is so soft now, under the sparkling green grass. Nothing to be afraid of here. Their sweaty terror and cries of encouragement, wild hope, all faded into near-nothingness.
He says that 40,000 civilians died hereabouts.
We drive briefly to another beach. Since I cannot understand what the guides say, much of the time, I don’t know what one it is. There's a casino hotel, and a creperie, but there's also a way to get to the sand, and I take it. I must walk on it, set my own feet where they ran and fell and crawled and died.
I walk on this beach. There are some people playing on it, on the wide golden sand, amid the sky-blue pools. How many boys who had never played on a beach died here?
Finally, to the American Cemetery. As we get off the bus, the guide gives each of us a lushly huge red rose. We may put it at whatever grave we choose.
“This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the valor and sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” We are told that it is American territory. Flags fly high overhead, over the rows and rows and rows of blindingly white crosses and Stars of David. There are many people but it is very quiet.
It is immaculate.
The beach lies below the cliff, and at first I go to listen dutifully to narrative by M. Heintz. But then I hear a carillon, playing this hymn:
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”
Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.
Earth shall be fair, and all her people one:
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky,
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry—
“Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!”
And I leave the group immediately and go toward the music, singing a little to myself. And then they are playing America.
I walked among the white white crosses and Stars of David—not as many of those, but each with its small pile of memorial stones. The crosses are so white! This is Italian marble, and it glitters softly in the sunlight. I walk and walk, reading the names, their states, their dates of death. Finally I find a person whose name ends in –ski, and I put my rose. But then, two rows away, there is a clearly Ukrainian name, my nationality, Albert Petrunyak, and with silent apologies, I move the flower. It looks very beautiful, there in the bright green grass against the foot of the white white cross.
He was from Pennsylvania, he was, and died July 1, 1944, just before my 6th birthday.
They are lowering the flag. Taps is played. I remove my hat. People stand around, silently. Two men behind me, not Americans, are noisy, and I turn around and SHH! them. Surely even if they are not Americans they recognize taps. Maybe not. But still, they can see the flag being lowered with ceremony.
There is a wall of names, all their names, and their jobs they did when they were killed. Pharmacist's mate. Cook. Boatswain. Fireman.
We drive back to the hotel in some silence, and at dinner there are earnest conversations, and memories are shared. The memories of people here, in Normandy, so utterly devastated then, can only be vaguely imagined.