We started the day a little too early for my taste at 4 A.M. It was worth it though as we got to the ferry around 8, and then proceeded to cross the English channel. Despite my sleepiness throughout the crossing, I was still aware of the path we were traversing. Coming from England, we traced the path of the allies on the eve of D-day. Our experience was obviously a little different given our private room in the ferry, but looking out on the channel gave me a better visualization of the actual D-day preparation. The English Channel was huge, and I could not imagine the sheer volume of boats that would have crossed in those proceeding days as the German soldiers once described it as boats as far as the eye could see. The sheer magnitude was a little easier to understand after looking out on the water.
We arrived in Bayeux, France later that day. Despite my very rusty French, I found myself quite comfortable with ordering food and reading any necessary signs. The town was quite picturesque and reminiscent of the opening scene of Beauty of Beast. Though that is not what we were there for, it was nice nonetheless.
Bayeux day two. We made our way over to the Caen Memorial museum , a museum that emphasizes peace by featuring exhibits on war. A few things I noticed as soon as we arrived were:
- The Russian flag is missing outside (despite the other allied flags being displayed outside the entrance to to the museum)
- There is a strong focus on Liberty, but not equality throughout the museum (even in the quote inscribed on the front)
- The stones (with inscriptions) some countries (including Russia, France, England and the U.S.) has placed outside to memorialize the fight against fascism all to some degree mention freedom, with the allies especially focused on their decision to fight for France’s freedom.
The museum beings just after WWI and explains how Europe had changed after the war. The museum highlights the world financial crisis and ties it into the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. With this, it jumps right into Nazi Germany and its expansion in the late 1930s. While it discusses the effect Nazi Germany had on Eastern Europe in the early years of the war, it truly focuses on the French occupation and onward. As I walked toward the period marked “1940” I noticed that it said I was entering France in the dark years. This gives the impression that the French label this period as a stain on their history, and that they still struggle with acceptance of their surrender and subsequent occupation. Despite this hint of acceptance, they are quick to deflect blame to the Germans—especially when it comes to the Holocaust. The museum had a detailed and extensive Holocaust section, however it focused heavily on how the Germans led it and appeared to ignore the collaboration between the French Vichy police and Nazi Germany to deport and exterminate their Jews. The exhibit ends after the war in Europe, and has a relatively meager and small section on the conclusion of war in the Pacific. However, one can understand that decision, as the French did not participate in the pacific theater. The museums focus is WWII, and anything post 1945 is crammed into one side in a bare-bones model. Rather than go into detail about the cold war, the museum simply highlights the differences between the U.S. and Soviet Russia. The WWII part is well done, but shows the reluctance of the French to accept their complacency under Vichy rule and how they prefer not to look back on those so-called “dark years”.
Our first stop on this morning was Utah Beach. Utah is one of the bridges that the allies landed on during the Normandy invasion and it was exactly what I would have expected from it. The barbed wire and rusting fences reminded gave an idea of how the beach would have looked that morning. Although nothing can give me an accurate idea of what it was exactly like to land that morning, I can appreciate the bravery of those who ran headfirst into German fire that morning. Post-Utah, we found ourselves in St. Mere Eglise an eclectic little town with a paratrooper hanging form the church. What I found most striking about Bayeux and the surrounding area was the sheer amount of war memorials, museums and monuments. It seemed no matter where you went there was mention of the allied landings, almost as though it had become a part of the culture in Normandy. Perhaps because none of the fighting took place on our shores we do not get a true sense of the impact of D-day, and by mid-day, I felt I had one. We ended the day in the first of our three cemeteries in France- the German cemetery. Strikingly simple, the Germany cemetery has no ornate headstones or monuments, rather just two soldiers per grave and a small museum detailing the process of reburial. The soldiers buried there were for the majority young men, and the more 20 year olds I saw the bigger the knot in my stomach grew. It is hard to believe people my age were dying for something so truly vile, and that their future was ripped away from them due to the miserable ideas of fascism. Perhaps the simplicity is part of German’s goal to not glorify the war, or maybe it is just out of respect to the French after their rocky history—after all, it is their land. Either way it still has a way of evoking emotions, especially with the stories in the museums. The one I found most poignant was not from a German solider, but from a fellow buckeye who details his wish to return home and see his young daughter yet again. As one can gather, he does not return home and instead dies in the post-Normandy battles. Why this is displayed in a German cemetery one can only speculate about, I like to think it is to remind those visiting that these were real people fighting and in the end, the lives lost were not just statics. For a place filled with life stories cut so short, it certainly spoke volumes as I walked through it.
Another long day. We started at what I have found to be my favorite place so far on this trip—Pointe Du Hoc. Aside from being breathtaking, Pointe Du Hoc was of strategic importance during WWII, and the place I found myself learning the most. Pointe Du Hoc was the location of the German guns that could reach both Omaha and Utah, and where the Army rangers would find themselves in the early morning hours of June 6th. The pointe part is all too true, as it located on actual cliffs. The rangers had to swim ashore, climb these cliffs, and disable the guns—all while facing German gunfire. What struck me about this place (and what I wrote a good five pages in my journal about) was what these men would have been feeling when they arrived. The museum and all the information posts make them out to be heroes (and there is no doubt but they are), but they had no idea they would be. The men assigned to Pointe Du Hoc did not know how history would remember them, and were willing to give their lives if only for the sake of freedom. They went down as heroes because they did what needed to be done of them, regardless of fear and potential consequences. History has a tendency to glorify the individual, and at Pointe Du Hoc, it was instead the group that made all the difference. In contrast, Omaha saw the performance of the individual. Those who took charge when all the plans had fallen apart and led the invasion because they had no choice but to press on. Seeing Omaha only made it even more difficult to understand the magnitude the invasion, as it was large, rocky and in perfect site of German guns. The victory at Omaha and subsequent liberation of the Normandy area is owed to men who only wanted to protect the ideas of freedom, and were willing to give anything to do so. Our last stop was the American cemetery. There, we planted flags at the graves of the Buckeye 12 (mine was from Chicago—much like myself) and then proceeding to wander the grounds. Unlike the German cemetery, the American soldiers were given their own graves, and each featured a hometown on it. It is however very uniform, unifying those who fought for Europe’s freedom. It is beautiful, right along the coastline and filled with monuments. As I was walking through, the Star-Spangled Banner began playing and all I could think of was the verses and their significance throughout the war. The men who liberated France were fighting for the worlds freedom, and thus in a way for the land of free. Honestly, it was an incredible experience to think about how the allies all had the same goal –world freedom—despite being different in so many other aspects. Perhaps that is why they were successful, they all had one goal to unite behind, and one worth fighting for at that.
We spent the morning at the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts William the Conquerors accession to the throne of England after in 1066. It was detailed and for those interested in medieval history had to be fascinating. I enjoyed the connection to England even in a place as small as Bayeux. Next, we went to the 360 theater in Arromaches, France. The theater depicted the D-Day landings in a 360 manner—meaning the Allied forces surrounded us as they came to life on the screen. I could not help but wonder if that is how the French felt when the Americans came in, surrounded. What has truly been the most amazing experience in Bayeux has been understanding the French perspective of the war, and how they suffered under the Nazi regime and how they later viewed the liberating allies. The French had suffered under the Nazis, and though I am sure they were thankful to be liberated, they had to have mixed emotions about the allies. Bayeux and the surrounding areas have done an astounding job of explaining the French emotions toward the pre-invasion allied bombings and has left me with a deeper understanding of how people experienced the war differently. Our last stop of the day was the British cemetery—our final cemetery related to the D-Day landings. The British cemetery was a little different from the others in the sense that every headstone was personalized. That in itself was enough to remind anyone of the true cost of war: the people lost. The graves that struck me the most were again those closest to my age, as many had messages from parents and talked about the futures lost. It is hard to believe kids my age were dying for people they had never knew, but for them it was for something much more—the future of freedom in the world. By the end of our time in the cemetery I felt I understood the true gravity of the stats in the books, and that the lives were lost in the fight for France’s and thus Europe’s freedom were individual human beings with futures who willingly gave them up to help others.
Our last day in the Normandy area was spent at Mont St. Michel, an island community on the Normandy border. It is made up of a cathedral dedicated to Saint Michel, and a small village surrounding it. The tour of the once religious site (and later prison) was beautiful, but the view out of the bay area was even better. Mont St. Michel was built into the mountain, therefore making it unique in its construction and architecture. It had beautiful roman arches and scattered gothic architecture. My favorite part of the island however was the small village surrounding it. In that village I found the best crepe I had in all of France, and got a sense of just how small the village is as there was only one street to walk along. Not meant for cars, Mont St. Michel is great for pictures and a history lesson or two. Even the weather could not dampen the incredible view.
We left Bayeux and made out way to Paris throughout the morning. Driving in I could see the Eiffel Tower, and thought about my high school French teacher telling us to visit Paris at sometime during our lives. I could not wait to go out and explore the city, but first I had something a little more important to do. The group and I found ourselves at the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation. Here I gave my site report on the struggle of the French to accept their hand in the annihilation of the French Jewish and foreign populations. The site is dedicated to those deported during the Nazi occupation of France, but not specifically to the Jews. It is within that, I saw the struggle of the French to accept what they did, and furthermore how to integrate the Holocaust in the French Jewish experience even now a days. The memorial is on the sien, and is underground. It has a claustrophobic feel, and the words on the walls are all written in red. Walking though it I got a taste of what the trip to Auschwitz might feel like: overwhelming. After exploring the memorial, we took to the streets to explore the city. We walked down to the Eiffel Tower despite the rain, and caught a beautiful sunset on the way. As soon as we got to the Eiffel tower, we threw up an O-H-I-O and waited to see it sparkle. Seeing the tower lit up at night was breathtaking, and we soon decided to head up to the top. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, you can see the whole of the Paris metropolitan area. As I stared awe-struck with the tower sparkling behind my classmates and I, I realized I was checking another item off my bucket list. The first night in Paris was one to remember
Our free day in Paris. I started by pushing myself very far from my comfort zone and exploring the catacombs. I have never been one for death and things as such, but the catacombs are worth the while. We spent a good hour down there looking at the skulls in the intricate arrangements, and I wondered how 6 million people could be buried there. The most interesting part of the catacombs was the sign above the entrance to the mortuary that said, “Stop! This is the empire of Death”. It seemed appropriate for what we soon entered. Though it took me a minute to adjust to what I was seeing, but once I did I enjoyed it. The resistance also used the catacombs during WWII, so I thought that unintended connection to the trip was cool. After the catacombs, a couple classmates and I made our way over to the museum of contemporary art. There I spent a couple hours wandering through the paintings and enjoying the view of Paris. My last museum in Paris was the D’orsy, where I found Van Gogh paintings. The museum had a special exhibit on painters and the night sky, and I enjoyed looking at the connection between the paintings and the artist’s struggle to find some kind of religion or meaning in the world. I ended my night with an Indie Rap concert in the smallest bar I had ever been too. Despite the size, the artist put on a great show and I was a fan by the end of the night. My free day in Paris did not involve learning so much as just enjoying the culture, and I would not have spent it any other way.
My last day in Paris started at the Museum des les Invalids, a military museum in Paris that has a heavy emphasis on the war. What I found most interesting at the museum was their mention of the colonies that were forced to fight in the war. Before going in, we were introduced to the idea of “France liberating France” and I immediately noticed holes in this idea. If they mean the colonies that fought with the allies while France was under occupation, it is not France liberating France, as they were for the most part not considered French. The colonists only became Frenchmen when they were needed because there were no other options, but the rest of the time, they were merely part of the empire—but not French. Though the French liberated Paris in the sense that De Gaulle rolled in first, they did not liberate the nation on the own. The museum appeared to have gaps about Vichy and the French occupation, and merely focused on the good. I would have liked the museum to talk more about the fighting happening in Europe, and not just that in North Africa. Though the museum was somewhat disappointing, the next location was not. We stopped at Shakespeare and Co. a bookstore that was run by Americans before and during the war. Despite resistance, it stayed open until the owner’s deportation, and served as a haven for all those not wishing to be brainwashed into believing the Nazi ideals. I picked up a copy of my favorite book and appreciated the sentiment there, as well as the fact that writers such as Fitzgerald would have once been a part of the scene at this small intimate place. To end my time in Paris, I attended Mass at Notre Dame. Though I understood none of it, I still felt it was a worthwhile experience to see the culture difference in a place as strange as religion. Overall, Paris was a lovely place and full of vibrant life—and history. It was easily my favorite place on our trip.
(P.S. there is a lack of photos because I dropped my phone in the toilet)