Berlin’s a pretty forward place. And I don’t mean modern, though it certainly is. I mean forward. There’s no beating around the bush or hiding the past. Not anymore, anyway.

I’m given to understand that after the War, Germany didn’t know quite how to feel about the whirlwind it had just been through. Lucky for Germans, their country was thrust straight into the Cold War, so they had other things to worry about. But this all meant that for years, Germans couldn’t face their Nazi past. There was no dialogue and no honesty, only trepidation and nagging discomfort.

Decades later (especially after the reunification), Germans began to talk a bit more openly about their experiences during the War. From what I can tell, the way they talk about their War embraces all of the moral uncertainty and guilt that comes with it. They are acutely aware of the murder that their parents and grandparents either committed or helped. But they’ve collectively decided that the only way to deal with such guilt and disillusionment with national identity is to talk about it. And they do: every tour guide I’ve had here and every museum I’ve been to have mentioned German atrocities during the war, and not just ones committed by the Nazi regime. There’s plenty of talk about civilian complicity. And though it would be easy to make excuses for the Germans’ behavior during the war, they don’t. By law, by convention, or by determination to end hate, they force themselves and everyone else to remember.

The most powerful example of this that I’ve come across is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a massive grid of gray concrete blocks sitting smack in the middle of Berlin. It’s impossible to ignore, probably by design. Even the name is matter-of-fact: It’s not just to the victims of the Holocaust; it’s to the Jewish victims who were murdered.

What I like about the Memorial is that it’s interpretive. It doesn’t put a clear face or name to those slaughtered by the Nazis, which forces you to think about the victims and what they went through. Or maybe it forces you to think about why exactly the Holocaust is so important to remember. Either way, the Memorial stands as a constant reminder and thought-provoker to everyone who passes it. Here are some of my thoughts, which I jotted down as I walked through the site:

–       The Memorial, like the Holocaust, is systematic, deliberate, and organized.

–       It’s enormous, but one can’t really grasp its size except from the outside. I think this is similar to how it’s difficult to perceive the enormity and terror of the Holocaust except with the benefit of hindsight and reflection.

–       From the inside, it’s dark and somber, but when you look up, you see sunlight. Despite the darkness people are capable of, there’s always a ray of hope.

–       The blocks are all of different heights, but they are of the same color. This reminds me of how the people murdered by the Nazis were of so many different backgrounds, but were the same in that they were unwanted (by virtue of their religion, nationality, mental ability, etc.).

–       It’s a collective memorial to all of the Jews killed. I interpreted this as a reference to the mass graves in which so many Jews were buried during the Holocaust. The only difference is that the Memorial has individual blocks, almost like gravestones. Maybe this is an attempt to honor each individual killed.

–       There’s no rhyme or reason to the direction in which you walk through the Memorial. I read this as a reference to the lack of any sense or logic behind mass murder and hatred.

I could keep going with the interpretations, but that seems adequate to describe what the Memorial means to me. Obviously, I have no way of telling if any of this is what the designers actually intended, but I like that the thoughts that the site stirs are deeply personal.

I wanted to feel sad when I visited the Memorial. Sorrow is the only emotion that really feels appropriate to me when it comes to remembering the Holocaust. I can’t help but think about how had my family and I been alive at the time, we would have been, by law, subordinate and unwanted. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with a life of fear and violence like that. And it pains me to think of those millions of people who suffered and died because they were different.

For some reason, I didn’t feel pure sadness at the Memorial. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I think there was a sort of comfort in knowing that an entire nation had put so much thought and energy into memorializing something so important to me. After I’d spent about twenty minutes standing in the center of the grid, I tried my best to get exactly what I was feeling on paper. Here’s what I wrote:

“[It] does seem almost hopeful. I’m not fully sad here, weirdly. It’s stark, and it’s striking. It makes me want to remember all those people. My people. I didn’t know a single one of them, but they stood like stones in the face of certain death. I’m proud to be one of them. What an odd thing to feel Jewish pride at a Holocaust memorial. But I’m proud. I’m deeply sad; moved. But always proud.”

It shouldn’t have taken 11 million murders for us to realize how poisonous it is to hate people. But it did. So let’s follow Berlin’s example and keep talking about the Holocaust. Let’s remember it for the torture and violence and destruction and slaughter it was. Let’s never, ever forget.

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Sweeping It Under the Rug

I love Paris. Maybe that’s just the shameless Francophile in me, but there’s something about the city that moves me. The architecture makes me feel like I’m walking through a scene from the Second Empire. The people wear slim, dark clothes that ooze all kinds of cool. And, of course, there are crêpes with Nutella available at every street corner. For me, this is about as good as it gets.

Toward the end of our time in Paris, I was chatting with my mom about the various things I enjoy about the city. Despite all my gushing, I let slip that it didn’t seem like there were a whole lot of noticeable remnants of WWII around the city. I knew it had avoided the worst of the War’s violence, so it made sense that there weren’t visible scars of destruction. But I got the sense that Parisians had no desire to talk up their experiences, even after the resistance and Liberation. At this point, my mom asked a very understandable question: “Why is Paris even on the trip?”

The answer was complicated, and didn’t come to me immediately. In fact, I’m still formulating an answer in my head, so this is more a stream of consciousness than a definitive decision. In any case, I should probably explain what I mean when I say that Paris’s War history is a bit hard to see. When we were in London, it seemed like there was some sort of monument, memorial, or museum to the War on every street. Frankly, it was kind of astounding how frequently we came across War-related stuff (see “Londoners Remember”).

Paris is not at all like that. Even in the places that are supposed to commemorate the War, one has to dig a bit to find any sort of meaning or emotion. The WWII exhibit at Les Invalides, for example, has a spectacular collection of uniforms and weapons from the War, and documents its history quite well. What it excludes (purposefully or not) is any comment on the intricacies of collaboration and resistance in Paris during the War, except to say that they existed.

Invalides wasn’t the only site to leave out pertinent details. The Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, heart wrenching and starkly beautiful as it was, never once mentioned that it was Paris’sJews who were ripped from their homes and sent to their deaths. Obviously, Jews weren’t the only group persecuted during the War. But one of the overwhelming legacies of the Vichy regime is the way it seemed all too happy to rid France of its Jewish population, without much of a push from Germany.

This all seemed off to me. Aren’t the French supposed to be outspoken in their beliefs and opinions? Aren’t they supposed to be the collective bastion of liberté? And if so, how could a whole city’s worth of museums and monuments completely lack a critical reading of Paris during the War?

Sure, things like the failure to mention the deportation of Jews might just be holdovers from the ideal of the Revolution: French people are French first, everything else second. Through this lens, it makes some sense that the memorial would commemorate French deportees, not Jewish ones (even though basically all French deportees were Jewish).

But I think Paris’s trepidation about the war goes deeper. I think the city’s ashamed of itself. Yes, some of its residents resisted the occupation valiantly and successfully. Not all Parisians were collaborators or Jew-haters. But in the end, Paris still capitulated without much of a fight. Its leaders resigned themselves and their countrymen to a life of cooperation with one of history’s most vile regimes. And the city sent a vibrant segment of its population to its death, all in the name of making the best of its situation.

What this means is that the inklings of War history that do exist in Paris are buried, and aren’t very profound. There doesn’t seem to be the same pride or nostalgia for the War in Paris as there is in London. I get the impression that Parisians would rather move on with their lives than focus on what can only be called a blemish on the city’s fascinating history.

I’m glad Paris was part of this trip, because I think the War nostalgia it lacks speaks louder than the memories it does choose to display. For me, this particular visit to Paris was dedicated to preserving the memory of the city during the War. If a Paris is willing to sweep years of collaboration and complicity under the rug, then I/we have to make sure that we don’t forget. Otherwise, we’re just modern collaborators, standing idly and letting intolerance and hate run wild.

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The Gray Area

We went to Utah Beach yesterday. I’d really been looking forward it, mostly because it was to be my first actual contact with the invasion beaches that I’ve spent my whole life hearing about. Just after we arrived, though, something stole my attention away from the beach. Near the little path that leads to the beach, there was a monument to the US 90th Infantry Division, which came in through Utah on the night of June 6th to reinforce the first waves of the invasion.

My great uncle, Abe Greenberg, fought with the 90th in Normandy. He was a replacement, so he didn’t join the division until a week or so after the initial landings. But he, like the other members of the 90th, came through Utah Beach. And he, like many other members of the 90th, was killed in action. He died during intense shelling on July 26th, 1944, his 19th birthday.

Abe is my namesake (my middle name is Abraham). A little before I was due to be born, my grandmother, Abe’s older sister, came across a few of the letters he’d sent home while he was with the army. Even from the tiny amount of material they had, my parents could tell just how bright, funny, and caring he was. So they named me after him, as a tribute to how wonderful a man he seemed to be.

Abe is my link to WWII. I’ve always loved to explore history, but ever since I was old enough to understand Abe’s story, I’ve felt a kind of special connection to the history of the War. I never knew Abe, but I love him. Every time I read his letters, I’m in awe of how he was constantly out to soothe the minds of his family, even if he was going through the kind of hell that no 18-year-old should ever have to. No anything-year-old should have to, for that matter.

In any case, Abe is why I’m on this trip. I want to learn more about where he was and what he did, sure, but I want to honor him. I want to do him proud in the only way I really know how, which is to jump headfirst into every learning opportunity I get (especially ones that involve a little time abroad).

All of these thoughts flooded my brain when I bumped into the monument yesterday morning. Somehow, through all my research on Abe and his unit, I’d never come across this monument. It completely took me by surprise, and I was so excited/proud/sad/sentimental when I saw it that I had to take a few minutes to sit there and let my emotions go a bit berserk.

A little later on, we went to the German war cemetery at La Cambe. I really enjoyed the way the cemetery was laid out. Nothing was showy or ornate. The graves were simple, dark, and somber. There didn’t seem to be any political or ideological agenda. It was just a simple memorial to the fact that these people, regardless of their background or ideas, fought and died for something.

But I couldn’t help but remember that these were the guys who killed my uncle Abe. I didn’t feel angry exactly, but I didn’t feel at peace either. I was trying to feel for Abe and for the German soldiers all at the same time, and I couldn’t come to any sort of neat conclusion about what to think.

To me, things like this capture how much of a gray area war is. Even in conflicts as seemingly “good vs. bad” as WWII, it seems to me that no one side is entirely good or entirely bad. I love my uncle Abe, and I know his death caused my grandma and her family indescribable pain. But it’d be ignorant of me to say that Germans didn’t sacrifice as well.

I didn’t come out of Utah and La Cambe with some idealistic notion that we’re all fundamentally good and that we should all just forgive and forget. The opposite, really. I think the ideas behind Nazi Germany were fundamentally evil. And, at the end of the day, it was German soldiers who took my uncle Abe away from his family. Regardless, I think today solidified my understanding of how confusing and ambiguous war is.

It seems that the more I learn about the War, the less I know what to think about the people involved in it. It’d be easy to say that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys, but I think masking the War’s complexities prevents us from understanding it. What I do know is that Abe has an amazing story, and that today helped me feel closer to him. I’m looking forward to soaking up the rest of Normandy (probably in a whirlwind of emotions), and, if all goes well, to making Abe proud.


Londoners Remember

Until four days ago, I had never been to London. What I knew about it came from movies, textbooks, and American stereotypes of plucky/prim/proper Brits. I mention this as a sort of disclaimer. I’ve only been here a few days, so there’s a distinct possibility that my impression of how London remembers WWII is superficial. I also haven’t talked to any actual Londoners about the War, so my conclusions come more from what I’ve seen of the city than anything else. Anyway, here it is.

From what I can tell, London and its people wear their battle scars proudly. Between incessant German bombing, rationing, and loss of life in combat, Londoners collectively endured years of psychological and physical terror. I’m sure a lesser group of people would rather forget the trauma of years of war and move on with life. But I don’t think London wants to forget. Everywhere you look, there’s something to memorialize the war. On Whitehall, near Parliament, there is a statue of Bernard Montgomery, the famed British Marshall and second-in-command to Eisenhower. Just up the road from Monty is a sculpture of William Slim, KGGCBGCMGGCVOGBEDSOMCKStJ (his full honors are just too great not to include), who led British Commonwealth troops against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India campaign. And across the street from Slim is a monument to the women who served in WWII.

But wait, there’s more! London houses the Imperial War Museum (which is, quite upsettingly, closed until July) AND a bunch of its subsidiaries, including the Churchill War Rooms and the HMS Belfast, which all keep the experience of fighting the War alive. And, of course, there’s my favorite memorial of all: the Royal Air Force Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Even in an ancient church that, for all intents and purposes, has nothing to do with the War, there’s a gigantic stained glass window commemorating the heroics of RAF pilots (as well as a bit of residual bomb damage).

So why all the WWII nostalgia? From an American perspective, this idea of dwelling on the past doesn’t make much sense. But of course we’d think that way. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, the US doesn’t really have any noticeable scars from World War II. I’m talking physical scars here: damage to buildings, structures that used to be there and no longer are, that sort of thing. We just didn’t go through the destruction that our friends in the UK did, and we certainly didn’t have to rebuild our country like they did. We also avoided a lot of the hardship that Londoners did. Sure, we had rationing just like everyone else. But by the end of the War, our economy was booming, and Americans were living in relative comfort. Meanwhile, an ocean away, Londoners came out of the war with an utterly exhausted economy and a population that hadn’t seen any sort of basic comfort in years. London was destitute, and I think that’s hard for a lot of Americans (including me) to picture.

People don’t forget experiences like that easily. Before the US entered the War, Brits had been facing the Nazis on the Western Front on their own. By the War’s end, London had seen bombing, starvation, death, and human suffering on a scale that Americans just hadn’t. But in spite of it all, they hung on. They stuck it out until the very end. And that’s got to be a massive source of pride for them. For a while, they were the sole defenders of democracy, and even if it meant forgoing food and burrowing underground for a while, by God, they were going to defend it if it was the last thing they ever did.

So even in this metropolitan, multicultural, and modern city, you still see tons of little memorials to the War. And I love that. I love that these people (it seems, anyway) actively remember their past, and that it still influences the way they think and feel. Londoners certainly don’t spend all their time reminiscing about the glory days of the War, but in their own reserved way, they’re keeping it alive. And in a world still full of bigots and intolerant people, I don’t think it hurts to have a few people around who remember their fight against hate and tyranny. After all, remembering is the only way to keep it from happening again.

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