Last summer we took the boys to England to visit relatives and friends. From there we embarked on a 10-day holiday in northern France. When they weren't whining about missing their friends and championship sporting events, they really enjoyed being tourists. Despite themselves, I think they may have also learned a thing or two.
One of our most moving stops was Normandy, site of some of the most brutal fighting in World War II. In a bizarre parallel of the Invasion of Normandy, we traveled by ferry from Southampton to Cherbourg. It was a smooth sailing, and as we dined comfortably on breakfast, we tried to evoke images in their young minds of what it must have been like for those soldiers en route on 5-6 June 1944. We had watched a few movies before setting off, like The Longest Day(for Myles and me) andSaving Private Ryan (for the boys, too gory for me. I can imagine evisceration without it being graphically depicted, thank you), and this made a convenient reference for certain parts of the battles.
We drove along the still very sparsely populated coast, through tiny but familiarly named towns like Pointe du Hoc and Ste Mère Eglise. We stopped there to to glance around, imagining the horror of war, and even saw the effigy of the poor parachutist who got stuck on the church tower (see above). We were there just a few days after the celebrations of the 64th anniversary of D-Day, and I noticed the boys casting sidelong glances at some elderly gentlemen, obviously veterans, who were also touring the countryside. I wanted to invite them to come along with us. They are precious.
The locals were all very friendly and welcomed us with smiles and a courteous attempt to understand the boys' (and my!) French. You can see that even people who were not alive in WW2 still recognize the contributions the Americans, British and Canadians made. We were glad we had skipped Paris – this time, at least.
Next day we motored over to the American Cemetery in Colleville Sur Mer. Most people have at least seen it on television, as we had, but there is nothing like being there. It is set in a most splendidly glorious spot on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. When you first arrive, you admire the setting, noting how beautiful the world can be. It is so still that you hear the birds, even with 3 boys in tow. The museum is strategically placed so that you visit it before entering the cemetery. I think it serves both to educate and to prepare people for the experience.
BOOM, there you are, transported back in time, watching scratchy black and white films of wave after wave of seasick and petrified soldiers jump off the boats to almost certain death. Relentless Nazis gun them down. "They are all so young," I tell the boys, "That's you, next year, Ry." You see bits of their uniforms, photos of old French peasant women running down the tiny streets, waving and smiling, offering loaves of bread to soldiers. Young girls kissing them. All the while the sounds of guns and waves and death screams meander in and around the speeches of leaders lending hope and inspiration.
Then BOOM again. You emerge, blinking, into the bright sunshine. Echoes of the battle din reverberate in the stark silence. Perfect weather mocks their memory. All is calm and serene. You stand there in a bit of shock. Now you're ready to visit the cemetery.
Row upon row upon row of symmetrically placed crosses stand at attention in military precision overlooking the beaches, bearing witness to the horrors of war. I sent the boys off on a mission so I could enjoy the peace. I was moved by the occasional Star of David marker, and when I came upon the one below, of Sam Rubin, I stopped to photograph it.
PVT 358 INF 90 DIV
MO JUNE 15 1944
As I took my face away from the camera, one son came along and said, "Oh, somebody left dirt on this one," and swiftly brushed it away, before I could let out a yelp of alarm. For Jews it is an act of respect to continue in the "mitzvah" of marking a grave by placing pebbles or dirt on the stone. It is a way to indicate participation in the mitzvah of erecting a tombstone, even if only in a more symbolic way. It shows that someone has visited, someone remembers.
After a brief lecture by Mom, suitable replacement stones were laid with great ceremony, accompanied by an apology to Private Rubin.
We looked at hundreds of stones that day, came across makeshift flower memorials that get cleaned up every evening by the staff. We found Medal of Honor winners and all sorts of funny names and things to spark the imagination of boys. But the one we remember most will always be Sam Rubin.