11 January: The Weight of History

On Wednesday, 11 January, we traveled through the region of Calvados in Normandy, visiting the cemeteries of German and American soldiers killed in the Allied invasion of France in June 1944, the Pointe du Hoc, the coastal town of Port en-Bessin, and the city of Bayeux.

It is easy to find reminders of history in most of Europe, but along the Normandy coast one especially cannot escape memorials and remnants of the past. Alongside medieval abbeys and seventeenth-century churches, bunkers, graveyards, artillery pieces, and museums centered on D-Day and its immediate aftermath pepper the region.

We traveled around 45 minutes west-north-west and worked our way back to Mondaye over the course of the day. Our first stop was the German D-Day cemetery, a site our group leaders, Father Andrew Ciferni, O. Praem. and Dr. Rosemary Sands, had never visited before. A kilometer or so to either side of the actual cemetery and continuing up to it, small trees, precisely trimmed to near-exact likenesses of each other, stand in a regular pattern, guiding the visitor both into and out of the site.

“Understated” appeared to me the most fitting adjective for the German cemetery. Before entering the area, visitors pass through a small stone hallway with a room on each side containing the names of the dead and their locations. Groups of five basalt crosses arranged in a line dotted the plot, with the soldiers’ grave markers lying level with the grass. The central path led to a hill capped with two large figures, male and female, on either side of a taller cross, with all three again made of basalt. The site seemed to me even more silent and solemn than other cemeteries, as well as more subdued.

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The roof of one of the two rooms in the entrance to the German cemetery.
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The upper half of the German cemetery’s monument. 
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The path leading to the central memorial of the German cemetery. 

Whoever designed this cemetery created a beautiful memorial. More than this, though, this person or these people succeeded in honoring the dead and their sacrifice while at the same time condemning both the regime that brought these men to Normandy and war in general. The German cemetery gave me pause, as did the other WWII memorial we visited this day. More so than the others, it seemed to testify to and decry the suffering caused by war and to resolutely witness against it for the rest of time. I am grateful to have visited it.

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Three visitors to the German cemetery.

After the German cemetery, we traveled to Pointe du Hoc, a key site in Operation Overlord (the Allied invasion of France). American soldiers of the 2nd Battalion landed here and sustained heavy casualties taking the steep cliffs of the point and taking out German defensive weapons installed on them. The area has been largely left intact since the war; trails run through a grassy jumble of pits left by artillery and bombs and bunkers left by the German army.

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We were graced with beautiful weather during our voyage through Normandy. It contributed to the tranquility of the Pointe du Hoc memorial, birdsong and breeze sounding in my ears as a brilliant sun intermittently shone through the clouds. It was disorienting to think of the chaos that reigned in this now-serene location in June 1944.

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The starkest reminder of what occurred over 70 years ago was the set of bunkers through and into which visitors can walk. One is lit; one is unlit; both are grim and press the weight of history on the mind as much as their physical structures press into the ground.

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The first (unlit) bunker.
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A view from the second (lit) bunker at the point of Pointe du Hoc. 
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A view from the monument at the point of Pointe du Hoc. 

Pointe du Hoc actually came as my first experience of the Atlantic Ocean outside of an airplane. Though certainly not the norm for ocean encounters, I will still treasure it in the years to come.

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From Pointe du Hoc, we moved to the American cemetery at Omaha Beach, passing small D-Day museums and hotels, restaurants, and gift shops catering to the many people who visit these and other sites on the way.

The American cemetery is large in area and in the number of dead it contains: over 10,000 American soldiers lie buried here. We first went through the site’s welcome center and museum, where, I must admit, I paid more attention to the free and strong wifi than the few informational exhibits. (Mondaye had spotty wifi, so I wrote these posts while staying there but could not upload them or my photos.) We watched a short movie on the meaning of the cemetery for different families of soldiers buried there (a Wisconsin soldier was mentioned!) and then made our way outside.

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An overlook at the east end of the American cemetery. 

The American cemetery sits directly above Omaha Beach, the graves separated from the edge of the cliff by a line of trees and placed in an immaculately maintained lawn, still a verdant emerald in the middle of January. A large semicircle memorial stands at the end of the cemetery closest to the information center; a central path leads from it to a circular chapel in the middle of the compound and two statues at its end. Grave markers in the shape of crosses and Stars of David spread out on either side (the differentiation depending on the religion of the soldier was a touch I appreciated).

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I rushed a bit through the cemetery, and I regret doing so. Like all cemeteries (and, to be honest, most episodes in life), it is a place best experienced with thoughtfulness and patience or a prayerful attitude. Our group prayed a decade of the rosary in the central chapel (as we also did in the German cemetery), allowing me to refocus and more fully appreciate the site.

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The chapel from the outside.
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The chapel from the inside.

 

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The roof of the chapel.

My maternal grandfather served in World War II: though he didn’t die in the war, he passed away before I was born. Thus, the American cemetery didn’t have much familial significance for me. At the same time, I realized how important this place must have been and still be for thousands of Americans whose fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and other relatives were interred here. Moreover, the historical significance of this place extends beyond the families of the buried to me and to, I hope, most Americans. The cemetery also has great importance for France and its people, many of whom still regard the American army as the country’s liberators and maintain a gratitude toward it and the United States as a whole for this liberation. I noticed the same appreciation in the people I met in Belgium when I visited Grimbergen Abbey there two years ago; both times I have been humbled and touched by it.

From the American cemetery and our historically “heavy” morning and early afternoon, we moved on to Port en-Bessin, a seaside town involved in the fishing industry and famous for scallops. We found a local restaurant, somewhat overwhelmed the wait staff with our group of twelve people, and settled into a delicious lunch.

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Port en-Bessin as seen from its port.

I did not go too far outside my comfort zone, trying one mussel and deciding that it is not particularly suited to my palate. My first course was a fish soup served with croutons, cheese, and a mustard sauce. The cheese rivaled that of Wisconsin (sorry, Wisconsin cows!) and complemented the soup nicely. My entrée was roasted duck with carrots arranged in a squat cylinder and topped with a layer of potatoes and greens. The duck meat was incredibly tender; the potatoes, delectably buttery; and the greens wonderfully crisp. Finally came dessert: an apple crisp topped with sour cream and a sprig of spearmint. I wasn’t sure how much I would like this dish compared to apple pie a la mode, but my worries were soon assuaged: the dish was scrumptious. The apple had been cut into thin rectangles and roasted, providing a satisfying crunch and a sweetness that went well with the tang of the sour cream. The meal, marvelously cooked and plated, was made even better by the fact that we enjoyed it over the course of a couple of hours and with convivial conversation. Table fellowship is a gift, pure and simple.

After Port en-Bessin, we traveled to Arromanche, a clifftop WWII memorial that overlooks the remains of one of the artificial harbors created in the wake of the D-Day invasion. (Historical sidenote: one of the reasons the D-Day invasion was unexpected and thus planned for the Normandy coast was that this region has no good natural harbors, making it difficult for ships to unload troops and supplies. Once beaches like Omaha and Gold were secured, metal barriers were brought in and stationed close offshore to allow large ships to dock and unload.)

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The artificial harbor off of Arromanche.

Arromanche gives another stunning vista of ocean and coastline, as well as a great view of the town of the same name that sits below and to the side of the cliff. A statue of Mary and a crucifix sit on the cliff as part of the memorial; I found both beautiful testaments to the suffering caused by World War II.

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After ten minutes at Arromanche, we got back on the bus and went to Bayeux, hoping to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry (actually an embroidery, but tapestry sounds a bit more impressive, I guess). Unfortunately, we found the museum to be closed until later in the month. However, the inability to see the Tapestry did allow us to walk through Bayeux’s city center and marvel at the outside and inside of its Gothic cathedral. My spirit lifted from the moment I saw its spires and continued to rise as I walked through its cavernous and beautiful (the word does not do it justice) interior. I was in awe and am immensely grateful to have gotten the chance to see this building built by many and dedicated to God.

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Impressive outside.
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Impressive inside.
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The remains of a church preceding the cathedral sit below the main body of the structure.

One could obviously spend a day or more at even one of the sites mentioned here, but I hope that I visited them with respect, openness, and appreciation. This day in Calvados was a gift. I thank God for it and hope that I will remember to do so for the rest of my life.

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