It was a cloudy Sunday morning when the four of us piled into Roger’s car and made the hour-long drive to northern Normandie. I have a knack for falling asleep in moving vehicles so the drive was a bit of a blur. I remember pulling off the highway and into a parking lot that sort of reminded me of an American rest stop. I must have missed something. I awoke with the surprise that we had arrived at our first destination, La Cambe, the German military cemetery.
On the left side, there was a giant brick wall that separated the parking lot and cemetery. The museum was closed but I read what I could off the signs. There was a single stone archway that led to the cemetery. It was meant to signify the loneliness of death; you go one by one. And so we marched through, with our heads down and spirits humbled.
La Cambe was a mere 16.5 acres but was home to over 21,500 German soldier graves. Grouped in 5s, the lot was filled with rows of stone crosses and 10x10in grave plaques in the ground. Each plaque had the names and birth/death dates of two soldiers. Laura and I walked around reading graves and trying to calculate how old everyone was. Some of these boys were just that; boys, barely 18 years old. Most of the plaques didn’t even have a name, just “an unknown German soldier.”
In the middle of the cemetery, there was a large grass hill with a large stone cross and a man and woman on each side. I didn’t get a chance to find out what they represented, but they overlooked the cemetery with sad expressions, like they were mourning their lost son.
After La Cambe, we drove to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The contrast between the American and German cemeteries is huge.
On paper, the German cemetery was 16.5 acres and memorialized 21,500+ soldiers and was off the side of the highway, no less. Meanwhile, the American cemetery was a whopping 165 acres and home to 9,387 graves, in a secluded area, overlooking Omaha beach. Perhaps, you could argue that the Germans couldn’t afford or didn’t have the “right” to have such an extraordinary memorial for their lost soldiers, but when you’re honoring the lives of the men who fought in such a terrible war, I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong way to pay tribute to them.
Walking through the American cemetery was a mixture of awe and incredible grief for me. The buildings, the museum, the statues, were beautiful and elegant. In the museum, we watched video clips, looked at WWII artifacts, and read countless stories of soldiers’ lives. I was a mess.
I’m the type of person that people hate to watch movies with. I get incredibly invested and feel like I’m reliving the movie with the characters. I jump, I duck, I gasp, I cry. Movies can be very emotionally draining for me…so I try to stick to the upbeat romcoms when I can. But this trait of mine extends beyond just the film world, I do this with books and stories too.
Standing there, reading stories about why this soldier was awarded the Purple Heart or what happened to that soldier’s mom when she found out she lost another son in the war or reading about how courageous this soldier was when his troop was outnumbered…these are the stories that you can’t take lightly, that you won’t forget.
When we made our way outside to the actual cemetery, we came across a beautiful reflection pool and rows and rows of solemn, white crosses. I don’t know how to describe the feeling I felt when I walked through the rows of crosses. When I walked through the German cemetery an hour earlier, the stone figures, the graves in the ground, it was cold, sad, and dark. Here, in the American cemetery, I felt a little lighter, a little more hopeful, a little less sad, maybe more peaceful. Maybe that was the effect the architects and planners were hoping to achieve…
Our next stop was Omaha Beach, where we walked through many of the old German forts and casemates. The land was pock-marked with craters from bombings nearly 70 years ago. The barbed wire, the decrepit buildings, you could only imagine what daily life was like at Omaha beach and what happened during the D-Day battles.
Today was a full of remembrance and tribute to the men who fought in World War II. It was interesting, too, to be accompanied by Laura, who was German, and Roger, our English host. I was so curious to find out what Laura was taught in school about World War II and her response sort of surprised me.
When we walked through the American cemetery, it was obvious Laura was very affected too. She said that reading the stories of the different soldiers almost made her feel guilty for her German heritage. In school, they were taught that Hitler was a terrible leader who came to power by instilling fear in others. He gained popularity not because his anti-semitism represented German sentiment, but because he was aggressive and forceful.
I’m not the biggest history buff but it was interesting to hear another perspective. Roger was also very forthcoming about what he had learned over the years as well. Today, we were able to come together, in a sort of pact, to enjoy our day in Normandie. At the end of the day, it was a very fulfilling, interesting, and humbling day.