Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, the Allied forces of the United States, Canada and Great Britain began the first wave of landings on the German-controlled beaches of Normandy, France as part of Operation Overlord. Today, this invasion is known as D-Day, and on June 6, 2019, I was privileged to have been part of a group from CLHS that participated in the 75th Anniversary Memorial Ceremonies at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach where 9,388 Americans are buried. Our group of 11 students and 10 adults were part of the 12,000 who took part in the ceremonies that included both the American and French presidents, more than 130 World War II veterans, and approximately 30 veterans of the D-Day Invasions. We listened as both President Macron (of France), and President Trump told the stories of these veterans and what they faced, many of them of at a similar age to the students who traveled with us. After the ceremony, which left very few in the crowd dry-eyed, we had the opportunity to walk amongst the graves. We broke into smaller groups, some listened to some of the veterans tell about that day, some looked for specific grave markers, and all of us reflected on what these men sacrificed.
The following day, we returned to the beaches of Normandy, first visiting Pointe du Hoc where the Army Rangers climbed the 100-foot cliffs to capture the 155mm guns that would have been used against the landing crafts on Omaha and Utah Beaches. After Pointe du Hoc, we continued to Utah Beach where we were able to visit the Utah Beach Landing Museum, walk on the beach, and most importantly, visit with a handful of the D-Day veterans. Some landed on the beaches, some were paratroopers - all were in their mid-90s wanting to pass on the stories of what they experienced to a new generation.
Our trip began in Berlin, Germany before traveling to Normandy and ending in Paris. Our tour was focused on the events and places of World War II. While in Berlin, we visited the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Topography of Terror Museum, and had the opportunity to visit the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. What a sobering experience. We had a wonderful guide, Wunter, who made the camp come alive for us. He did a great job of explaining how the use of concentration camps was normalized in German society. Before we left on our trip, I created a day-by-day itinerary for my 10 year old niece, so she could follow along with where we went, and what we saw each day. I struggled with how to explain to a 10 year old, what a concentration camp was. Here is what I wrote for her:
During World War II, the Nazis built concentration camps like Sachsenhausen, and sent people there that were not the same or didn’t believe the same as the Nazis - for example, people with different political views, people who were Jewish, and people with disabilities (like being blind, or deaf, or not able to walk). They treated these people horribly, and many of the people sent to the concentration camps died or were killed. This is a really sad place, but they keep it open so people like us can visit, and remember how horrible it was, so that we can make sure it never happens again.
One evening, back at our hotel, we reflected on what we had experienced. We reflected on the experiences of the men honored at the ceremonies, the graves of the American service members, the lessons of the concentration camp, and the many places we were lucky enough to visit. We reflected on the fact that for many of the veterans we met, this may be the last time they can travel to Normandy. And we pledged to become ambassadors of what we have learned so that the stories of these veterans does not die. So ask us about our experiences, not about riding the subway in Paris and Berlin, seeing the Eiffel Tower, walking around the small French town of Flers or trying the local food (as cool as all of that may be), but about the history that we were able to be part of - because we would love to share what we have learned.