On May 8th
1945, church bells rang across France as General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, announced that the war was over and six-years of Nazi occupation, oppression and brutality had finally come to an end.
It wasn’t a radio broadcast that delivered liberation news to my mother and her family that day. It was the sight of American soldiers surging up the long drive to the chateau they were evacuated to when their house was bombed into oblivion; absorbed into a crater so vast people came from miles just to peer into the space where their home had once stood. The date her house disappeared and the life she had known along with it is carved into her memory. It was June 6th
1944. The day of the allied invasion of Normandy, known as D Day.
My mother was 19 years-old the day the Americans marched up that drive and she ran to the first soldier she could see, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was a moment she would never forget. As was the injustice of being banned from joining her brothers in the drunken celebration that ensued that night. Both younger than her but ex-resistance members, nevertheless, it was an exclusion that was keenly felt. Enforced by a concerned mother who trusted neither the men nor her daughter not to get consumed in a moment she might forever regret.
That was 69 years ago and although we weren’t there to witness what took place that day, we relive the story through my mother’s eyes every time she shares it. Suddenly that memory is in the room. Visceral, real and immediate with an energy all of its own. In a moment of reflection my mother once revealed how she had often wondered what happened to that soldier.
‘He was about the same age as me’ she recalls. ‘Did he live or did he die after coming all that way for us? She asks, searching for an answer inside my eyes as if I might know. I don’t; but my response is the same every time she asks.
I hope he lived’ I answer. I’d like to think he did.’
At the National World War II memorial in Washington DC one veterans day, taking in the emotional scene of aging men in wheel chairs sharing war stories about their time in France with children and comrades, I found myself looking into the faces of these men, their medals and their memories proudly on display and wondering if this man might be him?
Ironically it was not her occupiers the Germans, who bombed my mother’s house in St Cyr L’ecole, a military town just outside Paris, but her liberators the Americans.
“We could tell the difference between British and American planes by their different engine sound”, she recalls. “If they were British we would carry on playing cards or reading but if they were American, we would run to the shelter straight because we knew they would drop their bombs anywhere to get away from the Germans faster and to save on fuel.”
It isn’t only the image of the crater that is carved into my mother’s memory but that of her next-door neighbour’s severed hand dangling from the wire fence
opposite. The rings she wore on every finger removed by the time my mother returned the following day.
The woman living there had lost her husband, her sons, her entire family and stubbornly refused to leave her house during raids. She had ‘nothing left to live for’ she told neighbours repeatedly and would rather die in her own home than in a shelter full of strangers. She got her wish. Someone else got her rings and hopefully benefited beyond simply wearing them.
My mother’s bitterness about the war and hatred towards the Germans remained undiminished until years later when I worked in Germany for a while and she conceded that the young could not be blamed for the actions of the older generation. I had a sense of her needing to justify my being in a country with a people she loathed and of reconciling her emotions with my actions. Perhaps the stories that I shared with her of the friends I had made and the shame that some of them still felt about the war opened a new door of understanding.
Revisiting the story of that kiss and her time at the chateau, my mother related how she and the other evacuated families had to share the building with the Germans who were housed in its stable blocks as barracks.
Living side by side, one day a soldier came to my mother’s aid when trying to retrieve something from the river running through the grounds. Though she refused his help at first it was her mother who made sense of the situation that both she and the young German soldier was forced into and allowed him to help. Afterwards her mother explained to her how they weren’t all bad men. That he had told her how he didn’t want to be there anymore than she did.
“I don’t want to kill you”, he said, “You don’t want to kill me but that’s what we’re told to do and its crazy.”
War is crazy. There are no real winners when humanity turns on itself. Everyone loses and recovery reaches out through the generations. During these two days of May, 8th
, in which the UN asks nations around the world to acknowledge in their own way what happened in World War II, the focus is on remembering and reconciliation. For some it is impossible even now. For others like my mother, although she cannot change history, she can change her relationship with her memories of it and in doing so shift her perspective retrospectively to reconcile what life has since revealed. When your relationship with your memories change, so do you.
Perhaps the best word to describe what happens when this process of remembrance and recognition meet is revelation.