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.
But it wasn’t a radio broadcast that delivered liberation news to my mother that day. It was the sight of American soldiers surging up the long drive to the chateau my mother and her family had been evacuated to when their house was bombed into oblivion. Absorbed into a crater so vast that people came from the far side of town just to peer into the hole where her home once stood. The day her house disappeared and the life she had once known with it, is carved into her memory. May 5th
1944. Just one month before the allied invasion of Normandy - D Day.
My mother was 19 years-old the day those soldiers marched towards that Normandy Chateau. She ran to the first soldier she saw, 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 to follow that night. Enforced by a concerned mother who trusted neither the men nor her daughter not to get consumed in a moment she might forever regret. Recalling that day my mother admitted she was probably right!
That was 78 years ago and while I wasn't there to witness what took place that day, I have relived that story through my mother’s eyes every time she shared it as if I was. Some small detail added and emotion revealed each time, addingt colour to the canvas like a painting. Suddenly that memory is hanging there in the room. Visceral, real and immediate, with a powerful energy of its own, living on in every gesture and tear until one day my mother confessed that she thought about that kiss and that soldier, and wondered what happened to him. Wondered if he made it back home alive.
‘"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 herself as much as me while searching for an answer inside my eyes somehow as if I might know. I wish I did. My response is always the same:
"I hope he lived. I’d like to think he did."
At the National World War II memorial in Washington DC, one veterans day, I sat in the midst of emotional scenes of aging men in wheel chairs, sharing war stories about their time in France with children, comrades and friends around them and suddenly I found myself looking into the faces of these older men. Their medals and their memories proudly on display and wondering if one of them might be him?
The ironry is it was not my mother's occupiers, the Germans, who bombed her house in St Cyr L’ecole that day, a military town just outside Paris, but her liberators the Americans.
“We could tell the difference between British and American planes by the sound of their engines”, my mother would say. “If they were British we would carry on playing cards or reading but if they were American, we would run to the shelter like lightening because we knew they would drop their bombs anywhere just to get away from the Germans and make them that bit faster and stretch out their fuel.”
It isn’t only the image of the crater carved into my mother’s memory but that of her next-door neighbour and her severed hands 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 those 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 decades later when I worked in Frankfurt for a while and got to know individual Germans through me and finally conceeded 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 a need to reconcile her emotions with my actions. I have no doubt that the stories I told her about the Germans I knew, of the friends I made, and the shame that some of them still felt about the war, opened a new door to solid ground.
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 the 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 and how that young German soldier was forced into being there too and allowed him to help.
"They aren't all bad men" her mother explained and had told her how he didn’t want to be there anymore than they did either. That he missed his family.
“I don’t want to kill you”, he said, “but that’s what we’re sent her to do - its crazy and painful.”
War is crazy. When humanity turns on itself everyone loses and the cry for recovery reaches out through the generations. During these days of remembrace in which the UN also 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 who cannot change history, she can change her relationship with her memories and in doing so shift her perspective retrospectively, to reconcile with what life has revealed over the years, because when your relationship with your memories change, so do you.
Perhaps the best word to describe what happens when the pain of remembrance and recognition meet, is revelation.
'When truth and mercy meet, peace and reconciliation have kissed". (Psalm 84 1:1).