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June 5, 2020 10:12 am

Remembering D-Day: A Night on a Beach in Normandy

avatar by Susan Weintrob

Opinion

A general view of the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, ahead of the commemoration ceremony for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, June 6, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Christian Hartmann.

In the fall of 1972, when we were living in France, my husband and I went to tour the Normandy region, with its picturesque villages and markets.

Traveling with good French friends, we stayed with friends of theirs who had beachfront property in Normandy. We didn’t know until we arrived, however, that this was a beach stormed by Allied soldiers — young men from the US, Canada, Britain and France.

While our friends stayed in the main house, which had been occupied by the Nazis during World War II, we were invited to sleep in a small “guest room.” The owners walked us out to the beach and we walked down cement steps to an underground room.

“This was converted from an underground bunker. From here, the Nazis shot artillery at Allied forces coming from the beach on June 6, 1944,” the owners told us in French. The artillery openings had been glassed over to keep the heat inside during the winter. We peered out through the glass and saw the beach, now freed from land mines, and we tried to imagine the scene.

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There were probably dozens of bunkers buried in the sand, although our hosts didn’t know of any others that were made into guest quarters. Instead of being haunted by this remnant of the Nazi occupation and destroying the bunker, the owners preserved it.

The owners asked us if we would be troubled sleeping there, perhaps feeling the presence of the Nazi soldiers who had killed so many. But we were not worried at the thought of staying there; it was staying in a part of history.

As we prepared to go to sleep, our eyes searched the opening where the Nazi firepower killed so many young men. While the Nazis weren’t aware of the day of the invasion or the exact beach, these underground bunkers showed their preparation and strength. It was hard to imagine thousands of men coming in wave after wave upon these Normandy beaches. It was hard to envision the thousands of souls killed during this D-Day invasion. It was the battle that turned the war in Europe, and began saving the remnant of the Jews there, desperately waiting for the day of liberation.

We were struck strongly by the wonderful irony of our sleeping in this underground bunker. During the war, as Americans and Jews, we would not have been able to speak or travel freely. In France in 1944, we would have been in hiding, or living under assumed identities — fearful and in serious danger.

There were spots all over France that reminded us of wartime occupation. We walked towards Île de la Cité and suddenly we would read a small plaque — Jews deported from here in July 1942. We saw signs for the Holocaust films, Le Chagrin et la Pitie (“The Sorrow and the Pity”), and its sequel, Français, Si Vous Saviez (“French If You Knew”), the facts hotly discussed and protested. Too many leaders and citizens in occupied countries claimed they were the victims, but these films brought out French collaboration with the Nazis — especially in terms of denying French Jews their civil rights and aiding the Nazis in their deportations. These topics were even more controversial in the early 1970s. We saw the films and took part in conversations with a few French citizens who were willing to discuss these difficult topics. Not all were.

The silence of our night in the guest room contrasted what the day of June 6, 1944, must have been like, with aerial bombing and artillery fire from bunkers, like the one where we stayed. As we walked the beach the next morning, we strode the same ground where in years past, thousands of Allied soldiers gave their lives for our freedom.

And we walked away with a sense of encountering an important piece of that past — a turning point in a war so critical to the future of the Allies, the Jewish people and all humanity.

Susan Weintrob is a retired educator and full-time writer living in Charleston, S.C.  She blogs at www.expandthetable.net.

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