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Ghosts of World War II

Europe can be certainly appreciated on a purely aesthetic level, for its ancient architecture, awe-inspiring gothic cathedrals, and quaint, cobblestoned backstreets. Christine and I can find pure joy from a small cone of gelato in a floodlit ancient square, or sitting at a sidewalk café with coffee or wine, or gazing out a train window watching the Irish countryside roll by and counting blue-dotted sheep, or—like I am now—watching the green blur of French farmland as we needle through it at 200 m.p.h. on a TGV train somewhere between Paris and Strasbourg.

But it’s also important not to forget—and quite impossible not to realize—that we are walking across the scars of World War II almost everywhere we go. Nearly every town and city across the continent has memorials to the war: the heroes, the victims, the incredible and everlasting damage done. Entire sections of cities had been leveled by bombs and rebuilt. Reminders abound, and the war is woven into the fabric of a visit to most any city.

In 2015 my wife and I detoured from Munich to spend time in Dachau to see firsthand the notorious concentration camp that still stands as a memorial, a testament, an eternal reminder to all future generations of what happened here. This is hallowed ground, and any walk through its walled, cold landscape is weighted with an aura of pain and despair that is palpable. There are many visitors here but it is quiet and thoughtful. We stop to look at fresh flowers at the base of a memorial, or ponder the still-visible train tracks leading to the iron front gates. “Never forget,” is the refrain that we take with us. We sit on the train back to Munich, quiet, staring out the window, changed by the experience in ways we don’t understand yet, but can feel taking seed. We sit quietly.

She takes my hand.

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In Paris, we walk the busy and touristy Champs-del-Elysees and climb the Arc de Triomph, where we happen upon a ceremony in the shadow of the Arc honoring the tomb of the unknown soldier. We observe the quiet pageantry, the white gloves, flowered wreaths, the gentle plume of the eternal flame, my camera dangling—momentarily forgotten—from my shoulder.

A day trip from Paris brought us to the Normandy beaches and the town of Bayeux—the first to be liberated by Allied forces after the events of June 6, 1944. A drive to Point-du-Hoc puts us on an otherwise beautiful bluff overlooking the sea, but littered with the haunting—and haunted—remnants of Nazi presence: gun-turrets, half-buried concrete bunkers, and even calcified bags of cement, turned practically to stone in the long crabgrass. The landscape is pocked with craters from Allied bombs. Suddenly none of this feels all that long ago. We stand on Omaha Beach and listen to our guide set the scene, while in the distance a man walks his dog along the surf, and a child, farther off, digs a hole in the sand with a brightly-colored plastic shovel. The two ideas juxtapose one another: this beach, so much like any other, versus the stories, photos, and videos that preserve the events of June 6, 1944, captured so vividly in The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. Our guide tells us of a war veteran on the tour once who’d dissolved to tears upon seeing the beach. The guide mistakenly thought that he was crying because the beach almost seemed devoid of its history, that kids were playing and building sand castles, families picnicking – that this hallowed ground was now buried by the present. But this wasn’t the case: his tears, he explained, were tears of joy, at the sight of the beach being enjoyed by so many. “This is what we were fighting for,” he’d explained.

Then we’re standing in the American cemetery overlooking the steady waves of Omaha Beach, the grass a stunning, lovely green, the ocean below us blue and peaceful. My eyes scan, over and over and over, the endless rows of blinding white gravestones, the simple crosses and Stars of David that go on and on like an optical illusion. My wife steps away from me, overwhelmed. In the distance, veterans, crooked with age, lower the American flag at 5 p.m. to the notes of “Taps.”

The walk back to the parking lot is long, quiet, and contemplative. My wife and I both know that any attempt at words would be thin and flimsy. So we spend the time in our own heads, processing, the July air clean, late sun warming away my deep chill. Later that night, lying in bed and swallowed in darkness, we’ll finally talk about the day in hushed, midnight tones, long, thoughtful pauses punctuating our dialogue. I don’t remember what was said.

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In Prague, we visit the Jewish Quarter, where the largest collection of Jewish artifacts in Europe are gathered. The story goes that Hitler sent confiscated items and treasures to Prague, where he envisioned a museum showcasing the heirlooms and artifacts for Europe’s extinct Jewish race.

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Budapest and Vienna are haunted by their own complicated histories. In Budapest, we stop to look at a war memorial honoring the victims of Nazi barbarism, but flanking the memorial are handmade signs condemning the memorial for whitewashing their complicated history, that the memorial fails to acknowledge Hungary’s murky role. Along the Danube, sixty bronzed pairs of shoes memorialize the wall where sixty Jews had been murdered – ordered to remove their footwear and stand along the river, so that when they were shot, their bodies would tumble into the water to be taken away by its current. It’s a sobering sight.

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Even back home, our vacation to Oahu, Hawaii last year didn’t feel complete, didn’t feel earned, without a pause at the Pearl Harbor Memorial. These are lessons in balance: to be present and in the moment, yes, to enjoy the day-to-day experiences of our lives and travels with a heightened sense of focus. But also understanding the past sacrifices and pain that today is built upon. And not just to understand, but to appreciate, and mourn, and—I suppose—grow. After all, we’re not the exact same people on the return journey as we were on departure. Not if we’re doing it right.


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