On the day of our tour of D-Day monuments and sites in northern France, we traveled by bus to the various beaches in Normandy. We were sitting up front, and I had direct eye contact with our guide, Marie. I noticed how tense she seemed despite being so knowledgeable about the awful period of WWII and the occupation of France by Hitler’s forces.
As Marie explained the society of those days, she spoke defensively of the shameful collaboration of some of the French with the Germans. I was not really associating Marie with those times, which seemed so far gone, but it was as if that same society were present and being judged.
“You just don’t understand,” Marie protested. “You don’t know how it was to be occupied. People were just trying to stay alive, to get some food for their families.” Her earnest pleas moved me. How could anyone really know what it was like to be French then? What did I know? Who was I to understand? I felt, though, that it was awkward and inappropriate for Marie to be directing such apologies to our busload of tourists.
Except for the Civil War, we have never experienced the ravages of whole-scale, sustained war on our soil. I was so uncomfortable for her discomfort. Had her grandfather been in the war? Marie was defending her countrymen who went along with the Nazi occupiers in order to survive, but she said she was especially ashamed of those who took on Hitler’s beliefs and turned in their own neighbors who were Jewish.
I thought the intensity of WWII memories was long forgotten here in France as well as in America in the last generation or two. However, Marie told us that bitter remembrances of those days still live on in the families of the area. People still remember what families turned in their friends and relatives to the Nazis. No ally could liberate their guilt.
These former friends and neighbors were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The Vichy government itself accommodated Hitler. France was defeated; its leader capitulated. Marie bears the scar of these actions more than half a century later.
Yet 14,000 Frenchmen from Normandy were killed during the invasion of France. British and American bombs, dropped on Normandy to isolate German troops, obliterated homes, whole villages, bridges and roads. These Frenchmen paid a very high price for liberation from Hitler. Homes and infrastructure have long been restored and rebuilt, but the spirits of the people need a lot of time to repair.
So, it wasn’t the bunkers or the cliffs on Omaha beach that drove home to me what war was like for the German-occupied French people of Normandy. Rather it was the sore testimony of a daughter of France who uncomfortably testified to her country’s dark days of occupation.