Friday, June 06, 2014

Divided Identities: Reflections on D-Day

Juno Beach, Normandy, France
A year ago today I was on the beaches of Normandy. Like many others before me I made the pilgrimage to site of the D-Day landings to see the area where so many soldiers lost their lives. For the Allies that was a day of victory. The day Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was breached and the push inland began. My friends and I were staying in Paris so we rented a car and drove to the coast. We had to be up before 5am in order to make it to the airport to pick up our rental car and make it out to Courseulles-sur-Mer, also known as Juno Beach, where the Canadian memorial ceremonies were taking place.

Eric, Heidi, Heather, Caitlin and Brendan.
We had spent the previous two weeks touring other First and Second World War battle sites, cemeteries and war memorials in the Netherlands, Belgium and the North of France. Flanders, Ypres, Passchendaele, Theipval, Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy Ridge, Dieppe, the Scheldt Estuary, we had seen literally thousands of grave markers and hundreds of thousands of names engraved in monuments. We had even toured two German Cemeteries to give us the contrast of how the “other side” remembered.

Throughout this time I was reminded of why I am proud to be Canadian. Why I wear a maple leaf and can proudly sing “God Save the Queen.” The Canadian contributions to these wars are undeniable even if my professors at Georgia Southern University had omitted any mention of it during my recent exchange. But under it all I was unsettled. Being Canadian, and being on this tour, meant embracing my British roots. It meant focusing on the “ready aye ready” aspect of my country’s response to the declarations of war and being ready to serve for God and King. It meant presenting a paper on the experience and sacrifice of my great-great-great uncle Edward Shannon Grant who was killed during the infamous last 100 Days of the Great War. It meant suppressing the other half of me. The German/Eastern European side that didn’t quite fit with the Allied view of how the events of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 had played out and I wasn’t sure how to deal with that so I just ignored it.

Juno Beach Centre, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy, France
June 6, 2013 was a cool clear day. Being the 69th anniversary there were a respectable number of visitors at the Juno Beach Centre. Veterans and dignitaries, tourists and locals, we all gathered together to remember. We arrived with plenty of time to secure a decent seat and seek out our Professor who was also there with another tour group. After the ceremony which was similar to the familiar November 11th Remembrance Day ceremonies back home, we toured the museum and then made our way down to the beach. We joined in the reception and visited a bit before heading out.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Our next stop was Omaha Beach where the American ceremony was just ending. The contrast between the two sites and the approach was striking. The American Cemetery is perched high on a cliff above the beach where as the Canadian centre is just steps away from the sand. The American Cemetery reminded me a lot of Washington, DC and even had a mini reflecting pool. The guide we talked to explained that for many French and other Europeans, this cemetery is the closest they will come to the United States and the goal of the design of the area was to give them both a feel for the American style of memorialization and to be a tribute to all of the fallen. A little bit of American on French soil for the soldiers that are buried there and for those that visit.
Me on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

On the beach we took off our shoes (or in my case boots) and waded in the water. I imagined the waves lapping stained with the blood of the fallen and tried to imagine what it would have been like to be there on that day in 1944. A bit further down the beach were a couple of German soldiers also with their boots off enjoying the sand and surf. I joked with them that their boots were going to get wet and we started chatting. They were university students in Hamburg and had signed up for a tour where they would go and lay commemorative wreathes at a series of cemeteries in Northern France. We chatted a bit about travelling and the sites they were visiting. I wanted to ask them so much more. What was it like to be representing the “losing side.” Is that how they saw it? What did they feel about their countries involvement in these wars? How did it feel to come to these places and know that young men their age were buried there. Of course I couldn’t. It wasn’t the time or the place but I still wonder.
La Cambe German War Cemetery

They had mentioned that there was a large German War Cemetery close by so after we finished at Omaha Beach, we headed out into the countryside to find it. After a few wrong turns and a stop at a small museum for directions, we finally found La Cambe. It was massive. Over 20,000 graves all in flat black stone with a large mound of earth in the centre. We each split off and wandered the site lost in our own reflection. I recorded in my diary that the idea of “sacrifice for God and country” that was so prevalent in the Commonwealth cemeteries was missing there and instead there is just an intense feeling of sadness.
The memorial in the center of the La Cambe cemetery
In the visitors centre we looked at pictures of German War cemeteries all around the world. France, Belgium, Egypt, Italy, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada…wait KITCHENER??? There’s a German War Cemetery in our hometown? Wow. We made it back to Paris that night and I received news that my sister-in-law was in labour. A day of remembering the dead and a new life was about to make its appearance. Cue the Lion King.

German War Graves at Woodland Cemetery, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
A year later here I am finally sitting in that cemetery in Kitchener. The orderly row of stubby stone crosses spread out before me in a similar style to the ones all over Western Europe. In that weeks following my visit to Normandy I was able to visit Germany. I went to Bremen and then to Bremerhaven (the port of Bremen) where in 1953 my maternal grandparents had boarded the Beaverbrae to leave war torn Europe and make a new life in Canada. I visited Gockenholz and Beeden-Bostel. The tiny settlements (I hesitate to even call them towns considering how small they are) where they had lived and farmed in the years following Germany’s defeat and the church where they had been married. I spent almost a week in Berlin exploring and soaking in answers to the questions I had wanted to ask those soldiers on Omaha Beach about how Germany remembers. How they remember, acknowledge, and move on. How they talk about the events of their history but don’t dwell on them instead looking to a better tomorrow. And I found a way to reconcile the two sides of me. To acknowledge that without these massive conflicts Europe wouldn’t have been torn apart and my Great Grandparents wouldn’t have been forced to flee Estonia and then Poland. That Grandpa Bergner may never have left his little town in the south of Germany and found himself working for a farmer in the north where he met a tall handsome woman named Elsa. And they wouldn’t have needed to come to Canada, sponsored by the Lutheran church as refugees, repaying their passage by working on a sugar beet farm in Alberta. And ultimately moving to Edmonton where my parents were able to meet and have me.

So I sit and I look at these stones and I am thankful that even though I had family on both sides of the conflict, they were protected and now I can sit in a town that used to be called Berlin, and is now named after a British Army officer, in a country I am proud to call my own, and embrace my divided identity: the British side and the German side and all the other parts in between. 

No comments: