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Visiting the Past, Looking to the Future

Visiting the Past, Looking to the Future

Our Visit to Normandie

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Uncle Alec's Gravestone in Normandie
Uncle Alec's Gravestone in Normandie

Within a short while, Tisha b'Av, the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, considered to be the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, will be upon us. So many tragedies for the Jews occurred on this same day through history.

The Talmud tells us of five specifically: the decree was given that the Exodus generation wouldn't enter the Holy Land, both holy Temples were destroyed, the massacre at Beitar took place which led to the Roman occupation of Israel, and Jerusalem was razed to the ground. As well, the Jews were expelled both from England and two hundred years later from Spain, World War I was declared…..

I didn't realize the number of soldiers who died here, nor how young they wereAnd yet, we are also told that this day of mourning is the exact day that Moshiach is born, which, in turn, will lead to the ultimate redemption when peace will fill the world. How can this be? How can we juxtapose such diametrically opposed realities? And how can we channel our ability to focus on that ultimate positive outcome, not the horror of historical destruction?

Our recent trip to Normandie in the north of France highlighted these exact questions. We decided to be the first in the family to visit the gravesite of my Uncle Alec who was my Mother's youngest brother. He was killed while parachuting into Normandie on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, during the final days of World War II. As we visited the various areas in Normandie involved in this historic landing and invasion which effectively ended this horrible war, we couldn't help but be moved by both the destruction that took place and the concurrent hope that this destruction gave birth to.

We arrived in Normandie, Monday evening, having taken a train from Paris. We decided against staying in Paris for dinner and instead made a 5:00 pm train for the two hour ride. Our hotel, The Churchill, in the hamlet of Bayeaux, is wonderfully charming, nestled in the middle of an historical square in one of the very hard hit towns just inland from the beaches. It is filled with photographs, newspaper articles and other memorabilia of the War. In fact, everywhere we went today was filled with artifacts as well as souvenirs. It was difficult to think, however, of buying an apron or dishtowel with a map detailing the Normandie invasion…

We met the tour bus early the next morning, manned by an incredibly knowledgeable guide. He has been a World War II buff, specifically interested in the Normandie invasion, for many years. But when he was laid off his IT job in London, he moved here and began working for his friend who owns our tour company, "Battlebus Tours". Now he and his family live near Bayeaux.

I have to say that the entire tour was very moving and that is an understatement. Understanding how the Germans had insinuated themselves into every aspect of the lives of the locals was an eye-opener. And hearing how the invasion was planned and executed was overwhelming.

Somehow I had no idea of the magnitude of the operation, all that was involved in organizing, scheduling and implementing this invasion. I had no idea of the numbers of boats, planes, vehicles involved. I didn't realize the amount of geography covered here in Normandie, nor the amount of intelligence required. And, mostly, I didn't realize the number of soldiers who died here, nor did I comprehend how young they were. I found myself having trouble breathing a lot of the time. I felt my eyes tearing up so often as I grasped the reality that we confronted moving from site to site.

We heard many stories of many soldiers, but the story of a young Jew from Brooklyn, named Hal Baumgarten, who landed on Omaha Beach, really impacted us. All Jewish soldiers were offered the option of changing their dog tags, on which was stated their religion, for ones that stated "Catholic". That way if they were captured, they wouldn't be identified as Jews and subsequently be sent to a concentration camp.

All Jewish soldiers were offered the option of changing their dog tags, on which was stated their religion, for ones that stated "Catholic"Hal not only refused to exchange his tags, but actually painted a huge white Magen David (Star of David) on the back of his jacket. As he left his landing craft, a shell exploded, destroying the left side of his face and jaw. He decided on the spot that he would soon be dead anyways and so ran up onto the beach to rescue his sergeant who had fallen At this point, he was shot through his helmet, the bullets going right into his brain. He said later that he put two fingers into the shell holes and felt "jelly". Probably that injury destroyed his ability to feel pain and so he was miraculously able to continue fighting. By the grace of G‑d, he survived, returned to the States, where he completed medical school and practiced medicine for many years. He returns to Omaha Beach every year on D-Day.

The feats of bravery we heard about are too numerous to mention… one after the other until they seemed the norm rather than the extraordinary. The bravery on the part of these so very young men was palpable. We finished our tour with a visit to the American military cemetery where over nine thousand soldiers are buried.

We walked through it, looking for the Magen David grave markers, where we said Tehillim (Psalms) and, according to tradition, left a stone on each one. We wanted to find all that we could find and leave an indication, both physical and spiritual, that they are remembered and valued. I found myself crying over these boys' graves, for no reason other than they are who they are – young Jews -- and they did what they did – fighting for the liberation of other Jews.

We were told today that a few years ago, a group of military men at Westpoint were given the task of developing an invasion plan such as the one on D-Day, using only the tools and the intelligence gathering capabilities available at that time. They labored for days, trying to accomplish their assigned task. However in the end, to their astonishment, they had to admit that they found it impossible. When we heard that, juxtaposed with the visual of what had been achieved, it seemed even more awesome.

We left Bayeaux in the late afternoon after the tour and came to Caen, another town which was devastated by the Germans. Uncle Alec, my Mother's youngest brother, is buried in the cemetery at Ranville, a small town near here. Unlike the Americans, the British policy was to bury the dead as soon as possible and as close as possible to where they died. Hence there are many small cemeteries like this one, rather than one large one.

We arrived there about an hour before sunset. We found it to be a small, well-kept cemetery, with daffodils blooming over many of the graves. It is in the center of the town, with centuries old structures nearby, homes, a church, a granary. There is a single entrance with a wrought iron gate and a small vestibule with an inset holding the details of those buried there as well as a log for visitors to note the time and reason for their visit along with any comments.

No one in the family had ever come hereHaving done research before we left LA, we had no trouble locating his grave. I knew that I would be emotional seeing it; after all no one in the family had ever come here. But I was surprised at the intensity of not only my emotion, but my husband, Larry's, as well.

We both started crying as soon as we saw the marker, with Alec's name, his unit, a Magen David with the traditional Hebrew Roshei Tevet (acronym) engraved on it. Below that is an inscription, detailing how much he is mourned by his parents and siblings. We said Psalms, placed stones. Then Larry left, looking for other Jewish soldiers.

I stayed, and talked with my uncle… feeling so much as I have my whole life, that on some level, I knew him, even though he died two months before I was born. We found it hard to leave, only doing so after about forty-five minutes and the sun beginning to set. Will we ever return? It's hard to imagine that we will. Will anyone else in the family come here? I hope so…

We left early the next morning, feeling exhausted both physically and emotionally. We would be meeting the kids and grandkids, scheduled to arrive the following day in Cannes. My uncle and the other young people like him knew what the possibilities were when they stormed the beaches at Normandie. They knew, more importantly perhaps, what the consequences would have been if they had chosen not to. From destruction comes hope. Their sacrifice, whether they knew it or not, would open the channel for the ultimate redemption.

We are told that Moshiach is born on Tisha B'Av. As we approach this day of sadness on the Jewish Calendar, perhaps we can compare in some subtle way our responsibility to that of my Uncle and the other young people like him. We must focus not on the destruction, historic or potential, not on the negativity, but rather on the hope that is generated through it. We pray that our actions, like theirs, will tip the balance. We pray that this year, this Tisha B'Av will be the day of true redemption, the day of true freedom, the day our sages, our Rebbes, have told us is imminent – that day when G‑d's presence will fill the earth with the coming of Moshiach.

Tova Hinda Siegel has been a Certified Nurse Midwife for over 20 years, practicing in Los Angeles, where she held a faculty appointment at the USC School of Medicine. She and her husband, Larry, are the parents and grandparents of many who live all around the world.

This article is republished with permission from the recently released book, The Best Is Yet to Be—Women Share Their Midlife Challenges and Triumphs, by Miriam Lieberman.

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Helen Gordon Durham north carolina May 23, 2013

Beautiful tribute Tova you transported me to the site. Beautifully written. Reply

Anonymous mtholly, nj usa August 1, 2011

n ormandie when some of us think f france we forget that has not always been about romance and artists there was pain and suffering during World war 2 and centuries before also. thank you for this artcle reminding us all of reality.. Reply

Michael Johannesburg, South Africa July 14, 2010

visiting thepast etc most inspiring and wonderfully wriiten
excellent message for the current 9 days Reply

chana boas Jerusalem July 12, 2010

beautiful article and may the prayer at the end of the article come true immediately Reply

Molly Resnick July 12, 2010

Simply beautiful I was so moved by Tova Hinda's account....
.... literally feeling transported to Normandy but at the same time never leaving behind the universal sadness of the nine days nor the hope that Tisha B'Av turn into a true day of joy this year. Reply

Anonymous Milton July 12, 2010

Visiting the Past Even though I was fortunate in not losing anyone in World War II, this was very emotional for me. I have seen many cemeteries from the war on TV, but I can't imagine what it would be like to see them in person. I admire you for going, looking, seeing and saying the appropriate prayers,at not only your Uncle Alec's grave, but those of other Jewish soldiers. Reply

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