Tourists of History

United States and Canadian flags flutter in the wind behind the spires of the Omaha Beach Memorial on a cool, gray October day in Normandy, France.

United States and Canadian flags flutter in the wind behind the spires of the Omaha Beach Memorial on a cool, gray October day in Normandy, France. Jim Buchan

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Sydney Butcher in her role as Anne Frank in last Spring’s Little Theatre of Walla Walla production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

By the time our granddaughter Sydney surprised us last spring by landing the lead in the Little Theatre of Walla Walla production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” my interest in World War II history had already been piqued.

That happened a couple of winters ago when my wife Margaret and I visited Pearl Harbor for the first time and boated out to the USS Arizona Memorial, the underwater resting place of 1,102 sailors who perished aboard the battleship when it was sunk during the Japanese attack of Dec. 7, 1941.

Sydney, who turns 15 today, and her fellow cast members in “Anne Frank” were instructed by their director to research their characters so as to better understand them. Which, I’m told, she did with a fervor.

Her mother later told me that Sydney, on more than one occasion, came home from rehearsals in tears, distraught over her character’s desperate plight as she and her Jewish family hid in fear of the Nazis in a small, secret annex in German-occupied Amsterdam.

After two years of hiding, the family was discovered, arrested and sent off to German concentration camps. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen — either from starvation or disease, history is not sure — in March 1945. She was 15.

What struck me at the time was that my teenage granddaughter perhaps had a more profound appreciation of the horrors of Hitler and the Holocaust than her nearly 70-year-old grandfather.

So with that in mind, when Margaret and I began planning this fall’s long-anticipated trip to Europe, the idea of visiting historical World War II sites only made sense. Especially since we were spending five days in the ancient city of Prague in the very heart of German occupation during the war, followed by a seven-day river cruise through Germany’s rolling farm lands and vast vineyards, and concluding with a six-day stay in Paris.

To be sure, we fulfilled many of the usual tourist duties.

We visited the historic Prague Castle, strolled across the Charles Bridge and stood beneath the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square during our stay in the Czech Republic. We explored churches and castles and pubs during our many stops as we gently plied the Danube, Main, Rhine and Mosel rivers. And the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre Museum and the Palace of Versailles were all on our must-do list in Paris.

We also managed to get lost a few times and scared ourselves silly, but we always managed to find our way back to a safe haven. We dined in open-air cafes and enjoyed people-watching as Czechs and Parisians alike hustled and bustled through their daily lives. And we made new friends during our days on the rivers.

Some of our other adventures — our World War II destinations — were more sobering.

While in the Czech Republic, we booked a half-day trip to Terezin, a small town about an hour’s drive from Prague where the Nazis had established one of their concentration camps. It wasn’t one of Hitler’s death camps but rather a holding area where Jews were rounded up and imprisoned until they could be sent by rail to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the like where hundreds of thousands were gassed or murdered in other ways each year.

Between Nov. 24, 1941, and April 20, 1945, 141,184 people lived in the camp-ghetto at one time or another. Of the approximately 88,323 whom the Germans deported, perhaps 3,500 survived the war.

Another estimated 33,521 died at Terezin of disease, starvation, exposure or in the course of performing forced labor without adequate clothing, nourishment or equipment. To the death toll must also be added 430 people who died after the International Red Cross took responsibility for providing food for the prisoners in early May 1945, and 1,137 more who died in the month after liberation.

When the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army in May of 1945, Terezin’s Small Fortress held almost 17,000 prisoners.

While there, we also visited a museum in the town’s Main Fortress that had served as a children’s home for boys 10-to-15 years of age during the Nazi regime. More than 10,500 children lived there before being deported east. Only 245 survived.

For me, the most poignant aspect of the museum were children’s drawings, most of them depicting happier times that celebrated their past freedom. But there were some that focused on harsh reality.

Our river cruise began in Nuremberg. But before boarding, a tour of the German city took us to the site where the Nazi war crimes trials were held as well as to Zeppelin Field, a mammoth arena that could hold up to 50,000 people and a parade field that could accommodate 100,000.

Zeppelin Field was used for mass Nazi propaganda events and was symbolic of Hitler’s Third Reich world domination ambitions.

We set aside one full day in Paris to visit the beaches of Normandy where Allied Forces came ashore on June 6, 1944, in a costly first step to liberate France and mainland Europe from Hitler’s cruel grip. It was about a four-hour drive to the coast and a 12-hour day in all, but it was worth every minute.

We first stopped in the French city of Caen a few miles inland and spent a couple of hours in the Memorial de Caen war museum. We could have spent the entire day there and not taken it all in.

The museum is divided into three parts — the years leading up to the war when Hitler rose to power, the war itself and finally the postwar reconstruction — and we barely made it through the first part. But to chronologically follow Hitler’s clever manipulation of the German people as well as other countries, England and France included, was a true eye opener.

From Caen we drove to Juno Beach, where the Canadians led the D-Day charge under heavy fire from German defensive installations. Of the 21,400 men who landed on Juno that day, there were 1,200 casualties.

The most costly landing, though, was Omaha Beach, which we visited next. It was up to the U.S. to take this 6-mile stretch of sand beneath high cliffs and German gun emplacements. And by nightfall the Americans had suffered 2,400 casualties.

But they did take back the beach, then France and ultimately Europe as Hitler’s forces were vanquished and the war was won. All told, 6,603 U.S. soldiers came ashore on D-Day and 1,465 lost their lives.

I didn’t know what to expect as I clamored down the sea wall and headed for the Omaha Beach Memorial. The truth is, I didn’t have any expectations. But from the moment my feet hit the sand, shivers ran up and down my spine like I have seldom experienced.

The final stop on our Normandy tour was Point du Hoc, a vantage point high atop the coastline where German gunners had a clear view of Omaha Beach to the east and Utah Beach to the west. The entire area remains pock marked by the bombs dropped from Allied warplanes that in part made it possible for American soldiers to scale the cliffs and take out the German guns.

We were also supposed to visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, a 172-acre plot on a bluff that overlooks Omaha Beach and holds the remains of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom were killed during the invasion of Normandy and ensuing military operations in World War II. But because of the government shutdown back home, the cemetery was closed.

We weren’t surprised. We were similarly turned away in Luxembourg when we attempted to visit the American Cemetery where Gen. George S. Patton is buried.

On the long plane ride home, I decided to watch the World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan” for the first time. And the first 30 minutes, as U.S. soldiers came ashore at Omaha Beach, were as bloody and as graphic as I had been warned.

As difficult as it was to watch, it was also inspiring as so many brave young Americans fought and died for every inch of sand and the cause of freedom worldwide.

They’re remembered as the Greatest Generation — not just those who threw themselves into harm’s way but also the men and women back home who were born in the aftermath of the first World War, grew up during the Great Depression and were the leaders of America’s post-World War II economic boom.

In his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation,” journalist Tom Brokaw described them as a generation that was united by a common purpose and common values: duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, responsibility for oneself.

They’re all in their late 80s or older now. They are dying at an alarming rate — some 600 per day — and soon they will be gone.

We owe them all our greatest respect and unending gratitude.

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