Student News

France #4: Normandy

Paulina Baltazar – June 4, 2019

The group spent the day visiting the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, and the Germany Cemetery in Normandy. Below are reflections of their day.

Helen Lipsky ’20:
Today, the group visited the cemeteries in Normandy, France that commemorated American and German lives lost in France during World War II. This experience was particularly powerful for me because it was a clear visualization of the detrimental effects of the war, as we observed hundreds of graves lined up after one another in both of the cemeteries. The American cemetery was just behind Omaha Beach, known as “Bloody Omaha” due to the extreme violence that occurred there on D-Day (June 6th, 1944).

From afar, all of the American graves looked the same, but, in a way, each told an individual story. If you were to go directly to the graves, you could read the names of the lives lost, each on their respected graves, and also their date of birth and death. These small pieces of information offer more personal meaning to all of the context that most students read in their textbooks and on their homework assignments while the school year is in session.

Sydney Gregg ’20:
The biggest difference I noticed between the American and German cemeteries was how subdued the German cemetery felt compared to the American one. The American cemetery was lined with pristine white gravestones, all out in the open to catch the light in the sun, which makes it impossible to miss. While the whiteness of the graves and the perfectly cut grass can give off a slight sterile feel, the openness of the cemetery was very representative of American pride regarding World War II. Americans are obviously very proud of the role we played in the war, especially of the sacrifices our men made in Normandy, and the grandness of the cemetery reflects this.

On the other hand, the German cemetery was located farther inland next to a highway, instead of a beach, and trees shaded the lined gravestones that laid flat on the ground. I think the modesty of the cemetery showed the Germans understood, after the war, that the French probably did not view them very positively and that it was more respectful for them to keep their cemetery smaller and tucked away in the countryside, instead of out on display like the American one.

Julia Ferrante ’20:
Today, we visited both the American cemetery and the German cemetery for the soldiers who stormed the beaches on D-Day. It was interesting to compare the American and German economies through the cemeteries. The American cemetery is located next to Omaha Beach, the beach where the majority of American soldiers arrived on D-Day. Yet, the German cemetery is not located on the shore. This in part is due to the fact that America paid a large amount of money to have the American cemetery located next to Omaha Beach. The American cemetery is very organized and uniform. Each grave has either a white cross or a white Star of David. At the German cemetery, each grave has a plaque, with crosses scattered throughout the cemetery. I am glad we got to visit both cemeteries as part of our reflection on World War II and our time in Normandy.

Madeline Poole ’21:                                                                                                                                                                       To me the most interesting thing about visiting both cemeteries was being able to see the contrast between the two. At the American graveyard the graves were placed in very neat, orderly lines that had a distinct and symmetrical pattern. All of the graves were made out of a white stone which I found interesting since white is often thought of as a “pure” or “innocent” color.

There also wasn’t a lot of variety among the religions of the fallen soldiers, all the graves were crosses except for a handful of Stars of David. The way the cemetery was planned out and the ambiance it provided was one that felt very pristine and enormous. In contrast, the German cemetery had a very different ambiance. The graves were small crosses close to the ground made of a brown stone, with groups of five black stone crosses dispersed evenly among the graves of the soldiers.

There were often multiple soldiers to a gravestone and often unknown soldiers, where as at the American cemetery from what I could see there was one soldier per grave and they were all named. At the German cemetery, there was a monument in the center that we could climb up and look out over all the graves. Between the two cemeteries, the German cemetery had a sense of being sadder, and less something to behold. It seemed to be more of a place to mourn the loss of the fallen. Whereas at the American cemetery with the way the graves were presented and set up made it seem like a place to appreciate, acknowledge, and celebrate the service and lives of those lost.

Jarod Harrington ’20:

Today we visited both the American and German cemeteries from World War 2. Both had the same impact on me as a whole, but in profoundly different ways. I connected on a deeper level with the graves at the American cemetery. Maybe that was because I knew the places on the gravestones, or because I knew more about the stories of the soldiers than I did of the Germans.

I think that the largest thing that stood out to me was how each cemetery appeared to be treated. Before we went to the German burial ground I asked Mr. Taft if both of the cemeteries were run by their nation’s respective governments. He told me they were, and it was clear to me that it seemed the United States cemetery was more cared for. The stones were in better condition, the grass was freshly edged and manicured. This was in stark contrast to the German cemetery. The stones were eroding away, the grass was cut but clearly not diligently looked after, and there was little to nobody there compared to the American cemetery. These differences showed to me the way each nation thinks about the war. To Americans, the pure white crosses and stars of David each represent a different individual, braver than any of us could ever imagine, storming the beaches of Normandy fighting for their nation and the lives of millions back home.

However, the German stones resonated with me differently. For me it seemed that to many Germans they represent men who, although not all willingly, fought for a cause so evil at its core that for many it seems not worth being proud of. On the surface, both cemeteries seemed to elicit the same feelings from me, however, after thoughtful reflection, they struck very different chords at a deeper level within me.

Nick Fluty ’20:

Today, June 4, 2019, I had the great opportunity to lay my eyes upon Omaha beach and the American cemetery for the soldiers who stormed it on D Day. The American cemetery had a deep impact on me, and I was very moved when I saw living veterans who stormed Omaha beach on D Day walking around. We also went to the German cemetery, and the vast differences between the two were clear. It seems as if the German cemetery is a very simple one in the sense that there are plaques for each soldier on the ground and a little lookout spot in the middle. On the other hand, the American cemetery had crosses all around the grounds, symbolizing each and every soldier who fought and died. The crosses lined up above the ground also made it seem like they were looking back at you, making it even more moving when you saw the rows upon rows of crosses that seemed to never end.

Elliot Flagg ’20:
There were stark contrasts between the American and German cemeteries in Normandy. Characterized by open, well cut, green and grassy fields filled with pristine ivory crosses and Stars of David, the American cemetery – just over the dune of Omaha beach – was a beautiful tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in the fighting of both D-Day and the liberation of France. Similarly, due to preparations for a major celebration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the picturesque fields were cordoned off and stages set up in anticipation of the thousands of incoming visitors.

As I gazed into the rows of graves, I noticed the names, statuses, and dates of birth of presumably every soldier that took part in this legendary event. Yet, the same cannot be said for the German cemetery which lies further inland. Dark and somber as a result of a dense cover of trees, small, dark grey cross-shaped plaques are laid in rows with the occasional groupings of five upright crosses. Less recognition, and certainly less money was utilized in the memorial to the Germans who fought against the Allied Powers, entertaining the notion of who really gets to tell the story after war: the winners or the losers … and how do the defeated get remembered? Though each stone in both the American and German graveyards symbolized a life lost, the extent to which they are remembered is shattered by the ideas upheld in future generations.

Robert Sawyers ’21:
When visiting the American cemetery, I expected a humble site whose purpose was to honor those who sacrificed their lives for the greater cause in World War II, and more specifically, D Day. However, when I saw the rows and rows of crosses and Stars of David, my initial reaction was one of pure shock. The tombstones were aligned in a way that you could only see the first row, but as you walked further along the path, each step only revealed more and more rows of crosses and stars. I was greatly humbled to see how many American soldiers had sacrificed their lives for their country.

Another factor which added to the pleasure of my experience was how groups of soldiers from different armies marched around the cemetery to show their respect for those who died on June 6. An unfortunate aspect was how we were unable to see the names of soldiers because there were ropes prohibiting us from walking on the grass. Overall, the American cemetery is one which shows great pride and honor, and the beautiful location which the cemetery resides in only adds to the greatness of the cemetery. As for the German cemetery, there was great contrast in the design and tone. As stated before, the tone of the American cemetery was more upright as people seemed to respect and honor the soldiers rather than mourn their deaths.

On the other hand, the tone of the German cemetery was quite somber, shown by the large shadows cast by the trees and the poor brown and black colors used to construct each tombstone. However, I was able to sympathize with the German cemetery more than I expected as I was able to see the names and dates of each soldier. To my surprise, I found a handful of German soldiers who died at the ages of 17 and 18, and being 16 years old, I easily imagined how devastating the war must have been for the younger soldiers.

Both cemeteries do their job well. They honor the soldiers whose lives were lost during the war in ways which enhance the cemeteries to be unique, and complement the soldiers respectfully.

Lukas C. Trelease ’20:

Looking out across the sheer number of graves at the American Cemetery in Normandy—the rows and rows of white crosses peppered with the occasional Star of David—the humanity that lies beneath is difficult to find. I found myself detached from the fact that each represents a young man who had a family, dreams, and aspirations. So, I tried to find it.

In order to do that I decided to first consider the questions “for who?” or “for what?” In a film we watched at the Juno Center, a museum dedicated to the Canadian military that fought at Juno Beach, a quote struck me: “pride in one’s family, in one’s country has turned fatal for these young men.” Who or what exactly was each of these men fighting for? Their family—mothers, fathers, children, partners—or something more abstract—the oppressed, their country, their flag, democracy, freedom? Here I found a connection between myself and the marble stones, separated from us by thin, white ropes and long, hand-cut lawns.

I think of my parents back home in the U.S. and the life I live, the life I’ve yet to live. These crosses and stars are an important lesson. I hope we can avoid such tragedy, such loss of life, in the future. I hope that everyone has the chance to realize their dreams before death or pride inhumes it all.

Angélique Alexos ’20:

One of the most interesting aspects of traveling in France is that many places we visit are rich with years of history. The stories we read and talk about in class are brought to light here with monuments, museums, and words that add emotion and understanding to the facts in a textbook.

On our travels today, that connect of fact and story was experienced as I walked around the American and German cemeteries in Normandy. Sentences I read and highlighted for class took shape in rows of crosses, Stars of David, and plaques on the ground that represented those who sacrificed their lives for their countries. However, walking among both cemeteries, I experienced different understandings of the ‘sacrifice’ those who lost their lives had felt. Unlike the American cemetery which contained white crosses and Stars of David and was crowded with people, the German cemetery had dark crosses and plaques and was much quieter.

It was harder for me to put myself in the place of the German soldiers who had gone to war, but there was still a level of respect at the Germany cemetery as roses and flowered wreaths dotted many of the rows. Although all soldiers went to war to achieve some goal and to make some sacrifice, I can only interpret their ‘sacrifice’ from what I have experienced and the country I am from.

Thinking back to the history I have learned as I sat in the American Cemetery with my back to Omaha Beach, I realized I could never fully understand the violence that had occurred decades ago. All I could fully comprehend as I watched the groups of people file by was the wind against my back and the calm lapping of the sea in my ears.

Crawford Rice ’21:
My initial reaction to the American memorial was one of shock. The sheer magnitude of the cemetery seemed unbelievable, as the white crosses and occasional stars of David’s spanned hundreds of yards. I enjoyed walking around the path, although the president’s expected visit to Normandy brought a substantial crowd and prohibited us from stepping on the grass. However, I found it difficult to connect on a more personal level with the memorial. I couldn’t quite identify my emotions. They weren’t wholly somber, neither were they joyful. More prominently, the spirited and grand approach brought about a sense of curiosity within me.

When we arrived at the German cemetery, it was immediately clear that the Germans had committed significantly less resources to the project. It was smaller, the tombstones were less impressive, and the entire property carried an eerie feeling. Yet as I walked above the thousands of graves, I was able to notice the inexcusably young ages at which some soldiers died. Several German men had only just turned 17, and countless others were eighteen. Comparatively, I was able to connect at a deeper level with the German cemetery, yet both were interesting to explore.

Caroline Mahony ’21:
Today began with a cloudy sky and cold, crisp morning air. After breakfast, we boarded the bus and drove to the American WW2 memorial. Upon our arrival we could see that preparations were underway to make the site ready for the reception of the president, who would come later this week. Multiple stages with screens were set up, and behind the graves, I could see many tents set up with cameras, presumably for the press. As we came closer to the graves, we noticed to our dismay that a fence surrounded them, so that we could not walk among the graves and read the names on them.

All of this felt uncomfortably commercial. Large groups of people milled about the paths circling the graves. There were many school groups of young children, as well as groups of young men and women dressed in military uniforms. I saw badges for the U.S., U.K., and French armies on uniforms. As for the graves themselves, they were aligned into perfect rows, starkly white against the green of the perfectly manicured grass. It was hard for me to imagine that each one represented a human life cut short by war, that all of these young men never had the chance to live out their lives or grow old because they had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

After this experience, we again boarded the bus, this time on the way to the German cemetery. Immediately, we noticed that this cemetery was not set on a huge plot of perfectly groomed land as the American cemetery had been. It was quite close to a highway, and we could hear cars rushing by as we walked to the entrance. By the entrance, a sign was posted to gently remind visitors that not all men buried here knew the cause they were fighting for, or wanted to fight at all. It was interesting that a sign like this was posted here, but not at the American cemetery.

As I entered, I noticed that these graves were small and flat on the ground. Some stones contained one name, but many were shared by two. The graves were in a clearing surrounded by trees, and as I walked, reading some of the names, I could hear birds singing, people walked slowly and quietly through the graves, paying their respects. In my opinion, this cemetery was more peaceful than the American one.

Stephanie Martinez ’20:
The American memorial was full of seemingly endless crosses and everything looked perfectly placed and extremely well kept. The memorial overlooked Omaha Beach and there was a vast amount of people visiting the area. After spending time to look around and pausing to absorb everything, I had many different feelings towards the space. I was saddened by the amount of people that died solely on this on day on this one beach, but I was grateful that America had the money to recognize all of the soldiers that died during this war.

I also noticed that there were Jewish stars of David as well as Christian crosses as memorials. This made me reflect about the thoughts of the Jewish American soldiers who fought in this war. I assumed it would be far more dangerous for these particular Americans if they were captured as prisoners of war, and this just saddened me even more.

The German cemetery was completely different from the American one. It seemed emptier – from the number of people visiting the cemetery, to the number of soldiers that died. After walking, looking, and reading plaques, I felt that the German cemetery was a little more personal. There were less people so you could walk without being disturbed by noise. It didn’t seem as if everything was for display like at the American cemetery. I enjoyed being able to see both of the cemeteries, but I personally preferred the German one.