We often share how the French people teach every generation to show gratitude for their freedom. Recently, at our Stony Brook event, I had the pleasure of meeting a student from France, Anne-Sarah. Her genuine excitement for veterans and our project reminded me of all the other young French people I have encountered in Normandy. Anne-Sarah has generously offered to share from her experience growing up grateful in France.
For me, it all started early when, as a French 6th grader, together with my mother, I visited Normandy, Northern France. The 80 kilometers of beaches which border Normandy were basking in the early June sun. From the higher ground, the threatening remnants of the Atlantic Wall, a system of fortifications put in place by Hitler in 1940, which still includes many empty menacing artillery casemates. The Omaha Museum that re-told the story of D-Day on Omaha Beach did not soften the history a bit. The beach was flat, and hiding or taking shelter was impossible. The museum photos showed the Germans on top of the bluffs, and the Allied soldiers wading ashore among bodies. The only cover possible was built by their lifeless friends. After a while, I could not follow, the facts were spinning, and I burst into tears and landed in my mother’s arms. I cried for those young soldier’s pain until my eyes went dry. I swore to honor their sacrifice by learning about them, and by never letting their sacrifice be forgotten.
The movie, “The Girl Who Wore Freedom,” zoomed in on a different part of Normandy, the charming and verdant area around Sainte-Mère-Église. This hinterland of Omaha and Utah beaches, where the US 82nd Airborne Division forces landed with the hope of attacking, from two sides, the Germans pounding the beaches. Thousands of French civilians witnessed, during the night and early morning of the 6th of June, 1944, how 13,348 Americans parachuted around Sainte-Mère-Église from 800 planes. The parachutists that dropped during the Norman night fell into the countryside, swamps, gardens, and even into the village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The movie did not focus on the massacre that ensued even before many of the soldiers could touch the ground; instead, it captured the fragile hope of liberty and freedom through the eyes of the Normandy’s children.
As their memories come back, nowadays, adults smile as they describe the parachutes floating gracefully. It must have been such a moment of beauty, especially taking into account the nerve-rattling moments that followed. Crushed under a flood of crossfire, the civilians had nowhere to go, and many children lost their parents. The children and the adults forgot all their wounds as they buried at Sainte-Mère-Église and Blosville-Carquebut the 12,787 soldiers that fell for the land of Normandy.
These fallen soldiers and the surviving veterans are my heroes. They are the heroes of Normandy, where nowadays adults recall with tenderness the long healing summer that followed the 6th of June in 1944. Free for the first time, the GIs and the children of Normandy fell for each other. Children of the Great Depression, many coming from the countryside of America, came unable to pronounce a single French word or the name of a French village. These GI’s came to Normandy guided by freedom, willing to die for it. The children of Normandy will never forget their super-heroes.
How could we?
I am so thankful Anne-Sarah took the time to come to our event. She is another amazing example of gratitude and friendship shown by every French generation. It has been a goal of this project to transplant the gratitude and devotion of the French to the United States. That evening after the presentation, I was surprised that there were no questions for me, the Veterans, or French families attending. There was nothing left to do but thank the audience and say goodnight. I was not prepared for what happened next. The students from Stony Brook came down from the seats and began talking one on one. Several shared with me how this experience had impacted them, changed them. Then over the shoulder of one of the students, something caught my eye. The students had gathered in groups around the veterans with the same excitement and gratitude that I had seen in France. We had done it! We had brought Normandy to New York. Sharing our story, we had opened their eyes to true sacrifice and devotion, setting them on a path to grow up grateful.