Column: We must learn from the lessons of history
A cross or a Star of David marks the burial sites. Engraved on each marker is the name of the soldier, the state the soldier was from and the date of the soldier’s death.
The American cemetery at Normandy, France is a place to find heroes. On a lovely day in October 2008, I went to Normandy and walked among the valiant dead, those soldiers who had come ashore on June 6, 1944 and the days after. The Normandy invasion was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. World War II would not officially end for another year in Europe. There are 9,387 fallen U.S. soldiers buried at Normandy.
The memory of that beautiful autumn day came back to me recently when I saw pictures of neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, They were holding torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us” and “soil and blood” slogans reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the country the soldiers buried at Normandy fought to defeat.
The American soldiers who are laid to rest at Normandy died fighting against what the Charlottesville neo-Nazis and their KKK friends stand for. The American soldiers died for my freedom and for freedom for of my daughter and our three Jewish granddaughters.
The memory of those soldiers at Normandy has been sullied and desecrated by Nazi supporters in Charlottesville and by our president, Donald J. Trump, who said there were good people and bad people on both sides.
Really Mr. President?
I discovered during that brief trip to France in 2008 that you can learn a lot by visiting a cemetery.
A day before the bus trip to Normandy I had visited Montparnasse Cemetery near the Montparnasse railroad station in Paris. I was searching for the grave of Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a French military officer. In December 1894 he was accused, tried, and found guilty of treason. Sentenced, he languished for years in a prison on Devil’s Island off the coast of South America.
Later, evidence presented on his behalf proved his innocence and indicated he was wrongly convicted. Dreyfus, you see, was a Jew. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the French military at the time and Dreyfus was a victim of anti-Semitism. Dreyfus was born in 1859 and died in 1935. At the time of his death he was considered a national hero.
The Dreyfus case tore France apart at the turn of the 20th century and revealed deep seated anti-Semitism in French society.
But just as we learn from visits to historic location, books can also teach us a lot.
I recently finished ‘’The Years of Extermination’’ by historian Saul Friedlander. The book shares in horrific detail the systematic murder of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. Chapter after chapter tells of trainloads of women and children arriving at the Auschwitz death camp in southwest Poland. The Nazis, with help from Polish accomplices, put the Jews into gas chambers and dragged their dead bodies into crematoriums. Friedlander, a Jew who was hidden by a Catholic family in Vichy France during World War II, is a professor at UCLA. His descriptions are so graphic I could only read so much in one day. Psychologically it was very difficult.
The visit to the Normandy cemetery, the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris and Friedlander’s book made me ask some questions about how well we know history. Frankly I’m worried about how much people in our country know about the past
I asked myself: Do Americans really know about history? Do they know about Normandy and the soldiers lying there? Do they know about the murder of Jews at Auschwitz? Do they read history and do they know about the Nazis and Germany? Do they know about anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews by Nazis? Do they know about indifference by people to the plight of the Jews during World War II?
I pray students will pay attention to their teachers when they talk about genocide, the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany.
I pray to God they will learn those lessons and never forget them.
David A. Crombie is a New Haven resident and a retired ESL teacher. He is a member of American Legion Post 71 in West Haven.