Friday, November 25, 2011

Historic Accuracy and a Visit to Normandy

Time for another history lesson, kids! 
But which history?  That is the question.

Today, accompanied by other students and teachers from all over the world, we went to visit the D-Day/WWII Memorial in Caen, located in Normandy.  Just to start, I would like to point out that all of us represented folks coming from France, America, Germany, China, Japan, as well as other countries.  The fact that we were all there, as a collective mass, working our way through the Memorials two sides, one representing “The World Before 1945”, and the other side representing “The World After 1945”, talking in one language but representing so many countries, blew me away.

But what blew me away even more was how much history can change.

Histories can change because of Photoshop-there was a picture of Stalin speaking on a podium, where another important figurehead was completely cut out, in order to improve the usage of the picture for propaganda.

Histories can change because of the “unknowns”: people, places, secret phone conversations, etc. that either “never happened” (but really did), or information withheld for political/media/etc. reasons.  There were many “unknown” people involved in the war, from those who died in the Holocaust, to the fathers of children who were killed in battle before their sons and daughters were old enough to remember them, and freedom fighters whose identities were kept secret because of their religion, to the unidentified soldiers who died in the Normandy battles (not just D-Day, but all of the subsequent battles in Normandy following that day as well) who are now buried in the American Normandy Cemetery, which was given as a piece of property to America from France--this was odd to think that I was "back" in America, seeing French soil that was fought for by so many from all over the world.

Yet most important to the future of the world, histories can change depending on who is passing that history on, as well as who is receiving it.  I was awestruck at the differences between what my classmates and I were taught in school about WWII, about D-Day, and about other events that centered around such a “total war”.  These differences might not be what you think.  I had Japanese students teaching me about the massacres that the Japanese people instilled on the Chinese.  I overheard German students talking about horrific events that the Germans did to one another.  My host mother explained to me that after the war, German soldiers were stuck in France, not knowing what they were fighting for and being in a lost country with no way home, and so becoming their own prisoners in other countries. 
But the real kicker here is, I didn’t know about any of it.  Or if I did, I certainly didn’t remember it.  I don’t remember learning about Nankin, or Jews that helped liberate soldiers to return under the wings of Stalin rule, or how Kamikazes were not always volunteers, but oftentimes had their families kidnapped and tortured so that these Japanese pilots would fly themselves into certain death at Pearl Harbor in order for their families to go free.

I don’t remember being taught that.

Please don’t misunderstand my point--this is not a critique about my, or your, educational system.  I am simply making an observation that history is relative and subjective, and today was a prime example of that.  Yet this difference in history was exactly what brought all of the students together, seeing the pictures together, listening to the secret phone conversations together, looking at the graves and asking the same questions to one another over and over again.  This is what brought us together on the Pointe du Hoc, where the Texas Rangers scaled an enormous cliffside just to fight occupying Nazi soldiers, if they made it to the top, while bombs carved out craters of earth from the Normandy countryside.  This is what brought us together on Omaha Beach, with eight countries worth of soldiers fought against the Axis powers. 
Seeing these places, and hearing the differences in histories among us, made me proud to know that I was able to understand more profoundly the causes and consequences that befell everyone who was affected in WWII, especially because I could speak a language that everyone could speak.  

 I urge you, dear reader, to seek out different histories, different accounts of the same events that occurred in humanity, in order to give a better perspective of what might have actually happened.

I follow this blog entry with a few pictures of my experience there, although, as it was for me, these pictures give only a tiny glimpse of the emotions an atmosphere of the beautiful, but sad day in person.  

A letter from a French soldier to his wife-he didn't even know what day it was...

Omaha Beach

Bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

The cliffs at Pointe du Hoc

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