Although Gabe and I have had some amazingly indulgent and decadent adventures in the course of our travels over the past 6 months, we have tried to balance the selfishly gratifying with the solidly educational and the culturally important. As Americans, we have a skewed perception of what it means for cities, churches, and conflicts to be “old,” so mostly, we have tried to embrace the rich history embedded in each of the locations we have visited.
In addition to ruins left by ancient civilizations, nearly every place we’ve been has displayed visual reminders of World War II, a more-contemporary, universally significant conflict that affected the entire civilized world throughout the 1940s and beyond. In an attempt to understand the horror of such a consuming war–and to honor those who did (and still do) fight to preserve the integrity of the free world–Gabe and I took a couple side trips to 2 iconic sites from the European front: Auschwitz and Normandy.
Located about 2 hours by bus from Krakow in Poland, the Nazi concentration camp called Auschwitz (the German translation for the nearby town of Oswiecim) is a sprawling compound containing the largest contained system of work and extermination camps run by Hitler‘s Third Reich during WWII. Responsible for the calculated slaughter of more than 1 million people during the war, Auschwitz today operates as a UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the camp, and it serves as a chilling reminder of the evils inherent in totalitarian oppression and political rulers with unquestioned power.
Per the requirements for visitors, Gabe and I toured the complex in a group with a guide, focusing our time in Auschwitz I (headquarters) and Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the primary extermination camp). While Auschwitz I still stands in good condition, Auschwitz II-Birkenau was mostly destroyed by the Nazis shortly before the camp was liberated in 1945. During the 5-hour tour, we gained access to prisoner barracks and saw up close how appalling the living conditions must have been; we walked through a partially-reconstructed gas chamber and crematorium; we took a moment of silence in front of the execution wall, a spot where guards would shoot prisoners for insubordination or simply out of spite; we walked along the original train tracks that carried deported prisoners from their homes to the camp; we stood on the same platform where camp officers made judgments about which deportees would work and which would die.
Despite the crowded, cattle-call nature of the tour–which, in a way, echoes the experience new prisoners must have encountered during their journey to and arrival at the camp–our appreciation for the significance of the Holocaust as a piece of human history only grew. Gabe and I left Auschwitz with a new understanding of human suffering–and strength despite brutal circumstances–and our gratitude for the blessings we have in our own lives was renewed.
After witnessing the bleak, yet poignant, site at Auschwitz, we took a weekend to explore the area of Normandy where the D-Day beach landings occurred, remembering some of WWII’s most-celebrated heroes. With just a car, a map, and a half-formed idea of what we wanted to see, Gabe and I drove from London to Bayeux, France–taking advantage of a car-toting train to get through the Chunnel–and began our exploration.
With only 1 full day to examine the area, we got an early start at the Longues-sur-Mer battery that once sheltered German soldiers who were defending the occupied French coastline. We were immediately awed by the beauty (and advantageous location) of the French farmland in Normandy, and we understood why it was worth fighting for. Since most of the D-Day museums are closed in January, we guided ourselves around the crumbling bunkers and abandoned guns, admiring the simple-but-strong German fortifications.
Next, we stopped at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. The visitor center was open, so we spent a long time perusing the exhibits and informative displays before actually visiting the cemetery. Situated on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, the cemetery is a beautiful final resting place for nearly 10,000 American soldiers who fought and were killed in the operation that included D-Day. The perfectly-aligned rows of crosses and stars whisper of the military connection without being overbearing. The setting provides a peaceful respite for visitors to reflect on the incredible courage and sacrifice of all soldiers who fight for the good of a noble cause. Our visit was educational and emotional–a highlight among a set of lofty experiences that day.
As the sun set, we made a final detour to Pointe-du-Hoc, the site of an Army Ranger landing and cliff-scaling mission on D-Day. What should be a smooth jetty of land extending into the ocean is now a pocked warren of underground bunkers marked by a defiant monument honoring the Rangers. A result of the saturation bombing done by the Allies in advance of D-Day, the crater-filled expanse is otherworldly, reminiscent of the moon’s surface, but with verdant foliage now covering the ground. Gabe and I walked among the craters and out onto the point, looking down at the sheer cliffs and wondering how anyone ever could–or would–climb them with grappling hooks and rope ladders (while under constant gunfire).
As we processed the lessons we gleaned in Normandy, and evaluated them in the context of our takeaway from Auschwitz, it was overwhelming to think about what might have happened to the world had the Allies not eventually stopped Hitler (and his tyrannical counterparts in the Pacific). The men who landed on D-Day probably didn’t understand the extent of Hitler’s oppression, or the full importance of their mission at the time, but they knew they were fighting to protect freedom, a worthy cause even if the freedom in danger wasn’t their own.
Our trip to Normandy was the last one for us on this overseas adventure–we head back to the States later this week. It has been a wholly enlightening experience, truly an amazing opportunity. I can only hope we continue our travels (perhaps in a different part of the world) in the future!