O-Dawg was in the eighth grade when I chaperoned her class on a field trip to The Florida Holocaust Museum.
I remember the first time I heard there was such a thing as the Holocaust. I was young, listening to a teacher explain in broad strokes to her class of small children, the very basics of this massive crime against humanity. I remember my disbelief and horror that such evil atrocities could be committed by such a heinous madman, while his nation closed their collective eyes and went along with his plan of genocide.
For as long as I can remember, I have entrenched myself in learning about this dark place in the world's history. My giant bookcase has an entire shelf filled with my Holocaust books.
Corrie Ten Boom opened my soul to how miraculous faith can be in forgiving the unforgivable.
Long before Oprah's endorsement, Elie Wiesel's "Night" filled my heart with the beauty he managed to bring to the depths of utter blackness.
I have told and re-told my children the stories I have culled through my learning. I have taken them to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and insisted that they tour the adult museum instead of the children's. And when they groan, which they often do, I tell them, "Never Forget."
It is in the forgetting that the danger lies.
I went to the Florida Holocaust museum with a group of restless, hormonally charged 13- year-old's. Their lack of enthusiasm and respect was pissing me off before we even hit the front doors.
It is a tour-guided museum and as we were about to begin our tour, a staff member stopped our docent and asked if she had room for one more. She obliged cheerfully and a dapper, old man in a beautiful suit joined us. Glad to have someone besides sullen teens to talk to, I walked beside the old man, making small talk.
At our first exhibit, the docent cheerfully began her explanation of the beginnings of Germany's descent into Hell. The gentleman next to me added a few facts. Figuring him for a history buff, she nodded kindly at his interjection and trotted us over to the next exhibit. The old man added a few facts there and then, again on the next exhibit. Finally, our cheery docent, stopped and asked him how he knew so much. She should have added, "Mr. Know It all." I could see right through her cheery, little facade.
The old man matter of factly, said, "I was there. I was one of the first American troops to land on Normandy Beach and I helped liberate Nazi concentration camps."
The cheery docent was a bit surprised. The kids didn't bat an eye and I looked at this old, wrinkled man with new eyes. The docent giving him his rightful props, told him to please interject his own memories as we went along.
I don't think she really meant it.
As we continued our tour, the old soldier filled us up with facts and memories, pretty much taking over the tour, to the annoyance of Little Miss Sunshine. He told of jumping into the cold sea, the skies still enshrouded in blackness. He spoke of the fear they had as the soldiers left their boat, calling to their comrades as they waded through the currents, bracing themselves to face the unknown. He told of the utter shock at the sight of the prisoners, so skeletal, he didn't think they were real.He spoke of the journal they found in a Nazi camp, belonging to one of the bastards who ran the place of Hell. The journal held pictures of the man's children next to snapshots of the piles of dead that had been recently exterminated. He told of us his two tours and his forced ride home when a bullet landed near his heart, "Just close enough for a good scare."
I listened good and well, or at least as well as I could with a band of teens more focused on heaving spitballs at each other.
At the end of our tour, our smiley-faced docent seemed ready to rid herself of him. I was busy rounding up my rowdy crew. The old man stood at the door, forgotten in the cacaphony around him. As we started to leave, I turned to him and thanked him for his service. His rheumy eyes crinkled up and he said, "Would you like to see my medals?" The kids were filing into the bus. We had a long ride home and we were trying to make it before the final bell.
I didn't hesitate. I nodded and out of a brown paper bag, he pulled out his medals.
All in zip-lock baggies.
Encased in sandwich bags, he carried his noble Silver Star, his Purple Heart and a few others I wasn't sure of. He then reached inside his brown bag and pulled out a newspaper clipping, citing the actions of a young soldier who was one of the first brave troops to reach the banks of Normandy, his picture, big and bold splashed across the front page of the paper. Back in his grocery bag, he pulled out a dimmed photo, soldiers surrounded by human beings so skeletal it was a wonder they were standing and even more so, miraculously smiling as they grouped around the soldiers for a photo.
A gruesome, real testament. Never Forget.
I was infatuated by all of his treasures and just when I thought he was done, he pulled out a yellowed page of a diary, filled with German words and at the top, a chilling stamp -a swastika. He brought out more newspaper articles, another medal-all the tales and testimony of his bravery.
I called out to the kids boarding the bus and they came back, grouping around the old man who held little interest to them just a few minutes before. They listened as he told them about each shiny medal and why he had received it. With the past in their very hands, the kids grew quiet. And when he finished, they asked him good questions, as they passed the medals between them, reverently running their fingers across their surface.
I hurried back in and grabbed the docent who was thunderstruck at the sight of all of his treasures. She guided him back inside with a hand across his shoulder, speaking to him about giving his souvenirs a protected place of honor in the museum.
I didn't get to say goodbye. We had to go. But, the humble soldier had made his mark on these children. The long ride home was filled with chatter over the medals, the photos, the old man who turned out to be a quiet hero.
On a French vacation, The Hubby and I went to Normandy Beach. It was unfortunate that we made it there towards the end of the day. The French like to keep their work days short. A very frustrating fact for American tourists who like to cram in a lifetime's worth of sight-seeing in two weeks. The museum, to my great chagrin, was closed for the day.
It was cold and the beach was at low tide, the same as it was, when the brave soldiers descended. The shore line went on for miles. The water's edge was dauntingly far away. My sister was with us and the two of us were shivering. After awhile, the cold won and we made our way back to the car. The Hubby said he would be along shortly as he stood there, staring out to the sea.
It was dark by the time he made it back. He'd been gone for over an hour, maybe more. My sister and I had lost track of the time.
We learned in our French travels to stock up. Restaurants are either everywhere or nowhere to be found. Wandering the French countryside, we were loaded up with French loaves of bread, croissants, pastries, and beautiful French cheeses. We'd turned our car into a lovely French picnic.
He got back in the car, wet and dirty. I asked him with a mouthful of Brie, where in the world he had been.
He had walked out to the sea. He said he wanted to feel it, to know.
My Hubby is not one for sentimentality or dramatic emotion. That's all left up to me.
But, in that moment, he was overwhelmed by what he now understood. He spoke of the weight of their packs and their guns, how it must have been to wade through the cold currents in the dark for miles, for miles. He said, "I didn't know."
We came back from France. We told our children. I heard him on the phone with his father, a retired Marine telling him of his walk and how he felt the soldiers there along side of him.
It is one day short of Memorial Day, but yesterday I was in the bed with stomach pains. I didn't have time to write. I was too busy googling my medical symptoms and subsequently, my impending, certain death.
So for today, I will say, I will Never Forget. Memorial Day. Every Day. I will Never Forget.
Today's Must Have Download: Just trust me on this one. I know you're going to think I'm a million shades of strange, but it is essential to download this. "Theme from Schindler's List" with Itzhak Perlman. Download the version with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra accompanying him. Itzhak's violin playing is truly one of the most extraordinary things I have ever heard and felt in my life. This piece is so beautifully written. In Itzhak's magnificent violin, you can hear the tears of all of those who were slaughtered and all of those who were left to live with the memory. It is truly one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever experienced in my life.