During this past semester, my final one of college, I have had the extraordinary chance to study abroad in Nantes, France, a Northwestern town known for its Paris-like architecture and signature buckwheat crêpes. Being Jewish in France has been difficult at times and rewarding at others — I have faced antisemitism and ignorance, but I also got to spend a lovely Passover in Paris meeting Jews from around the world at the local Chabad.
I had been warned about all this before I came — friends told me to be hyper-vigilant when wearing my hamsa necklace in the streets, my program’s staff advised us it was better to keep religion a personal matter while in the country, I struggled with the decision whether to put “kosher” or “vegetarian” on my host family request form, knowing France’s rules about “laïcité,” the French principle of avoiding being ostentatiously religious in one’s public life.
I had assumed before this trip that certain moments and experiences would make me hyper-aware of my Judaism, would make me feel annoyed, isolated, maybe even scared, but I was not fully aware of how intimately grief and catharsis are tied, of how often beauty is born of violence. There was one moment in my semester that was more difficult, yet also more healing, than any of these other experiences.
In early February, the 27 students on my program, along with a few staff members, set out for the D-Day beaches of Normandy. We were scheduled to visit, as our itinerary listed sans further description, the Caen Memorial, Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery, and the Pointe du Hoc. The three-hour drive down was relatively carefree; cemeteries always make me slightly uncomfortable but I was ready to be entrenched in history and solemnly pay my respects. We stopped at a gas station about halfway through our drive, and I quickly collected some rocks from a nearby gravel path to put on the graves that afternoon.
What the itinerary had failed to inform us of was that this so-called memorial was actually an entire museum dedicated not only to the Second World War, but to the Holocaust, complete with a recreation of an underground Nazi bunker and pre-recorded sounds of bombs crashing overhead blasting from the ceiling speakers. There was a wall of pictures of French Jews who had perished — the unknowing, smiling faces of families, a boy in a tallit and kippah at his bar mitzvah, endless images adorned with the surname “unknown.” I stood there for half an hour, looking at each face until they all became blurred into abstraction.
There was a letter found in the dirt of Auschwitz where a man testified to the horrors of the camp and listed the names of his lost family members. He implored the “dear finder of this letter” to go to his house and find pictures of his family and keep them with this letter. There were no pictures next to the letter in the display. There was a copy of Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem of resistance, “Liberté,” promising to write its name with rocks, ashes, blood, to search for it even in the marches of death. There was a picture of a pile of shoes in a concentration camp with a tiny pair of baby shoes resting crookedly on top. I broke down crying and my friend had to pull me outside, where my sobs blended with the recordings of the bombs crashing.
Despite these horrors, I felt oddly safe inside the museum. My gold hamsa shone brightly against my dark sweater, my thoughts reassuring me that surely no one would harm me here while staring into the face of past atrocities.
When we returned outside, the wind had become ferocious, as if it, too, was grieving the nameless, smiling faces plastered on the museum’s walls. The air had an undercurrent of salt to it, the beaches beckoning us to our next distressing site. On the path to Omaha Beach, my feet were met not with sand, but with rocks, like the ones hanging heavy in my pockets, intended for the unmarked graves. The American Cemetery was a sea of crosses with a couple Jewish stars, the majority of the tombs’ inhabitants unknown. The graves are right next to the beach, with a brilliant view of sparkling water and calm waves. It felt unfair, unjust, that such beauty should exist in a landscape marred with death. It was enraging to stand on a beach so peaceful and beautiful and know that so many people died there. Yet nature has healed there, without a trace of the past, as if we simply did not disturb it; it would remain tranquil forever, indifferent to the destruction of humanity.
By the time we reached Pointe du Hoc, the location of a series of German bunkers and artillery stores during the war, rain had started to pour, mingling with the wind that was blowing so strongly it nearly knocked me over, stinging my face as it whipped into my cheeks. These bunkers were captured on D-Day by American forces after they scaled the 110-foot cliffs leading up to the shore, reducing the 225 Rangers who began the assault to only 90 cursed survivors. I thought about how calm, temperate, even gorgeous these beaches would have been in early June, and how excruciatingly, suffocatingly hot it must have felt to wear pounds and pounds of battle gear while scaling their bluffs. The German bunkers are all grassed over now — nature’s attempts to heal — yet the terrain remains uneven, the land pockmarked with knolls and valleys, like titanic footprints of an angry, stomping deity.
It was hard to stand on those beaches, to whisper prayers in that cemetery. I was exhausted and angry and grief-stricken. Yet there was also a deep sense of healing, of something twisting in a dark part of my core. It felt almost like a return, like I was letting someone, or some element, know that it was safe to come back now, that I was here and alive and bearing witness to all that had happened in these spots.
My immediate family did not perish in the Holocaust. My great-grandparents immigrated to the States before the rumblings of World War Two had begun to arise in Germany. Both of my grandfathers served in the American military during World War II. The soldiers in the Normandy graves were their brothers in arms, fighting for the liberation of the Jewish people, a people my family was part of. These soldiers were seeking the liberation of Europe, walking uphill into gunshots, while my Granddad was collecting the bodies of their brothers gunned down in the Marshall Islands.
I am simultaneously a product of European Jewry and American immigration. I chose to come to France, to stay here, to live freely as a young, Jewish woman in Europe. The men buried in that cemetery did not. They will never return home. Even in death, their bodies remain in France, despite their resting place being considered American soil. Walking those beaches in Normandy was a sort of generational catharsis, a way of acknowledging the atrocities and sacrifices faced by both of my heritages — the American soldiers who fought for Europe’s liberation and the European Jewry whose resilience remained strong throughout their perish or survival. I had never before properly grieved the intimate intertwining of these two groups, of my entire ancestry colliding in one symbolic location.
Stepping back onto the bus, I felt light, almost as if I was floating. My head was pounding from the incessant tears and wet sand was caked onto my shoes, but through all the pain there was a sliver of tranquility. No one spoke on the drive back. Yet the silence did not cling like a dark cloud threatening a downpour, but rather lay gently, like an ethereal blanket of soft, sturdy, hands resting atop our shoulders and guiding us forever forward. PJC
Dionna Dash, originally from Philadelphia, attends the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies communications and linguistics and is a student leader at Hillel JUC.