27 July 2014

I ask myself...

Self, in the year 2014, sixty-nine years after the end of world war two, at age 69, should I be driving a new German Porsche through Alsace? Should I be visiting, say, Colmar, one of “Europe’s Most Beautiful Villages”?

Bearing German licence plates and registration, no less.

The destruction of the first world war no longer attaches to living memories. Most participants in the second world war are no longer among us. It’s their grandsons and daughters we’ll be talking with, ordering food from, asking directions. No hard feelings.

"Everywhere we searched we found bodies, floating in the rivers, trampled on the roads, bloated in the ditches, rotting in the bunkers, pretzeled into foxholes, burned in the tanks, buried in the snow, sprawled in doorways, splattered in gutters, dismembered in minefields, and even literally blown up into trees." (GI quoted in The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson)

Towns have been rebuilt and uniforms buried. One might imagine the reality of war never existed here. How does one NOT think of the Colmar pocket where three weeks of infantry advance in early 1945 cost 20,000 Franco-American casualties and more than 22,000 Germans killed or missing?

“Pulverizing the Reich from above now intensified with a fury no nation had ever endured,” Atkinson writes. 

German prisoner Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut wrote his parents from Dresden:

“We were put to work carrying corpses from air raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”

My first time visiting France and Germany and Italy was during the spring and summer of 1963. I hitchhiked through pretty much every Western European country. In all those places the signs of world war had already disappeared. I imagined I could see bullet holes on the sides of churches and wondered what had once existed in one vacant lot or another; but in fact a miraculous reconstruction had already completed. Eighteen years after the war fields were full of ripening wheat, orchards burst forth in bloom everywhere, the dead were long buried and towns completely rebuilt.

Germans I met were friends with everyone, very much including young Americans.

Italian children shouted “Tedesco! Tedesco!” from pedestrian overpasses and were overjoyed when we shouted back “Americano!” “Canadese!” ... They remembered what their parents had told them about the dark days of German occupation and postwar starvation.

They call it “cucina povera” for a reason, after all.

So who the hell am I to ponder the morality of parading my German car through the streets of France? Is my ego so inflated? Could it seriously matter to anyone but me?

An insistent voice reminds me it all happened a very long time ago but it is not OK to forget.

Perhaps it is exactly the right thing – to cross borders without passports, to buy German, spend French, speak Italian, and be American. Perhaps after all, the best revenge is a happy life.

My father, a second generation Catholic from Bohemia, survived the invasions of north Africa and Sicily, returning home in time to create me in 1944/5. He hated the war and didn’t want to talk about it.

My mother, a second generation Jew from western Russia, would never buy or ride in a Volkswagen, no matter how popular and hip the Beatle became. Was she right to remember?

Am I right to forget?

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