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‘Welcome to our liberators.’ In Normandy, history isn’t in the past

Generations after World War II, this window in the Normandy village of Arromanches in June 2016 remembers D-Day.
Generations after World War II, this window in the Normandy village of Arromanches in June 2016 remembers D-Day. bmanny@idahostatesman.com

A walk in Normandy a year ago taught me a lesson about history and memory and perspective.

In the village of Arromanches, where Brits and the Canadians came ashore on D-Day not far from the American Utah and Omaha beachheads, the Allies’ sacrifices are remembered with a crowded town festival and music, food and a triathlon. Signs in the window say “Thank you” and “Welcome to our liberators.”

Villagers drive lovingly restored Jeeps and play shiny 1940s radios. A surprising number of men dress as British or American soldiers, and women in period clothes look like the Andrews Sisters.

There are war memorials at the center of every village I’ve visited in my modest European travels. But the anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1944, is remembered and celebrated in Normandy with such passion and enthusiasm that it took this hapless tourist by complete surprise.

D-Day and World War II aren’t chapters in forgotten textbooks, but the essence of the town’s existence.

Our visit ended with a stop at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. It overlooks Omaha Beach, and 9,387 American military dead are buried there.

To walk the solemn rows of white crosses and Stars of David is to be humbled, recognizing how truly small is our ability to add or detract to the enormity of June 1944.

The American and Allied sacrifices of World War II's D-Day are somberly honored and remembered at the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

When Taps played, I was comforted that these servicemen and women are yet remembered and honored and appreciated, more than 70 years on. We visited with a group of local residents who take it upon themselves to maintain some of the graves. They keep their history in their hands.

In our own times, we find ourselves divided and angry, ready to take umbrage at slights real and perceived. We have real divisions and real problems, and real frustrations at our inability to come together as a country. Yet, there was a time when the nations of the world had to fight for freedom itself, and found a way to unite to do the right thing at a cost untold and a sacrifice nearly unimaginable. That’s worth remembering and celebrating, everywhere, every year.

Bill Manny: 208-377-6406, @whmanny

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