Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Second Liberation

Erik commented on this article in an essay and that made me think I might I should translate it.

LE MONDE | 06.05.04 | 13h52

Sixty years after the allied landing in Normandy, buried memories are resurfacing. At gatherings in town halls, some witnesses are telling their stories for the first time.

"From August 19 on, it was the apocalypse. Seven of us had taken refuge in a room of three by five meters. We couldn't go out for three days. We had nothing to eat, just a pitcher of water to drink. The noise was continuous. At one point, we were no longer afraid. We went into a kind of unconsciousness. It was a stupefaction of our entire beings. In the night of August 21 to 22, the noise died down over five to ten minutes. Then we got out, dirty, haggard. We couldn't get over being alive. The German who had hidden with us began to cry. Outside, it was a slaughter. Thousands of corpses of German soldiers and horses were rotting, swelling. And then I saw a dead man who was holding photos of his three children. One of them must have been my age, 14..."

Jean-Pierre Philippe falters and collapses in tears. In the party room at Chambois (Orne), too small for the 350 people who struggled to fit inside in the evening of Wednesday April 27 April, the silence is broken only by sniffling, clearing throats and the nervous tapping of shoes. Sixty years have passed, nearly a life. But among these white-haired witnesses, currents of images arise again with no apparent order, the anecdote alongside the drama, equals. The taste of chewing gum, fruit pastes, chocolate mix with those of blood and the dust of ruines, the smell of the first Virginia cigarettes with that of putrefying corpses.

A second man arises, mechanically: "Onfray Gaston, age 23 in 1944. Stop me if I go on too long..." He begins his tale, garbled, like a stampede, "We saw a tank with a star. So we cheered the Americans. They were Poles. There'd been a slaughter," he said. "It was we who removed the bodies. We threw the horses in a ditch. We dumped the Germans onto a metal sheet drawn by a horse and we put them where there was a hole. Six months later, a black juice was still came out of the ground. Civilians came to gather material, verging on looting. They cut off fingers to take wedding rings. They tore out gold teeth. It was unspeakable to do that, even if they were enemies." A couple more words stammered, a hesitation. "There. I'm done."

Chambois is the last and one of the worst episodes of the battle of Normandy, begun two and a half months earlier, June 6, 1944. In what was dubbed the "death corridor," a nine kilometer-wide gully, 5,000 to 10,000 Germans — it is still not known precisely how many — were killed, 50,000 were taken prisoner as they tried to flee the allied pincer. With flawless arrows, historical maps show the troop movements. But witness accounts tell of wandering, acts without rhyme or reason, lives shaken, toyed with by the maelstrom, civilians and soldiers maddened by the rage of battle.

Another ten people would speak that evening. The town of Chambois was chosen for one of the 25 events held since January 13 by the Caen Memorial, [radio station] France Bleu Basse-Normandie, and [newspaper] Ouest France. The last event was supposed to take place on May 6 in Caen. More than 10,000 people have attended these meetings, and, as was the case in Falaise, people sometimes had to be turned away. "We tried something similar for the fiftieth anniversary but with less success," says François Michaux, editorial director of France Bleu Basse-Normandie. "People really want to confide in each other and to listen. They feel it is surely the last time they'll get the chance."
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