It’s a lovely scene; my daughter Libbi and I have an hour before getting on the ferry, so we take Mitzpah our dog down to the sea. The broad sands are almost empty of people. At the western edge of the bay the sun descends slowly towards the water, turning the sky into limpid bands of pink and blue. We search for sticks and throw them into the waves from which Mitzpah eagerly retrieves them. From time to time he runs back up onto the sand, shakes himself thoroughly over one of us and looks up quizzically as if to say, ‘Why haven’t you thrown me my next stick yet?’ It’s a lovely scene.
It’s also strange and haunting. This is Sword Beach in Normandy, the easternmost beach of the D-Day assault, and one of the two long stretches assigned to the British to capture under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery, with the hopeful objective of taking the city of Caen that very same day. It’s the point closest to Pegasus Bridge over the River Orne and the adjacent canal, which British airborne troops seized before dawn that June 6th, 1944, to prevent the Nazis from bringing up reinforcements. Here, on this deep stretch of sand with no shelter or cover, and which was attacked at low tide so that the mined beach obstacles placed there by the Germans could be avoided by the vulnerable landing craft, many, many died.
Earlier that day Rabbi Rafi Kaiserbluth and I guided groups from Noam (lovely young people, beautifully led camp) around the bluffs above Omaha Beach, the most bitterly fought over of all. We looked at the memorial to the courage of the American troops and the huge cemetery with its even rows of white marble crosses interrupted by many Magen Davids. We later wandered among the war graves in the British cemetery in Bayeux, where Polish, French, Soviet and Czech soldiers are also buried, as well, remarkably, as soldiers of the Wehrmacht, all together in death. Then we talked.
– ‘I was very struck by one of the inscriptions which said, ‘He died so that we might live’.
– ‘How is it that even the graves of the unnamed soldiers have a cross and say ‘Known unto God’ when this war and the Holocaust must have shattered so many peoples’ faith?’
Later Libbi and I also visited the Canadian war cemetery, above Juno Beach. We found a grave with a Magen David beneath which was written, ‘He died so that Jewry should suffer no more’.
Was it wrong, we wondered, that people should now be enjoying these beaches? ‘No’, answered one of the group; ‘they did it so that people could be free’. I agree, so long as we are mindful and remember. For the truth is that they did die so that we can live. Numerous, far too numerous, others in Israel and many further places have died similarly since.
Libbi and I throw the stick one more time for Mitzpah, and consider: we must dedicate our lives.