Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

The Bloody Beaches of Normandy

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Normandy 291 The Normandy coast of France is so beautiful that, even if it hadn’t played a unique role in the world’s history, it would be worth visiting.  The countryside is so idyllic, spotted with gorgeous historic chateaus, beautiful pastures, lovely meadows, and stunning beaches.  We spent three days exploring this area, and had a great time at our last stay in continental Europe.

Normandy 098 The beaches of Normandy lie about 150 kilometers from the southwest coast of England, in a sparsely populated area of France marked by a few small villages and the important town of Cherbourg.  This area is about 200 km. of Calais, which is where the Germans assumed the Allied invasion would land.  The beaches are generally flat and wide, often abutting steep cliffs of moderate height (10-50 meters). 

Normandy 103 We walked the beaches that the Allied forces code-named Utah, Omaha, and Gold — names that will live forever.   Each has lots of resources explaining its role in the Normandy Invasion, including some informative museums, statutes, and plaques.  But the highlight is just walking along the beach and imagining what it must have been like to land there on the morning of June 6th, 1944, and making your way through landmines, enemy fire, barbed wire, and every conceivable obstacle slowing your advance.

Normandy 039 The U.S. troops landed on Utah and Omaha, the British on Gold and Sword, and the Canadians on Juno.  Losses were quite asymmetric.   For instance, the U.S. lost just 197 troops at Utah, while losses at Omaha totaled some 3,000. Canadian forces lost some 500 troops, and the British lost over 2,500 soldiers on that fateful day. 

Normandy 025 At Utah, losses were contained by two factors.  The pre-landing bombing at Utah was very effective, largely immobilizing the German line of defense.  And high winds and a strong northerly tide resulted in the landing at Utah ending up a mile or so to the north of the target location, which — fortunately — proved to be a safer spot.  At Omaha, in contrast, the pre-landing bombing inflicted more damage in inland villages than on the German forces positioned on the coast, and casualties were high.

Normandy 187 We also visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which is a place every American should visit.  It underscores the debt of gratitude we owe to our military, who willingly sacrifice lives to protect the free world.  There are almost 10,000 graves at this location, and it’s hard to walk the grounds without being moved.  

Normandy 043 What also struck me about our time in Normandy was the nature of the military effort behind D-Day.  The level of planning was exceptional.  The Allies had to keep their plans secret, and actively worked to reinforce the German’s view that the landing target would be Calais.  The future of the free world hinged on holding this secret, held to some degree, by more than a million people.  And the military commanders understood the importance of invading with an overwhelming show of force.  In a relatively short period of time, more than 1,000,000 Allied troops landed or parachuted into the Normandy coast area, enabling them to drive out the Germans and establish a strategic position that proved pivotal to re-taking Europe and defeating Hitler.

Normandy 189 As a citizen of the U.S. in 2008, it was impossible to walk the beaches of Normandy without contrasting D-Day to the Iraq invasion.  D-Day was planned by military experts, many of whom were on the line and lost their lives as Normandy was taken, including Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (gravestone at right).  The Iraq invasion was planned by arrogant bureaucrats like Donald Rumsfeld, who had no  personal exposure to the dangers, but rammed an ill-conceived strategy down the throats of the military leadership.  Normandy was about protecting the interests of the free world, while Iraq is about a set of lies propagated by the Bush Administration to justify a war that should never have been waged.  Normandy preserved the life and freedom we love.  Iraq jeopardizes the future of our country and the world.  The differences couldn’t be more stark.

Click here to see our photos of Normandy.

London’s War Museums

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

London 160 In London, we took in two different museums that are part of London’s Imperial War Museum complex.  The first was the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms Museum, located at the bunker compound used by Winston Churchill and the top British military during World War II.  And the second was the main Imperial War Museum complex (photo above).  Both played important roles in our tour through Europe’s World War II history.

Winston Churchill wrote a six volume history of World War II.  You’d have to be highly motivated to learn more about that period to take on these works, but an afternoon at the Churchill Museum provides just the motivation for learning more about such an important person in history.

The Churchill Museum provides full background on Churchill’s fascinating life.  He was head of the British Navy in World War I, and failed so miserably in this role that he was removed from his duties.  He scraped and clawed his way to some level of political redemption afterward, and then in the 1930′s was the British politician most consistently pointing to the dangers posed by Hitler.  As Hitler’s power rose, Churchill’s credibility soared.

London 171 As Hitler’s empire expanded and Germany conquered Poland, Britain declared War on Germany.  Churchill again ran Britain’s Navy, and the first major World War II naval encounter was another major British disaster, but the blame was allotted to then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.  Chamberlain resigned, no other leader was willing to step up, and Churchill became Britain’s new Prime Minister.  He worked round the clock on the war campaign, provided leadership around the globe for the free world, and developed close working relationships with U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. 

Did Churchill’s effective leadership solidify his political standing in England?  Hardly.  In 1945, he was defeated in an election for Prime Minister, a defeat hardly in keeping with his contributions to save the free world.  He retreated from the political limelight, but re-emerged over time as a powerful voice throughout the world.

As we walked the halls of Britain’s World War II bunker compound, it was quite clear the sacrifice made by everyone in England during World War II.  The top military commanders worked round the clock and were often in harms way.  Churchill himself demanded to be part of D-Day’s landing brigade but was over-ruled by others.  And the English population, exposed to daily bombing raids, fought valiantly across the board, with deep sacrifices.

London 163 We saw a great exhibit at the Imperial War Museum called “The Children’s War” which described the impact of World War II on the children of England.  Some 7,700 children are estimated to have been killed during the war, a similar amount seriously wounded, and about 1,000,000 children in total were relocated from London and coastal areas to safer locations — ranging from Britain’s countryside to other countries.  These childrenLondon 166 were parted from their families for periods of years to lifetimes.  And some enlisted in the British military at ages as young as fourteen.  As we stood taking this in, with our almost-twelve year old boy and ten-year old girl by our side, we could only be thankful that they’ve not been exposed to such wartime horrors, and pray that they never are.

And the Imperial War Museum has a very powerful display on the Holocaust.  We had already walked the grounds of Auschwitz, so seeing the very powerful photographs and short documentary films at the War Museum was all the more moving for us.  They featured interviews of several Auschwitz survivors, as well as some of the only surviving photographs of daily life in Auschwitz. 

The Auschwitz exhibit at the Imperial War Museum was our last activity, apart from normal trip logistics, of our ten-month journey around the world.  I’m sure some would question the appropriateness of exposing our children to the horrors of Auschwitz and, at the very least, ending our fabulous trip on this note.  The museum at Auschwitz doesn’t recommend children under 14 as visitors, for example.  But our objective in this trip wasn’t to entertain ourselves, but to educate ourselves.  And we want our children to understand the full range of experiences the world has to offer, from the sublime to the horrific.  And, most of all, we hope they, we, and all readers, will understand that certain things are so consequential, so precious, so fleeting that they are indeed worth fighting for, even dying for.

Diary of a Young Girl

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Brussels 120 As part of our exploration of sites in Europe related to World War II, we visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, after each of us had read books relating to her life.  No photos were allowed inside the house, so I can’t offer much of note photographically.  And, Anne’s father Otto desired that no furniture be left in the house as it transitioned to a museum, so there wasn’t much to photograph in each room.

Somewhat incredibly, I had never read Anne Frank’s diary before our trip.  This book, I believe, should be mandatory for all high school students.  It’s such a powerful story, with the innocence and life joy of young Anne (she wrote this when she was 13-15 years old), and the devastating and sad conclusion of her life.  As the Allies mounted successful initiatives in Europe, and as the German choke grip was beginning to loosen, someone betrayed the Frank family, and they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.  Anne’s diary stops two days before being captured, and the specifics of her life after that aren’t known in fine detail.  But she, her sister Margot, and her mother died in Auschwitz within weeks of the liberation of prisoners there.  Her father was the only family survivor and went on to live to reach age 91.

In reading the diary, it was clear that young Anne had only a limited understanding of the consequences of being arrested.  She knew the occupying Germans were evil, and that many friends and relatives were being arrested and deported.  But there is no sign that she understood the horrors awaiting anyone who was arrested.  It’s possible the adults in the Frank house had a clearer understanding, but my guess from Anne’s description of household operations is that they were also unaware of the certain death awaiting anyone arrested by the Nazis. 

Many things were imprinted on my from reading Anne Frank’s diary, and visiting the house and museum in Amsterdam.  Among them is the urgency of taking action.  Had Anne Frank survived just one month longer, she might well be alive today.  Had the Allies not turned the tide on the Germans when they did, many more would have died.  Sometimes matters of life and death are exactly that.

How?

Monday, June 16th, 2008

On a day when the clouds cried tears, we visited Auschwitz and asked ourselves, over and over, “How?”  “How could something like this ever happen?” 

Auschwitz 056 We flew into Krakow from Vienna, and drove about an hour through simple, yet scenic, Poland to reach the town of Oswiecim, which is German is “Auschwitz.”  This area was an agricultural village in Poland, with a largely Jewish population in the 1930′s  The Germans, though, chose it as the location of their largest, and unspeakably evil, concentration camp and extermination center.

Auschwitz 064 The camp was opened by the Nazis in early 1940, and operated for five years before the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  There were three large camps in this area, and a large number of smaller satellite camps.  No one will ever know the precise number of people killed, and estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 4 million.  When Rudolf Hoess, the supreme commandant of Auschwitz, testified, his own estimate was that some 2.5 million people were killed during this period.

Auschwitz 010-1 Auschwitz I is the starting point for seeing the Auschwitz site, and its gate is marked with the saying “Arbeit Macht Free” (or, “Work makes one free”).   From what we learned, there was no shortage of work for those who survived the initial screen and weren’t sent immediately to the gas chambers.  But the Germans did all they could to ensure that no one entering Auschwitz was ever set free. 

Auschwitz 054 The German practices were barbaric.  They rounded up people throughout Europe, some 90% of whom were Jewish.  The others were political prisoners, gypsies (other non-Aryan races), Communists, homosexuals, and disabled.  These prisoners were told they were being relocated to Poland and told to bring their most important portable possessions.  On the day of deportation, they were packed into boxcars, the door was locked, and they were transported anywhere from hours to days in horrific conditions to Auschwitz (or other camps).   Communications in the 1940′s were such that word rarely reached beyond the concentration camps that the deportation was a death sentence, not a new home.

Auschwitz 032 Upon arrival at the train drop-off at Auschwitz, prisoners were rapidly sorted into two groups.  About 75% of the prisoners were judged as not being able to do hard labor (any children, older men and women, weak or sick, etc.), and these people were told to leave their possessions, and prepare to take showers.  The “showers” of course were gas chambers, and thousands of people were immediately put to death upon arrival at Auschwitz.  Afterward, the Nazis would send the possessions back to the homeland, including cutting off all of the hair from the murdered prisoners and pulling out teeth to get any metallic fillings.

Auschwitz 053 The remaining 25% may actually have been less fortunate.  In many cases, they were separated from their other family members, issued prison clothing, assigned to a barracks, and literally worked to death over a matter of months.  A few of these prisoners (especially those of German descent) were selected to guard the prisoners, knowing that any failure to be as ruthless or despicable as a Nazi guard would result in immediate death. 

Auschwitz 024 Over the course of the five years, there were a tiny number of escapes.  But the Nazis had vicious ways to deal with an escapee.  Generally, they would find and condemn family members of any escapee to the Auschwitz camps.  And they would take several cohorts of an escapee and punish them brutally after any attempt.   Actions included death by firing squad (above), time spent crammed into a tiny standing chamber with other prisoners and starved or suffocated, or having hands tied behind one’s back and being hung up by the hands for days on end (breaking both shoulders and inflicting intense pain on the prisoner before death).

Auschwitz 041 We spent four hours at Auschwitz, which seemed like four months.  We saw the horrible barracks that housed the prisoners.  We saw the “showers” where prisoners were exterminated.  We saw the ovens used to cremate the remains of the murdered.  Most difficult to see, though, were the displays of personal belongings of these victims — eyeglasses, shoes, artificial limbs, combs, and children’s clothes and toys.  Almost all of these possessions had already been shipped back to the homeland at the time of Auschwitz’s liberation.  But the very tail-end of what remained was enough to make quite vivid the scope and scale of the horrors of Auschwitz.  I’m not one to cry, but seeing a broken child’s doll, along with pictures of the many, many families and young children being murdered at Auschwitz was emotionally devastating.

Years ago, Elizabeth and I sat spellbound through a lecture given by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, a professor of Stanford’s Psychology Department.  The topic was “How to make good people do evil things.”  Over several decades of research, he’s explored how it’s possible that good people can be led to act in hideously evil ways, and the Holocaust is perhaps civilization’s most egregious example.  Zimbardo talked about the many times in history that leaders took quite similar actions to enlist others in their evil cause — indoctrinate children at the youngest ages, emphasize repeatedly the threat posed by the enemy, de-personalize the enemy by continuously depicting them with frightening racial or ethnic stereotypes, hard again and again on the importance of patriotism to defend your homeland’s innocent, and count on the fact that few people will exercise independent judgment in the face of such propaganda. 

Auschwitz 029 We saw Auschwitz first-hand, and began to develop some understanding of the atrocities committed there.  We developed a better understanding of just what kind of forces the free world was opposing in the 1940′s.  And we could begin to imagine the horror that people are capable of inflicting on innocent others.  None of us will ever forget our visit to Auschwitz, and what remains today from civilization’s lowest point.  And we saw the gallows used to hang Commandant Hoess after he was convicted of heinous war crimes (photo above), aware that no punishment on earth could begin to atone for the evil actions of people like Hoess and his accomplices.

Click here for our Auschwitz photos.

The Greatest Generation

Monday, June 16th, 2008

A book that should be must reading for every teenage and adult American is Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.  The book consists of a series of brief (2-5 page) vignettes from different people representing elements of our Greatest Generation.  And it’s an inspiring story.

The book draws on concise personal histories of those who fought in World War II, those who helped at home in the war effort, and those who made major contributions to re-building the U.S. and Europe after the war.  Some of these people are famous, and some are quite anonymous.  But each, in his or her own way, helped America stand up to the very real threat to world peace posed by Hitler and the Axis nations, or helped the world re-build after the devastation wrought be World War II.

At the conclusion of this book, I couldn’t help but agree with Brokaw’s rationale for calling this generation of Americans our “greatest” generation.  My experience with U.S. involvement in wars has been limited to two bankrupt and ill-conceived initiatives — Vietnam and Iraq.  Neither made a shred of sense, cost us many lives, tore our nation apart, and cost our government, to a large measure, the trust of its own people and peoples around the world. 

But World War II was different.  The dangers posed to the free world by Germany and Japan were immense, and their atrocities were beyond words.  The U.S., after being bombed by the Japanese, entered the war and U.S. citizens willingly sacrificed in every conceivable way, and some 418,000 people from the U.S. gave their lives to protect the free world, in a war which resulted in the death of almost 73 million people

If you haven’t read The Greatest Generation, go out and buy it today.  You’ll read it in a short period of time, and won’t want to put it down.  But this “greatest” generation stands in stark contrast to today’s, when we pick foolish wars to waste lives on, and where almost no one is willing to sacrifice in the face of challenges — global warming, energy, the divide between the rich and the poor — that threaten the future of the entire world.

The Glorious Cities, Part II

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Paris 071 After my earlier post on London, Brussels and Amsterdam, we finished our tour of some of the world’s most glorious cities with visits to Vienna, Austria, and Paris France.  We’ve loved each of these great cities, but I have a special fondness in my heart for one in particular.  What’s your favorite?

Vienna 008 I’d always wanted to visit Vienna.  Few of my friends know it, but I grew up in Vienna.  Vienna, Virginia.  So I’ve had a long history of telling friends that I was going to Vienna on a trip, and having them say, “Oh, I love Vienna,” and then explaining, “Not that Vienna.”  But with a long association with Vienna, one of my life goals was to visit Vienna, Austria, and we spent an action-packed day there.

Vienna 067 To go through Vienna is to be immersed in its long history with the arts, especially great music.  Vienna has been the home of some of the greatest composers we’ve ever been blessed with — Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert, Liszt, and many others.  You can hardly walk a block or two in Vienna without a reminder of this rich cultural legacy.

Vienna 081 While in Vienna, we did a lot of walking, went to a few great museums, including a great Impressionist exhibit at the Albertina, and a fascinating tour through the Royal Palace, learning all about Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth.  Vienna is a very walkable city, and we spent much of our time just strolling  through some sections with great architecture and beautiful parks.  We Vienna 013also took Vienna’s “…Hop on, …Hop off” bus tour of the city, which was a bit less than advertised.  We hopped on, then found ourselves waiting for fifteen minutes for one extra passenger to hop on ( :-( ), and crept through the traffic of Vienna on this bus.  Our walking tour definitely beat out this bus tour, but we did see a few extra sites.  And on our way out of town, we drove by OPEC’s European headquarters.  When we got to the airport, we could see the influence OPEC has, since a large number of flights from Vienna were running directly to Middle Eastern cities in oil-rich nations.

Paris 070 We then went to Paris.  Over dinner, we had a debate (on-going for our family) about Paris, and comparisons between Paris and other cities.  My opinion is that Paris is the world’s most beautiful city, bar none.  I’ve yet to persuade other family members, though, who all really like Paris,  but have other cities that are their favorites.  But after another stay in Paris, including a glorious early-morning walk that I took before others woke up, I remain as convinced as ever.  Paris is just exceptionally gorgeous.

Paris 005 We took in one of our favorite museums in the world, the Musee Marmottan Monet.   The museum exhibits many works of Money, along with a few other impressionists, including some great Renoirs.  It’s in a fabulous neighborhood of Paris in a beautiful ancient home, and a great way to see some of the world’s great works of art.  And, it was great preparation for our visit the next day to Monet’s country home in Giverny, home of the lily-pad ponds and flowers that were recurring themes in Monet’s works.

Paris 001 Our visit to Paris was just shortly before George W. Bush’s last visit to France as President of the U.S., and we stayed at a great hotel (Hotel de Crillon) right next to the U.S. Embassy (photo on left).  Security was tight everywhere, and the morning we left we had to hike a ways to get to a street with any taxis, since the  street in front of our hotel was close.  Sadly, we have found people all over the world, but especially in Europe, who are every bit as Paris 090negative about George W. as most Americans are.  He really has embarrassed and disgraced our country throughout the world, combining that deadly combination of arrogance with incompetence.  I suspect that our next visit to these great cities of Europe will be improved as the U.S. upgrades its Presidency.

Paris 192 On our way out of Paris (about an hour drive), we stopped at Monet’s house at Giverny, site of many of his famous paintings.  We walked through the gardens there, which were beautiful but very crowded.  And we spent a brief amount of time in the house Monet lived in there, which was non-descript.  There’s a small museum on the grounds, which had a great exhibit of called “Portrait Paris 010 of a Lady,” including some great Sargent’s.  We could only imagine what this area would have been like for Monet, when he was there by himself instead of with hundreds of tourists.  But it was great to see what inspired Monet to paint so many great works.  I’m not a big botanist, but the flowers of Giverny, and the grounds, were worth taking in.

We’d love to get your comments on the world’s most beautiful cities.  You’ve heard my vote — Paris!  But I didn’t carry the day even in my own family, so I’ll welcome hearing from others!!

The Glorious Cities, Part I

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

London 041 We’re concluding our trip with a fabulous couple of weeks in Europe.  We’ve spent several days in London, an amazing city that we could go back to over and over.  From there, we spent a weekend in Brussels with close friends from Boston who now live there.  We then went to Amsterdam and are now in Vienna.

London 005 In London, we didn’t do a lot of the standard tourist activities, many of which we’ve done in the past.  But we did take in a performance of “Lion King,” which seemed quite appropriate after our time in Africa.  Having seen all of the animals many times in the wild, it was fun to see how they were presented in the musical. 

London 122 We generally just hung out in London, had some great family time, and took in a couple of things we really wanted to see.  We celebrated Sterling’s tenth birthday, and Elizabeth and I marveled that we now have no children in ‘single digits.”  We spent an afternoon in Kew Gardens, lots of fun time in Hyde Park, the London Eye, and lots of walking around and just casually exploring this great city.  The kids went to Hambley’s, a great toy store, frequently, and bought some remote-control helicopters that performed better in the store than at the hotel.  As Sterling said at one point, “Daddy, my helicopter has gone completely mad!” 

Brussels 068 We took the train from London to Brussels, which was remarkably easy to do.  The trip lasts less than two hours, and goes through the Chunnel.  At one point, Elizabeth asked one of the people who works on the train if he could tell us when we were about to go through the tunnel.  His answer was, “We just did!”  Trains in Europe put those in the U.S. to shame, and are a great form of transportation.

Brussels 028 The highlight of our time in Brussels was our chance to get together with our very close friends from Boston, Sydney Loughran and Andreas Wolf, and their two very-cute children.  During our trip, we’ve had precious little time to spend with friends, so seeing them was like finding an oasis in a very large desert! 

Brussels 083 They have a terrific situation in Brussels, living in a great house that abuts a club with soccer fields and tennis courts.  And their neighborhood is gorgeous, with a nearby park and a great Sunday morning market.  It was so interesting to see a broad set of vendors come to the neighborhood with their wares, and see the entire “commune” (they call ‘communities’ in Brussels ‘communes’) buy many of their week’s supplies there, and catch up with each other.  Vendors sold an impressive set of things at the market — beautiful fresh produce and fish, rotisserie chicken, clothes, toys, art work, kitchen supplies, you name it!  It was a great opportunity for us to experience life in a very cosmopolitan European city.

Brussels 019 We did get a bit of rain in Brussels, which has been most unusual on our trip.  But it didn’t really slow us down, and saved us from having to use sun screen :-) .  Oddly, Brussels gets almost no snow, but a fair amount of rain annually.  And it was beautiful blue sky on our last day there.  It’s a great walking city, and so interesting to see so many gorgeous older buildings.

Brussels 247 From Brussels, we took an easy train ride to Amsterdam, and spent a couple of nights there.  Amsterdam is a city of canals, and we took a great boat ride throughout the city.  We also went to the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum.  The works at these places are terrific.  But I was in Amsterdam some twenty-five  years ago, and I remember quite clearly walking through the Van Gogh Brussels 143Museum (but in a different building) that was almost deserted.  Admittedly, I was in Amsterdam on a cold winter weekday, but these museums are now quite “discovered,” as the quality of their works would indicate.  Still, in one beautiful sunny day, we could take in great works of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other great Dutch painters.

Brussels 015 One very noteworthy observation about European cities.  There are almost no big cars here.  Maybe one in a hundred.  Maybe less.  Funny how a long-time gas tax will shift vehicle purchases away from gas-guzzling SUV’s (and worse!) to small, fuel-efficient cars.  It was so interesting to see lots of heavily-used public transportation, downtowns with relatively few cars (almost none in Amsterdam, for instance), and an automobile capital stock with almost no inefficient guzzlers.  Too bad we couldn’t have figured this out in the U.S. three decades ago!

I’ll save my reports on a couple of other things we saw in these cities (the Winston Churchill International War Museum, and the Anne Frank House) for a later post.  And I’ll continue with my “Great Cities” post when I report on Vienna and Paris in a couple of days.  But I have gotten some photos up from London, Brussels, and Amsterdam.