D-Day, the invasion of northern France in 1944, was the most significant victory of the Western Allies in the Second World War. American, British and Canadian forces established a foothold on the shores of Normandy, and, after a protracted and costly campaign to reinforce their gains, broke out into the French interior and began a headlong advance. This battle campaign effectively broke the back of the German army. The Nazi war machine could not recover.
As a kid, I was fascinated by D-Day. I’d watch documentaries about it on tv. I’d take out my toy soldiers and my various vehicles – tanks, half-tracks, jeeps – and engage the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy. I didn’t know much about the war or the Holocaust, but I did know the Nazis were the bad guys and I dutifully hated them. I went to the movies and, at 9 years of age, saw The Longest Day, a dramatic retelling of the D-Day story with a star-studded cast, including Richard Burton and John Wayne. Afterwards I went to Brentanos in Hartford and bought the book.
A few decades later, in 1998, I went to see Saving Private Ryan, the Spielberg movie that begins with the D-Day invasion. I have to say that I’ve never been in combat and pray I never will. The first minutes of Private Ryan is as close as I ever want to be. It is a staggering statement on the madness and the terror of war. The surviving men who fought on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago are now in their 90s. They were no more than boys then, adolescents with everything to lose. Some have never, and will never talk about their experiences. Others have made it a mission in life to speak of often and everywhere, a la Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The story of D-Day has a special resonance for Jews. After all, the success of that Allied invasion led to the downfall of Hitler and the eventual liberation of the camps. Yet it is worth noting that saving Jews was never on the to do list of the US Armed Forces. Anti-Semitism would remain central to American foreign policy even as the nation stared down Nazi Germany. The United States entered the war in Europe, of course, but Roosevelt was shrewd enough to cast the move as fighting fascism on behalf of democracy. The war was about preserving American values, not saving European Jews.
The truth of deep anti-Semitism in America and its consequences is not something I was taught as a child. My devotion to WWII movies and toy soldiers was not sullied by the deeper truth. Not true anymore. I see around the edges of simplistic patriotism and nationalism. I recognize that we can never be seduced into forgetting our past and our struggles.
When the war ended, the world did not line up to profess mea culpa. But Americans came to understand the suffering of the Jewish people in a new context. In the decades that followed, we broke through walls and crashed through glass ceilings. We’ve worked hard to achieve our particular status in the USA. But we can’t take it for granted. We don’t need to search under every rock for hidden antisemites. We do need to be grateful and alert.
And so today I want to express my gratitude for the 156,000 Allied troops who fought on D-Day. Without their sacrifices, even more Jewish people would have been viciously beaten, starved, and gassed. As the last veterans die over the next decade, we cannot forget that Holocaust survivors are decreasing in number every day. As we praise the efforts of the Allies and hear their stories, we cannot ever forget that we inherit the obligation to tell the stories of our ancestors, those men, women and children, ignored by the world and left to die. Not only must we say never again regarding our vulnerability, so too must we sign on for a world where no humans are devalued and left to fend for themselves against the vicious storm of hatred.