Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Irretrievable Losses of World War II

The large number of medieval fortresses above Alsace's Route des Vins remind us of how long this area has been of great military importance. The Rhine and its valley are still, centuries later, an important trade route. And this part of France is the western edge of the Rhine's natural defense against invasion. Up and down the river on the French side lie remnants of the Maginot Line. The Rhine's banks today convey commerce and peace.

In the Second World War, the area around Colmar saw horrific fighting, as the German Army tried to hold onto Alsace and the Allied forces tried to free all of France. This battle, called the Colmar Pocket, took place in the bitter cold of January and February, 1945 in the area surrounding the city of Colmar, from the Vosges mountains to the Rhine.

It was in this conflict that Audie Murphy showed the courage for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Many of his fellows did not survive the fighting: 8,000 Americans, 13,000 French, and at least 22,000 German soldiers lost their lives. The chain of cemeteries--American, French and German--from the First World War was sadly expanded with new cemeteries to accommodate the fallen from the Second World War.

On a hill above Segolsheim, a village on the Route des Vins, sits a military cemetery for some of the French casualties of the Colmar Pocket.

Some of the most experienced of the Allied forces were colonial divisions of the French Army from Morocco and Algeria. The distinctive headstones of the Muslim soldiers lie in separate areas from the Christian and Jewish soldiers.

The cemetery sobers you as you walk quietly among the headstones. You read the names of the soldiers, all mort pour la France and for us.

The American forces played a central part in the Allied victory in the Colmar Pocket. At the Segolsheim cemetery, a monument expresses the thanks of the French forces for the American forces who helped liberate Alsace.

The war monuments of many of the villages and cities of Alsace, such as here in Turckheim, express joint thanks to French and American soldiers for their liberation.

The constellation of military cemeteries across Alsace and Lorraine reminds us, through the presence of the dead, of the high magnitude and personal nature of the loss of life. However, the Nazi state, which these fallen Allied soldiers died fighting, changed Alsace and Lorraine irretrievably by wiping out an entire civilization of rural French Judaism. Jews had lived in this countryside for many hundreds of years. Before 1940, this region had the largest Jewish community in France; in some villages a third of the population was Jewish. Many villages had synagogues, some of which were large and ornate.

After the war, after the deportations and the death camps, the Jews of these villages were gone. Very few of the village synagogues are now active. Most are mothballed, repurposed, or vanished. Susie and I saw that one synagogue, its arcaded windows filled in, is now a movie theater. Another, in Soultz, is being converted to apartments; the red sandstone columns of its original portico lie in the construction's rubble.

The absence of the Jews of the villages of Alsace is something you notice only if you look for it. Even if some of the synagogues are preserved, even if the old Jewish cemeteries are mostly still there, and even if there are monuments to the the dead, the entire world of rural Jewish life the synagogues supported was methodically destroyed. It's this irretrievable loss that is the hardest to perceive and to understand.

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