Saturday, May 1, 2010

World War II, Before and After, Below the Vosges

The rolling landscape west of the Vosges du Nord contains hard reminders of the tragedy of World War II, both from before the war and in its aftermath. As you drive the back roads, you encounter the earthen and concrete ruins of the Maginot Line, France's defensive system from the inter-war period. Some of the fortifications, like at Simserhof, are large, complex, well-preserved, and have extensive guided tours. Others are individual bunkers or pillboxes, just lying there alongside the road. Susie and stopped to explore the small set of fortifications at Macheren.

One odd part of this defensive system was the Ligne Maginot Aquatique, a complex of fortifications, dams, reservoirs, dikes and ponds designed to create floods that would bar invasion.

The Ligne Maginot Aquatique was part of the Sarre sector (as in Sarrebourg, Sarreguemines, ...); you can see it at the center of this map, numbered as sector 13, represented as an area of water. It covered the border between the well-defended areas around Metz and Lauter.

Along with the concrete structures, the remnants of the Maginot Line at Macheren include earthworks such as zig-zag ditches running between the bunkers. Macheren is at the west end of the recently designated Route de la Ligne Maginot Aquatique. The bunkers, so plainly for war, now contrast with the gentle countryside of the Moselle. At the start of World War II, though, this land was soaked in blood.

As odd as the strategy of the Ligne Maginot Aquatique seems to us now, it was precisely in the Sarre sector, 18 kilometers long, that French forces won their only battle against the German invasion. On June 14, 1940, these soldiers defeated the German army in an awful battle that ended with 700 French and 1200 Germans dead. June 14 was also the day that Paris fell to the Wehrmacht. The French resistance at the Ligne Maginot Aquatique had been successful but futile. The government of Marechal Petain signed the armistice of surrender on June 22.

The aftermath of the war I find even more sobering. French and German military cemeteries from World War I were already scattered across the countryside. The American dead of World War II from fighting in Alsace and Lorraine are buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery, just north of St-Avold. They were killed while driving German forces from Metz toward the Siegfried Line and the Rhine River. The American soldiers commemorated at the Bitche citadel would be buried here. More Americans servicemen and women lie here than even in Normandy; the final resting place for 10,489 Americans, the Lorraine American Cemetery is the largest American military cemetery of the Second World War.

The cemetery's memorial includes a ceramic mural depicting the fighting. I realized that Susie and I had visited many of the places on this map, some right around Metz, not knowing that they were battlefields.

The cemetery comforts in its serenity and calm but chills in its scope and finality. We were fortunate enough to talk with the cemetery's assistant superintendent, an American who clearly thinks deeply about the fallen with whose care he is entrusted.

The memorial, mostly quite simple, has a tall statue of Saint Avold over the door.

In the interior, you can see the maps of France and Alsace-Lorraine on the wall to the left. Toward the back wall are the tablets of the Ten Commandments and a cross on an altar. And above the altar are figures representing the eternal struggle for freedom. The central figure stands, I think, for the soldiers in the cemetery. And to his sides are religious and military heroes, of history and myth: King David, Emperor Constantine, King Arthur, George Washington.

Another aftermath of the war makes its self apparent, if more subtly, as you drive
through the region's villages: abandoned synagogues. Before the war, many of the villages had substantial Jewish populations. They built synagogues, often in the Moorish style then current, and often next to or across the street from city hall. Jewish life was, I gather, a regular part of village life. After the war, these Jewish communities had been destroyed, like most of their synagogues. Many people were deported and killed during the war, and after the war the survivors moved away or died.

In some cases, Jews in Lorraine villages rebuilt their synagogues. The synagogue in Foulquemont, destroyed by the Nazis, was rebuilt in 1962 in a contemporary style. But the community died out, and the synagogue was closed in 2005. It remains abandoned and unused.

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