Foreign Language and History--Middle School--Sondra Maniatis
Clark-Shaw Magnet School/Mobile County Schools
Me standing at the entrance to the Jean Moulin Museum in Paris
|France-The Dark Years--Project Summary:
|In July I spent eight days in France studying the legacy left by World War II. I researched the Holocaust, the Nazi Occupation, the Resistance, & the Battle of Normandy in order to guide my students through exercises & reflections on civic duty, empathy, moral dilemma, & collective memory. Each place visited left an indelible imprint on me. I began with a memorial in the heart of Paris, an underground crypt where thousands of backlit crystals represent each person deported to camps under the Vichy Regime. Located on an island in the Seine, thousands of tourists take selfies with Notre Dame in the background, unaware of this sacred ground under their feet. This memorial is within walking distance of the Shoah Memorial, where I spent hours with an expert guide who was a walking encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Entries I visited were multimedia, featuring photographs, video, animated maps, objects, & human stories. The experience left me emotionally exhausted, especially the research I did on child victims of the Holocaust; but it was absolutely necessary to prepare me for the lesson I will do with my students on genocide, abuse of power, & racial stereotyping. I followed these two days with a visit to three museums dedicated to the French Resistance where I saw how ordinary French citizens faced excruciating choices & became extraordinary heroes. I ended my research with a trip to Normandy where I visited the D-Day landing sites. Here I walked the same beach young American soldiers crossed against all odds to participate in the largest amphibious operation in history.
Handout about Fellowship
I am attaching a few photos of my trip with a bit of explanation. As you might remember, I went to France in June to research the Holocaust, the French Resistance, and the Battle of Normandy. By far, the best and most rewarding part of this trip was my visit to Normandy because of a guide who should be declared a national treasure. He took me on a 10 hour plus visit of the D-Day beaches with stops in places that were not at all on my original itinerary. He is a walking encyclopedia of D-Day and the ensuing battle, a local who know every inch of the terrain like the back of his hand. I found him totally out of desperation because the original guides who assured me back in January when I applied for the grant that there would be a spot for me, fell through. In fact, in April when I began making plans for my trip, all of the well known guides were booked solid. Out of desperation, I began to look at French language sites and that is where I found this person. He does not do tours in English and thankfully, that was not a problem. So not only did I get a thorough lesson in history, it was all in French, which meant that I was able to find French translations for all the technical and military terms I had been learning in English over the last several months.
I had several aha moments or maybe I should say that the entire visit was an aha experience. To be at the very site where everything I had been studying for months had actually happened was absolutely exhilarating. On top of that, to visit these places with someone who was such an expert and who could answer my every question was like living inside a documentary. And the most moving thing of all was that my guide was someone who cared about the personal stories of the soldiers who fought and died in this area. Mr. Moreau had a compelling story to tell everywhere we stopped, be it farm house, field, beach, museum, or café. He brought along with him two portfolios which I assumed were his notes. But no, my guide did not consult a single note during our visit. He did, however, pull out 8 x 10 (the French version would be in centimeters) laminated portraits of the men and women whose stories he told as we made our way from the German Cemetery at la Cambe to la Pointe du Hoc to Omaha Beach to Vierville-sur-Mer, and to the American Cemetery of Colleville where almost 10,000 American soldiers are buried. He made sure I was at Colleville for the playing of Taps and the Lowering of the Colors. Probably the most original and moving thing we did was visit a tiny military museum created and operated by a friend of his. In fact, I am corresponding with this person right now, helping him research artifacts to add to his collection. These are contacts I am sure I will keep up for a lifetime.
Explanations of photos attached:
In the first photo, you see me standing on the ramp of a Higgins boat, LCVP. Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man who in the words of Eisenhower "won the war for us." He was a visionary who in 1939 bought the entire mahogany crop from the Philippines. He was a loud mouthed, whiskey drinking Irishman who played the Coast Guard against the rum runners during Prohibition. But when the US Navy needed landing craft vehicles, he was the man to see.
The second photo was of our first stop. It was totally unplanned: the German cemetery at La Cambe where approximately 20,000 German soldiers are buried. It had a very different feel from the American Cemetery of Colleville that we visited at the end of the day for the Ceremony of the Lowering of the Colors. It is quieter, darker, and in a way, more intimate. We stayed over an hour and watched some young soldiers, laughing and posing for the tourists, rehearse for a ceremony that would probably be taking place that afternoon. I suddenly flashed back to the story Eric had just told me about a soldier buried there that had been one of the last to defend the German positions on Omaha Beach. It is hard to believe that this beautiful, peaceful, and lovely refuge of nature witnessed such horrors just 70 years ago. I was moved to tears.
The third photo is of our second stop at Pointe du Hoc, a 100-foot promontory overlooking the English Channel. It was the highest point between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east. The German army fortified the area with concrete casements and gun pits. It was the number one target of the heavy U.S. and British warships poised in the Channel on D-Day morning. It was only after seeing this almost perfectly intact case mate that I finally understood the seeming impregnability of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall: steel reinforced concrete running over 1,600 miles from the Netherlands down to the Bay of Biscayne in Spain.
The fourth photo is picture of my guide extraordinaire, Eric Moreau, who is a walking encyclopedia of the Battle of Normandy and who seems to know every centimeter of terrain here. Here he is seen with the son- in- law of the former Mayor of Vierville sur Mer, who along with his wife runs a café overlooking Omaha Beach. The mayor owned one of two houses that the Germans allowed to remain standing on this 6 kilometer stretch of beach. This visit, like so many things that day, was a total surprise. Mayor Hardelay kept an extraordinary photo album of the beach that began in 1939. He even exchanged photos with the Army Signal Corps and had some things I had never seen. There is a very impressive picture (from the era) of Charles de Gaulle visiting the area in 1944. This is archival quality. I was equally impressed by pictures of his father-in-law with Nancy and Ronald Reagan when they came to Normandy for a ceremony in 1984. I apologize for name dropping, but the album blew me away. I filmed the interview with the only camera still left that had not lost its charge.