White cross, black cross – and both had a mother…

White crosses of the victors at Omaha beach; across the road are the dark ones.

White crosses of the victors at Omaha beach; across the road are the dark ones.

All we wanted was to ask directions to the hiking trail. Instead, Jean-Charles filled our heads with intimate stories of his family and village during the Second World War. The Alsace side of the story is rarely properly told, he said. Located in the Northeast of France, right next to Switzerland and southern Germany, the Alsace was sometimes French, sometimes German depending on the time and the wars being played out. Many of its inhabitants, especially the older generation, still speak German besides French. Alsace was French at the beginning of the Second World War. After the occupation of the Germans, the inhabitants were drafted by force into the Germany army. Jean-Charle’s father, gone from 1942 to 1945, was one of the lucky ones to survive. Wounded twice, he told his son of how they would strew salt into their wounds to keep them from healing. Every day off the battlefield was another day alive. Others weren’t so lucky. A neighbour woman’s two sons were drafted at 20 years each, both perished in the war, as did her husband, drafted at the end when ever older men were pulled in, in a last ditch attempt to win the war. Jean-Charles never saw her smile again.

Jean-Charles’ father came home wearing the German uniform and was seen as a traitor. It wasn’t as if he’d had a choice, his son told us defensively. None of the Alsace residents did. It wasn’t their fault they had a German background. They knew that if they didn’t go, or if they disserted, their families would be sent to the German concentration camps.

Ottrot nestles at the edge of the Vogesen, the Alpine Foothills. Not far away, hidden somewhere in those hills was the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil, the Natzweiler Struthof. The internees were forced to work in the stone quarry. They would be transported through the village in open wagons; the villagers threw them loaves of bread. Their supervisor shouted at the villagers – these weren’t just political prisoners, there were very dangerous criminals among them! But he didn’t stop the villagers. I’ve visited the concentration camp. We drove the long winding road back to town without saying a word. Jean-Paul told us his father took him there when all the barracks were still standing; it still had the smell of death.

I told Jean Charles that I’d visited Normandy last summer. “Did you see all those white crosses at Omaha Beach, from the Americans?” he asked. He’d been there too, visited the American cemetery, stretching over acres, rows and rows of white crosses, all young men in their early twenties. “Did you see the German cemetery across the road?” he asked. Although twice as many soldiers are buried there as in the American cemetery, the few crosses there were dark, the gravesites marked with a flat grey stone. Often two soldiers share a grave, with a simple grey monument in the middle of the cemetery. He felt it wasn’t right, really. This discrimination between the victors and the defeated. “Both had mothers, both were fighting because they had to.” Jean-Charles would like this blog post I found: https://collateraldamage.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/on-the-american-german-military-cemeteries-in-normandy/

We left Jean-Charles and stopped in at the village church. How many mothers knelt at that altar and pleaded with God for their sons and husbands? Mothers in the Alsace, in Germany, in America and Canada; mothers all over the world. Jean-Charles told us his generation (born 1953) was the first ever that didn’t know a war. Before that, mothers raised sons to give them to war, he said bitterly. Lots of mothers still do. (This week some mother’s children were sacrificed to terrorism again.)
Jean-Charles’ stories fit well with the Good Friday theme of Easter – Christ’s death on the cross for humanity. Christ’s resurrection celebrates new life, as does the Easter Fest of Ottrott , its fountains decorated with daffodils and Easter rabbits. Death and life; the dark and the light.

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