Last week Iza’s cousin, Maxime, took us deep into the Alsatian countryside for a short hike around a historic World War II stronghold. It was midweek, and the only other noticeable signs of life were a few courageous birds brazen enough to brave the freezing rain. To be sure, we were the only humans there, which amounted to an absolutely serene, eerie, and unforgettable stroll through hollowed ground.
I love history. Specifically, I love WWII history. It’s feels strange to be interested in a time that meant unprecedented pain, suffering, and death for so many people, but that very fact is what makes us eager to understand ‘why.’ How could something so terrible – so inhumane – possibly happen?
I’m not here to answer those questions, but to share an experience that, for the first time, brought me face to face with the memories of those who fought, and died, for the sake of mankind.
The hike wasn’t particularly remarkable by most metrics. There were no imposing vistas. No towering water falls. No crumbling ruins of ancient civilizations. Just an old, worn down munitions bunker, a fenced moat, and a few circular ditches I’m told were made from mortar shells over 7 decades ago. But, in the quiet tranquility I experienced something far more powerful than any of those things.
The ghosted presence of soldiers 15 years younger than me struggling to come to terms with the horrors of war.
As we continued to walk I could think of little else. Who were these people? What were their hobbies? Their favorite foods? Did the have husbands and wives? Did they believe in what they were doing here? What did it feel like to go to sleep with a rifle in your arms?
Seeing as how the closest thing I’ve been to war is battling five friends for the last chicken wing, these aren’t things I think about very often. I should. We all should. Because there are people around the world just like the people who fought and died here doing the same exact thing. People.
We went inside an old concrete bunker covered in mossy overgrowth and anti-war graffiti. I stayed behind and stood there trying to imagine what it must have been like to look out through those tiny holes. What would I have done if an envoy of Nazis came filtering through the trees, hearts beating hard and rifles in hand?
I suppose I would have done what everyone in that position does – what they have to do. It’s scary to think about, but something I’ll remember next time someone talks to me about the necessities of war.
There are some things in life I’ll never fully understand. Things I hope I never understand. But it’s important to try so we can think twice before sending a bunch of kids who can’t even buy a six pack of beer to live out those nightmares so the rest of us don’t have to. I guess I’ll never believe fighting – killing – is the answer for anything.
I left that bunker feeling heavy, as if the souls of those who died here were pulling me towards the ground where they fell all those years ago. That day I walked with ghosts of a world war, and won’t soon forget the way it made me feel, the way it continues to make me feel. I’d waded through the echo of one of world history’s blackest eyes, and came out with a new-found respect for people who serve, and outright disgust for anyone who selfishly contributes to the escalated departure of human life.
Our travels in Europe have been steeped in rich history. This hike, for me, was the most profound submergence into that history, and gifted me a special kind of perspective I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The ghosts are silent now, ready to shed light on the next hopeless modern American who has no use for remembering such things. May they do well to remind people how bad things can get when we stop listening to each other and start dropping bombs.