25 Reflections: World War II

As we have traveled throughout Europe, we have felt and seen the impact of World War II more keenly than at any previous time in our lives. It is present here in a way that it is not at home. In the U.S., I think all of us have some vague sense that there was a big war and our grandfathers and grandmothers played a part in it, but I have always felt fairly detached from it all. But in Europe, people live in the aftermath–and not just in key places like Normandy. The effects of the war are everywhere you look.

At the American Cemetery in Normandy.


In Greece, I was very touched by the stories of bravery that I heard at the Acropolis. In 1941, when the Nazi’s came to occupy Greece, a Greek soldier was guarding the Greek flag at the Acropolis (the same location where I took the photo of the flag below). The Nazi soldiers told him to take down the Greek flag so that it could be replaced with a Nazi flag. He calmly took down the flag, and then wrapped himself in it and jumped over the wall to his death.

The Greek flag flying at the Acropolis

The nine stripes on the flag stand for a Greek phrase with nine syllables that means “Freedom or Death.” Days later, two teenage Greek boys climbed the Acropolis wall, armed only with a knife and a lantern, and cut down the Nazi flag–the first courageous act of resistance against the occupying army in WWII. Those boys each lived long lives, and are still honored and remembered for their bravery.


In Romania, we visited to Bran Castle (famously known as Dracula’s castle). In World War II Princess Ileana ran a hospital there, before the castle was seized by the communists in 1948.

Bran Castle, Romania


In Venice we toured the Venetian Ghetto. We visited a home with a stumbling stone in front of the door. If you’ve never heard of stumbling stones, they are little memorial blocks–each the size of a cobble stone–that are placed in front of the last known chosen residence of Holocaust victims.

A stumbling stone memorial in Venice, Italy.

There are more than 70,000 of these stumbling stones in cities throughout Europe. I find them incredibly moving, intimate, and deeply sad. If you want to know more about the Stumbling Stone memorial project, check out this article.

We were also touched by the memorial wall in the Venetian Ghetto.

A beautiful Holocaust memorial in Venice.


I think one of the most striking things about France, even more than big memorials in places like Normandy or Paris, are the little plaques that you find in quiet, unassuming places in small villages. You realize that the names on these plaques were beloved family and friends–and the cost to the community feels so painful and personal.

In one tiny little village we visited on the south of France, there was a plaque that remembered the loss of a teacher at the school who was shot by the Nazis (the plaque is on the gate next to the school pictured below). And on the cathedral in Kaysersberg, there is a memorial plaque with the names of those who were lost.

Not far from our village is a peaceful hill covered in grapes. At the very top of this hill is a cemetery, which we discovered on one of our walks. We learned that in World War II, the hill was a site of brutal combat, so much so that it was nicknamed “Bloody Hill.” It is a solemn place now, and incredibly quiet.

There is a memorial there to honor 4 American soldiers for their acts of bravery. Their names are Keith Lincoln Ware, Martin Joseph Higgins, Wilbur F. Nutting, and Eli Lamar Whiteley. I looked them up and read their stories. I’d like to share one with you:

While leading his platoon on December 27, 1944, in savage house-to-house fighting through the fortress town of Sigolsheim, France, he attacked a building through a street swept by withering mortar and automatic weapons fire. He was hit and severely wounded in the arm and shoulder; but he charged into the house alone and killed its 2 defenders. Hurling smoke and fragmentation grenades before him, he reached the next house and stormed inside, killing 2 and capturing 11 of the enemy. He continued leading his platoon in the extremely dangerous task of clearing hostile troops from strong points along the street until he reached a building held by fanatical Nazi troops. Although suffering from wounds which had rendered his left arm useless, he advanced on this strongly defended house, and after blasting out a wall with bazooka fire, charged through a hail of bullets. Wedging his submachine gun under his uninjured arm, he rushed into the house through the hole torn by his rockets, killed 5 of the enemy and forced the remaining 12 to surrender. As he emerged to continue his fearless attack, he was again hit and critically wounded. In agony and with 1 eye pierced by a shell fragment, he shouted for his men to follow him to the next house. He was determined to stay in the fighting and remained at the head of his platoon until forcibly evacuated. By his disregard for personal safety, his aggressiveness while suffering from severe wounds, his determined leadership and superb courage, 1st Lt. Whiteley killed 9 Germans, captured 23 more and spearheaded an attack which cracked the core of enemy resistance in a vital area.

Eli Lamar Whiteley’s Medal of Honor Citation

More than once, people have said to us, “If it weren’t for you guys, I’d be speaking German right now.” It makes me very proud to be an American, and so humbled and awestruck at what our brave soldiers did. There is a deep gratitude, everywhere we go, for the role that Americans played in Second World War. (These days it is also coupled with a worried look and comments that basically ask, “Are you guys okay over there? We’re worried about you. Seems like you’re having a hard time.” But that’s another post for another day . . . )

I am only starting to glimpse the impact of World War II on all of us. It is devastating. It is far-reaching. It changed everything. And there is so, so much to learn from it.

For more, visit 25 Reflections: Seeing My Children.