Release from Servitude and Dictatorship

ANNE BURLEY

November 11, 1993|By ANNE BURLEY

PASADENA — Pasadena.--The words are not easy to read, because the letters have become worn in the almost 50 years since they were inscribed, but with care they can still be made out: ''27 Aout 1944. Entree du 'First Special.' Liberation de Saint Paul.'' Saint Paul is St. Paul-de-Vence in Provence, France, and the words are inscribed on the ancient stones of one of its gateways.

Around me the tourists are flocking up the narrow street to shop at the boutiques and ateliers of this charming village. After lunch they may drop by the cemetery so that they can tell their friends back in Ohio or Burton-on-Trent that they have seen the grave of Marc Chagall. They probably will not notice the war memorial on the ramparts, with its lists of the dead from the First and Second World Wars.

They speak in a babel of voices -- English, Dutch, Danish, Belgian, American, German, Japanese. Most of them do not notice the words above the gate, either. Perhaps some of them do not want to.

But such signs remembering the wars are hard to avoid in France. They are everywhere. There is of course the war memorial in every little village and town, with its carefully tended flowers and shrubs and its two lists. The first list is usually longer than the second, but on both sometimes two or three or even four of the surnames are the same, brothers or cousins gone forever. The villages are often very small. Some of them must have lost most of the male population.

And everywhere in the South of France one sees other memorials, of the heroes and heroines of the Resistance. Sometimes it is a monument like the one at Grasse, whose inscription is plain even if you know no French: ''Aux Patriotes de la Resistance: Morts pour la France.'' Sometimes it is just a sign on a wall: a village street named after a partisan or a plaque marking the spot where two or three or half a dozen were shot, with the bullet marks still visible on the wall.

It is amazing now to think that this peaceful country of grapevines and olive trees has been the scene of so much violence. The hill villages of Provence perched high above the Mediterranean were built centuries ago to defend the people against the invasion of Saracen and Arab. Today when you stand at the ramparts of such a village -- St. Paul or Gourdon or Cabris or Tourrette-sur-Loup -- you can look down toward the azure sea and imagine the most recent invasion, the longed-for invasion of the Allies landing along the coast from St. Tropez to St.-Raphael and fighting their way up through Provence.

The French remember all of this. On VE Day, May 8, there was a service of thanksgiving and remembrance in nearby Bar-sur-Loup, where the handsome railroad viaduct curves elegantly halfway across the valley and then stops, the rest having been blown up by the retreating Germans. There was also a service in Nice where, round the corner from the tall and beautiful war memorial set in the cliff, a plaque commemorating this day reads ''Victoire de la Liberte et de la Paix sur l'Asservissement et la Dictature.'' Release from servitude and dictatorship. In Paris, President Mitterrand laid a wreath on the the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gave an eloquent and moving speech. Such events all over France received substantial coverage on radio and television and in the newspapers.

Above Omaha Beach in Normandy is the beautifully kept American cemetery, on land donated by the French people, where 10,000 dead lie under white crosses stretching into the distance. On the other side of the ornamental pond, in front of the handsome memorial columns, stands the black marble figure of a young man like a Greek god, reaching to the sky. It is hard to keep back the tears.

At Pegasus Bridge, next to the first house to be liberated, now an inn, grizzled British and American veterans in navy blazers with regimental badges relive their experiences over a glass of beer. It is such a little bridge, spanning such a little river, that it now seems incredible that it could ever have been of any importance or that men fought and died all night to get over it. And yet they did.

The survivors all look pretty ordinary, really, just like every- body else. They are in their late 60s and 70s now, and some of them have paunches and some look too frail to have ever lifted a rifle. But the other visitors to the bridge -- for there are always visitors -- look at them with awe, as though they are superman, mighty heroes of old.

And they are. For they left their farms and businesses and factory floors and went across the sea to fight. Most of them probably didn't want to go, but they went, anyway. They were called and they went, for an idea, for duty.

In France they remember those who died. They still sell poppies on November 11, Armistice Day, as they call it. There used to be two minutes of silence, too, on Armistice Day, to commemorate the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. I don't know whether they still do that in France. We don't do it here, but I remember it from my childhood in England. Lessons stopped, and we all rose and stood in silence for two minutes to honor the dead. Outside the windows the whole nation stopped, too -- trains, buses, cars, factories, businesses -- and there fell vTC over the land a great hush of respect and sorrow.

Millions of men and women died or fought for us. We should remember that. They had convictions -- values, if you like -- and they acted accordingly. They actually thought that finally they were going to make the world safe for democracy.

And they did, for a while anyway. Perhaps we should remember that, too, sometimes.

Anne Burley teaches English at Towson State University.

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