In the beginning, Hitler was a nobody.
In one of my favorite books, The Past is Myself, by Christabel Bielenberg, I long ago read the account from a British woman married to a German lawyer, of what it was like to live in Berlin as it was overtaken by the Nazis. Though these aren’t her exact words, this is what she said. “At first we didn’t take Hitler seriously. We were educated, and he was out on the streets ranting and yelling. For God’s sake, he was a house painter!”
And then everything changed. Suddenly Bielenberg and her friends saw that the man was gaining power, and now thoroughly frightened, they began sending messages back to Britain, and even to the United States. “Take him seriously. This man is dangerous!” To her chagrin, she was forced to report, “Sadly, nobody out there listened.” Within a short time Bielenberg’s life changed radically. “We could no longer talk to anybody, even our trusted neighbors. We simply didn’t know who was now aligned with Hitler and who wasn’t.”
Bielenberg’s story was so compelling that its British publishers chose to reprint the book no fewer than 25 times!
Last week, members of my family and I were among a contingent of UCLA alums who took a Celtic Lands cruise, which ended in Normandy with a view of venerable Omaha Beach—a wide swath of brownish sand at low tide, and 5 miles long.
There we witnessed the still-visible signs of destruction that Hitler had wrought. Among them: the massive cement bunkers from which Nazis machine-gunned incoming Allied troops; never-filled bomb-holes in the nearby weeds; a cemetery filled with 9387 white crosses from the 40% of American families who chose that their loved-ones be buried in Normandy. Each cross contained the name, rank, and age of the victim. All so sad—and mostly so young.
East of the graves, a stunning, “walls of the missing” memorial structure surrounded a male statue dedicated to American troops. Within this monument and in front of the statue, our shipmate, David Eisenhower (grandson of Dwight), gave a stirring talk. And off to the side, garbed in green, stood his youthful wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
As a side note: both Eisenhowers were so gracious that they welcomed conversations with fellow passengers on the French ship, Le Boreal. On one land tour, we were surprised to find the Eisenhowers on our bus--seated in the row in front of us. For a brief moment, I dared tell Julie about my tenth grade French teacher in Denver who, in May of 1944, was almost speechless in her excitement as she tried not to tell us “the beeg news” she’d gleaned by short wave radio from her friends in France. In class on June 6, 1944, she nearly exploded as she said, “What I couldn’t tell you was D-Day!” She whirled and clapped and laughed and then said, “For weeks I knew all about it!”
As Rob has reported, our cruise was many-faceted: The Churchill expert, Allen Packwood, reported in his talk, (approximately) “No man has ever studied the face and gestures of his lover harder than I studied Roosevelt.” Churchill was hoping, of course, to persuade FDR to join the Brits in repelling Hitler. Unfortunately, one of Packwood’s two talks came on the heels of a vigorous morning castle-visit, followed by a lavish luncheon, then soft seats in an auditorium with lowered lights. On every side, my fellow passengers slowly drifted into sleep.
Our ship tour included, besides numerous castles and bus tours in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, on the ship itself a lively Irish multi-instrument quartet (which had us clapping on cue), heel-and-toe Irish dancers, six different lecturers, and in late evening (if you were still awake), French entertainment in the theater.
Of special joy to me were the passengers who became our warm friends—especially the UCLA lecturer, Michael Allen and his wife, Elena, whom I soon felt I’d known a lifetime. And our own family, loudly cracking jokes at meals: Chris and Betty-jo, Ken and Melanie, and Tracy.
Other moments stand out: All the men in various countries who helped me down escalators, up and down stairs, and through revolving doors—and the funny moment in a long Amsterdam taxi line when I shouted for my daughter at the other end. After I fruitlessly yelled, “Tracy!” several times to no avail, numerous men in the line between me and her relayed my call, each one yelling “Tracy!” one after the other, until she finally heard us.
Another highlight was visiting our new great-granddaughter, Eva, in the heart of Amsterdam. With her parents, Jamie and Mike, joining us in wonder and laughter, we realized that Eva, at four weeks, had a lovelier head of dark hair than any of us. For hours we sat at their apartment’s enormous picture window, watching the hundreds of cyclists pedaling past the nearby intersection. Only with a combination of patience and daring could an automobile penetrate the non-stop parade of two-wheelers.
Our visit to Normandy was the predictable high-point of the cruise. As we departed on the bus, I mused about how much one evil man with murder in his heart can change the entire world. In the end, Hitler was responsible, world-wide, for some tens of million deaths!
My second thought as we arrived home: all those newspapers we missed told me that a different kind of danger—loss of integrity and a rabid hostility--is afoot in our government, even here in America.