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A Visit to Normandy Teaches Lessons About D-Day

A family learns the stories of WWII and its veterans

A women touches one of the crosses in the American Military Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Colleville sur Mer in Normandy, France

American Military Cemetery, Colleville-Sur-Mere, Normandy, France — Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

We stand on bluffs high above the beaches where, on D-Day, Allied troops fought Hitler's army in what proved to be the beginning of the end of World War II.

See also: Self-guided D-Day tour of Normandy.

We walk fields where, more than six decades after the invasion on June 6, 1944, bomb craters the size of buses still scar the earth.

We squeeze into the concrete ruins of German artillery bunkers. And we visit the American cemetery where the remains of more than 9,000 GIs lie beneath a precise expanse of white marble headstones.

From visiting Normandy our preteen may gain an appreciation of a recent past his generation will likely just touch upon in social studies class, or equate with a cool video game series.

It's three days before Veterans Day, and I am in the Normandy region of northern France with my husband and our 12-year-old son. Brian and I chose to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary by pulling Jack, our seventh-grader, out of school for a history-filled vacation in France. With survivors of D-Day now deceased or well into their 80s and beyond, personal connections to the event's horrors and achievements are diminishing. With this visit, Jack will gain insight into a past that his generation may just touch upon in social studies class, or equate with little more than a cool video game series.

Unlike many historical destinations, Normandy wears its battle scars without the excessive intrusion of souvenir shops, fast-food joints and attractions better suited to theme parks. Much of the area, which is coastal and rural, remains much as it likely was in the 1940s (or, in many places, the 16th century). Seeing the landscape, and traveling the distances and medieval roads once traversed under enemy fire, you needn't be a World War II buff to be awed by what occurred.

And Jack is awed — in his understated, adolescent way. Being in Normandy has made real an event he knows a fair amount about through the film Saving Private Ryan and the DVD set of TV's Band of Brothers. The trip has also helped feed his curiosity about our family connections to the war: My heritage is represented by Italians and European Jews; my husband's late grandfather was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, which participated in the Normandy invasion.
Like my son, I, too, am awed by our visit to Normandy, even though this is my third. It's also not the first time I've witnessed the inspiring power of a historic place. Long before Jack was born, Brian and I lived in Tokyo, where we befriended an older Japanese couple who lived on our street. When Mr. and Mrs. Kobayashi later visited us in New York City, they caught site of the U.S.S. Intrepid, the retired aircraft carrier-cum-military museum on the Hudson River, and wanted to go in.

Next: A world at war, then and now. >>

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