November in Essoyes
Well it has been kind of a somber week not just in Essoyes, but also in other parts of the world. In France both the end of World War I and the first year anniversary of the November 13 terrorist attacks on Paris were remembered last week. There was also the (for most people) deeply upsetting news from the United States about the election of a new president that many people have good reason to believe is not good news at all. (Marine LePen, true to form, was first to greet the news with glee. That tells you a lot of what you need to know about her.) For the most part world leaders, including our own President Obama, are trying to remain guardedly optimistic and allow the democratic process to unfold the way it is supposed to, peacefully and with minimal destabilization. Only time will tell what comes next, though at this writing I must say that this stubborn optimist is finding it difficult to remain optimistic. Vigilant? Concerned? Determined to be more politically engaged? All of those, yes. And if all of us work together to be all three of these things without allowing our attention to shirk for a moment, perhaps there is some reason for optimism indeed. We shall see.
As I did last year, I went to the annual défilé in Essoyes on November 11. This is a solemn commemoration of Armistice Day, the day that peace finally came to Europe in 1918 after four years of devastating loss, which was exceptionally acute in France, where much of the fighting took place. I often talk to my students about how every little village in France has a war memorial somewhere in the center of the town and that one cannot help but notice the large number of names of men lost in World War I, even in tiny villages. The number of men lost in World War II is always much less, for reasons I discussed here last year.
This year the 11 novembre was a cold and rainy day, and perhaps for that reason it was a somewhat smaller crowd than last year, but there was a respectable turnout, and the crowd was representative. More old people than young, but some young people, and some children. I find the latter particularly moving. Children need to learn their history, and bringing them to a memorial commemoration of past sacrifices is a really good way of teaching them about the sober responsibilities of citizenship, the awful sacrifice their forbears have made to preserve (or recapture) freedom for their children and grandchildren, the importance of working for peace. In France this is not a day for sales in department stores. On the contrary, most stores and businesses are closed on this day, and it is a day for remembering and honoring what the day is about.
Every year in our little village the names of each of the men whose names are carved on the memorial is read, followed by a “Mort pour la France!” shouted by a member of the sapeurs pompiers (firefighters). It takes a while to read all those names, which gives the people paying tribute to their sacrifice time to think about what it really means.
This year after the ceremony I returned to the memorial to count the names. There were 63 men from this village killed in World War I, 28 in World War II, this in a village of only 750 people (though the population was somewhat higher at the time of the two World Wars). The names are in alphabetical order, which makes it easy to see that some families suffered the loss of several members of their family. Sixteen of these war dead were most likely killed in the spring of 1940 as the Germans rolled over eastern France with stunning speed and brutal force, on their way to occupy Paris. The other 12 were members of the French Resistance who were killed in a rout by the Germans on August 3, 1944, as the Allies were fighting their way through France and the war was drawing near to a close.
World War II is widely seen as one of the few wars that did in fact “need to be fought.” It is sometimes even called “the Good War.” But, especially at this moment in world history, I think it pays for us to ask ourselves, is there anything that could have prevented all that terrible loss of life? And even more important, is there any way we can all work together to prevent even worse things happening in future, to our children, our world, our planet?
Let’s hope so. And let’s each of us find ways to act: to do whatever we can to make the world a better, safer place for people, not just in our own beloved homes, but all people everywhere.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes in the spring and fall, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer in Paris for Queens College, CUNY.