While the Second World War ended in 1945, its significance and over 60 million lives claimed will never fade from memory. Spanning multiple countries and impacting generations of people, WWII transpired across countless battlefields and city streets, many of which you can visit today and pay your respects.
The Battles and Beaches of Normandy, France
June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. During WWII, France’s Normandy region and coastline were forever immortalized. The day the Allied Forces invaded, attacked, and gained a victory became the turning point for the war raging in Europe. A three-hour journey northwest of Paris finds you at the coast of France and on the historic D-Day landing beaches. There remain poignant war-time reminders at Utah, Juno, and Gold Beach. However, the most renown destination to pay respects remains Omaha Beach, the location of the second Allied-force landing.
Honor the fallen with a visit to Les Braves Memorial of Omaha Beach. Commemorating the American soldiers who gave their lives that June day, the memorial piece represents hope, freedom, and fraternity. Spend reflective moments at the American Military Cemetery of Saint-Laurent near Omaha where almost 10,000 US soldiers are buried, most of whom lost their lives during the invasion. Visit the poignant Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, designed to offer a more personal look at the occupation, liberation, and post-war times of the area.
In nearby Sainte-Mère-Église, a different type of memorial hangs from atop a church spire in remembrance of those that liberated the town from German troops. Because of its location, Sainte-Mère-Église was likely to be used as a base for a counterattack against Allied troops landing on Utah and Omaha Beaches. Descending from the sky in the dark early-morning hours of D-Day, allied paratroopers intended to take the town with little resistance. Despite flaming buildings, trees, and under heavy gunfire, eventually, the US troops of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment retook the village, making it one of the first towns liberated in the invasion.
Remembering the Past in Poland
During WWII, the Nazi Germany invasion and occupation saw Polish citizens suffer massive land, material, and human losses. It’s estimated that 5.6 million Polish citizens, and 90% of Polish Jews, died as a result of the occupation and Holocaust. To counter the horrors in their homeland, the Polish resistance movement during the war was the largest in all occupied Europe. Together with the Home Army, Armia Krajowa in Polish, those forced to live in the ghettos attempted to fight against their oppressors.
While the invasion and consequential uprisings destroyed over 85% of the city of Warsaw, today you can visit the Historical Museum and walk through Old Town, entirely rebuilt since World War II. The Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, located in an area formerly a part of the Warsaw Ghetto, reminds visitors of those who fought the moving of its remaining inhabitants into concentration camps.
For a sobering look into what life was like for those in the camps, visitors can pay their respects in the city of Oświęcim, better known to the world in German as Auschwitz. Made up of over 40 camps and subcamps, Auschwitz contained Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of these camps. 90% of those that died in the concentration camp, died in Birkenau.
The nearby city of Kraków was the capital of the Nazi Germany General Government. What would become known as the Kraków or Podgórze Ghetto initially housed 16,000 Jews. By 1941 the Ghetto held over 24,000 people forced to give up their possessions and bring only what they could carry through the gates. The atrocities of the Jewish ghetto in Kraków and the nearby concentration camps are remembered in the film Schindler’s List and the moving monument that now stands in Podgórze, at what was the center of its ghetto.
Honoring Lives Lost in Germany
Known today for its Oktoberfest, Munich was once home to the first of the Nazi concentration camps, Dachau. What began as a place of internment for those who opposed the Nazi regime, the camp’s organization and oversight became the systematic blueprint of terror for other camps to follow. A memorial now stands on the grounds of the site, its main exhibition focuses on the path the prisoners faced in their daily lives and their journey to either death or liberation.
Five hours from Munich lies Germany’s capital, Berlin where you can visit the Topography of Terror museum and the Holocaust Memorial to also honor victims of the past. While in town, stop by Reichstag, which was restored after the war to once again host the German Parliament.