The deep flood of time will roll over us; some few great men will raise their heads above it, and though destined at the last to depart into the same realms of silence, will battle against oblivion and maintain their ground for long.
Seneca, Epistle XXII
We arrive early. It’s a cold January morning in northern France, much colder than usual. A damp fog has rolled in overnight, shrouding the bare trees and resting in a soft layer over the clusters of black crosses.
We are at the German Cemetery in Normandy.
I like cemeteries. I don’t find them eerie or disturbing, but restful and rightly sobering. I move slowly through this one, noting the names of these soldiers as I pass between their graves.
There’s an odd sense of the familiar unfamiliar about these names—some names have come back into fashion in the States after a period of decline or neglect, and some feel grandfatherly in their musty historicity. Certainly, the surnames are familiar ones for Americans, since so many of us descended from German immigrants: Muller, Hartmann, Vogel, Günther. My own maiden name (originally Grüber) is unusual enough that I don’t find any distant cousins.
In addition to names, the grave markers record military rank and birth and death dates. I begin to take note of how old these young men were when they died. The soldiers are young, very young—18, 19, 20. There are more than 20,000 men buried in this cemetery and over 80% of them were age 20, or younger, when they died. Even the officers seem young to me: 31, late thirties at the most.
I am older now than any of these men lived to be.
I pause before the grave of Gren. Siegfried Lill. He was barely 18 when he died on July 19, 1944–birth date June 10, 1926. A scant month of notional adulthood before his life is taken. Had he died almost immediately after being sent to the front? Had he been conscripted at age 17, or even 16? I think of my own eldest son—fourteen years old, three inches taller than I am, four years away from registering for the Selective Service.
My gaze drifts from Siegfried’s marker to his left, my right.
Ein Deutscher Soldat
That is all.
No date of birth or death. No name beyond nationality and rank. Soldier: A son only to the Fatherland.
I suddenly realize that I am cold, very cold. I’ve been wandering in this cemetery for a long time and I really should head back to the tour bus, but I feel compelled to crouch down in the frost and touch his grave.
When I touch it there is no warning, no emotional heads-up:
I begin to sob uncontrollably.
I don’t mean that I got weepy. I mean that my whole body is shaking, snot is streaming from my nose, and I feel the mascara smearing on my face.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I can’t stop sobbing, and I can’t stop apologizing aloud to this boy, this man, this lost soul whose burial place is known only to God.
He could have been one of my sons, I think. We are a German and an American, dislocated in time and space, and yet I am his mother. I try to say the things to him that she, his German mother, would want said. I’m here. I love you. Good-bye.
I try to pray for him, for her, for all of us, but all I can do is struggle to gain some measure of control over myself before our students catch sight of me. Presumably it would be okay if they did see me, but I am embarrassed that I may seem maudlin, or, worse, a tragedy tourist.
I wipe my face and slow my breathing. I can barely bring myself to leave him, this boy beneath the frost.
But I do, of course.
After all, there’s another cemetery to see.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English Literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.