The past comes alive when a personal story intersects the historical narrative. My grandfather, Martin Epstein, was at D-Day, whose 75th anniversary is today. As an army engineer, he wasn’t part of the first waves, but probably came ashore hours after the initial assault. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when I was a year old so I never knew him, but I can imagine what his experience was like.
I am sure that my grandfather knew he was participating in an important, world-historic moment. He kept General Dwight Eisenhower’s order of the day, a short message to the Allied forces preparing to land on the beaches of France on June 6, 1944. It read in part:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
My grandfather wrote a little note at the top of his copy, indicating that it was distributed to the troops before the invasion. I am sure he was proud of his participation in the liberation of a continent he had left close to a decade before.
My grandfather was the youngest in a family from a small shtetl in Lithuania, but unlike his many older siblings, he had a university education in Europe. He was one of the last to arrive in America where he joined his siblings, most of whom lived in San Antonio, Texas. He had a business and was in his 30s when America entered the war, and yet he fought, sometimes serving as a translator because of the many languages he spoke.
I never got to hear his experiences of Europe in 1944-45. Fortunately, a family member recorded an interview with him before he died so I can hear his voice, but most of her questions were about life in the shtetl. It is left to my imagination to ponder what it was like to help liberate France and destroy Nazi Germany.
Eisenhower also wrote a quick statement to be read just in case the invasion failed, but thankfully it was never needed. Instead, his prediction from the order of the day came to pass. D-Day in the end, at great cost, did bring “security for ourselves in a free world”. We will forever be grateful to those who planned and led the invasion, and to the bravery of those who landed on the beaches in Normandy.