Veterans Day Journey Ends Near WWI Trenches For reporter Naomi Lewin, Veterans Day is a yearly reminder of a great loss in her family. She took a trip to France to find the grave of her great-uncle, Curt Gaertner, who died in action during World War I.
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Veterans Day Journey Ends Near WWI Trenches

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Veterans Day Journey Ends Near WWI Trenches

Veterans Day Journey Ends Near WWI Trenches

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The war that gave rise to this Veterans Day holiday was known as the war to end all wars. It was at the 11 o'clock hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1918 that the armistice went into effect, ending World War I.

One of the last battles of that conflict and one of the first victories of the American Expeditionary Forces was over the St. Mihiel Salient. A salient is a bulge in a battle line, and the St. Mihiel Salient was a German front that bulged into the Lorraine region of France.

This summer, reporter Naomi Lewin and her friend Brad Wolcott, made a pilgrimage to that part of the French countryside.

NAOMI LEWIN: World War I seemed so distant now that most people don't feel the connection to it. But all my life, I've heard my mother say that her father's two siblings were killed fighting in World War I and that their mother never got over it.

Unidentified Woman: She was always dressed in black. She stayed in mourning for her two lost sons.

LEWIN: The son I was looking for was buried in Lorraine. Even though I knew where his grave was, I had no way of knowing how he died or what misery he lived through.

Almost 10 million soldiers lost their lives in the trench warfare so vividly described in Eric Maria Remarque's novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front." Remarque, who is a World War I veteran himself, wrote, "At the front there is no quietness. Even in the remote depots and rest areas, the droning and the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears." If any of the soldiers who fought in France were alive today, they'd never believe the quietness.

(Soundbite of bell)

LEWIN: In the village of Fey-en-Haye, all you hear are birds, bells and distant highway traffic. Nothing in Fey-en-Haye is over 85 years old, including the church at the intersection of the only two streets. The reason is etched into the side of the church, right beneath the pair of stained-glass windows featuring soldiers rather than saints.

My friend Brad translated.

Mr. BRAD WOLCOTT (Resident, France): Situated on frontline during all of the hostilities, under incessant bombardment, totally destroyed, this village, by its ruins, has gained the gratitude of the entire country.

LEWIN: For nearly four years, Fey-en-Haye was a no man's land as fighting rage to along the St. Mihiel Salient. Brad and I were following a new guide to the salient created by Jean-Charles de Belly, a young historian who works for the local municipal government.

Mr. JEAN-CHARLES DE BELLY (Historian): This is very important for us to explain to the new generation, and my generation, that the young American people come here in France and died in France for the liberty of French people.

LEWIN: The De Belly's office is in Thiaucourt, which is home to two major World War I cemeteries - one for 4,000 plus young Americans, and one for more than 11,000 young Germans. The De Belly says each of the cemeteries has its own elegance.

Mr. DE BELLY: (Speaking in French).

LEWIN: The German cemetery, he says, is very sober, very simple. There's no fanfare. It's clearly the cemetery of the conquered. But you can see that the American cemetery is a cemetery of glory.

(Soundbite of music)

LEWIN: Glory indeed - enormous, wrought-iron gates emblazoned with golden eagles; every blade of manicured grass the same brilliant green; rows and rows of marble crosses, and occasional Stars of David, each carved with a name, state, and date of death.

Mr. WOLCOTT: At the end of December.

LEWIN: Albert Cook(ph) from Iowa, December 5, 1918; William King(ph) from Maryland, April 8, 1918; Carnie Timons(ph) from California, February 14, 1919. You know, so many of them helped win the war, and then didn't make it back. The German cemetery lies on the other side of Thiaucourt.

Here, the waist-high gate is gunmetal gray, and the lawn is flexed with wildflowers wafting through the air, the sweet sent of linden trees and the gentle clank of farm machinery from neighboring fields. German soldiers rest four to a plot, so each cast-aluminum cross is embossed with four names except the Jewish soldiers. Their graves are each marked with a plain stone tablet.

It's one of those that I'm looking for with my mother's story about her grandmother, ringing in my ears.

Unidentified Woman: She had three sons: The oldest one must have been brilliant. He was a lawyer. The second one was my father. And the third one was just a kid when he joined, just out of school when he joined up.

LEWIN: Even though all three brothers fought for the Fatherland, two decades later, when Jewish men were rounded up in the wake of (unintelligible), the Fatherland took my grandfather into custody. My mother says his mother's reaction was instantaneous.

Unidentified Woman: She said, come, let's go to the Gestapo. I'll do the talking. And she went in. It was unheard of for a Jewish person to go to the Gestapo voluntarily. And when she came out, she said, it's all right, they promised me they'd let them go. And we said, what did you say? And she said, I gave two sons to Germany in the war, and you will give me my third one back.

LEWIN: Astoundingly enough, they did give him back.

Deep into the cemetery I found it, the grave of my great-uncle Curt Gaertner, the brilliant lawyer. And then, the heavens opened. With rain streaming from the sky, and tears streaming down my cheeks, all I could think of was the gaping holes that war tears in the fabric of families.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).

LEWIN: All the family who never knew, like that of Rene, our French driver. Then as the rain turned torrential, we ducked under the lindens, and he told me about the sister he never knew.

Mr. RENE MATERNE (Driver): (Speaking in French).

LEWIN: In the last World War, in '43, Renee says his city, Strasbourg was bombed. It was bombed by the Americans because it was under German occupation. Rene's sister was killed in that bombing and he was born two years later so he says he never knew her.

The gaping holes that war tares in the fabric of families.

Oh, God full of compassion, thou who'd dwell us on high.

LEWIN: Following Jewish custom, we placed stones on my great-uncle's grave marker and I recited (Speaking in French), a prayer that's said at funerals, and in cemeteries.

And grant that the memories of my great-uncle's life inspire me always to noble and consecrated living. Amen.

Mr. WOLCOTT: Amen.

LEWIN: Curt Gaertner was 26 when he died in February of 1915. Wasn't it in the battle over the village of Fey-en-Haye? Or in one of the trenches, now overgrown with moss and ivy? Or maybe in the town of St. St. Mihiel, which with no hint of irony, now displays a sign for a German sister city.

The historian Jean-Charles de Belly had recommended that Brad and I make one final stop along the St. Mihiel Salient: Remeneauville. Like Fey-en-Haye, this village was completely destroyed but it was never rebuilt. Instead, a canopy of silent woods has grown up around pathways that once were streets.

Plaques in German, French and English - the three languages of the combatants - poke out of undergrowth, marking where buildings once stood. Where a farm was, where the school was, where the wheelwright was, where the city hall was.

Mr. WOLCOTT: The woods have taken over. There's something incredibly peaceful about the way the woods come back to what was a pile of ruins.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

LEWIN: Here, all is now quiet on the Western Front.

For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Andrea Seabrook returns next week. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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