It was 60 years ago today, in Paris. I had been waiting a long time for this moment, when I would finally see the enemy in defeat. Allow me now on this anniversary to be one voice for those who brought us our liberation that day.
I was a 17-year-old Jewish girl who had been hiding under an assumed name with forged identity papers in the Pigalle district of Paris. I'd been waiting since 1940, when France fell, since 1941, when the Germans came for my father, since 1943, when my 13-year-old sister and I -- sole survivors of our family -- had to abandon our home and go into hiding. I was marking time, focused on one great expectation: deliverance.
Hope was kept alive with "Les Francais Parlent aux Francais," the voice of De Gaulle's Free France broadcast from London. In the spring of 1944, the cryptic radio messages to resistance groups proliferated, unintelligible to us but obviously instructions to various networks operating in France, indicating increased activity and raising expectations. Something was in the air.
There were skeptics, in Paris and elsewhere. For me, and others like me, skepticism was impossible. We were caught in a deadly race between those who would find us out and send us to the death camps and those who carried with them our hopes for life -- the Allied soldiers.
Then, early one morning, the wait was over. Hurried footsteps on the stairs, and the maid of the small hotel where I had sought refuge came running down the narrow corridor, pounding at every door, announcing breathlessly, "Ils ont debarque! Ils ont debarque!" -- "They have landed! They have landed!"
The news struck like a thunderbolt. And yet all the joy welling up within us had to be contained. The Kommandantur (headquarters of the German military command of occupied France) seemed to think we were being good: The midnight curfew was extended to 1 a.m. for this one day.
In mid-August, as Allied troops neared, the city of Paris rose. It was in a state of siege. The German garrison had been clearing out for days, leaving behind a beleaguered high command that no longer was in command. But no one knew when the end would come -- or when we would be safe. Then one night church bells were set ringing, not in alarm but in triumph, the opening salvo of the liberation. A small detachment of Gen. Philippe Leclerc's Free French troops had entered Paris and was encamped at the Hotel de Ville, home of the municipal authorities, only a stone's throw from Notre Dame.
Paris was liberated the following day. I walked down deserted streets to the Place de l'Opera, eager to see what was happening, and by chance was near the Kommandantur when a contingent of Free French troops arrived. There was a brief firefight, and then it happened: the surrender of the German command. Parisians began emerging from buildings. The crowd was still sparse but we formed a chain, linked hands and spontaneously burst into "La Marseillaise," while German officers, hatless, hands in the air, marched down Avenue de l'Opera. The nightmare was over.
I was awed at the magnitude of the event I was witnessing. The German war machine was not invincible after all, and for me, it was the men of D-Day who had driven the point home. It was to them that I owed my freedom and my life.
Fifty years later, at Omaha Beach, on the bluff overlooking the broad stretch of sand where the GIs had come ashore, I remembered D-Day. At the breathtaking military cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, where so many of them are interred, I had come to honor the men who a half-century earlier, on that day and at that very spot, had brought liberation to my country and to me. Few are left of these once ordinary/extraordinary young men. They are dying every day, but for me they belong among the immortals. They came in peril of their lives and saved Europe.
Sixty years ago they marched down the Champs Elysees in an awesome parade of citizen-soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, filling the broad expanse of the avenue. The passing years have only intensified the emotion I felt as a young girl that August, and the gratitude to those who saved our future.
Rachel Spreiregen, who lives in a suburb of Chicago, is writing a memoir on her years in France before and during the German occupation.