A Legacy of Liberation

Fog obscures the Saar River that U.S. troops crossed in February 1945.

We got up to the historic site early that morning. And the sun was out. There was a clear sky up where we were on the hilltop overlooking the Saar River, in Germany. But the air below us, immediately above the river itself, was so clogged with fog we couldn’t see the spot where the historic river crossing had happened. I wondered out loud what it looked like beneath the fog.

“Here. I’ll show you,” said a man who’d stopped by to watch us look into the valley. And he pulled out a map of the river valley and he pointed. “The Americans came from the far side, crossed the river, and attacked up these slopes.”

Wounds a dressing can’t heal

Al Theobald was raised in a home in Borg, Germany, used in 1945 as a first-aid station for U.S. medics.

We walked in single-file behind our guide. The street in Nennig, Germany, opened into a market square as the young man leading our tour painted a wartime picture of this town 72 years ago. He pointed to the homes tucked neatly around the intersection. Then, he said because of the battle being waged between German and U.S. forces here during the Second World War, that civilians had been evacuated.

“Well, that’s not entirely true,” a quiet voice said behind me. I turned and a man I didn’t know, but who was travelling on the same tour, added, “Some of the civilians refused to leave.”

Adding a chapter

Alex Barris’s ID card when he was 21 years old and at war.

On my last day of classes in 1964, with nothing left to teach us, my Grade 9 phys-ed instructor just gave us a bat and a ball and told us to go play some baseball work-ups. I loved playing shortstop, the position my dad liked most too. Not long into the game, however, the catcher and I chased the same infield fly and we collided head-on. I broke my nose, lost some front teeth and was knocked out cold. I spent several weeks recuperating at home in bed. My father happened to be writing in his office at the house, so he spent time trying to distract me from my pain by telling me stories. It wasn’t long before I popped the big one.

“Hey Dad, what did you do in the war?” I asked.

Resist to live

Jan Palach memorial at Wenceslas Square in Prague.
Jan Palach memorial at Wenceslas Square in Prague.

On Jan. 19, 1969, a university student, named Jan Palach, died in a hospital in Prague. Three days earlier he had gone to Wenceslas Square, near a statue of the 10th century duke of Bohemia (and the “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame). There, in front of his history classmates and the authorities, he set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet Union’s occupation of his homeland. His suicide was a final act of defiance against the latest in a long line of occupiers of his country – the Czech Republic.

“It was [his] last appeal for resistance,” author Petr Cornej wrote.

Getting life from a stone

The restored Frauenkirche church in Dresden in August 2010.
The restored Frauenkirche church in Dresden in August 2010.

I remember the day some business friends and I needed a room in which to meet. A financial advisor friend offered his offices. As I sat down in his boardroom, I spotted a large picture frame on the wall. It contained several images of the former post office in my town. It was typical of that turn-of-the-century, Edwardian construction – tall central tower, large windows, red bricks. When I asked what had happened to it, someone said they’d torn it down.

“Any chance they’d ever rebuild something like that?” I asked naively.

“No will. No way,” fellow board members told me.

Publish or perish

It must have been an extraordinary moment. A 40-year-old inventor in the 15th century city of Mainz, Germany, had experimented with metal alloys, molds, a pressing machine and oil-based ink. He took handmade paper, placed it in his press and moved the letters of the alphabet into position to print a 42-line piece of writing. He repeated the process 30 times to create a book. The book was a short Bible. The inventor was Johann Gutenberg. And the invention was history’s first mass printing of the world’s first published book.

“Incomparably the greatest event in the history of the world,” Mark Twain wrote 400 years later.