By Judith Geer
A couple of years ago my sister gave me a marvelous Christmas gift – one that provided me with much food for thought. It was a montage of enlargements of pictures our dad had sent back to our mother in 1945 when he was stationed in Paris after World War II.
One day during the summer of 1945, Dad and a buddy carried their cameras around the newly liberated French capital and took pictures of each other in front of the most famous spots. The war in Europe was over and they were excited to share the sights with their families.
When I was gathering my parents’ belongings together after their deaths, I found the worn brown envelope in which my mother had stashed these little photos. Each picture had Dad’s note on the back describing it. He was in almost every shot, a skinny GI in his army uniform, grinning into the camera in front of a café on the Champs-Elysées, in front of Sacre Coeur Basilica, and leaning on a wall by the Seine.
My favorite picture, though, was of Dad standing in the middle of the Champs de Mars with the Eiffel Tower just behind him. On the back he’d written, “I’m standing where Hitler stood,” and when I first saw it, I almost started to cry. Here was my dad, a country boy who’d gone to a one-room school and whose family had lost their farm during the Great Depression, and in this photo he’s standing on the huge military training fields of Paris, the Champs de Mars, right where the dictator of the Third Reich had stood to celebrate his victory after France fell to the Nazis in 1940.
All I could think of when I saw that picture was how symbolic Dad was of all the American guys of similar backgrounds – farmers, factory workers, mechanics – who’d been called to fight an evil fascism and had defeated it. As I gazed at that picture I knew they were there with Dad in spirit.
Dad didn’t make it home for the holidays that year, but thousands of GIs did and a book I read titled “Christmas 1945” detailed the chaos of relocating them from their European and Pacific assignments back stateside before Dec. 25.
Our military called this effort “Operation Santa Claus” and it was complicated not just by transporting massive numbers of service people all at once, but by the weather as well. Remember in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when George Bailey’s war-hero brother shows up on Christmas Eve 1945 after flying in through a blizzard? There really was a snowstorm on Christmas Eve that year and it enveloped the entire East Coast, including Central New York, where that film was supposedly set.
Lots of GIs were stranded in the East then, with no hope of reaching their homes by Christmas, but all over the region citizens opened their community facilities to them, even pooling ration stamps to provide them with holiday feasts and gifts.
It’s important any time, I think, but particularly during this divisive era in our nation’s history, to remember that there was a time when Americans cared about each other, even perfect strangers, almost unconditionally and rejoiced in the fact that a supreme wickedness had been overcome by our own young men and women who had come home at last.
Judith Geer, who lives in Holland, treasures a photo montage of her dad from 1945.