When the grail was (briefly) regained

Some things are hard to forget. A girl’s smiling eyes, for instance, and how they hinted at an indefinable sorrow. As if they had long seen death was near.

Or the synchronized ballet of a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers whose success hinged on the perfect concert of land, sky, sea and stealth.

Anne Frank’s fifteen-year-old fingers were still writing the story of her life in her diary, seemingly safe in her hiding place in an Amsterdam building, when Allied forces began their invasion of Normandy. 

History’s largest amphibious assault — timed to coincide with right weather conditions and lunar phases — would liberate Paris from its German occupiers and go on to change the course of the Second World War.

It was June 6, 1944. D-Day had started with air attacks and naval bombardments on the northern coast of France as part of Operation Overlord. The final count of men pressed into this mission would eventually cross two million, soldiers drawn from the United States, Britain, Canada, the Free French Forces and a host of other countries, war rations in their backpacks with cigarettes for respite.

The world had united against a rogue worldview of destructive revenge, exclusion by race and birth and strange notions of supremacy; toxic mix that can turn even love to bile.

Now, seventy-six years on, maybe it’s time to ponder if the men who hurled themselves against Erwin Rommel’s “Atlantic Wall” — a 2,400-mile fortification of bunkers and landmines — had succeeded in their pursuit of the elusive grail of freedom.

By early August, however, Anne Frank had lost her own freedom, yanked from her secret shelter by German police and locked up in a concentration camp along with other Jews like her. A few months later, possibly sometime in early 1945, she was dead. One more victim of the Holocaust. 

Her diary, written between 1942 and 1944, her own private thoughts on her life in hiding under German occupation of the Netherlands; words she would cover with her hands at the slightest hint of intrusion, lay behind to be salvaged later.

She would have been 91 today but little seems to have changed in the intervening years, at least in the way some of us see those different from us by accidental attributes of birth — whether in the destructive perversity of the knee or cricket dressing-room taunt.

Anne Frank had dug deep into her young heart but, faced with the pitiless indifference of the universe, had resigned to posterity her voice of liberty in suffering.

A few hundred miles away, “liberty” had already burst like a “bomb” on the land of Napoleon Bonaparte about a year and a half earlier — not on the field of war but on the willing complacence of subjugated Paris.  

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play, The Flies, an adaptation of an ancient Greek tragedy, premiered in the summer of 1943. The chain-smoking writer-philosopher had dodged past his Nazi censors to put on stage situations he said threw light on aspects of the human condition.

Sartre wove in themes like commitment, resistance, choice and freedom in the allegorical play where the flies, or the avenging Furies, torment Orestes, the central character, for his refusal to accept guilt and feel remorse.

Orestes had murdered his mother, Queen Clytemnestra, and the present king, Aegisthus, to avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder. Zeus, the controlling god of human destiny, demands that he repent but Orestes refuses, thus taking responsibility for his actions. He eventually leaves the city of Argos, the tormenting Furies after him, a kind of Pied Piper-like figure who makes a conscious choice, embraces his freedom to choose and takes upon himself the real or imagined sins of his people.

Few would have missed what Sartre was trying to convey in those fraught times when German and Vichy propaganda was urging the French to submit.

“It was impossible to mistake the play’s implications; the word Liberty, dropped from Orestes’s mouth, burst on us like a bomb,” feminist writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir had said of the play.

It was still more than a year to go before the tide would turn in the war. By August-end 1944, Paris had been liberated and the Germans driven from northwestern France, effectively wrapping up the Normandy invasion.

In the following year — in early May — Nazi Germany formally surrendered. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30. 

A few months later, in August, two devastating bombs would change the political and economic alignment of the world. Freedom would be in peril again. It is in this context that Anne Frank, the Normandy invasion and Sartre’s play need to be seen today.

So what links the three, apart from their proximity in time and a shared backdrop? A girl who dreamt of becoming a journalist but died young; soldiers, many barely out of their teens, who charged into machinegun fire as they breached the Atlantic Wall, and a public intellectual who insisted on a way of life he defined as authenticity. 

Each played their part in the struggle for freedom, like many before them and after, from the astronomer Galileo who chose personal humiliation to save science from the convenience of visible illusion, to the revolutionary Che Guevara who fought to free a land different from that of his birth and died in another.

History works in subliminal ways; countless acts recorded on time’s expanding canvas have gone unnoticed in the actors’ lifetime, overlooked perhaps for posthumous recognition.

The Diary of Anne Frank, an expression of the individual mind in adversity, is an example of that.

“Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank,” John F. Kennedy had said of her in a 1961 speech.

Some, like the Invasion of Normandy, have drilled themselves into instant memory as turning points in history.

Others have been subtle, like Sartre’s play, in their push for choice and freedom, both collective and individual.

Years later, sometime in the sixties, President Charles de Gaulle must have recognised how important that was when he ordered Sartre’s release after the writer’s arrest for civil disobedience.

“You don’t arrest Voltaire,” the French President had reportedly said.

Surely, there’s a message in that too.

5 thoughts on “When the grail was (briefly) regained

  1. Sublime. I like the magic weave of many characters from different continents into the flag of Liberty. It’s your best yet!


  2. History works in subliminal ways…truly said, and something one needs to hear especially in these days where brutalising history into a desired mould is the norm.


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