I recall an American General who at his retirement event from overseeing the war in Afghanistan, said that there were young men coming into the service who did not experience the original impact of 9/11. Mainly because they were born so after the fact. He said it is time for us to move on and get out. There are still threats there but the passion to fight them is no longer the same. It has been 17 years since…
While riding in the country side outside of Lyon, we headed to the Beaujolais region to see the vineyards and taste their wines. The harvest was in motion and as we passed them by I asked where the workers came from. Mainly from Poland apparently.
They traveled from vineyard to vineyard. The grapes grow low to the ground here on steep ridges, so this is very hard work. Harder than in Sonoma or Napa.
Our guide this day was a very tall Frenchmen, with a long beard, he looked like a lion. He wore bright pants and a very cool colorful tee shirt. I was not sure what to expect but was amazed by his excellent English with no clumsy accent. He sounded as if he lived in SF or LA. He was born and raised in Lyon and loved this region and his country. He was also very knowledgeable, a history major actually – and to our benefit.
It was on the way between stops that he began to share with us the story of the people of Beaujolais during World War II. Interesting things like how they had saved 75% of the Jews in the Beaujolais region. And how they have not forgot the events of those time. How they try to relay to their youth of today why they too should remember and be thankful to the Americans. Hmm, and this while we were on a wine tasting tour.
He went on at length though. He said the French had caved early on in the war just 48 days into Hitler’s armed maneuver in to France. The French held a defensive line but the Germans simply out flanked them, entering through a forested area the French simply did not expect. So they surrendered. A sad and desperate moment for France. The armistice agreement called for dividing France into two sections, one heavily controlled by the fierce Gestapos, and Beaujolais which was less intruded as it was viewed as “just a wine region”, and non-threatening. But the Germans miscalculated. The French Resistance grew here and with a passion and shrewdness the Germans had not anticipated.
Our guide; John (the Lion) was relentless and passionate in his descriptions while telling this story. Beaujolais lost many men during this time. But none so famous as the young 17 men who volunteered and sacrificed their lives to protect the region from a second intrusion. This time into Beaujolais.
The Germans were getting nervous and frustrated. Patton’s army had invaded Africa and other trading countries with France. The Resistance was becoming a nuisance and an embarrassment for Hitler. So he forfeited the Armistice agreement and entered Beaujolais with a force of 1,500 men. The young men of Beaujolais knew they were out numbered but vowed to fight to the bitter end. Until each had perished. They made a solemn vow to do this. The people of Beaujolais knew of this too. Yes, the boys lost their lives and the German’s did enter the region and made life miserable. But the people did not forget the boys. In fact, their lives and bravery are celebrated each year in the villages of Beaujolais to this very day.
John went on with his story, on the bus you could not hear a sound as all were enraptured by his emotional description of these events. It was as if we were all there too with him recounting the horror and terror of the time. He went on. The Americans finally took Normandy but it would be months before the people could cheer and express their hope and happiness that soon they would be liberated from the Nazis. They kept silent. It would be but just a few more months before they could taste their freedom. But it did come and what a huge relief for the region and of course the country.
John went on, “I know some of you think or have heard that the French do not like Americans. This is completely untrue’, he said. It is like a rumor with an unknown beginning. The truth is the French people have never forgotten what the Americans and the allied armies had done for them. Young lives lost from the US, Canada, Australia, UK and many other countries to liberate France. Just as the people of Beaujolais celebrate their lost soldiers, they too honor those countries who freed them. We love you he said. He said it again and even a third time. It was not corny coming from the Lion. It was so emotional I know there were many tears on the tour bus. Silence for a moment as he paused. And then clapping slowly … then more clapping into a loud applause. Cheering and tearing.
I have traveled for many years to many places. Been on many tours and have listened to many tour guides, but none as moving as this one.
We may wonder what our children, or our children’s children, will think of war. In France they certainly do. Families in the US who have members who serve – they know. Do we remember so we can avoid future travesties? Do we honor the fallen and the walking wounded among us? This part of France seems to echo the past, it is woven into the smallest villages where many were drafted as they were often the poorest, and leaders thought would be missed the least. And now there are memorials, some with the name of every person lost to World War I or II from that village. Missed the least? …not even years later.
Fortunately, we got to spend more time with him as he took us through a chateau tasting at Chateau des Ravatys. That was a story unto itself where the vineyard owner lost his only son in the war. He had wanted to leave the estate to his son. Crestfallen, he decided to leave it to a niece. She was a nurse who knew nothing of farming but managed to keep the vineyards thriving for many years and upon her death, as she had no children, so she designated that any profits made annually were to now go to the Pasteur Institute.
So somehow in all of this we received much more than a wine tasting. Merci Lyon (and many thanks to our wonderful historian Lion).