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Martin Schram: How Reagan-Biden made history at Normandy

Martin Schram, Tribune News Service on

Published in Op Eds

D-Day remembrances come and go. And U.S. presidents come to Normandy and take their turns at making their moments memorable – and then they go.

No president will ever be as inspirationally memorable and genuinely presidential as Ronald Reagan was when he came to Normandy on June 6, 1984. Reagan saluted several dozen elderly Normandy landing veterans in front of him.

“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” America’s 40th president declared. “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

President Joe Biden was under no illusion that he could out-Reagan Reagan when he walked to the microphone at Normandy Cemetery on Thursday.

But Biden may have just made what historians may someday judge to be a historically significant D-Day anniversary speech because of the bold turn he chose to take midway through his address. Biden challenged the United States, Europe and indeed the world to relieve those centenarian veterans and take over the challenge of defeating dictators and assuring that democracy will have a future – including where it is under attack.

Biden had begun his Normandy remarks powerfully yet formulaically, noting that in June 1944, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was seeking to conquer all of Europe and had “murdered” millions of Jews in the Holocaust.

But then Biden turned his speech into a reality-check about today and a blunt warning about tomorrow.

“The struggle between a dictatorship and freedom is unending,” Biden declared Thursday. “…Ukraine has been invaded by a tyrant bent on domination.”

Biden was giving a very non-isolationist, Reaganesque speech on what it means to really make America great again: “We will not walk away, because if we do, Ukraine will be subjugated. …All of Europe will be threatened. To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable. Were we to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches. Make no mistake: We will not bow down. We will not forget.”

As Biden spoke, many in his audience found themselves swept by deeply personal memories. Millions had family members who fought in World War II. Some had other, deeply moving connections.

 

Sitting right in front of Biden, his own Secretary of State Antony Blinken was swept into very personal family feelings. He later told a television interviewer that as his boss spoke about the courageous efforts of those U.S. troops at Normandy 80 years ago, Blinken began thinking about his stepfather – Samuel Pisar – who had been in Nazi concentration camps since age 10. The Normandy landing made possible the gains that ended 11 months later with a U.S. tank crew rescuing his gutsy stepdad, who made a break for freedom, ran toward a U.S. tank and became the only member of his family of Polish Jews to survive the Holocaust.

Pisar went on to become a successful international attorney, famously worked on Holocaust issues and died in 2015. He once described his ordeal and escape in a Boise State Public Radio interview. He was moved from camp to camp, among them: Auschwitz, Dachau and Majdanek.

Pisar survived by quick cunning. Once when everyone was being moved to an uncertain fate, he saw a bucket of water and a brush, crawled to it and began energetically washing the floor – pretending it was his job. The floor washer was spared that day. Another day, guards were searching for tailors to make uniforms. Sam told his guard he wasn’t a tailor – but was a “button-hole maker” – and got another reprieve.

Finally, while hiding in a barn, he heard tank motors. “I looked for the hateful swastika.… Suddenly I saw a five-pointed white star! There I lost my marbles!” The excited young 15-year-old, skeletal, with sunken eyes and a shaved head, ran toward the tanks. Nazis were firing guns but the tanks fired at the gunfire and the shooting stopped. The turret opened and a Black soldier came out with a pistol.

“I fell on my knees, put my arms around his legs to signal him I was a friend in need,” Pisar said. “And I knew a few words of English.” He remembered his mother saying “God bless America.”

“So I yelled, ‘God bless America! God bless America!’ And he picked me up in his arms. …And he led me gently through the hatch, into the womb of freedom.”

And that was the memory that flashed through the mind of America’s secretary of state while his president was speaking at Normandy – the moment his stepfather was saved from the fate that claimed the rest of his family.

“That’s what I was thinking about today,” Blinken told his interviewer at Normandy. “‘God bless America!’ God bless those men who went before us to save the world.”

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©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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