Turckheim, France. In this region of abundant vineyards, cows grazing in the valley of the Vosges Mountains and tranquil villages full of half-timbered buildings that resemble gingerbread houses, it’s difficult to imagine Alsace during World War II. But a dedicated team of volunteers is working hard to paint a vivid picture of the senseless destruction that took place here, more than six months after the D-Day landing in Normandy.
To do that, they have assembled objects large and small from that epoch, found mostly in the area devastated by war. Items range from weapons and uniforms; to an American field kitchen complete with mess tins; to a cockpit hood and 18-cylinder airplane engine. The latter came from a P-47 fighter shot down by a German anti-aircraft battery. It was discovered in 1991 by a farmer working in his field.
Superbly curated in the Musée Mémorial des Combats de la Poche de Colmar, such items tell the story of the Battle of the Colmar Pocket – a brutal, three-month military campaign from November 1944 to February 1945.
Alsace had been annexed by the Nazis in 1940, and for more than four years its citizens endured their occupation. Young men were forcibly conscripted into the German army. The names of some villages, and even streets, were changed; what is now Avenue de la République, in the city of Colmar, was renamed Adolf Hitler Strasse. Relentless and determined efforts by American and French troops in the area between Strasbourg and Colmar – what became known as the Colmar Pocket – finally led to the complete liberation of Alsace in February of 1945. One can trace the path of liberation by current street names in local villages: for example, rue du 5 Decembre in Beblenheim and Riquewhir; and rue de 25 Janvier in Illhaeusern and Zellenberg.
By then there had been at least 22,000 casualties (about 8,000 of them American servicemen), and entire villages had been ravaged. Ribeauvillé, site of the annual medieval-themed Pfifferdaj festival, which my husband and I attended on our first day in the area, had been bombarded by German fire. Ammerschwihr, where we participated in a festival to celebrate the grape harvest, had been 85 percent destroyed. As the village was rebuilt, the façade of the old hôtel de ville (town hall), pockmarked with bullet holes, was left standing to commemorate those who lost their lives. (See the photo at the top of this post.)
From the rubble there and elsewhere, survivors gathered the remains of war, Christian Burgert, curator of the Musée Mémorial, told me in a recent interview. Some were kept purely as souvenirs. Others were repurposed by people left homeless or impoverished by the war. Coats and shoes taken off the bodies of fallen soldiers replaced their own tattered clothing. A helmet might be turned into a bowl.
Discarded U.S. Army rations became a source of food, but some people, with a sense of history, saved the empty cans and boxes. Today they sit in a display case, frozen in time along with other items that were part of an American meal package: tiny boxes of cereal and cocoa; biscuits; matches; a packet of Wrigley chewing gum; and Raleigh cigarettes.
Everything in the museum has been donated, Burgert says, much of it by children and grandchildren of the World War II generation. After a loved one died, as houses were emptied, a wide variety of items turned up.
It took five years of curating to turn them into a museum, now housed in the vault of an 18th-century building that was a refuge for townsfolk during World War II. Burgert, a former gendarme (policeman) with four children, devoted evenings and weekends to the project. A friend who visited archives in Washington, D.C. and Paris provided him with documents and photos. Burgert used them to create historically accurate dioramas from the donated objects.
The detail in these displays is exquisite. In one, which depicts the daily life of U.S. GIs from the 3rd infantry division in the village of Bennwihr in December 1944, a soldier sits reading a copy of the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Another contains a field desk that belonged to Major General Henri de Vernejoul, who commanded some of the Allied troops that ultimately liberated Alsace. On top of the desk is his briefcase, strewn with ordnance survey maps. To one side, on a small table, is a field telephone; on the other, a mannequin dressed as a radio operator, complete with headphones, mans a switchboard while another soldier looks on.
The museum’s diverse collection of uniforms and equipment – from German, French and American forces – made it possible to construct these displays completely out of original items. In outdoor scenes, some of the mannequins are even clothed in the white camouflage that soldiers wore to blend into the especially harsh winter landscape.
Some of the museum’s most prized acquisitions were attained after it opened, as descendants of war heroes heard about the collection. For example, the family of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, commander of the French First Army, donated his kepi hat and summer jacket, both decorated with five stars to indicate his rank. Other items with a distinguished provenance include a duffel bag and helmet that belonged to General de Vernejoul. They are arranged in a showcase with a photograph of him wearing such a hat.
But the items that moved me most belonged to unknown soldiers. There’s a lovingly assembled Overseas Shipper package to an American infantryman who apparently never ate the enclosed box of Chuckles candy. On metal drinking cups, two soldiers etched the names of all the towns they fought in while on campaign.
The museum, which has expanded to three large halls since it opened in 1993, is still growing. A flyer distributed to visitors echoes the appeal on the museum’s website for donations of documents, uniforms and memorabilia. But its already impressive collection makes it a must-see for visitors to Alsace.
Even for those who can’t make the journey anytime soon, there are takeaways for today’s turbulent and unpredictable times. As I stood in the Musée Mémorial, pondering the tremendous toll of war, I recalled the aphorism from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
IF YOU GO. Musée Mémorial des Combats de la Poche de Colmar, 25 rue du Conseil, Turckheim. Open April to October during these hours: Wednesday to Saturday 2:00 to 6:00; Sunday 10:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 to 6:00. Admission is €4, plus €2 for the optional but excellent audio guide.
FURTHER READING. For background before you go, Nathan N. Prefer’s book Eisenhower’s Thorn on the Rhine: The Battles for the Colmar Pocket, 1944-45 covers the subject comprehensively. The souvenir book, The Savage Battle of the Colmar Pocket, by Hugues-Emmanuel Thalmann, is for sale in English at the Musée Mémorial.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.