ABOARD THE VIKING KARA – We walked down cobblestone streets, turned in a gated courtyard and ended up at the entrance to an 18th century cellar. If tour guide Malcolm Waddell hadn’t been leading us, we probably would never have discovered this off-the-beaten path museum.
But what a treasure house it is. “The things in here are worth a fortune,” said Jerry, one of the few passengers on my Viking Kara cruise who opted to take the World War II tour.
“I’ve visited other war museums and they don’t have anything like what you see here,” Jerry said. “I never expected this and am so glad I decided to come.”
So am I.
Apart from Normandy, the areas of France most bitterly defended by the Germans were Alsace and Lorraine. The primary reason for the strong German defense of these regions is that Alsace and Lorraine were claimed as part of Germany and would be defended as vigorously as any other German soil.
It all came to a head on Nov. 24, 1944, when Hitler launched a do-or-die fight for the Colmar region, the last bastion of Germany in France. Most important were the bridges over the Rhine since this was how supplies were delivered. Bitter fighting in winter 1944/45 centered around the town of Colmar and became known as the Colmar Pocket.
Hitler’s Nordwind Strike
On a freezing cold January dawn in 1945, the residents of this tranquil area awoke to the startling sound of artillery. This land of fairytale villages and picturesque vineyards was now the battleground of Hitler’s final major offense which he had code named Nordwind. While a last-ditch German operation against American and French forces swirled around them, civilians were caught in the middle.
“For 10 weeks, people of Turckheim hid in this cellar, sleeping on the floor without any water or electricity,” Waddell said. “Remember that when you are walking through here … Turckheim was liberated by American troops on Feb. 4, 1945.”
It was this cellar, grateful citizens decided, where a museum should be created to honor all those who fought – civilians and soldiers alike – for freedom. It would become a place of honor for all those who helped drive a stake through the heart of the Third Reich.
With the assistance of history buffs and local officials, the museum was opened on Nov. 11, 1993. It was enlarged in 2001 and now covers two exhibition rooms filled with memorabilia and photographs detailing the long deadly struggle.
Although the many weapons and graphic scenes may be difficult to see, museum founders wanted to be sure people never forgot.
I know that cruises often are getaways from the cares of the world. But I chose to take this World War II tour because my father and many of my uncles served during that time. They left family, loved ones, jobs and homes to travel to far-off places. Many of them did not return. It was a way, I felt, to help understand some of what my father – who never would talk about the war – went through in Europe.
Before we lost the light of day, we stopped at the American Memorial at Sigolsheim. This memorial commemorates the American units who were involved in the liberation of the Alsace in World War II. The American flag was flying briskly in the breeze.
Many French soldiers died in this bloody battle and are laid to rest in a cemetery just a short walk from the American monument. Some people in the U.S. think the French don’t appreciate what America did in World War II. Visit any of these sites, talk to the people who live here and see how wrong that is.
At Sigolsheim a man standing with his wife looking over the vast scene heard me talking and guessed correctly that I was an American. Then he thanked me. I did nothing. But he said he knew that most likely some family member had come to this far-flung place to help defend people my family didn’t know. Very true.
At the museum we saw artifacts such as uniforms worn by soldiers on all sides of the war along with personal items like letters, photographs and much more. One case contains a ration package with some canned food, crackers, a pack of Camel cigarettes, Wrigley Chewing Gum and candy bar.
I do remember my dad saying that if you didn’t smoke when you went into the war, you sure did by the time you came out.
Vignettes recreate scenes from the war with uniformed mannequins and accurate weapons and settings. Exhibit information is presented in French, English, and German. A film from the time depicts each phase of the battle, not forgetting the outcome for the civilian population.
A case on Hitler and his Nazi regime contains an autographed photo of Hitler, his cognac glass from the Eagle’s Nest, a copy of Mein Kampf that Hitler gave to all newlyweds, officer insignias, hats with swastikas and much more.
“If anyone ever doubts what Hitler did and what he wanted to do, all they have to do is come to this museum,” Waddell said. “The evidence is here.”
A large handmade American flag with 48 stars is hung behind protective glass at the front of the museum. “This flag was made by a woman here and hung out for all to see,” Waddell said. “Do you know how dangerous that was for someone to do? The woman could have been killed for doing that.”
The museum is not intended to glorify World War II or any war, Waddell said. “It is a museum for peace rather than war,” he said.
“People in the Colmar Pocket went through hell as did many other places during World War II… People need to remember that freedom is not free.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch