“The ugly American isn’t the only kind the world knows”
The liberation of France carries immense meaning for Americans as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the historic Allied invasion of Normandy. For Coleman Warner, a special assistant to Museum President Nick Mueller, this marker in time jogged memories of a column published on July 4, 1983 in the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, headlined, “The ugly American isn’t the only kind the world knows.” The author is Raad Cawthon, a semi-retired writer who recently visited our Museum with his wife, photojournalist Karena Cawthon. WWII service looms large in their family histories.
In 1970 when I was getting ready to take my first trip to Europe, an English friend said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t go as an American.”
He meant, I think, not to go as the ugly American – that overblown tourist who thinks the world is supposed to cater to him, to speak his language, cook his food and make him happy.
Still, my friend’s suggestion took me aback. I had never in 20 years been beyond the boundaries of my own country. I assumed, as so many of us do, that if people in other lands didn’t love Americans, they at least respected them.
As with most assumptions, I was wrong.
Since that first trip I have traveled abroad a good bit and I know Americans are often thought of as too rich, too big, too pushy, too egocentric, and too demanding. And, unfortunately, the people who think that are too often correct.
But frequently, if he takes the time, an American abroad will find others who remember and feel differently.
Her name was Maria and I met her one winter day in a café in Paris.
The café, with its long zinc bar, was in a quarter of Paris known as “The Swamp.” The quarter, one of the oldest in Paris, consists of a warren of twisting streets where merchants hawk their goods and laundry is perpetually strung from the windows of second, third, and fourth-floor apartments.
“The Swamp” is Paris’ Jewish quarter, and many of the people walking its streets have a dark, almost gypsy cast to their features.
Maria was one of those. Her nose was wide and blunt, slightly upturned, and her nostrils flared when she talked. Her eyes made horizontal slits across the broad deep lines of her dark face. Black hair, thick and wavy, framed the eyes. Yet, I had not noticed her until she spoke.
“Are you English?” Maria said to me as she leaned forward from a group of women settled in a corner of the café.
“Ah, I was here when the Americans came.”
Maria’s voice was husky and her English was thick and broken.
“Is that right?” I said, wondering what the strange old woman wanted.
“There was such joy, such joy.” Maria’s gaze left my face and her voice grew thin with memory. She took a sip of coffee. “I remember the Americans. They were so big and happy. They would smile all the time and give us chewing gum.”
The world was enflamed during the time Maria was remembering. The gum-wielding Americans came not as tourists or expatriates, but wearing khaki and carrying the guns of war.
“The English were so ugly and reserved. But the Americans …” Maria covered her mouth with the tips of her fingers and smiled. Tears welled in her eyes. “We danced in the streets and gave them wine and flowers. I did not go with them but I found them women who would.
“If the Americans had not come, we would have all died. They (Nazis) took my friends away. They took them away and killed them. They buried my husband alive. If the Americans had not come, we would have all died. The Americans came to die for us. We have not forgotten.”
The movement was unexpected when Maria pulled up the shaggy sleeve of her shapeless black overcoat to show me, on the inside of her lower left arm, a tattoo – a broken Star of David.
“They took us away. They took my husband and my child. I never left Paris. I don’t know why. I was released and I went back every day to ask for my family. They were all gone. After it was over a friend who was there told me that my husband had been buried alive. No other word ever came.”
The winter light glistened off the tears in Maria’s eyes.
“I never cried. Never.”
Maria’s friends in the café, old, dark women like herself, listened to what she said. They nodded to me and one had tears flowing unwiped down her cheeks. Another leaned forward to stroke Maria’s hair.
The Nazi trains, with Jews crammed into wooden cattle cars, rolled out of Paris eastward toward the death camps for years. In the streets of “The Swamp” the Parisian Jews were isolated. In the dark streets, where the sun shines only at midday, the Jews went about their business with a Star of David pinned to their clothes. The ancient symbol of their faith became a magnet to draw the German hand of death.
And what of her French countrymen?
“They were with the Germans,” Maria said. “They did nothing. They were with them.”
Maria reached over and placed a hand on my arm.
“If the Americans had not come, we would have all died. I do not forgive the Germans. It was too much. They come now to Paris and I have nothing for them. It is not in me to forgive.”
As abruptly as our conversation had begun Maria rose from her chair.
“This is our corner,” she said, gathering her friends with a wave of her hand. “Every day we come here.”
I stood and took her hand. She smiled at me and said “Goodbye.” The other women, rising and following Maria, each stopped for a moment and, taking my hand, said “Au revoir.” They all smiled at me.
The leathery hands slipped in and out of mine and then they were gone from the café and into the streets of “The Swamp.”
The day, once sunny and bright, was dark now. It was beginning to snow.
I stood in the café alone knowing Maria’s voice would stay with me always.
“If the Americans had not come, we would have all died.”
Happy birthday, my country.