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Emily Hess, Elizabethtown Area High School, Elizabethtown, PA

Finding My Voice

Apprehension, anticipation, determination - these emotions must have churned through the minds of Allied troops on June 6, 1944 as they commenced with the long-awaited Normandy landing. I imagine they felt pride in their mission and relief that the day was imminent, yet also trepidation about unknown challenges they would face. The invasion heralded a massive cooperative effort critical to the defeat of Nazi tyranny and could not have succeeded without careful planning, meticulous preparation, and widespread support. On that cloudy morning, advancing Allied soldiers had little time for doubt - only courage bolstered by the knowledge that they fought against a spreading evil. I am honored to remember their sacrifice and learn from how they overcame incredible obstacles to achieve victory.

More than a generation after that historic day, I stood trembling before an outdoor microphone on a brisk April morning. My hands shook as I scanned the crowd for familiar faces. Was I nervous? Absolutely. Determined? Yes. Despite many challenges, I was ready. I swallowed, smiled, and began to read.

My parents initially thought my garbled toddler phrases a childish idiosyncrasy. They recorded amusing mispronunciations in my baby book. When I spoke, the letters caught and tangled in my throat. Sentences crowded in my brain and I talked too fast; my choppy speech tripped over itself. I was referred to a speech therapist by an elementary teacher who couldn’t understand me, but the exercises were arduous, my progress slow. Almost naturally I turned to writing, delighted by the way my thoughts transitioned easily from brain to page, the smooth rhythm of pen and paragraph. Unable to penetrate school social circles, I instead befriended the librarian, even eating my lunch in her tiny office. She encouraged me in both reading and writing, and I was comfortable in the silence of the written word.

Three years ago, prompted by my history teacher, I wrote about the lessons my generation can learn from the Holocaust. When local judges chose my essay to be presented at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony, I was too excited to realize that accepting this honor would require me to read aloud in front of hundreds of people.

In the following weeks, I struggled to orate my essay. Speech therapy had curbed my impediment enough for casual conversation, but I still felt anxious about speaking publicly. My teacher informed me that spectators would include not only journalists but also actual Holocaust survivors. I balked at reading before this honored crowd, yet I knew the responsibility placed on me demanded my valiant effort.

Before the Yom Hashoah ceremony, I read each line over and over, testing the words to memorize every curve and cadence. With my foreign language teacher I agonized over the pronunciation of difficult German surnames. I practiced with anyone who would listen, and each time the knot in my throat diminished. Slowly, my confidence grew, until I knew I was ready.

Allied forces began preparing for Operation Overlord over a year before D-Day. Immense planning and decisive leadership, along with the coordination of every soldier who provided air support or landed along that 50-mile stretch of French Coastline, made the Normandy invasion one of history’s greatest military successes. Some 150,000 troops from twelve nations, supported by over 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft, assaulted the Normandy beaches and took the first step in the ultimate defeat of the Third Reich. Uncounted are millions who also played vital roles in the war effort: women working in factories, meteorologists, geologists, Red Cross nurses, war-bond salesmen, Victory Gardeners, and even civilians who “knit their bit” so that soldiers could have warm socks. All of these, the “man (or woman) behind the man behind the gun” played critical roles in the eventual Allied victory. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” This statement highlights the importance of belief in what you do and the courage to see it through.

My years of speech therapy, uncomfortable orthodontics and corrective jaw surgery were small trials in comparison to the tremendous hardship endured by those who stood against the Third Reich. Today the only remnant of my struggles is a slight catch on the letters, apparent only to one listening for it. Although I would never presume to equate any experience I have faced in my reasonably comfortable life with the monumental heroism of those involved in World War II, their examples can still inspire others to acts of courage today.

Hours of practice couldn’t eliminate the qualms that overwhelmed me when I faced the crowd. How much easier it might have been to decline, to feign illness or prior obligations! But even as the thought of speaking filled me with dread, I persevered. The Yom Hashoah ceremony was for me an endeavor which required careful planning, practice, and support from others, including my family, teachers and speech therapists. I could only succeed because I believed in the value of the message I presented - a challenge to my generation to learn from those whose lives exemplified courage and to advocate for justice and compassion. To speak despite my apprehension was to pay homage to those who overcame struggles to stand against hatred and oppression, those who sheltered Jews at great peril, or soldiers who plunged down the boat ramps and then swam, ran, and crawled to the Normandy cliffs. Faced with a constant onslaught of enemy fire, with over two-hundred yards of beaches between the sea and the first source of cover, the Allied soldiers risked their lives, determined to fight or die for right and morality. Decades later, I added my own small, measured voice to that cacophony of memory, all the lives lost, given, saved, and taken, and all those living on, asserting: "Never Again."

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Student Travel – WWII Educational Tours
High school and college students, learn the leadership principles that helped win WWII on a trip to France or during a weeklong residential program in New Orleans. College credit is available, and space is limited.

See You Next Year! HS Yearbooks from WWII
Collected from across the United States, the words and pictures of these yearbooks present a new opportunity to experience the many challenges, setbacks and triumphs of the war through the eyes of America’s youth.

The Victory Gardens of WWII
Visit the Classroom Victory Garden Project website to learn about food production during WWII, find lesson plans and activities for elementary students, get tips for starting your own garden and try out simple Victory Garden recipes!

The Science and Technology of WWII
Visit our new interactive website to learn about wartime technical and scientific advances that forever changed our world. Incorporates STEM principles to use in the classroom.

Kids Corner: Fun and Games!
Make your own propaganda posters, test your memory, solve puzzles and more! Learn about World War II and have fun at the same time.

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