The sweep of history is inevitably a catalog of ironies. The day before I sat with 150,000 others to listen to President Bush dedicate a memorial to the men who saved the world from twin tyrannies, I became a grandmother of twin granddaughters born in Berlin.
Olivia Violet and Savannah Sadie will grow up as both Americans and Germans in a house at the edge of Prenzlauerberg, a neighborhood that only yesterday was decaying behind the Berlin Wall. Their neighborhood now thrives with shops of young capitalists, filled with art, furniture and stylish clothes.
The twins will enjoy dual citizenship. When the babies arrived, their German father, a landscape architect, was at work on a design for a garden in Potsdam, where President Harry S. Truman, Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sealed the destinies of those who would live behind the Iron Curtain for the next half-century.
The American mother of the twins was herself born on a June 6, exactly 23 years after D-Day. She works as a translator and conducts tours of the Jewish Museum, the site of the Berlin Wall and the Topography of Terror, where the Gestapo took innocents in the middle of the night for interrogations that were way stations to Auschwitz and Treblinka and other destinations of death.
Time heals, or hides, even the deepest wounds of history. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the first German leader to be invited to attend a D-Day anniversary, will join President Bush and heads of 15 other states next Sunday to celebrate - and perhaps regret - the sacrifice of the Allies at Normandy.
Back in the United States, Olivia and Savannah, who will speak German and English, have two older cousins, Teodoro, age 8, and Enrique, age 5. They're the sons of an American mother who once proudly decorated her Halloween costume with a hundred McGovern for President buttons. Their father, a doctor of Chilean birth, demonstrated as a student in Santiago in behalf of Salvador Allende. Teodoro and Enrique will speak both Spanish and English.
If Teodoro, Enrique, Olivia and Savannah had had the rotten luck to have been born 80 years ago, they would have grown up to be mortal enemies. The girls, with a Jewish mother and Catholic father, might not have grown up at all. Such are the iniquities of history. But these great-grandchildren of "the greatest generation" testify to the beacon of light that is the United States.
Their great-grandparents, having come from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Canada, survived both the Great Depression and World War II. Their great-grandfather arrived in America at age 3 from Pinsk, speaking two languages. Neither one was English.
Their great-uncles and cousins (of whatever remove) proudly wore the uniform of the United States and shipped out across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Their great-grandmother was an air raid warden, patrolling Quackenbos Street in the nation's capital to make sure that all the shades were drawn against the Nazi bombers we were sure would soon be on the way.
The family saved newspapers and peeled silver paper from chewing gum wrappers to "help the war effort." We planted Victory Gardens so food could be shipped "to the boys overseas." We were thrilled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and we knew all the words to "God Bless America." We read favorite psalms and recited heartfelt prayers out loud at school (never dreaming we were desecrating the Constitution).
I thought of all this, listening to President Bush dedicate the memorial and sharing the tears of gratitude with the aging men and women around me on the Mall. "With all of our flaws," the president said, "Americans at that time had never been more united."
The greatest generation fought, worked and grieved to save their country and to give others something worth saving, not for pelf and power of empire but because it was the right thing to do.
Bob Dole captured the spirit, calling the memorial "a tribute to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys and that inspired Americans in every generation to lay down their lives for people they will never meet, for ideals that make life itself worth living."
Because of what they did, my new granddaughters, along with their cousins, can share a common heritage of freedom. More than one orator observed on Memorial Day just past that we are not likely to see another such "greatest generation." We must hope they're wrong, while keeping the dream alive for the generation now aborning.