© Photo special to The Guardian
Islander Jonathan Zalewski visited the Brettevill-sur-Laixe Canadian Cemetery in Cintheaux, where he encountered Capitaine Daniel Granotier, the ambassador of the Regiment de la Chaudière.
Jonathan Zalewski never got to meet his grandfather, but during a recent trip to France he was shown appreciation for what his grandfather and other veterans had done.
Zalewski, a Cornwall resident, joined 27 other teachers in France from July 28 to Aug. 6 as part of a Juno Beach Centre Association professional development for educators program.
He said the people the group visited couldn’t thank his grandfather so they tried to pass that thanks down and show they appreciated what Canadian soldiers did to give back what was lost during the German occupation.
“They just gave us such a warm reception and really just showed such appreciation for what the Canadian soldiers had done,” he said.
The tour visited sites where Canadians fought during the First and Second World Wars, including Vimy Ridge, Beaumont-Hamel, Dieppe and Normandy.
It was all part of an educational trip meant to help teachers gain first-hand knowledge of Canadian history and pass it on to their students.
Zalewski said the group was able to talk to French veterans and people who were liberated during the Second World War.
“That was just the most amazing part to get to speak with them and hear what it was actually like during the occupation,” he said.
“Personally I didn’t do anything but they treated us so well because our ancestors had come and given them freedom again.”
Although many people know the history of Canada’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars, most don’t get to experience the battle sites first-hand.
Zalewski said at Beaumont-Hamel the crater impacts were still visible and the group walked through the trenches from the First World War battle.
“You show up and it takes a while to sink in.”
When the group visited Juno and Omaha beaches, where Canadian and American forces landed on D-Day, there were families enjoying them, just like any other beach, Zalewski said.
“It’s hard to realize what actually happened there.”
The trip was an experience Zalewski said he stumbled onto when he found a link in an email to the Juno Beach Centre Association.
From there he applied for the program and was a successful candidate.
“I was really happy that I just kind of fell onto this link,” he said.
Zalewski, who is moving to Halifax for a new teaching job, said he plans to try to incorporate what he experienced into his lessons throughout the year.
“Just trying for future generations so they don’t forget what young soldiers did,” he said.