Elizabeth Bernheim on creating hope and joy to defeat despair

Many years ago I cried my heart out while watching Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Life is Beautiful, in which a father does everything in his power to protect his young son from the horrors of the war and life in a concentration camp. How can such horrors be hidden or disguised?

Hiding from war is something we all do. To forget and move on. Yet every year in early September a crowd gathers to commemorate the exodus from France to Italy to escape German forces. The crowd is made up of a few locals, survivors and descendants, members of the local Jewish community and others interested in commemorating the exodus.

For me this memorial has mixed messages. Are we commemorating those who died and celebrating those who survived? Are we aiming to create a message to prevent this from happening again?

In September 2003, with a four year old and seven year old, we made our first family ascent to the Col de Fenestre. This was not a fun day out, this was a memorial walk, with no option for turning back, and, we hoped, some understanding of why we were doing the walk.

We discussed hiding – where could we hide – rocks and trees. What could we eat… a much bigger problem! And how fast could we go if we were being chased. This last point raised many questions. Why were people chased into the mountains? Who was chasing them? And why were the refugees trying to go up the mountain? The next walk in 2005 and the questions remained. But this time I was asked, why were the Italians different?

Which brings me back to why?

What brings us back to this walk in the mountains every year? To relive the past, to talk to other survivors, to bring families together from across the world, to celebrate life.

These memorial marches have their moments of great sadness, especially at the col where we stand between two countries, between remembering the dead and survivors. But more importantly they have become moments of great bonding and joy.

Out of the horrors of war we have made new friends from Israel, America, Canada, England, Northern Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium … we have walked, and talked, and had long convivial meals. We have celebrated weddings and births, discussed history, books, films….

Just as Benigni’s character strove to see the joy in life to protect his son, we create joy to defeat the horror of the war.

Elizabeth Bernheim

I moved to St Martin Vésubie in 2002, a few days before the walk, without being aware of the Marche or knowing much about it. It was not until 2003 that we did the walk – up to the Col de Fenestre – still not knowing many people and largely dealing with two small children and unaware of the walk in the alternate years to the Col de Cerise. With each year we became more involved, and the Marche has become a major highlight of the year.

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