During the war, Jersey was occupied by the Germans, who used it as the staging point for their planned invasion of England.
With large numbers of slave laborers, they built massive tunnels and other defensive structures to prepare for the next step in their plans.
In France, the war seems – for many people – to have slipped far into the past. But not so here. In the sidewalks, there are many quotes from those who survived the war and the labor camps, and they are hard to ignore.
We also had a wonderful encounter with a Jersey native, Olga, who had many stories about what it was like to live through the war. As a young child, she sometimes had to eat grass or chew on tree bark to put something in her stomach. She told of a routine that she and her father perfected when he took her out scavenging for food for the family – an activity punishable by deportation or death. If stopped, she would put on her best four-year old smile and ask the soldier, “Do you have a little girl like me at home?”
Usually this resulted in a display of photos of the loved ones back in Germany, and she would end the interchange with “Maybe, after the war, your little girl can come visit and we can play together!” This would lead to a pat on the head and permission to hurry home, but she says she still gags when she thinks about saying it. She can also still hear the sound of jackboots on the cobblestones outside her home. An amazing set of stories, and we were so lucky to meet her. Certainly her saucy smile and lovely blue eyes served her well.
Our next tour, on the west side of the island, got us to some dramatic parts of the coast and the headlands where the Germans built their bunkers and installed heavy artillery.
Creepy stuff. But the most dramatic of all was the tour of the German War Tunnels, recently diplomatically renamed the Jersey War Tunnels. This complex was built with slave labor and was intended as a hospital and communications center for the planned invasion of England. Some of the tunnels were unfinished, giving a rather graphic illustration of how hard this job was and how ruthless were its leaders. Other displays illustrate what it was like to live through the occupation of the island. It is so easy to decide how one should have behaved, with the benefit of hindsight. Stay or leave? Co-operate or resist? Hard choices for everyone.
The centerpiece of Saint-Hélier is Liberation Square, next to Liberation House.
Yes, the war is always present here. It’s a little disconcerting to see the number of German tourists visiting these sites. Should have asked Olga what she thinks about them today. And, because we can’t help wondering, what are they thinking?
P.S. As I have been very thoughtfully advised against it, no mention will be made in these pages of another battle, one which took place 200 years ago today involving our host country. You are on your own, whether celebrating or mourning.