11 November 2009

Heidiwitz discovers the Blitz (Remembrance Day)

Nearly a year ago, I found myself in a bus half-way around the world on an island, anxious not to miss my stop and my single shot to see the Tropical Spice Garden in Pulau Penang, Malaysia. In front of me what looks like a laid-back expat retiree or returning tourist. I bend over and ask him whether he knows what stop to get off. He does not only tell me the right stop, he also gives me a very good description how to find the Spice Garden off the main road. Noticing his accent, I ask him if he's from the UK and indeed, he identifies himself as English and returns the question. I can't quite remember how he steered the conversation into that topic - I believe he once visited a war museum or concentration camp in Austria or something like that - but I felt compelled to offer that in Austria, the Holocaust is still very much in the collective memory of the nation, that although it used to be a taboo to teach our parent's generation in school about it, it has become a crucial and central curriculum topic with my generation and is considered so important, it comes up at least once every year in at least one or not seldom two subjects if not more and is chewed over and over so much so that everyone knows about it and it is a matter of frequent public debate on TV etc. I concluded, more rhetorically and sarcastically than literally, that there is hardly any aspect of the war I haven't learned about. The chat continues and I ask him about what the public perception was like in the UK and if it was very badly affected at all. He looks at me, in shock that I did not know, and once he found his speech again tells me that England and especially London was really badly affected during the Blitz. I probably flashed him a blank face at the term Blitz, for his eyes grew even wider. Right on cue, it was his turn to get out of the bus and I was left pondering the gaps in my education.

Although Austria and Germany alike both teach the Holocaust extensively at school, they usually (naturally?) focus on the political events and the Jews in Austria and Germany with a bit of Normandy, Mussolini and Stalin's Russia and Rommel's ops in Africa. They do mention the allies but usually only in conjunction with how they tried to defeat Hitler and liberate Germany and the Jews. The Blitzkrieg was only mentioned in passing and not really elaborated on and apart from Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, the war events in the Pacific were entirely omitted. I made a mental note to look it up and keep my antennas open once back in the UK. When I did read about what was going on in Southeast Asia and London during the war, the scales fell from my eyes.

In WWII, London was one of the most severely destroyed cities in Europe next to Berlin. Bethnal Green, Hackney, Islington, Tottenham and Finchley were among the areas that were bombed the worst during a German raid which prompted the British to attack Berlin and made Hitler so furious he ordered a retaliatory attack. About 43 000 civilians died during an aerial attack the Germans led for 57 consecutive days on London. Other cities affected were those with ports (ie Southhampton and Swansea) as well as industrial centres (ie Liverpool, Birmingham and Coventry). The City of London was hit as well in what would later be coined the Second Great Fire of London (after the one in 1666) and even the fortified Cabinet War Rooms were hit. A famous image became St. Paul's covered in Smoke (you can still see it on pretty many DVD and book covers). Further away, the British Museum was hit (I had known that though) which was why it got its new beautiful and distinctive roof in the first place. A lot of children were evacuated too, from London to the countryside and many to Canada until a number of ships carrying children across the Atlantic were sunk by the German submarines.

Since I am aware that most of my current readership would feel burdened with an extensive account of the War in Southeast Asia, I am not going to elaborate on the events in Malaya, the invasion of Burma, the battle around Ceylon that prompted the British to retreat to Kenya and Japanese war crimes. A good place to start reading up about WWII in the Pacific would be here though.

So, when the poppies were popp(y)ing up in town for upcoming Remembrance Day (an interestingly predominantly white British affair), I decided: What better time to learn about the Blitz and the UK's attitude towards the war?

First stop: Air Raid Shelter
After a ride in a manually operated wooden lift, the doors open into a dimly lit low-ceilinged short tube tunnel lined with bunk beds and wax figures and their possessions in them. The air is rather thick too and I wonder for a moment if the museum is deliberately creating this effect or if it's what the place really smells like. A small table holds a large water kettle and some cups, all operated by the YMCA canteen. A sign above appeals to the morale of the people seeking shelter and says, "If in doubt, brew up!"

It seems unimaginable to think that people actually slept and lived in tube stations and that there was a thriving underground community with bars and canteens etc. On the platforms, there used to be lines to divide living space from walking space.

As this tunnel unfolds, so does a museum with loads of informative stuff and a great collection. A BBC intelligence station, a disabled bomb with warning signs like placed all over London back then. There is info on the voucher system and cigarette cards - Since tobacco was thriving during the war, it was a popular way of disseminating information by inserting cards with instructions on how to make a window shatter-proof, gas-proof, first aid in a gas attack and loads of do-it-yourself advice. A collection of kid's toys shows that Monopoly was even then a hit game and makes one wonder with what simple things children used to entertain themselves before Wii's and other commercial games turned them into avatars. On the more sinister side, you could look at gas maks - and masks that covered babies from head to toe with manual air pump and reservoir attached so it can survive for a while if nobody is handling the pump. Creepy to see gas masks the size for toddlers - but they are still around in other parts of the world.

Other interesting things were rent-a-cakes. Since food supply was scarce (partly directly and indirectly due to the fact that sea imports were affected due to the war) and rationed and people poor, bakeries used to rent out a fake cake for weddings with a small drawer at the bottom, big enough for a tiny piece of real fruit cake for the newly-wed couple.

There also is a soundscape experience where you can sit in a self-made shelter people were taught to build in ditches outside their homes and listen to an air raid siren, German and British airplanes in the sky, an air battle and a bomb being thrown off - it really goes under the skin as you sit in the semi-darkness of a petroleum lamp and experience what it's like to see with your ears. To experience the dreadful seconds of silence between a bomb being thrown off and the moment of its impact.

I also learned about the women "manning" the war factories and taking over farming. Kinda weird to look at a black and white picture of a woman in nothing much of protective clothing apart from an apron putting together the pieces of a bomb or a mine with her bare fingers...!

Second stop: Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum was even more impressive. Some four large floors covering everything from WWI, WWII, crimes against humanity, peacekeeping forces and Korea, Vietnam, Africa etc.

Right next to the entrance are the oral accounts and stories of early veterans from the West Indies serving the British Army. Then follows a huge hall full of planes, tanks and torpedoes. I did not even know there was such a thing as a human torpedo (of which the Italians were the most famous users) the purpose of which was to send two people as quietly as possible (for a sonar) down to the rump of the ship or even submarine to plant a time bomb.

There also is such a thing as a floating bomb (which may seem obvious but I take it as a good sign I never thought about that) which floats like a buoy close to the sea surface and detonates as soon as a vessel hits it and breaks a glass which connects two fluids that galvanise enough electricity to explode a gas. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of those floating in the Channel and around the shores of Europe, especially of France, creating a danger for trade ships and other civilian vessels, not to mention water sport hobbyists.

Speaking of the sea, you can also experience what life is like on a submarine. Toilets or also called "the heads" in nautical English, are very difficult to operate and there are not less than eight different instructions you had to follow in order to flush them. If you do them wrong, you might end up having the contents of the toilet fired back at you. Now there's a comforting thought.

Particularly interesting (in a shocking way) were the emergency evacuation procedures for officers and the "primitive" rebreather you are supposed to use until you reach the surface, especially if you know about the effects of diving on your body. Also quite informative is the challenge to distinguish objects by their sound on the sonar. Is it a cruiser, another submarine, a torpedo or a scuba diver?

But interactive ways of teaching about general warfare aside and back to the UK side of things: During my research about the Holocaust in the UK and more recent genocide around the world, I discovered that Daniel Radcliffe seems to be a "prominent supporter" of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and has narrated a 10min educational short film called Legacy of Hope which you can find here. I guess it adds to a more "grown up" image of the Harry Potter star.

The Holocaust Memorial Day (or HMD for short) takes place every year on 27 January in the UK and started in 2001. There also is a Genocide Memorial Week every spring (around April). While the former tends to conjure events more exclusively related to the Holocaust (to its criticism by some), the latter comes with loads of events covering genocides like those in Rwanda and Cambodia, Rwanda still being one of the less glorious days of Kofi Annan's tenure as UN Secretary General. He was later even quoted by Gil Loescher to have said in an interview (I can't remember with whom), that looking back today, he would not have done anything differently. So many lives lost due to the reluctance to call a genocide by its name for whatever diplomatic reasons. Since the last two decades are known to have seen more internal warfare than international armed conflicts, the reluctance to swing this politically explosive very club at another nation actually also affects the policy towards and therefore fate of many (internally) displaced people today.

The question remains: Has the world learned its history lesson? One thing is for sure: I have had my own today.

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