Victory in Europe Day - commemorating VE Day 2021
The 76th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, 8th May 1945 is a day of mixed emotions; of turmoil and relief, joy, and sadness, just as it was 76 years ago for so many. Also called V Day, 8th May 1945 is now often marked by quiet ceremonies, moments of reflection at cemeteries or in private, village or town gatherings. In France it is officially marked in Paris by the President of the Republic and although it was pared back last year, due to the pandemic, the tradition is to relight the eternal flame at the grave of the unknown solider under the Arc de Triomphe and to lay a wreath. Watch last year's commemoration here. There might be flag-waving or parades, storytelling of victories and relief that Europe was liberated from the Nazi regime, but commemoration is the order of the day, rather than outright celebration. As time goes by and we lose so many of the generation who lived through their experience of WWII, how can we mark VE Day as the special day it is? At its heart, this day reminds us of the immense privilege of freedom.
How can we remember with respect and acknowledge the immense diversity of experiences of the wartime era? Not everyone was a resistor, not everyone was a hero.ine. Some were persecuted, some not, some lived in Occupied countries and some people served in far flung places. There is nuance, there is grey, there is moral outrage and difficulty. It's an enormous subject and one I cannot do justice to fully, but I have gathered some excellent resources for taking your interest further. (Scroll down to the post to the Reading Room of resources, including books, films, documentaries.)
By gaining a better and more nuanced understanding of this period of history for myself, I feel like I can learn with more perspective than when I was taught (very patchy history) at school. I hope to be able to bring this deeper understanding into a commitment to good, up-to-date education on the subject for my family and for young people everywhere. I come from Britain where my family's storytelling around this period is from a set of perspectives which have also been rounded out over time with some national storytelling of pride, sacrifice, stoicism, and joy at being 'victorious'. Wartime is part of the national identity. As an adult I appreciate more that history is much more of a tangle than that. War is so much more than wins and losses. People do things within your family, nation, or religion that you cannot believe or understand. That dissonance through the generations is not to be ignored, in my opinion. Sometimes what we are taught falls short of tackling the uncomfortable truths and aspects, which is the same for WWII history as it is for colonial history, race, and society. Of course, I wonder after all this time, have we learnt the lessons from history?
Today on the blog, I could write the longest post on almost everything I find interesting about this period of twentieth century history. But I will save you from a 3-hour read!
Instead, I'm going to share some books, resources and thoughts on family, memory, and storytelling so that if you would like to improve or extend your understanding of WWII and the war in Europe you might find some starting points here.
A brief note on perspectives: I come from Great Britain, born long after the war, a European in nature and a Francophile and so the perspective I have is thoughtful, self-reflexive and somewhat critical but nevertheless a bit British. I explore resources and stories in France and the war in Europe. For more on other theatres of war, some of the overview resources can be highly informative but they are beyond the scope of this blog post.
Come explore the period with me with the clear voices of the people who truly experienced it.
Victory in Europe - Liberation and mixed feelings
WWII had not entirely come to an end on 8th May 1945 when Hitler's regime surrendered and in fact VJ Day is not until August 1945 for the war in Japan and Asia-Pacific. In Europe there was a continent of destruction, misery, and chaos and still so much work to be done for people to find true peace. No wonder then that so many people felt a strange, uncomfortable mixture of emotions on VE Day. Their lives had endured 6 years of "there's a war on" and all was set to change again. What could everyone hope for in the post-war era? Slowly emerging out of the darkness of the war would take longer than perhaps anyone thought.
We're all familiar with the images of the thousands who gathered in Trafalgar Square and across central London, or the throng outside the Palace waiting for the Royal family and Winston Churchill or the hundreds of people in Times Square in New York City. By many accounts it was a day of immense relief and joy and celebrations that went on far into the night in many cities. Paris partied with immense joy, as this picture shows from the Champs-Elysées.
Paris celebrations wearing the flags of the Allies:
The surrender was signed in Reims, historic city of the coronation of French kings and the site of Eisenhower's War Room (pictured below).
You can read de Gaulle's VE Day broadcast here.
But just like the images that don't show us everything, they tell us part of a story and some of the feelings. For many, VE Day was another day of war, another day incarcerated or a day when they wondered if this was really what 'victory' was supposed to feel like. As Nicholson notes in 'Millions Like Us',
With the public rejoicing came private mourning, for the destruction of homes and belongings, for the theft of six years of youth, for relatives, friends and lovers who were not alive to see the peace. One young woman would never forget standing motionless amid a frenzied crowd, haunted by the thought of her brother, who remained 'Missing In Action'. (p311)
Why does VE Day matter after 76 years?
The clarity and compassion we can find in historian's works such as those by Antony Beevor, James Holland, Juliet Gardiner and Caroline Moorehead show us that we still have much to understand and to learn if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Much like Truth & Reconciliation commissions the world over, I feel we need to acknowledge and to heal. It takes time and a willingness to do the work.
Broadly speaking, WWII was a complete mixture of other long-standing conflicts and factors about which historians can go round and round discussing (see Beevor's introduction to his book The Second World War, link below). The left and the right, liberal democracy, totalitarianism, and the attraction of national/racial sovereignty are big subjects in themselves so I am glad that there is so much good scholarship in history that we can read reliable accounts of this period covering many of these factors. Beevor's Second World War and the classic Penguin History of the Second World War are both reliable books.
VE Day matters to me as it reminds me of my grandparents who lived and worked as young adults in WWII. By appreciating more about what they went through and the experiences of their generation across Western Europe, I feel somehow more connected with them.
Sadly, I have plenty of regrets that as a young person I didn't know where to start to ask them "what was that like?", "why did you do that?", "what happened to you when X happened?". All these questions that rise inside you at different stages of your life, can no longer be answered. My grandparents left no diaries, and they died many years ago.
Even though I can't ask my own family, I am so glad that other people did write diaries at the time and that since the war many good documentaries have been created that asked these sorts of questions. In fact, historians, writers, and documentary filmmakers continue to ask these questions and I don't think I will ever tire of hearing the answers.
This is why VE Day matters to me and why I am delighted to share so many experiences and conversations with the wartime generation via a rich reading list.
We can use historical records as well as empathy to try to glimpse the real, lived experiences of people affected by WWII and, by doing so, remember the tolerance and freedom for which most people hoped.
If you are triggered by stories including war, persecution, distress, or the dark experiences of those who survived WWII, then save this post for another day. From here in the post, I don't go into graphic details, but I do share resources and stories which might affect you. I understand how difficult it can be.
Ordinary people, extraordinary times
Britain was a nation of 48 million people and so of course, just as the historian Juliet Gardiner says, in her wonderful book on Wartime Britain 1939-1945, the 'story' of WWII
'[...] is therefore one of courage and cowardice, of selflessness and opportunism, of great vision and intense scepticism, of stoic endurance and deep anger, of 'tiny defeats, tiny victories'. Ultimately it remains a story of a sort of patriotism that was mostly not triumphalist or flag waving [...]'
Gardiner's excellent book reminds us that each nation has created its storytelling and that families are no different. There is a collective importance to creating a narrative of peace in Europe. But of course, in the decades since 1945 people have wanted to forget, to downplay, to order and reinforce tiny victories, tiny defeats, to remember courage and sweep away cowardice and collaboration. In many countries, trials and investigations led to a collective truth-telling and some shifts in the stories told and retold.
No amount of patriotic flag waving, or storytelling of the nation co-opted by left or right political parties can erase the lived experience of those who survived the Second World War with all its pain and mixed emotions. The enormous variety of experiences of WWII continue to fascinate me and fortunately with so many archives having opened in the decades following 1945, and after the Cold War, we have many more sources to unearth and investigate and for historians to contemplate and bring to life.
The best books for me are the ones that bring the people involved to life; personal diaries and ordinary experiences are often relatable in their attention to detail.
As the diarist Victor Klemperer stated,
'It's not the big things that are important, but the everyday life of tyranny, which may be forgotten. A thousand mosquito bites are worse than a blow on the head. I observe, I note, the mosquito bites.'
At best, historians and authors write books using these sources without sensationalism or to twist facts for their own ends. It is also interesting and welcome that more and more books feature an insightful, balanced narrative, so that you can understand the thoughts and opinions of soldiers on the ground, a German point of view of battles and tactics as well as those of the Allies.
Hindsight is cheating of course, so we always need to understand how the lived experience was real life i.e. moment by moment, and not with the knowledge of when the war would begin or end. It probably felt like one long abyss of drudgery and pain for so many.
Diaries are also just a tiny glimpse of someone's thoughts and feelings - they can't tell us about what it was like everywhere or for everyone. In some places, like the Channel Islands, so much official documentation is missing that oral history is the only unreliable witness we have left (see Paul Sanders' book.)
Another interesting development in recent times, as minority voices are being heard and empowered to come forward is the stories of those often forgotten in the grand narratives of war. Colonial history goes far beyond the scope of this blog post, but the presence of voices and experiences of those who fought for nations other than their own, for colonial powers, like France, means we gain insight and variety in our storytelling about war. There have been more memorials and books on the subject, for example, of Resistance agents from Algeria and other historically French colonial nations fighting in Occupied France, including some who loved their adopted country like Arsène Tchakarian from Armenia.
In Beevor's Second World War he briefly introduces a young soldier who surrendered to American paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Normandy. Thought to be Japanese, but in fact Korean, this soldier had been forcibly conscripted into various armies. Yang Kyoungjong eventually went to the USA having spent some of the war in a prison camp in Britain. As Beevor states,
'In a war which killed over sixty million people and had stretched around the globe, this reluctant veteran of the Japanese, Soviet and German armies had been comparatively fortunate. Yet Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.'
The moral quandaries and realities of daily life can be insightful and harrowing, depending on the person's situation. Next, let's discover some of these diaries and accounts so we can feel like we are in conversation with those who lived through WWII.
Conversations with the Wartime generation
Fortunately, many people kept a diary despite many of them living in fear for their lives, struggling to find food or being on active service. How grateful I am that they did! It means that now we have diaries from everyone from heads of state like Winston Churchill, army generals, such as Field-Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, active servicemen from Britain or letters from servicemen in Canada.
Often at home, undertaking a huge variety of roles, many women kept a diary during the war. The diaries of women, such as Nella Last, and the contribution of so many who previously had never worked, and found it liberating to have intelligent work to do outside of the home means that we can begin to piece together real-life, real people stories from the tiny, daily habits to the differing opinions on the course of the war. (Please refer to the Reading Room below for more diaries and books.)
In Britain the most interesting collection is probably the Mass Observation project. It was created to purposefully record the thoughts, opinions and feelings of people living through wartime across Britain. It has been an immensely valuable project in the UK and gives us books such as Wartime Women: A Mass Observation Anthology 1937-1945. These books give voice to the everyday and a mixture of home life, factory life and stories from the services.
Since then, many stories have emerged of grandmothers and parents whose "hush hush" secret work could finally be divulged. Code-breakers, spies and workers from many nations who contributed to the war effort are more and more accessible. I prefer the books to some of the fictionalised films, as I'm very finicky about period hairstyles and clothes, and I find it so distracting when they're all 'wrong'. Yes, I know, attention to detail can go too far...but, still!
For example, just like Resistance agent Colette Marin-Catherine sitting in her home in Caen, Normandy in 2021 feeding the collared dove at her window, casting her mind back to wartime memories, so we can also imagine Vera Atkins living in a retirement home on the south coast of England. What incredible secret memories they must have hidden away for so long.
Colette has been able to tell some of her story in the wonderful Oscar-winning short film, simply called Colette. Vera Atkins worked her way up through the ranks of SOE and became a leader and recruiter for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) a remarkable special forces organisation created to upset the progress of war by the enemy by supporting and arming the Resistance. Agents she recruited included Noor Inayat-Khan. As the book blurb tells us:
'Throughout the war, Atkins recruited, trained, and mentored the agents for the SOE's French Section, which sent more than four hundred young men and women into occupied France, at least one hundred of whom never returned and were reported MPD (missing presumed dead) after the war. Twelve of these were women and among Atkins' most cherished spies.
When the war ended in 1945, she made it her personal mission to find out what happened to them and the other agents lost behind enemy lines, tracing rigorously their horrific final journeys.
But as the woman who carried out this astonishing search appeared quintessentially English, Atkins was nothing of the sort.' Born in Romania, she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and finishing school in Lausanne, spoke flawless French and knew every agent in detail. As we follow her through the devastation of postwar Germany, we learn Atkins herself covered her life in mystery so that even her closest family knew almost nothing of her past. Often regarded as Ian Fleming's inspiration for Miss Moneypenny, Atkins was, I think, a masterful spy handler, a human being who suffered and felt deeply the losses of 'her' agents. Her determination to follow the trails of 117 agents across France and Europe not only gave us the fates and stories of so many, but also contributed to the War Crimes trials. The book by Sarah Helm is amazing and is thoroughly compelling and deeply affecting. An agent could perish by one wrong turn of the head, as one did, by pretending to be French but looking the wrong way as she crossed the street, accustomed as she was to looking for traffic travelling on the opposite side of the road in Britain. Those were the subtleties that could get you killed.
In France, many personal accounts of life under Occupation and diaries and books have begun to emerge but much like in the Occupied British Channel Islands, the only part of Britain to have been occupied by Nazi Germany, it took decades for many stories to be written, translated into other languages including English, and for these voices and uncomfortable stories to be heard. (Find more to read in the list of resources at the bottom of the page.)
As Sir Philip Bailhache, Bailiff of Jersey states in his foreword to Paul Sanders' book on the German Occupation of the Channel Islands,
'Occupation is a suffocating and destructive experience. The suffocating intensity of the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands is illustrated by the fact that in Guernsey in 1942 there were nearly as many Germans as local people; even in Jersey there were more Germans per square mile than were to be found in Germany. The small size of the islands meant that there was no escape from the physical presence of the Occupier. The destructive nature of the Occupation is exemplified by the undermining of the economy, the distortion of law, justice and morality, and of the suppression of freedom in all its forms.'
Such is the complex nature of Occupation both in the British Channel Islands and in France.
So today I am taking a moment of reflection, a moment to ponder and some time to read, listen to and watch many of the fascinating works about this period. During the global pandemic, I have not felt at all capable of interacting with many of the dark episodes of the past and I don't recommend launching into learning about the Holocaust or WWII if you are similarly anxious or sensitive about the themes which come up.
However I hope that you can find some rich seams of stories of brave people who saved lives hiding families in their houses like Albert Gustave Bedane. He was born in Angers, France in 1893 and his family moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands when he was a baby. He served during the Great War and later was married and lived with his family on Jersey. He was naturalised as a British subject in 1921 and became established professionally as a masseur and physiotherapist. What must life have been like for their family in closeknit Jersey, facing the prospect of Nazi invasion? His wife and child evacuated to Devon on the south west coast of England and he remained on Jersey. When all Jews were ordered to register by the end of 1940, most thought that the island authorities would protect them. Many people decided to leave the Channel Islands, despite the bombs falling on southern England. Sadly it was down to brave people like Albert Bedane to help and while many disguised their Jewish identity or went into hiding, it must have been difficult indeed to find space to continue living in Jersey.
Albert would be forever linked to this period of history, as his actions changed lives. His story includes giving refuge to Russian slave labourers and others for periods of time. For two and a half years he also hid Mary, who was married to a British sea captain but as a Dutch-born Jewish woman living on the island, was in danger of being captured. Bedane's determination to keep her hidden underneath his studio in a three-room cellar is part of Heroes of the Holocaust: Ordinary Britons who risked their lives to make a difference (Lyn Smith). An extraordinary book reminding us of how collaboration and indifference throughout Europe helped the systematic scale of Nazi war crimes. Albert's extraordinary bravery in hiding and feeding Mary, as well as other fugitives from the Nazis, always knowing that he would be shot if found out is thought to have contributed to his post-war chronic stress. He is quoted in the book as saying, "I had a few nightmares occasionally, but I thought that if I was going to be killed, I'd rather be killed for a sheep than a lamb anyway." (Smith, p100)
Crucially, it also clearly reminds us that selfless acts in the face of persecution are possible and that the relevance of all these stories is still so important today because many of the people who helped 'were prepared to take a stand against prejudice, hatred and intolerance.'
(then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, UK, quoted in the preface to Lyn Smith's Heroes of the Holocaust.) With horrifying news of anti-Semitic crimes, racial hatred and the like, this seems more relevant than ever to our current lives. The book has sections of different Britons spread across the world and in France, there are the remarkable stories of Sister Agnes (Clare) Walsh who hid a family in the Dordogne départment and Russian aristocratic émigré Sofka Skipwith who was trapped in Paris as the Nazis overtook the city and later helped rescue, aid and assist many people. Read more about their remarkable stories in Heroes of the Holocaust (see the reading resources below.)
Defiance and resistance are themes also picked up in Moorehead's remarkable book, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, on the small Haute - Loire village of Chambon - sur - Lignon, not far from the Ardèche, which is often cited as a beacon of one pastor's non-violent project to rally the village to save lives. While the almost mythical storytelling of Pastor Trocmé might be known to you, it might seem that one village worked together to save hunted communists, Freemasons, resisters and Jews from deportation to camps. However, in this book Moorehead lucidly explains how this simplicity is a not the whole story. Rather than just one village or one man, or one religion helping another, things were much more nuanced and mixed than that. The amazing efforts of the people across the plateau to help others is doubtless deserving of praise and acknowledgement. Moorehead's extraordinary book reduces none of the wonder and pride people can feel at the involvement of so many people in rescuing hundreds of people from their certain deaths. The Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, where there is a museum, was recognised by Yad Veshem as Righteous Amongst Nations in and as such you can explore more about that here. There was also a recent donation to the village from an Austrian-born man who was helped by villagers.
There are also numerous projects online that seek to document the oral history and stories of those during the war. You can find some excellent resources at the BBC here and also here. Many books by historians and authors have brought together such stories in engrossing formats, so if you'd like to spend more time "in conversation" with this generation, hearing about their experiences, please access the links below.
A slideshow of French newspaper covers and Parisian images from VE Day 1945:
This blog post gives you an insight into some high-quality resources about WII and VE Day. I am not an historian, and this is not exhaustive, but it is a starting point for discovering more about VE Day and the war and why it is still so important today.
My recommendations are in English and vary in their points of view: some French, British, German, Canadian, American, etc. I encourage you to be curious where you live and find out if you have a local library, national museum or other resources which can show you the real experiences of real people in that era, in your language. What did they feel, think, and do?
Some of my favourite memories of D-Day, VE Day or other WWII commemorations or events has been to meet veterans and people of the era. Like many young people, I regret not having asked more questions of my grandparents who lived and worked during WWII. I have bene extremely fortunate to have met many people who lived through the war and spent time with them, listening to their stories and chatting about experiences, fashions, rationing and deprivations or spitfires and war in Malta. The most touching moment for me was visiting an aircraft museum, dressed in a 1940s summer dress, an elderly gentleman visiting with his daughter told me that I looked just like his girlfriend from 1942. It's a memory that has stayed with me and caused me a sudden pang of joy and sorrow at once. I was deeply touched and at the same time anxious to have caused some painful memory, but perhaps, just nostalgic delight. That was the day I sat in a Spitfire for the first time in my life and yet it's that gentleman's words that stay in my heart.
Don't go just yet! Please come in to the library and explore some more...
Exploring World War II - the Reading Room
James Holland is a master storyteller historian and I have enjoyed many of his books immensely. A masterful achievement is his Normandy '44: D-Day and the Battle for France which features principal personalities from France, Britain, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Ireland and Germany.
In this remarkable book, Holland presents a broad overview that challenges some of the well-trodden tales we often hear about. The Normandy campaign and D-Day and the 76 bitter days after it are brought to life in stories from a cast of people with eye-witness experiences from resistance fighters to soldiers, tank men and civilians, they are well-represented there. It is an epic tale well worth your time, including many previously unseen sources and testimonies from around the world. Also created into a TV series, available in many regions on Amazon Video.
Aunt Priscilla survived the Occupation. A family's uncovering of truths and surprises in their family history - a nonfiction narrative by Nicholas Shakespeare.
France, identity and hidden truths - a granddaughter explores family secrets
Life in Vichy Occupied France in remarkable diaries
An extraordinary account of life in Occupied Paris.
Find out more about the Paris intellectual author here at the NY Times.
Life in Paris and the city's liberation
France: The Dark Years
Moorehead's extraordinary quartet of Resistance features two books in France and two in Italy.
Stories of the War in France just would not be complete without the amazing work of SOE agents. The 'real Charlotte Gray' Agent Pearl Witherington and other remarkable women and men were unbelievably brave and those who survived were eventually able to tell us more after their Official Secrets Act silence ended (although many never did talk about it.) We can learn more from these top-rated books on SOE, the Special Operations Executive.
The renowned classic on SOE
Vera Atkins (interviewed by the IWM in 1987, listen here) and the women of SOE, their recruitment and a little on the fight for pensions after the war (as they were never classed as combatants, they gained neither recognition nor a war pension in most cases for a very long time). Forty years after the war, she claimed that she remembered 'absolutely every one of her agents' and judging by this book, I can believe it. Read her NY Times obituary here.
Code-breakers and operations overviews
It would be impossible to talk of France and the Free French without mentioning Charles de Gaulle. Whatever politics he may have represented after the war, his story is a remarkable one bound up with the hope for freedom. I used to walk past his statue in London and the house where the offices of the Free French were based and see the blue plaque. Somehow it felt very normal and completely extraordinary at once. The history of WWII is never that far away.
The latest film on de Gaulle and the fall of France is out on DVD (Lambert Wilson's award-winning depiction of de Gaulle)
An infographic visual version of WWII history (in French)
The dark years are also chronicled in a simple format of BD (graphic novel or bandes-dessinée)
In Great Britain / United Kingdom / Channel Islands
For a lighter relief, but still a meaningful social experiment, I have enjoyed The 1940s House book and television series. How would you have survived living in London suburb during the bombing Blitz and 6 years of war? A UK family volunteers to live in a 1930s/40s style house in a suburb near to Biggin Hill airfield (pictured above) not far from London for 9 weeks. There, they live with sirens wailing, rationed food and shortages and all the news of wartime in an accelerated form. So although it's not an experience of the real heartache of war, or an Occupied country, such as the British Channel Islands or France in wartime, it shows us some lovely contrasts between a 2000 family and the nostalgia of the wartime storytelling in Britain.
Accurately created, every member of the team worked so hard to get the "set design" completely right including food packaging, a local shop and all the wartime paperwork like Ration books and clothing coupons.
The Imperial War Museum (IWM) actually had a reproduction of the house in the museum for a time, but it's no longer on display. However they do have some resources and lovely videos that let you see just how amazingly the house was decorated and created for the series. Watch those at this link at the Imperial War Museum 1940s house page.
The family wear the clothes and the children play with the toys of the time. They seemed to have an immensely rich experience in their months spent in The 1940s House and when D-Day comes everyone thinks that the war will be over by Christmas 1944, but that was not to be. Much more bombing, destruction and heartache was still to come. When VE Day finally arrives, you can feel the sense of relief, sadness, heartbreak and joy all mixed together for the long years of war to finally be over.
Here you can follow some of the series post-D-Day. The quality is not great, but you can still get hold of the DVDs from eBay and other secondhand stores if you'd like to see more.
Nicholson's remarkable and absorbing book is a chronicle of women's lives in Britain and overseas which charts the lives, work, relationships and feelings of an array of women in varied roles. A worthy addition to your bookshelf.
Although Britain as a whole was not Occupied during the war and the population was not put to the test of reacting to the persecution that so many other countries suffered, many Britons were trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe and faced with all manner of difficulties as a result. Despite these difficult circumstances, many of them helped Jews and others persecuted by Hitler's regime. Here we discover stories of bravery, selflessness and a care for others which gives a counterpoint to the dismal, harrowing, turning-a-blind-eye stories that form part of the Holocaust narrative. Uplifting and important.
Winston Churchill's diaries and accounts of the World War in his own words.
Audio CD version:
Channel Islands - the only part of Britain that was Occupied
Juliet Gardiner's seminal and engaging book on wartime Britain
Alice Herz-Sommer's extraordinary life story and survival of a Concentration camp through music is as remarkable as it sounds. If you haven't seen the Oscar-winning short film yet, you can watch it by renting via Vimeo (click below) and find out more here. It is called The Lady in Number 6. Alice lived in London for many years and played Bach every day. She is the wellspring of joy and hope and wonder that we need after trying to search for meaning in the chaos of war.
British expats in France - commemorating WWII
In a classic-of-its-kind UK television show from the 1990s (beginning a trend for "bargain" house buying in France and Spain for British people wanting a different life, which is rather excruciating for the rest of us who think that's a rather insulting way to look at your potential new home in France) Nigel and Nippy decide to buy a 'bargain' for a holiday home. Their differing approches of head versus heart, rational versus eternal optimism and "have-a-go" lead to some very amusing television moments and some very awkward ones!
Their visit to the village where they bought a house in the Ardèche and its Armistice Day ceremony was very moving and gives you glimpse of village commemorations similar to those enacted on a bigger scale for D-Day at the large cemeteries.
Wrapping our heads around the why and how of the Holocaust sometimes feels like a lifetime's work. Fortunately with incredible historians, we can continue to understand more, consider more and work hard today to eradicate racial discrimination and genocide everywhere.
We often think we "know" all about it, educated by film versions and visits to Auschwitz. But as Cesarani, the late Holocaust historian, reminds us, focusing on one or two sites, or deportation to camps does not always help us to understand the wide context of extermination throughout Europe.
'The emphasis on deportations to death camps, particularly from western Europe and particularly to Auschwitz, overshadows the benighted experience of Jews in Polish ghettos. Yet the number of Jews incarcerated in the ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz in 1940-1 exceeds the combined Jewish populations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands at the same time.'
(Cesarani, pp. xxvi) It is much more complicated than that. It might seem like a moot point as a lay person to understand whether the Nazi objective was always to destroy International and European Jewry or whether it was a much more vague goal by the anti-Semitic core leadership with their flawed collapsing of cause and effect. Cesarani argues that understanding the accepted narrative we rarely question is important for our continued understanding of the Holocaust and might change how we frame it in education, commemoration and scholarship.
The greatest crime of the twentieth century is put into dense, fascinating detail and as Richard Overy is quoted as saying 'it deserves to be widely read and reflected upon in a continent where racial and religious prejudice is not as far below the surface as we like to think.' (Richard Overy, Literary Review, quotes on Cesarani's Final Solution book cover)
With a unique viewpoint on the Holocaust, the late, great David Cesarani's book Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933 - 49 questions the narratives previously accepted on this subject. He argues that Hitler's extermination of the Jews was neither planned nor inevitable. Read it to make up your own mind.
Although they might have differing views on whether or not the Final Solution was a planned part of the rise of Nazism, there's no denying that Philippe Sands extraordinarily personal and gripping book is worth reading. East West Street invites us into the Polish ghettos Cesarani mentioned (see above) and the people responsible for the murder and mass extermination along with a deep understanding of the birth of International law, the term 'crimes against humanity' and the human rights movement. Sands, being trained in such matters, expertly guides us through some of the Nuremberg trials with great insight and passion. It's a remarkable book that stays with you long after you've finished reading it.
He has followed up that story with a kind of thematic sequel. Following one of the principal characters in East West Street, we follow the man in charge of running the ghettos in Krakow,and the murder of thousands of Jews there. 'Wächter had been chosen by Hitler himself to govern Galicia and on his watch the Krakow ghetto was constructed and more than 130,000 people from the area, including 8,000 children, died in death camps.' explains the NY Times article on the book. He flees at the end of the War helped by the 'Ratline' a network of people, including members of the Catholic Church to escape like Mengele and Eichmann. Hunted and searched for everywhere by state authorities, Simon Weisenthal and others, it's not clear who found him first or who, if anyone, killed him. This gripping story is told with unrivalled access to the family archives of von Wächter. Sands poses many uncomfortable truths to the family, to us and to society's understanding of the law and in doing so seeks an acceptance of the barbarity of the actions of people like von Wächter. Sands takes us on a trail following his final steps until he is found dead in mysterious circumstances in1949. Gripping and extraordinary.
Laurence Rees's excellent book which included all kinds of survivor testimonies and previously hidden archive materials.
A women's camp, full of horror, experiments and a deeply affecting narrative
Pondering forgiveness and Holocaust survival
Viktor Frankl's lectures from 1946 are brought out in English for the first time in 2020. Despite the unspeakable horrors in the camp, Frankl learnt from his fellow inmates that it is always possible to say ‘yes to life’ – a profound and timeless lesson for us all.
The remarkable story and diary of Anne Frank told in a moving graphic novel or BD, authorised by the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, this is the first graphic edition of The Diary and includes extensive quotations directly from the definitive edition..
Available in French here:
In English here:
The animated film by the makers of Waltz with Bashir will be released later in 2021 on cinema release.
The definitive diary is also available here:
Recommended Films & Documentaries
The IWM has a little showreel of some of the British news from VE Day 1945 here.
Churchill and London
If after all of that, you've reached this part of the blog post, thanks for reading! I know this can be hard to explore right now, so if you just want to sit back, relax and hear the sounds of the music of the era, here's some light relief. We all need that right now!
On Spotify - the voice of France, Lucienne Delyle
Thanks for joining me on the blog today. Let me know if VE Day is marked where you live and how. I'd love to hear about it.
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