The island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, was occupied by the Nazis during WWII from 1940 to 1945.
This summer while vacationing with my good friend David Luce there, I experienced some of the ways the folk on the island have worked to heal from that season.
David, who grew up on the island and is a Jersey man through and through, was 7 when the Nazis landed and took hold of the islands. Britain had chosen to leave them undefended. David has been asked by many groups, on many occasions to share his stories of the occupation.
The families of Jersey had 24-hour notice of the invasion and had to decide quickly if they would stay or take the offered boats to England. Some families chose to go as a family, others sent the moms and children, and still others sent only the children packed like sardines into cement boats. The crossing of one of these boats took 15 hours for the 90 mile journey.
Some families who chose to leave went to the harbor only to discover there was no room on the ship for them. For some, they returned to their homes to discover neighbors, thinking they had left, had stripped their homes of belongings, furniture, sometimes even the carpet. What stress this caused! What pain!
David’s family chose to stay together and remained on the island.
For David and his family, on the one hand life just went on but got somewhat tougher with new unusual and enforced laws, curfews, and harsh judgments. On the other hand with an addition of over 11,000 troops there was one Nazi for every four islanders, life was very different. German was taught in school. The entire island was shifted an hour later than Britain, to German time. Their lives were closely monitored.
There were intense food and supply shortages for the islanders. David’s dad, the parish baker (and grocery store owner) eventually made bread from ground bird seed and potato flour. Coffee was made from dried, ground parsnips, and bike tires wore out so bikes were ridden on rims. Shoes had holes or were literally tied together with tire rubber.
Forgiving the enemy and their own neighbors who had collaborated with the Nazis was difficult after the war. And in a sense after they were liberated in 1945, the islanders never did that hard work, rather, they sought to put the experience behind them. They sought to forget.
But similar to the heart of an individual when a hurtful season of devastation is buried, the pain remained. Often buried memories lead to illnesses in individuals. For these islanders this experience remained yet an open and festering wound.
When they were approaching the 50th anniversary of liberation they wanted to commemorate the occupation recognizing the need they had to heal. In 1988 they chose to have each parish (a geographic division of the island into 12 districts) make a tapestry each around a specific theme.
This project took 7 years. The 12 tapestries were ready for the 50th celebration. Each tapestry measured 36″x 96″. In total the 12 tapestries are made up of 7.5 million stitches! And each took over 2400 hours of work to complete.
With drawings made by hand by a gifted artist, Wayne Audrain of the Jersey Museum Service, and colors assigned, each parish assigned a coordinator who organized the teams who worked, six at a time, on the tapestries. The first to begin was David’s Trinity parish in February 1991, coordinated by a friend of David’s, Ruth Picot. Imagine the close proximity of each of the women as they worked on those stitches! (Yes, only women did the stitchers according to the record. Many of them had survived the occupation.). They needed to face and walk through memories as they stitched the officers, the children, the stories of the occupation, the woman who hid her pig in her bed, the neighbor who turned in her friend.
The result on display in St Helier is stunning, moving, and incredible.
As I heard the story and experienced what had been done with the Jersey War Tunnels, which I’ll cover in another post, I realized what a deep healing had been achieved through color and creativity.
For the 70th anniversary another tapestry was commissioned, as the people of Jersey stepped up forgiveness. They launched a “sister city” relationship with Bad Wurzach, Germany, the location of a WWII prison camp, where some islanders had been sent and few returned. It was a tearful moment when a group of survivors whose relatives had died in the German camps traveled to Bad Wurzach, and walked the path their relatives had walked from the train to the camp. Only this time they were greeted by the mayor asking forgiveness for the atrocities of the past.
Healing is happening here.
Yearly there is now a commemoration of the liberation and groups come from Germany or travel to there every other year.
With tears I heard the stories and read the testimonies. I thought of all the people who had lost their lives, and all those still suffering from the scars experienced because family members had never recovered from their camp experiences.
But also, I cried for here people had forged a deep healing into the scars of the past. They’d looked back, held hands, worked side by side and experienced what could only be termed as redemption. Jesus died and resurrected for such healing to happen between people. It is part of salvation. That others would be more open to the possibility of allowing forgiveness to cleanse old wounds! That others would take the tough journey back into the past to come forward into healing. And that more would allow art to be a means to such healing.
Jesus certainly used this journey into the past through art, stories, and creativity to bring healing.
The beauty of Jersey increased as I heard this story. How the waters of our lives are cleansed as well by the healing Jesus brings as we open to forgiveness.
This quote by Brené Brown from her book Braving the Wilderness struck me in relation to this: “Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience and transform despair into hope.”