A part of my (somewhat muddled) heritage takes me to the Channel Island of Guernsey. It’s a tiny island off the coast of France, beloved by cruise companies for its picturesque little cobbled town and the fact it’s as French as you can get without having to speak the language, and loathed by all teenagers who live there for its complete isolation in anything but the most clement of weather conditions, when the planes stop flying and the boats stop sailing.
What amazes me is how many people are completely unaware of the island’s dark past, and the fact that a part of Britain was actually occupied during the Second World War after the rest of the UK took a strategic decision to bugger off. Take a closer look and it’s not hidden – all the islands are scattered with German fortifications, still intact, concrete and grim amidst beautiful cliffs and greeny-blue seas that could almost be the Mediterranean. On this little piece of loveliness, 70 years ago, people were starving.
There’s a bitter debate currently going on in neighbouring Alderney about how its dark past should be relayed to tourists – or if it should be even mentioned at all. Alderney’s history is altogether more destructive and disturbing than Guernsey’s: after almost all the tiny island’s population was evacuated, it became home to four labour camps, housing Jews and political prisoners from across Europe. It’s not known how many died there, but some estimates are as high as 70,000.
The argument centres around whether the camps should be commemorated in the form of a memorial, or whether they should be – for want of a better phrase – a “tourist attraction”. On the one hand, there’s a recognition that there is a lot of historical interest in such sites, but on the other, “it is not, unless you are a ghoul, a heritage issue that needs promoting, except as part of the overall occupation story.”
And yet such sites, in my opinion, are of huge importance – a memorial alone cannot teach us anything but numbers, which are often too abstract for us to take in.
At 17 I visited Auschwitz as part of a school trip. I maintain that it is somewhere that every teenager should visit. We can all sit in a classroom and learn that 1.1 million died there, and be aware this is a number so huge that we cannot visualise that number. However, those people become real, tangible, when we see their shoes, their hair, their suitcases. Ghoulish it may be, but it is also true. It is history. Human beings did this to other human beings. Whatever a person’s motives for going to such sites – ghoulish or otherwise – sanitising our history, brushing it under the carpet, is not the path to preventing it from never happening again. After the war many sites were destroyed, either by perpetrators destroying the evidence or liberators horrified by what they found. In an age where the far right are on the rise again in pockets across Europe, in a time where one of my Jewish friends is considering moving to Israel because of a notable rise in antisemitism in her city, we need reminders more than ever. Of all places, the authorities that curated and opened the Auschwitz-Birkenau sites to the public had to be deeply sensitive and careful. They succeeded. When I went there I was supposed to write a piece for the school newspaper. I did, but it didn’t say what people expected. It simply said that there were no words, that there is a level at which your brain cannot process the enormity, the cruelty, the utter depravity. In a society so prone to hyperbole, when you stand at the end of that railway track and look around you all your brain can say is: This is Auschwitz.
Over the years I have visited a number of sites that centre around uncomfortable history, and where none can match the horrors at Auchswitz, each was presented in its own unique way and faced the same challenges around sensitivity, and sometimes the thorny issue of local complicity. On a recent trip to Vilnius we visited an old KGB prison. It was fascinating. Just as I suspect many people don’t know that Alderney was occupied in the Second World War , I know shockingly little about how the KGB operated within individual territories of the Soviet Union, beyond knowing that they existed, and that they interrogated people, bugged hotels, and all those other things you learn from James Bond. The museum was amazing – chilling, informative, interesting.
Personally, we went there because we’re interested in history. My husband studied history of Eastern Europe to Masters level. Perhaps there is also an element to which humans are drawn to the macabre, fascinated by the grisly, and perhaps that is therefore “ghoulish”. But surely this is a lesser evil than being oblivious to the existence of such things, to consider them ancient history, done and dusted, when they are anything but, when genocides have happened since elsewhere in the world. Sites of historical importance, developed well, have their place. We can erase the sites, but we should not erase history.
I don’t live on Alderney. A tiny island, physically adrift from its neighbours, it makes Guernsey look like New York. So, I don’t have any right to an opinion on the matter. I’m not sure I would even go. But many would, for, like other “attractions” (which is not really the right word) for a myriad of reasons. So I will follow the story with interest.