I don’t know if it’s the vraic (seaweed), the sea, or the blood in my veins that makes me want to be home every May 9th. It’s been five years since I left my little island. Five whole years and I’ve not been back (that will change in October). But every year, without fail, on May 9th, despite the fact I have to work, I light a candle and say a prayer of thanks, whilst wishing I was home to share it with those who understand. On May 9th 1945, my tiny little 45 square mile island was liberated from occupying Nazi forces. And as a Jersey boi, that is something that is not only core to who I am but brings me a sense of gratitude and humility that cannot be rivalled.
Living in Jersey, you grow up being taught about the Occupation (as WWII is mostly known), a time when food was scarce, Prisoners of War were used for forced labour, the old Jersey College for Girls building at Rouge Bouillon was taken as a hospital for the Nazi forces, concrete bunkers erected (which still litter the coastline), the War Tunnels were started and never completed, and the locals lived in fear (with the exception of the collaborators, although they weren’t looked on kindly by locals). Knowledge of the Occupation at some point becomes seemingly innate. Just getting from one end of the island to another usually involves going past a bunker (if you are on the coast), school trips to the War Tunnels are taken in primary and secondary school, freedom is something that isn’t taken for granted.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more interested in those that helped spirit people away from the clutches of the Nazis, helping them avoid the death camps as well as the antics of those who worked from inside Jersey to try and dismantle the regime of the Reich. Lesbian couple Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe (a French couple who moved to Jersey in 1937) created anti-Nazi propaganda and would dress up and go to Nazi events, slipping the propaganda into their pockets in the hopes they would cause Nazi soldiers to defect. Their sexuality was enough to have them sent to a death camp under the Reich, and in 1944 Cahun was arrested and sentenced to death for her part in trying to dismantle the regime. She was freed the following year. Cahun and Malherbe are the sort of people you learn about when you look beyond what you’re taught in school.
Today I’m so very grateful for the fact I grew up on an island that was occupied territory. I’ve learnt that freedom is not a guarantee but something that we all deserve. I’m grateful to those who fought for that freedom, both from within and outside of Jersey. I look at what is happening in the world and I pray that every country, every person, will one day have that liberation and freedom of rights. Tonight as I light that candle and have a drink in memory of those who lost their lives, those who fought to save us and those who survived the Occupation, I’ll remember also to offer a prayer to those who lack the freedoms I take for granted.