Jersey Festival of Words, Final Day and Reflections

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On the final day of the festival, a day of war and remembrance, I only have one event by a woman scheduled. Unfortunately when Julie Summers gives her talk about Fashion on the Ration which closes the festival, I’m on a plane back to the mainland. I do get chance to see her in her fabulous outfit though. I’m quite enamoured with her hat.

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The other main event by a woman today is Dr Gilly Carr talking about Testimonies of Resistance. Here’s where I have to admit to my utter ignorance about events in the Channel Islands during the Second World War so not only is Carr’s talk very interesting, I learn a lot too.

1300 Jersey and Guernsey people, two per cent of the population, were imprisoned locally during WWII for some form of resistance. 200 of those were deported either to Nazi prisons or to concentration camps. 29 never returned.

Resistance in the Channel Islands was different to that in continental Europe: there was no united movement – one soldier to every three islanders meant there couldn’t be a large movement; those who practised resistance were seen as ‘troublemakers’, ‘criminals’ and that they ‘rocked the boat’; everyone suffered some way, were resistors responsible for their own fate?

The types of resistance seen on the islands was humanitarian aid – sheltering Jews or slaves; underground newsletters; listening to the BBC and spreading the news; the V-sign campaign; economic resistance – going slow, hoarding, stealing from the Germans; defiant public servants – school teachers refusing to teach German, doctors hiding prisoners; religious resistance – teaching particular sermons; political resistance – Jersey Communist Party; pseudo-military resistance – practised by teenage school boys stealing and saving weapons, and symbolic resistance – wearing red, white and blue.

Carr goes on to talk about two men in particular who became ‘Guardians of Memory’, recording the experiences of those who resisted and became political prisoners.

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Frank Falla was a journalist on the Guernsey Star. Between May 1942 and February 1944, he ran the Guernsey Underground News Service. Having been caught and sentenced, he was deported to Frankfurt Prison in June 1944. The prison was harsh: between a third and half of those from the Channel Islands who died in Nazi confinement died there. Eventually he was moved to Naumburg-on-Saale which was liberated by the Americans in 1945.

On his return from the war, Falla fought for compensation for Channel Islanders persecuted by the Nazis. He alerted the UK government to the validity of their claims and acted as a go-between, distributing forms and helping people complete them. He also helped overturn rejected claims. Carr’s research shows that only 50% of those eligible actually did claim. She suggests this is for a number of different reasons: death, pride, emigration, ignorance of the scheme, seeing the compensation as German blood money, thinking they were ineligible, thinking no amount of money was enough to compensate for what they’d suffered. She says some of the testimonies read, ‘I was in X concentration camp and we all know what happened there’. What did happen ‘there’ included forced labour, beatings, torture, forced marches, murder, executions, PTSD, ill health, poverty and some medical experimentation.

The other man, Joe Mière, collected the stories of prisoners – some of which hadn’t even been shared fully with their own families – and put them on the walls at the Jersey War Tunnels – an underground hospital built by the Nazis. Now the tunnels have become a museum telling the story of the occupation, the prisoners’ testimonies are displayed in the café.

Carr finishes her talk by telling us that she’s secured funding to build a website where this unknown story can begin to be more widely known. She’s also filmed a documentary that will be broadcast on BBC1 at 7.30pm on the 2nd November about Sidney Ashcroft, one of the 21 Jersey prisoners who died while incarcerated by the Nazis.

At the end of Carr’s talk, Jersey poet Alice Allen reads some of her work from a forthcoming book about Channel Islanders during the occupation. She refers to that time as a ‘unique seam of history’ and goes on to read poems about slave workers and resistors.

In the Q&A with both Carr and Allen, a couple of really interesting things come up. One they’ve both experienced is daughters of resistors who were caught and imprisoned blaming their fathers for the poverty the family were plunged into and sometimes also the mental health of their mothers. It’s clear that not everyone thought these resistors were heroes. The other also concerns women and that’s the so-called ‘Jerry bags’, the women who fraternised with German soldiers. Carr clearly feels very passionately about the way these women are portrayed both in non-fiction recounts and in novels set during the time. She believes that the women behaved in this way because they wanted to feed and protect their families and some genuinely believed they were in love. She says they’re often termed collaborators but really, she feels, the idea of collaboration needs to be defined clearly and these women re-examined. I hope that Carr does this, I’d definitely be keen to read more on them.

Over the four days I attend the festival, I only see a fraction of what’s on – there are master classes, events with local writers and events for schools that I don’t even touch on. What I do see, however – poetry readings from Carol Ann Duffy and Owen Sheers; interviews with Isabel Ashdown/Kate Shaw, Irma Kurtz, Owen Sheers, Will Smith, Alex Preston, and presentations from Simon Barnes, Rachel Bridge, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr. Gilly Carr – shows that the festival may be in its inaugural year but it’s already capable of attracting a huge range of talent who are fascinating to listen to and watch. Irma Kurtz’s interview with Murray Norton and Owen Sheer’s interview with Andy Davey are two of the best I’ve seen anywhere. I hear so many of the writers comment on how lovely the festival is as well as the island of Jersey. So many of them are there for the first time and it’s clear they’re all falling in love with it – me too!

I’m already looking forward to next year and I’m hoping I might see people deciding to take a literary holiday, discover a beautiful island and see some cracking bookish events.

10 thoughts on “Jersey Festival of Words, Final Day and Reflections

  1. I hope to see you next year Naomi – the occupation by the Germans is an incredibly important part of the Channel Island history, much of their physical legacy is all around us; the sea wall in St Helier was constructed by the prisoners of war. Although lightly told The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reflects accurately on what life would have been like for those Islanders that stayed during the occupation.

  2. I hope to see you next year Naomi – the occupation by the Germans is an incredibly important part of the Channel Island history, much of their physical legacy is all around us; the sea wall in St Helier was constructed by the prisoners of war. Although lightly told The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reflects accurately on what life would have been like for those Islanders that stayed during the occupation.

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