Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bombs Fell Here

War happened here. You can’t spend an hour in London without knowing that bombs fell here, that World War II was very up close and personal. People tell you that newer buildings mean that the previous buildings were bombed out. Over dinner, someone mentions that the house next door was bombed out. Henry Moore’s drawings of crowds of people camped out in Tube stations are on display in several museums. Sixty percent of London homes were bombed out during the Blitz.
I was invited to a lovely Passover dinner in the home of a London rabbi. I sat next to Gabriela, who told me of her family’s escape from Germany in the nick of time. In a car ride home, I listened to Wanda tell me of her family’s escape from Milan.

On a tour of Farringdon, a neighborhood in London, the tour guide pointed out which blocks were destroyed. There are maps showing which bomb fell on which house on which date. He pointed out where the market was, that casualties were high because housewives had received notice that a supply of rabbits had come in for meat. He told us the difference between the V-1 and V-2 rockets; you could hear the V-1 Doodlebug, but the V-2 was silent. You would hope you could keep hearing the Doodlebug because if it stopped over you, that meant it was falling.

Everywhere, there are war memorials, big, stone monuments to valor and courage and tenacity. We have those in the United States, too. But other than Pearl Harbor and the Aleutians, war did not land on our soil in the 20th century. (Although I think I might count New York City.) That makes a difference.

We did not hide in Anderson shelters or Tube stations; we didn’t listen for the buzzing of Doodlebugs. We didn’t clean up rubble afterwards or overload our hospitals. And if we did, it didn’t permeate our national consciousness. Here in London, at first they didn’t let people camp in the Tube stations; they thought it would lead to a “deep shelter mentality” with people refusing to come back out.

In the United States, our government didn’t have to consider what to do if Americans became so scared they would be afraid to come out. War wasn’t on our soil. We haven’t known the invasiveness of this fear, the way it would pervade daily life.

Jane Churchill created an art exhibit here titled Echoes Across the Century, and I’ve gone back to it several times (once to meet her!). With the exhibit – and the help of 240 school children and their art – Jane ties together the experience of soldiers, families, and the workers on the home front who supplied them. We follow a fiancĂ©e (Jessie) as she mounts her moth collection and remarks on the “…thousands of men pinned forever to the map of France like moths pinned lifeless in boxes, unable to fly again.” We follow the makers of eyeglasses who began to issue spectacles to recruits because the Army could no longer reject soldiers with poor eyesight. And the students imagine what those soldiers see with their mind’s eye.
Jessie created lachrymatoria – tiny bottles filled with her tears – describing each memory she had of Will. We don’t know what of the exhibit is real and what is imagined – intentionally. Did Jessie make the bottles, or did the artist? Or did the students? It doesn’t matter: all of it rings true and all of it hurts. Fear and loss are very real, and everywhere we see and feel what happens when a whole country – all its people, sectors, laborers – are part of that experience every day.

I went to the movies and saw Their Finest; bombs fall on homes and people camp in Tube stations. Of course, I think, being here has readied me to watch this movie. The tours, the conversations, the exhibits have prepared me.

In the U.S., war happens to the unlucky few and their families. It’s something “somewhere else” to “someone else.” It occurs to me here in London that we Americans need to remember that. We need to understand our different feelings about War and Allies and Treaties and Protection. And always, we need to thank our lucky stars.

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