Students learn World War II history

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Editor's note: this is the second in a series of "Letters from London," chronicling an educational tour of the London area by second-year students from Cottey College.

Hello Mum! Tuesday looks like a typical London day: cloudy, cool, breezy, and threats of rain. Those beautiful clear days we had on Sunday and Monday were out of character. Still, off we went, stiff upper lip and all, brollies (umbrellas) at the ready.

Today was our first educational module day. An early bird group took off by coach (bus) for Stonehenge and Bath at 8:15. Most of the rest of us had more reasonable starting times to our day.

Adam Dean and I were leading a module on World War II and London. In particular, we focused on the blitz of 1940-'41. We were taking students to the Cabinet War Rooms and then on to the Imperial War Museum.

The Cabinet War Rooms are underground offices used by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Cabinet during the war. The War Rooms allowed the government to remain in London despite the almost continuous nightly bombing raids by the Nazis.

The War Rooms have been restored to the same condition as in 1942, with mannequins in uniform in several of the stations. There was even a likeness of Churchill in his office on the secure hotline to President Roosevelt.

The War Rooms are connected to the Churchill Museum, which was only recently dedicated in 2004 by the Queen. Churchill's Museum could have been a half day excursion in itself. Lots of great photos, film footage, and memorabilia of the British bulldog himself. We saw Churchill's guest register which had signatures of the King and Queen in it, and a signed letter from FDR. We were there a bit over two hours when we decided we should move on if we were hoping to take in the Imperial War Museum.

Our tube stop for the War Museum was Elephant and Castle, and there was an antiquated shopping center just outside. As it was noon and we were hungry, we thought we'd see if there was someplace inside to grab a quick bite to eat.

Cornelius, one of our EF tour guides, told me later that evening, as I recounted our day, that he thought the Elephant and Castle shopping center resembled a Third World airport. I don't necessarily agree, but understand why he drew that comparison. The center was full of a variety of multi-colored kiosks selling everything from Thai kabobs to African caftans. Personally, I really liked the bazaar atmosphere of the place. I guess I really am an adventurer at heart.

We found a very reasonably priced lunch counter inside where all of us had lunch for less than 3 each. That's about $5 in U.S. money. While that might not seem particularly reasonable to you, by London standards, it's really cheap. All of us were happy with the food, and especially the prices.

Outside of the War Museum is a large section of the Berlin Wall. We each took pictures in front of it and then touched the concrete. How many people can tell their friends and family they've touched the Berlin Wall? Very cool.

The War Museum is huge, Mum, and there's no way possible we could see it all in one afternoon. Since our module was on World War II, I suggested we go to that section and see an exhibit called "The Blitz Experience." That exhibit is designed to give visitors a bit of the feel of wartime London. We first sat in a mock bomb shelter. A prerecorded narrator gave us a bit of history as we could hear bombs dropping off in the distance, and soon, around us. One bomb knocked out our lights and we sat in pitch dark listening to bombs dropping closer and closer. We had one hit very close and it shook the benches we sat on. (When our benches shook, Nicole, one of our students, screamed.) When the bombing stopped, we exited into a replica of a bombed out neighborhood. Bricks and boards were everywhere and we could see fires in the distance near St. Paul's Cathedral.

Very eerie, and probably as close as one can come to the real thing without having lived through it. Hard to believe that Londoners lived through eight months of that. More than 50,000 were killed, and one in six was homeless at some point.

We also visited an exhibit called "The Children's War" which was World War II through the eyes and experiences of children. Over 7,000 children died during the blitz, and one was as young as 11 months old. Do you remember the scene in "Chronicles of Narnia" where the children were being shipped off to the country? More than 16,000 London children were sent to safer harbors during the war. I can't imagine how hard it would be to send your children off to live with strangers.

Barbora, a student from the Czech Republic, really wanted to see the Holocaust exhibit, so we went there to finish our module.

Barbora's country was given to Hitler without a shot ever being fired as part of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy, and there was a death camp in Czechoslovakia that Barbora has visited. I was a bit surprised that all these years later, young Czechs like Barbora still harbor disdain for Chamberlain.

The exhibit is sobering, Mum. Photos and film footage of starving Jews being beaten and executed, cases of shoes taken from executed Jews, and photos of mass graves were difficult to look at. Man's inhumanity to man is truly staggering at times. First hand accounts told on film by Holocaust survivors are quite moving. It is hard to see how anyone could go through that floor and not be affected.

I do think the students in our module learned something today. Even better, I think they enjoyed the learning process. This particular module was originally scheduled to last three hours; but the students were so interested in the museum, we spent six hours total learning about World War II and the horrors of war. Despite the extra three hours, not a single student seemed concerned at all about the extra time. For that alone, I'd consider today a success.

For dinner tonight, a group of us decided to trek to an Italian restaurant called Luna Rossa in Notting Hill. The trick to this was, we had to catch a bus after getting off of the tube. It took us three attempts to find the correct bus stop, and six of us actually got on the bus -- three others not quite sure this was the right one. (It was.) Fortunately, they caught the next number 52 bus headed our way and soon rejoined us at the restaurant. We had a wonderful evening and the food was outstanding.

Needless to say, after the bus incident, we walked the 12 or so blocks back to the tube stop rather than chance getting separated by bus. Despite that, at the tube, only seven of our nine got on the first train that came by. Again, fortunately we were all reunited at our final stop.

From the museums to the bus system, it was an educational day all round, Mum. Well, I'd best close this and get my rest. Tomorrow we're off to Windsor Castle. Hope the Queen has tea ready when we arrive!

Your loving son,

-- Steve

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