Monday, June 25, 2012

Imperial War Musuem

Well, my apartment building is located right across the street from the Imperial War Museum, literally (if there wasn't another building in the way, we'd have a view of it). 

I've been pretty tired from last week and my weekend in Wales, so I wanted something pretty easy going today, but I didn't want to just sit around my room and waste the day.  The museum's close proximity was the perfect solution, if I got tired I could leave and easily be back at my room without a problem, and I could go back another day.

Right when you walk in, it reminds me of the Air and Space Museum back home with all the airplanes and tanks and everything all over the place.  The majority of the museum focuses on World War II, especially since the war had such a bigger and more profound impact on the English since they were so close to everything going on.  There was a little bit of emphasis on other wars, but it was mostly World War II with some World War I mixed in.

One of the coolest things I saw was a small exhibit about King George VI, the father of the current queen, Elizabeth II.  George VI and his unconventional accession to the throne is chronicled in the Academy Award winning movie The King's Speech, which came out in 2010.  In the movie, George was the second son, behind his brother, Edward.  Well, Edward came to the throne after the death of King George V in January 1936, becoming King Edward VIII of England.  It wasn't that simple though, Edward wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, a woman who was twice divorced and, to make matters worse, an American.  Edward abdicated the throne after not even a year on the throne.  Suddenly, George was the King of England.  Unfortunately, he had a terrible stutter, the remnants of a difficult childhood of hidden maltreatment by his nanny, the suppression of his strict father, etc, etc.  George VI worked his entire life to work past his stutter, although it came back during particularly stressful times.  Perhaps the most stressful part of his reign was the declaration of England going to war with Germany in 1939, catapulting the European continent into World War II. 

The photo above is the shirt George wore while giving the speech, along with a small photo of him, pages from his diary he kept starting at the beginning of World War II, and he wrote in it during the duration of the war (can you imagine what a wonderful primary source that must be!), along with his speech that he gave.  You can click here to go to a YouTube clip from The King's Speech where George VI, played by Colin Firth, is giving the speech declaring war, with the help of his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.

The museum also had a wonderful and interesting trench warfare walking experience from World War I so you could see what it was like to actually fight in the trenches.  We did something a little similar to this in my teaching class this past semester, but it was just us ducked behind tables throwing balls of paper at each other while one guy screamed in a German accent.  This was far better (although that was pretty entertaining). 

It was kind of creepy since it was really dark, and the mannequins in general were just creepy looking, even in the other exhibits.  It definitely was a humbling experience, you definitely got a feel for what it was like in the trenches.  I mean, it's one thing to read about them in a book, it's another to walk around and experience as close to you'll get when it comes to trench warfare.

Perhaps the most moving exhibit was the huge Holocaust one.  They didn't allow pictures inside though.  It talked about the rise of the Third Reich and early antisemitism in Germany.  I learned that the Jews were targeted because one of the early leaders after the fall of the Kaiser (German "king") was Jewish.  Of course, this wasn't the only reason, but that was definitely interesting.  They had all sorts of first person accounts, not to mention so many different artifacts.  Some of the highlights include: instruments used by Nazi doctors to see if someone was Aryan or Jewish by taking measurements, outfits from the concentration camps, letters written by people on the cattle cars on the way to the camps and thrown out the windows in hopes of someone finding them and a huge model of Auschwitz that showed the journey from arrival to the showers.  They also had a spent cartridge of Zyklon B, the chemical used to kill so many millions of Jews.  There was also a replica cattle car.  The car's huge, but I can't imagine what it would be like to be crammed in there with so many other people. 

Scattered throughout the massive exhibit were small placards with information on different Holocaust victims.  Some lived, others did not.  I was so thrilled to see a placard on Irena Sendler, even if it was just a few quick sentences on her.  Irena Sendler was an incredibly brave woman who, with the help of her colleagues, managed to smuggle over 2,000 babies and children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, ultimately saving their lives.  Most of them never saw their parents again and most likely would have been gassed upon the liquidation of the Ghetto in around 1943.  Irena wrote down the name of every child she saved and their new "Aryan" names so she knew who the children were in case their parents came back for them, which never really happened.  She buried these lists in jars, only to be found years later.  There's a fabulous book about her called Life in a Jar: the Irena Sendler Story that you should definitely check out.  Below is also a very short YouTube clip about a movie based on Irena Sendler's life.  There isn't too much about her available, so this is probably the best you're going to get from me.

Perhaps the most famous Holocaust hero (behind Miep Giess that is) is Oskar Schindler, made famous by the book by Thomas Keneally in 1982 (it was originally called Schindler's Ark, and that's the title still used here in England) and the movie Schindler's List directed by the 1994 Academy Award winning movie directed by Stephen Spielberg starring Liam Nesson, Ralph Fiennes and Sir Ben Kingsley.  The only mention of Schindler in the exhibit was a single photo of him with his name under it, kind of disappointing since he saved roughly 1,100 from the Nazis in Auschwitz using his own money to literally buy them.  Below are two clips from Schindler's List, one is the trailer (the top one) and the bottom one is the moving climax where Schindler says goodbye to his workers since he and his wife have to flee the approaching Soviet army.

So I really digressed here, but Oskar Schindler and Irena Sendler are two of my favorite figures in history.  Read about them, watch the movies, learn something (just have a few dozen boxes of tissues available). 

The Imperial War Museum was a wonderful way for me to spend my afternoon.  It left me feeling a little emotionally drained though, so I'll probably just take it easy this evening and see what tomorrow has in store for me!

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