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Jersey -- The Queen's 'Peculiar' Island
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It's World War II. A German army officer is being chauffeured through the streets of a British city. His driver is a uniformed British policeman, tall bobby helmet and all. German soldiers stand guard near several pubs along the route, in front of signs advertising Watney's, Bass Pale Ale and other English brews.

It's not make believe. It's real life as it was lived in Britain's Channel Islands, the only part of Britain occupied by Germany. Thorough and fascinating documentation of the occupation in several extraordinary museums and elsewhere help make the islands, particularly the principal island of Jersey, special though often overlooked destinations.

The islands are unique in other ways. They are semi-independent "peculiars," meaning they are considered the queen's personal property and not answerable to the British Parliament. They have their own laws, postage stamps, currency and passports. And Jersey, budget travelers should note, does not levy the value added tax, or VAT, that's tacked on to the price of goods and services elsewhere in Britain.

Jersey is easily reached. My wife Gerry and I got there on a huge Condor Ferry hydrofoil we boarded in the popular resort of Weymouth on the Dorset coast. The three-hour ride was smooth and comfortable -- amazingly so, it seemed to us veterans of the turbulent, stomach-churning channel crossings of pre-hydrofoil times. Lots of food and drink available on board, fully stocked newsstand, slot machines, soft spacious seats, and plenty of room for strolling.

We alighted at Jersey's capital, St. Helier, a tidy Victorian city of about 30,000 people, many descended from the French who once ruled the island and whose language and culture is still very much evident. So is that of the Portuguese who also were early settlers.

Which means, among other vital matters, that you needn't settle for the usual less-than-exciting cuisine ala Anglais. As we soon discovered, there are far too many French and Portuguese restaurants for that. One of the best, Atasca at No. 6 La Colomberie St., is operated by the same couple that runs one of the best of St. Helier's numerous bed and breakfast lodgings. That's La Bonne Vie, just around the corner on Roseville Street, in the midst of a row of carefully restored, moderately priced Victorian guest houses. The plumbing thankfully is modern, but La Bonne Vie is in most other ways truly Victorian, with four-poster beds, lace doilies and curtains, lots of chintz, charming period prints on the walls.

St. Helier is a pretty place, with much open, well-kept green space, bright with flowers in season. We found it ideal for leisurely picturesque walks, but much of the city can also be comfortably viewed from one of the motorized open-air land trains that leave frequently from Liberation Square downtown for tours of the area.

St. Helier, you should also know, is quite respectful of the gentle bovines who've long been among Jersey's most productive residents and who of course bear the island's name. Don't miss the unusual statuary tribute to the famed cows on West Centre Plaza in the heart of the city's main shopping area.

St. Helier's most important public monument stands in Liberation Square, a group of bronze figures vigorously celebrating the surrender in 1945 of the German forces which had occupied the Channel Islands for five years.

We began our exploration of that unhappy time with a visit to the nearby Maritime Museum, where a tapestry created by 300 weavers and thousands of other Jersey islanders who each wove at least one stitch shows numerous scenes from daily life during the occupation. Still photos of scenes depicted on the tapestry flash in quick, dramatic sequence on screens atop the three walls on which the tapestry hangs.

At the Island Fortress Occupation Museum across the way, we saw more scenes in an intriguing 40-minute film. Also on view is a small collection of German military artifacts and contemporary local newspapers.

It was on the outskirts of St. Helier, just a short municipal bus ride distant, that we found the full fascinating story. It's told with great creativity in the world-class "Captive Island" exhibit inside what's known as "The German Underground Hospital" -- a bombproof facility consisting of barracks, workshops and anti-aircraft batteries as well as a hospital. They were housed in a series of reinforced tunnels dug into a hillside by slave laborers from German-occupied Eastern Europe who were worked to death or near-death.

The facility sat unused throughout the war, for the British never attempted to recapture the Channel Islands. Nor did Britain mount a defense of the islands when German forces set out to capture them after occupying France, just 14 miles across the channel.

Life in occupied Jersey was not easy. Food was scarce, with meat rarely available and fishing prohibited. Liquor and cigarettes could be had only on the Black Market. Soap was a Iuxury, toothpaste non-existent. The coal necessary for heating and electricity was in very short supply.

Residents were required to stay indoors at night and use no electricity during those hours. All private cars and trucks were seized. Radios were banned. Newspapers were heavily censored and filled with Nazi propaganda. Jews could not engage in trade. People were deported to German concentration camps for such "political crimes" as listening to BBC newscasts or in retaliation for particular actions by British troops against German forces elsewhere.

Many of those who survived the occupation tell their stories through interviews shown on video monitors mounted on tunnel walls throughout the sprawling museum. Life during the occupation is explored as well through contemporary newsreels projected onto several walls and through a myriad of documents, photos, posters and artifacts.

Although there was some resistance, including sabotage, islanders had no real choice but to try to live with their occupiers. Their daily dilemma is simply but very effectively illustrated in an exhibit that features life-sized dummies of German soldiers, smiling faces projected on video monitors mounted on their shoulders. They utter friendly greetings, speak of "your nice house" and ask, "Would you wash my clothes?"

Captions below the monitors ask museum visitors how they would respond. How would you respond?

Copyright Dick Meister