Château-Thierry American Monument

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The summer holiday is a perfect time to explore one’s area and discover new places. As this region is famous for the numerous and significant battles that were fought during World war One, a number of memorials have been erected as a tribute to the soldiers who crossed seas and oceans to fight for our freedom.

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The American Memorial in Château-Thierry is an impressive monument situated upon a hill near the town of Château-Thierry. It offers a wide view of the valley of the Marne River and is located about 54 miles (87 km) east of Paris. It was designed by Paul Philippe Cret and built in the 1930s. It is managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

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It commemorates the achievements of the United States forces that fought in the region during World War One when in 1918, the 2nd and 3rd United States Infantry Divisions took part in heavy fighting around the area during the Second Battle of the Marne. The monument consists of an impressive double colonnade rising above a long terrace.

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On its east facade, you can see the Great Eagle above a map showing American military operations in this region, an orientation table pointing out the significant battle sites as well as the names of the troops involved.

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On its west facade are heroic sculptured figures representing the United States and France. Can you tell which is which?

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Philosophy: the 2013 Edition

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I know you are all waiting with bated breath for this year’s essay questions so that you can wonder what you would have written and share the topics at home or at work! So here are this morning’s exam questions.

Philosophy is a compulsory subject for all French students at the end of the high school years unless they are preparing a vocational degree. The students sit for four hours and have to write about one question out of a choice of three – two in the form of a question and one text.

– Is language a tool?
– Is science limited to recording facts?
– What do we owe to the state?
– Do we interpret because we cannot know?
– Is it possible to act morally without being interested in politics?
– Does work allow an awareness of the self?
– An extract from a letter to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia by René Descartes
– A extract from De Concordia by Anselm of Canterbury
– An extract from The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

Royallieu-Compiègne Internment Camp

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I had intended to write about a different subject altogether before I realised that today is Yom HaShoah – or rather Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’) as it is officially called. To mark this day, I have chosen to write about one of the numerous French internment camps, one that is situated only an hour’s drive from where I live.

The Royallieu-Compiègne camp was an internment and deportation camp in Compiègne, France where French resistance fighters and Jews were imprisoned between June 1941 and August 1944.

About 40,000 people were deported from the Royallieu-Compiègne camp to Auschwitz and other camps in German-occupied territory. It was one of the biggest transit camps in France, from which the Germans deported political prisoners, many of whom were civilian Jewish communists. It was from the camp at Royallieu that the very first deportation train was to leave French soil on March 27th, 1942. It took over a thousand Jews to Auschwitz, as did the next one on June 5th.

The internment and deportation memorial opened on February 23, 2008. There one can learn about life in the Royallieu camp through a historic walk which leads to two of the remaining buildings. As they walk through a dozen of rooms and two corridors, visitors learn about the historical context in France and other European countries, life in the camp, deportation and extermination by the Nazis. After the barracks, one can visit the chapel, see the beginning of the escape tunnel, contemplate the wall of names and walk through the memorial garden.

One of the things that surprised and impressed me most when I visited this camp with a group of French and Swedish students last spring was how the inmates had organized cultural life in the camp. Conferences on English, Esperanto, political philosophy, history, the humanities, science and much more were given in the barracks (as is shown in the schedule above).

I can only guess but I assume that they saw intellectual improvement as a means to keep hope alive even when there was very little reason for feeling optimistic about the future. This is a message in itself. Even in dark moments, we ought never to lose hope that there will be better times.

What we are remembering today should never happen again – not to us and not to anyone else.

Never Forget!

When Clothes Make the Man

For a couple of weeks, a pupil in my school has been wearing distinctly skinhead clothes: high-laced black boots, tight jeans that are tucked into the afore mentioned boots and a black Pitbull bomber jacket on top of a white or black tee-shirt. He has also shaved his head. In other words, he looks just about as charming as a character out of This is England or if he had just attended a National Front meeting.

He has been summoned by the administration and questioned about his clothing. Apparently he explained that he is perfectly aware of the significance of his clothes but that the economic crisis has made him realise that ‘the white race is threatened’. He has agreed to remove the white laces on his boots but has kept the other items of his unsavoury garb. It would seem that since he has ‘promised’ he does not believe in violence (but would anyone be dumb enough not to), he can dress as he chooses.

In French schools, the law concerning religious and political beliefs is that ‘ostentatious signs’ are prohibited – in other words you can wear a star of David but not a kippa, a hand of Fatima but not a headscarf. The same applies to political signs. Besides any kind of proselytizing – whether it is religious or political is forbidden.

As a Jew, a Democrat, a European, a woman and a teacher, I feel offended. I find it very unpleasant and disturbing to see him in such attire on the school premises, knowing that it is tolerated by our administration. Other than go and see the head, is there anything else you would do?

Commonwealth War Cemeteries

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If you have relatives who fought in World War 1 or if you are just interested in recent History, visiting Commonwealth War Cemeteries is something you might consider. Yesterday I visited two such cemeteries as there are lots of them in my area – French troops were stationed further east. The following explanations are based both on my own observations and on a Wikipedia article.

A typical cemetery is surrounded by a masonry wall with an entrance through wrought iron gates. In larger sites a stainless steel notice gives details of the respective military campaign – in the first cemetery I visited the notice explained that it contained the graves of 65 British, 1 Australian and 41 South African soldiers and when they fell in action. There were also a map and some explanations about the battles fought by these soldiers.

In most cemeteries, you’ll find a bronze register box – in the wall – containing an inventory of the burials and a plan of the plots and rows as well as a visitor’s book.

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Typically, cemeteries of more than 40 graves have a Cross of Sacrifice designed by architect Reginald Blomfield.

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Individual graves are arranged, where possible, in straight rows and marked by uniform headstones, the vast majority of which are made of Portland stone.

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Most headstones are inscribed with a cross, except for when the deceased was not a Christian or was known to be an Atheist.

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Many gravestones are for unidentified casualties; they consequently bear only what could be discovered from the body.

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The land on which the Commonwealth cemeteries and official memorials are situated was given by the French government and are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Fear vs Autonomous Choice

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My frequent visits to Swedish schools with our language exchange have allowed to glimpse into the Nordic school system and to observe how different it is from the Latin approach.

In short it seems that the Nordic approach trusts the students to make responsible choices while the Latin method instills fear in the students hoping that this will prevent them from making wrong choices.

Let me illuminate you with a few examples:

Time: When we visit places with the exchange I have noticed that our attitude towards schedules and times vary. Fo instance my French colleagues announce meeting times and try to frighten the students with all the things that will happen to them (things that sometimes happen) while our Swedish counterparts will just explain the daily schedule.

Computers: My school has computers of course but in rooms that are locked unless a teacher is present. If our students use computers during a lesson, we are supposed to make sure they don’t listen to music or visit websites that will distract them from their work.

In addition a lot of my colleagues are still wary of computers and wish they did not have to use them every day. I even know a few who refuse to have a computer at home.

When we first visited Sweden, computers were at the students’ disposal in open spaces. In the school we now have the exchange with, each new comer is given a Macbook Pro for the length of her/his/ stay in the school by the local authorities. When their students are on their computers Swedish teachers trust that they are working and will rather discuss what they are doing and how than behave like policemen.

I have never heard a teacher moan about having to use the computer.

Internet access: My school has no wifi connection and a lot of websites are banned (YouTube, Facebook, email providers, etc). It seems our local authorities fear the students will either access inappropriate sites or not use the Internet wisely. Similarly I have heard colleagues say the weirdest and silliest things about Facebook, to the extent that I wonder if some of them even know what it is.

In most Swedish school, students can access the Internet via wifi from their computers or smart phones. Sure enough I have seen students on Facebook in class but it usually took place before the lessons got started. Once the students were made to work actively they forgot about Facebook.

While neither approach is perfect – and I hope I am not too naive as regards the Nordic system – I tend to believe that fear is likely to produce immature and neurotic grown-ups rather than healthy, well-adjusted adults.

For those interested in education in general – and you don’t need to be a teacher to appreciate this – I recommend Seth Godin’s latest book Stop Stealing Dreams. It is free for everybody to download.

Training a Trainee II

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I was quite awed last year about having a trainee for a full year – I needn’t have been: my trainee was competent, conscientious and also very pleasant.

When September came this year, I was confident that I would probably have a similar experience and be responsible for a youngster who was eager to learn and share teaching enthusiasms and doubts. I didn’t worry – I should have!

This year my trainee is 56. When he was younger he had no desire to teach and he went to college to study economics and management. Later he specialized in IT and worked in this sector for over a decade.

At some point in his professional life, he decided to switch to teaching and because he had lived in Britain for a number of years, teaching English must have looked like a good idea. Like all potential teachers in France, he took, and passed, the very difficult exam that allows candidates to become qualified teachers – provided their training is a success.

Unfortunately the last part did not happen and he is now repeating his training period, with me as his tutor. His weakest point is class management. This man shuns conflicts and thus implicitly allows the students to test his limits. Therefore the noise level in his classes often reaches an intolerable level as the students are busy talking rather than working.

Advising trainees on class management is far from easy. The way you manage a class has to do with who you are as a person. What works for me – apart from common sense – might not work as well for another teacher. In addition my task is all the harder as this person is older than me and not always ready to acknowledge his failings and shortcomings. It does not help that he is also not very brave and will use the same lessons and tests with very different classes.

Because of this reluctance, each of my visits is followed by a short exchange and then an email where I try and clarify what went well, what went wrong and how he could improve. So far however I have seen very little change and I am not sure how I can help him in a positive and efficient way.

Communal Evening

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After spending Yom Kippur in Antwerp last week, I expected Sukkot to be disappointing in comparison. All the more so as I do not get the days off and still have not come round to building my own sukkah (an idea which is both tempting and daunting as far as I am concerned).

However on Tuesday I got a FB message from one member of our tiny community telling me that we were all invited for the Friday evening service followed by a meal in a family sukkah. Our hosts are a middle-aged couple with three children. His family comes from Algeria while hers is from Tunisia.

The hostess had prepared a very appetizing meal with a distinctly Sephardic flavor (pizzas, makoud, tuna-filled savory pastries, dates, …) I had contributed by making an apple cake (not a Sephardic dessert at all) whose recipe I had found in Kosher Revolution. This cake is absolutely delicious and I have made it three times in two weeks. It proved to be a success once again.

Quite a number of people turned up and it ended up being a wonderful evening and a meaningful continuation of the High Holidays.

A Book for Children

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Over the weekend I read two very different books that deal with WW2 and to a certain extent with the Holocaust. One is The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Boden while the other one is The Pages In Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home by Erin Horn.

The first book is aimed primarily at children but can be equally enjoyed by grown-ups. Hans Augusto “H.A”. Rey together with his wife Margret, were the authors and illustrators of children’s books and are particularly famous for their Curious George series. The two went to Brazil separately, married in 1935 and moved to Paris that same year. In 1940, Hans and Margret Rey fled the French capital as the German army was advancing. Hans assembled two bicycles and they rode down to the Spanish border where they bought train tickets to Lisbon. They managed to sail to Brazil and from then on to New York City.

The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Boden relates the Reys’ amazing journey through text as well as full-color illustrations, original photos and documents. The book is divided into two parts: the first provides background on the couple’s childhoods in Hamburg and early life together in Rio de Janeiro and then France; the second half deals with their escape from France when they realized that as German-born Jews they were no longer safe safe and had to leave without delay.

I found that The Journey That Saved Curious George is a great book to read with primary school children to give them insight into WW2 without scaring them. The watercolors by Allan Drummond and the numerous documents make the book look like a travel journal and encourage discussion. In the end, both child and adult will enjoy the captivating story, the richly-detailed illustrations and the attractive layout.

Book guide for The Journey that Saved Curious George