Lessons in liberation

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Hundreds of graves lined neatly in rows, shining and carefully decorated with flowers. It can be hard to describe the impact of some experiences in words but that is what two local teachers will be doing this coming year and likely for quite some time as they relay the powerful experiences they had while guests of the Juno Beach Centre in northern France.

Gabrielle Cheverie and Dawn Chapman spent the end of July on the trip of a lifetime experiencing life in the footsteps of Canadian soldiers and the intense gratitude of those they liberated. As Cheverie was doing research for her social studies World War Two unit she came across an annual opportunity for teachers through the Juno Beach Centre to travel to the centre, take part in a tour and learn by experience what it was really like during the battles that took place there. In early January, the pair found out they were two of the chosen 25 from Canada to be accepted for the trip with the added destination of Belgium this year as well.

The Juno Beach Centre hosts a group of teachers on the battlefields of France for historical training each year. This year, a group of 23 Canadian educators, including Cheverie and Chapman, travelled through northern France for professional development training on the battlefields of the First and Second World wars.

Both women had been to France previously but never quite like this.

“It’s truly a trip that you couldn’t recreate for yourselves,” said Cheverie. “So many doors were opened for us because we were with the Juno Beach Centre.”

With a main focus of education, the Centre seeks to share the sacrifice that Canadians made during the war and to bring that message back home to Canada. To help do this a lot of the people the teachers were able to speak to were locals who had connections to the war. Both women noted one particular visit to a small town called Mesnil-Patry where they met a group of seniors who helped Juno Beach Centre founder and Canadian soldier Garth Webb open the centre. The seniors were teenagers during the occupation and liberation of their country and they remember everything they went through. They served the Canadian teachers a meal as a thank you for the liberation of their country and the sacrifices Canadians made. Both women agreed that it felt like visiting old relatives because everyone was happy to see them and warm and friendly.

“They called us their Canadian cousins,” smiled Chapman. The group of teachers was also hosted at Canada House, the first private home that was liberated. The home had been used as a base for the Germans during the war and after liberation; the family that lived there renamed their house after their liberators. The family that lives in the home now hosted the group for lunch while on their tour.

It was the welcoming enthusiasm and eternal thankfulness of those in France and Belgium that blew away Cheverie and Chapman during their stay.

“There’s more Canadian flags in Normandy than you see here,” Cheverie said. Now 75 years later, the windows of businesses and the graffiti on the streets still have messages of thanks to Canadian troops. “To them, they don’t forget that they are free because these brave young men and women chose to come liberate them.”

Both teachers recalled seeing chewed up curbs in town caused by German tanks and German bunkers on Juno beach, reminders of the war that are purposely kept intact as constant reminders of what the country has been through.

A strong personal note was also brought into the trip as each of the teachers in some way or another seemed to have a personal connection to the war and one of the areas. One of the areas where the tour stopped was L’école Bill Baillie, a school that was destroyed during the war and was rebuilt thanks to funding from Bill Baillie, a North Nova Highlander who had fought in the battle that had leveled the school. After the war, he fundraised and sent the money back to the area to have the school rebuilt. A small cabin in the courtyard of the school is even named Pictou in recognition of Baillie’s home.

“One thing I really took away was the need to personalize it,” said Cheverie about the lesson she will teach based on the trip. “Suddenly it becomes real when you make it personal.”

For Cheverie, the most powerful moment of the trip was a very personal one and she is still incredibly emotionally charged even now when she tells the story. After visiting one of the largest graveyards and having forgotten the name of her grandfather’s best friend who went to war and did not return, she received a text from a family member telling her to not to forget to look for their grandfather’s friend and reminding her of his name. For her grandfather, it was very painful for him to talk about his friend who never made it back and he did not talk about the war because of it.

After their lunch with the seniors and still thinking of how she missed her chance to search the graveyard for her grandfather’s friend, Cheverie and the group visited Abbaye d’Ardenne. The small gathering of medieval buildings complete with a Gothic church was the site where Kurt Meyer, German Commander of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had set up his command post.

After a brutal fight on June 7, 1944, a number of Canadian soldiers, including some North Nova Scotia Highlanders, were taken as prisoners of war, brought to the Chateau’s garden and were executed one by one after shaking hands with their fellow soldiers before they were killed in front of the others.

“When I got to the garden… there was Jimmy Moss,” said Cheverie holding back tears. In a shady courtyard garden stands a memorial to the 11 men that were brutally executed that day and whose bodies were later found buried in the same garden after the war by the people that live there.

“One of them escaped and that’s where the story came from,” said Cheverie. “It was really powerful to be in the garden and to think, when was the last time anyone was here and thinking of him.”

Anyone who wants more information about the tour or the Juno Beach Centre can visit www.junobeach.org. Next year, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Teachers Gabrielle Cheverie, left, and Dawn Chapman visited L’école Bill Baillie, a school that was destroyed during the Second World War and was rebuilt thanks to funding from Bill Baillie, a North Nova Highlander who had fought in the battle that had leveled the school. They two were guests of Juno Beach Centre this summer. (Submitted photo)