Friday, 27 July 2018

Majdanek - Unknown Horrors

Lublin is a large historic city.  It sits on the Royal Route from the ancient capital of Poland in Krakow to Vilnius the capital of a now independent Lithuania, but between 1569 and 1793 the joint capitals of union between the two nations.

Today it’s the ninth largest city in Poland and second only to Krakow in size in the southern part of the country.

I say this because it should be a more well-known city than it is, but also because despite it’s size located in its south western suburbs is a truly disturbing location – a key part of the Nazi Holocaust machinery – a designated extermination camp, that saw the deaths of at least 80,000 people (nearly 60,000 of them Jewish). 

Whilst this isn’t on the almost incomprehensible scale of Auschwitz it is notable for it happening so close to a major city.

Auschwitz is located more than 60Km from Krakow, Majdanek is just 4Km from the centre of Lublin.

Until I was planning on what to do on my trip to Lublin I’d never even heard of Majdanek.  When it came up on the Lublin tourism website as a place that visitors should go to I assumed that it would be a long way out of town, possibly only accessible on a guided tour.  I was very surprised to see that it was accessible by over half a dozen bus routes on the main road out of the city to the southern suburbs.

The site makes it very clear that a visit should be respectful, but that also people should be aware of the nature of the site – strongly warning against anyone under the age of 14 visiting.

When I visited Auschwitz, I was struck – as many people comment – by a sense of unease, partly the lack of any birdsong, or anything else living nearby, but also the knowledge that so much horror happened there.

The same wasn’t the case for Majdanek to begin with, despite one of the first things you are greeted with on entering the main part of the camp is the combined shower block and gas chamber – empty canisters of Zyklon B on display behind glass screens.

Because of it’s location there is a fair amount of wildlife on the site, and as the city has expanded the site is now overlooked by homes and a part of the university.

Where the true horror of the site really strikes is towards the end of the visit at the Mausoleum.  Here under a giant dome sits a large mound, made almost entirely of the cremated remains of the Nazi’s victims found on the site at its liberation in 1944.  The fact that this is only likely to be a small number of the total victims of the site is all the more harrowing. 

Along the frieze of the dome runs the text “Our fate is a warning to you”.

It isn’t a pleasant place to be, and it’s not supposed to be.  It’s supposed to be a reminder of the horrors that humans can inflict on each other when they think they can get away with it, and in the case of Majdanek, unlike many of the other extermination camps in the various Nazi occupied territories, within sight of a major city.


Footnote
When I visited Auschwitz, it was a damp overcast day.  Whilst this made the sites appear even greyer and devoid of colour, it did make looking round the sites an easy task.

I visited Majdanek on a hot sunny day, with temperatures nudging 30C.  I had bottles of cold water, I was covered in sun block, had comfy shoes on and was only leisurely walking around the site, and yet I found that quite unpleasant.  It brings home even more the horrific conditions that people were held in (and I can only assume the winter months would have been even worse). 

It was difficult to visit many of the exhibits in the former barrack blocks as the temperatures and humidity inside were stiffing and yet there were just a handful of people in each block at any time – trying to imagine being in there with hundreds, possibly up to 1,000 other people is almost impossible.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Miss Walton and the Romanians

So I’ve finally made it to Romania, a country that was seared into my mind at a young age.

There is every possibility it was a story that she told every year to her group of impressionable 9 and 10 year olds, to warn them of the perils of communist states.

After all this was 1987/88 and there was every indication that the Warsaw pact nations would remain just that – there might be a little bit of thawing thanks to Comrade Gorbachev, but Communism was here to stay.

Miss Walton was my primary school teacher for what was then class 10, but these days would be year 5.  She was a very strict, and very catholic, teacher – determined to get the best from her charges in the penultimate year of their primary education.

Starting sometime before the Christmas she started to tell us of the letters she received from some friends she had made in Romania – a young married couple.  She told us a bit about how life in Romania was hard – especially for Catholics – under the Ceaușescu regime.

As the weeks past, we were told of more letters, that they were smuggling out of Romania, and telling us more about their lives.

Then the letters stopped.  Miss Walton said she thought they were trying to escape the country and had stopped writing to protect themselves.

After the Easter she told us that she had been contacted by Amnesty who had found out that her friends had tried to escape the country but had been betrayed at the border by their friend and they were now in prison.

There were never any more letters.

At the time I don’t think our class really comprehended what was happening – other than Romania sounded like a scary place and that Communism was bad – especially for the church.

In hindsight along with the question as to whether this was a yearly event there’s the query about how this very straight-laced, disciplinarian, South London teacher was in contact with the Romanian underground, and getting letters from people who wanted to leave the country – Was it via the church?  She was certainly religious so that is a possibility.

Miss Walton retired a couple of years after I left primary school, and would by now be a very elderly woman, if she is even still alive.  However, before she even retired so much changed.

I left primary school in July 1989 – shortly after Solidarity had taken power in Poland.  Over the summer a humanitarian crisis played out in Hungary and then Austria as thousands of East Germans refused to go home at the end of their holidays and were eventually waived into Austria to camp in the West German Embassy before being granted asylum.

My first term at secondary school therefore coincided with one of the most important periods of late 20th century history as communist regimes in first Hungary, then East Germany, then Czechoslovakia collapse peacefully.

Then over the Christmas holidays the scenes across the news were of a very different change as the regime attempted to cling to power in Romania by killing its own people.

The end came, sort of, on Christmas day with the execution of Ceaușescu and his wife.

Europe had changed completely – and would continue to do so over the following years.

If the letters Miss Walton had read to us had been genuine then it leaves some troubling questions.

Having been betrayed at the border you would have to assume the couple would have been taken away for questioning by the secret police before being sent to prison.  Would they have survived?  It was barely 18 months from their betrayal to the end of Ceaușescu, but in a brutal police state that might have been too long.

If they had managed to survive, and regain their freedom, did they stay in Romania or, once free to move, did they set up life somewhere else.  Is that couple sitting in a little apartment just yards from my hotel room?

Whether the letters were real or not they certainly opened my eyes to the world of the Eastern Block, so I was probably more aware of the events of 1989 than other 11 year olds may have been.

And it’s also why I feel of all the former Easter Block European countries I’ve visited this one feels just that little bit more personal.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

A 30,262nd act of remembrance

20:00 CEST; 27th March 2016 – Ieper, Belgium.  For the 30,262nd time a remarkable act took place, as it has done at 8pm every night since 2nd July 1928.

The buglers from the volunteer fire brigade take their place under the arch of the Menin Gate and sound the last post as an act of remembrance for those killed in the First World War.

It’s a simple act, but one which has run for so long that it’s taken on its own importance.

From 6th May 1940 until 5th September 1944 the ceremony was moved to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey as the occupying Nazi’s stopped it from taking place in Ypres.  But on the evening of 6th September 1944, with Polish troops still fighting in parts of the town securing its liberation the ceremony restarted underneath the gate.

With this knowledge it’s impossible but to be incredibly moved by this simple ceremony and the importance if you are in Ieper of coming along to watch.

Looking round the crowds that gathered every night I have been in Ieper there are many faces familiar from Breakfast in the hotel as well as countless others, all coming to pay their respects.

And perhaps the most moving part of the ceremony is that only a few words are spoken, but with them the enormity of loss becomes all the clearer, and it’s difficult to see an eye that isn’t welling up slightly.

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."

Deploying Hitchcock to get your message across

"I think what sound brought of value to the cinema was to complete the realism of the image on the screen. It made everyone in the audience deaf mutes." -Alfred Hitchcock

Would Psycho be the terrifying movie it is without the soundtrack?  There are countless theses and probably thousands of undergraduate dissertations written on the subject of using music to set the scene.

However, if you want to get a real life example of deploying music to set the scene then you need go no further than the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper (Ypres).  This is a stunning and incredibly moving museum that takes you through the horrors of the Great War on the Western Front and in particular around the Ypres Salient.

By itself it would be difficult not to be moved by the museum, the sheer sense of futile loss the hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed for no real purpose.

However, throughout your visit to the museum there is a constant background music that manages to get into your head and burrow into both your brain and your heart.

I thought I might just have been me imagining it, but part way round they had a fault with the sound system and the music stopped for about 5 minutes.  During that time I felt I didn’t have such an emotional attachment to the artefacts – that’s all they became, just artefacts.  However, within a minute or so of the music starting back up again that sense of foreboding, fear and hopelessness is back.

Perhaps I was just imagining it, but by the time I left the museum – nearly 3 hours after entering – I was emotionally drained, and at the end of the day that’s probably exactly how you should feel after reading about the horrors of the Western Front.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Everything’s the same, and not the same

I think it’s fair to say that the good people of France, and particularly Paris, have not had a good year.

Things have happened in the French Capital that are the stuff of nightmares and it’s hard to imagine how things could ever be the same again.

And yet, at least here 800Km to the south in Marseille, people appear to be going about their lives as normally as possible.

The restaurants are busy, the Christmas Market by the Vieux-Port is doing a brisk trade and the Ferris Wheel next door is adding to the feeling of the festive season.

Along the harbour side the human statues, break-dancers and pan-pipe players are performing as I assume they have always done.

And everything would be normal if it wasn’t for the fact that every now and then you catch a glimpse of half a dozen soldiers patrolling in full combats with scary looking guns, reminding you that this is still a nation in a State of Emergency.

Despite that, or perhaps because of that, people appear to be going around their normal lives with only minor changes – more routine bag searches and the big red triangles at the entrances to buildings and parks reminding everyone the country is on a very high security level.

Is it, casting around for an appalling cartoon style stereotype, the spirit of the Indomitable Gaul?, or is it just human nature to try and get back to the routine as quickly as possible, to not let yourself succumb to the wishes of those who use violence?

All I know is at present the people or Marseille, and France, against everything that has been thrown at them are showing the won’t be cowed.  I’d like to join with them in saying Je suis Paris, Je suis libre!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Everything’s connected in the end

Belfast and Ramsgate.

There aren't many obvious major connections between the two places.  One is a major city on the Island or Ireland, the other is a medium sized harbour, now devoid of it’s ferry service, on the Kent coast.

However, within a week I've found the same name crop up in both locations, and it was so far out of left field that I spotted it almost instantly on walking into the Maritime museum, despite the name being in small type on a sea of information.

It’s also a tribute to the type of person that they don’t appear to make anymore, and made all the more poignant as there is currently a key anniversary going on.

Ramsgate is currently bustling to the commemorations of the 75 anniversary of Operation Dynamo, the desperate but eventually incredibly successful evacuation of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkerque in 1940.

The story is all the more remarkable for the flotilla of little ships, tug boats and yachts that were the mainstay of the evacuation.

However, one of those motor yachts – the Sundowner – was possibly even more remarkable for the man who was at the helm, and bringing me back to last weekend in Belfast the ship in 1912 he was the second mate on.

To be a hero once in a lifetime – by rescuing thousands of Soldiers from the beaches – would probably be enough for most people, but Charles Herbert Lightoller had previously saved lives as he guided women and children to the lifeboats on the Titanic and after the ship sank keeping a group of 30 alive on an upturned collapsible lifeboat.

A key part of Operation Dynamo and the last Titanic survivor brought on-board the Carpathia – that’s one hell of a life, and one hell of a connection between Ramsgate and Belfast.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What are those funny coloured lights for?

First thing to say is that I've travelled a fair amount in Spain and everywhere I've been the driving has always been of a high standard with almost all drivers obeying the law, which makes it all the more strange the driving style of Zaragoza.

It could be that in the last 12 months the driving standards of the entire nation have plummeted (Though I think we would all have noticed the appointment of Señor Clarkson to the role of Spanish traffic minister), it could just be something unique to Spain’s 5th City (in which case the good citizens of Sheffield, Frankfurt and Nice [Source: Wikipedia] may feel free to copy)

Of course I'm not ruling out that in a city of 700,000 people I just kept coming across the same small handful of idiot drivers, or there’s something about a bus – either public or tour – that brings out the worst in Zaragoza's drivers.

The most noticeable difference is that the pretty coloured lights at every junction, and crossing, around the city appear to have their own unique meanings, and are therefore mostly installed for their aesthetic rather than practical qualities

Green – Blast your horn wildly at anyone not travelling at the speed you want to be doing.  This is particularly important in the nanoseconds immediately after it has changed to green.

Amber – Prepare to ignore what the vehicle in front is doing, probably best to check your wing mirrors just to make sure.

Red – Accelerate, the longer the light has been on red the faster you should accelerate as this will ensure your safe passage through the junction.

What’s remarkable is that it does appear to work as there were far fewer cars with dints and scratches on them in and around Zaragoza than you’d normally see in London, Berlin or Stockholm.

So perhaps, as they appear to now have some time on his hands, it is time to replace the department of transport with the presenting team from Top Gear.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Embracing the philistine?

I've decided it’s time to admit it.  It’s time to come out of the shadows and to say how I feel.  Most contemporary art is a pile of…; well it would probably win the Turner Prize whatever it was a pile of.

It’s take a day of submerging myself in art to finally realise that I think I have very narrow tastes in art, and for that I have to thank those who run the Bavarian State Painting Collections.

For they have decided that rather than the €7 entrance fee per site that they charge Tuesday to Saturday, on a Sunday they will charge just €1 per site.  This means you can take in 600 years of European Art, spread across four neighbouring galleries for just €4.  Consequently you can take a Sunday and just consume art like an all you can eat buffet – going back for the bits you felt like licking the plate for, and ignoring the bits you took one bite off and gagged on.

First up this morning was the Alte Pinakothek which houses pre-18th century art, almost all of it of a religious bent and I fear to say it, but it left me feeling cold.  I was round and out in 30 minutes flat.  Perhaps the fact that I’d only paid €1 to see it all may have made me less willing to stop and truly appreciate the paintings, but then again I suspect I would have gone round at the same speed if I’d paid the €7 and then just grumbled that it was a waste of money.

And so, across the road to the second stop of the day, the Neue Pinakothek and its collection of 18th and 19th century art.  It was here that I had the dawning realisation that my tastes were clearly very narrow as I found, for the first time I can remember in a gallery, being overtaken by other visitors.  Rather than walking past every painting at an even (and towards the end increasing) pace I was stopping and looking at many of the pictures.  Unknown German artists through to Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh all making me stop and look.

Perhaps it was the lack of religious symbolism, or more just the lack of portraits (I already know I’m much more of a landscape person) that had me captivated.

Moving across the road, and up a century, to the Modern art gallery again I found lots of paintings that caught my attention, along with many of the photography exhibits.  Picasso, Miro, Dali and a host of artists I’d never heard of before.  The works may not look like anything real (so perhaps it’s not just a classic landscape), yet I still found them interesting.

However, in the final gallery of the day my only reaction was “what a load of old @#$% contemporary art is.”  An entire gallery of paintings that are apparently great works of art, and yet I’m pretty certain I’d produced almost identical works whilst in nursery (and probably using a potato rather than a brush).

Which leaves me with a question…?  If I only like a very narrow range of art (18th- 20th century landscape painting, photography, cubism and surrealism) does that make me a philistine?

Or, is it just that “contemporary art” has disappeared up itself…

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Eastbourne Spirit

Maybe it was because it was Airbourne, which is one of the busiest periods of the summer season for the town – but even there it was, according to all the staff at the hotel, the busiest they’d ever seen it.

Maybe it was because the weather was generally good and a sunny summer’s day will always draw people to the beach.

Or maybe it is that the town has a fighting spirit that its neighbours on the coast have lacked in the past, but it was clear that Eastbourne and its population was determined to make sure the loss of a large part of its pier to a “suspicious” fire a couple of weeks earlier wasn’t going to harm the town.

By the time I visited barely a fortnight after the pier was ablaze on the TV news there were already guys starting restoration work, with the owners aiming to have at least the decking open by Christmas, and a real buzz in town that it wasn’t going to be hurt by this.

It is a stark contrast to Hastings just along the coast which has always felt a little bit down at heel and when it’s pier was almost completely destroyed by fire (again another “Suspicious” fire) appeared to have had the wind completely knocked out of it.  There have been appeals, and the whole site is now in the custody of a trust that is determined to rebuild, but it’s still been nearly 4 years that it’s just been a rusting hulk.

And then there’s Brighton’s West Pier battered, burnt, battered some more and then finally another suspicious fire in 2003 (you’d almost think there’s someone out there deliberately going round setting light to piers – see also Western Super Mare and Southend for other pier fires) destroying any attempts to recover it.

So it is comforting to see a town so quickly start to put things right.

At one time there were over 100 piers around the coast of the UK, today it’s barely 50.  Hopefully the speed with which Eastbourne has acted will help keep that figure above 50 for long to come.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Curtain Call


“From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic an "Iron Curtain" has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia…”
Winston Churchill: 5th March 1946


Having come across the quote on numerous occasions I’d never really paid it much attention, but a few years ago I saw a programme on Deutsche Welle about someone taking a bike trip along the former East German border, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I didn't pay it much attention at the time, but it started to come back into my mind as I looked to plan a “big trip” for 2012 – Why not travel from Stettin (which only after a bit of hunting around did I find out was now Szczecin in Poland) to Trieste?

It was very obvious early on that to try and squeeze that into a fortnight would be an almost impossible task if I actually wanted to spend time in any of the places I was planning to go through.

So I split the trip up into three, uneven, but doable bits without even considering the finishing date.

In 2012 I started in Szczecin (Stettin) on the Baltic and travelled round the edge of what had once been the DDR

In 2013 I travelled through some of the areas most impacted by the Iron Curtain – Dresden left with a hole in its city centre as a reminder of what “The West” had done, Prague and Budapest – scenes of the brutal repression the Warsaw pact handed out to people who didn't toe the line and through the former Czechoslovakia a country that following the fall of communism decided to go one stage further and without any bloodshed or fighting simply dissolve its marriage and let its two nations go their own way.

As I started to plan for 2014, the final leg through the former Yugoslavia and down to the Adriatic at Trieste, it suddenly started to dawn on me quite how important a year this is.

It was, after all, in Sarajevo in 1914 that a single shot sparked the bloodbath of the First World War as Europe ripped itself to shreds.

And, it was just 15 years ago that American and British planes were “strategically bombing” Serbia in an attempt to bring an end to the ethnic wars that had torn Yugoslavia apart.

But, perhaps most relevantly to my journey down the Iron Curtain were the actions that took place on May 2nd 1989.  25 years ago without consulting anyone the Hungarian government decided to open its borders with Austria; it dismantled 150 miles of barbed wire and with it opened the flood gates.

Whilst democracy movements had already started to take hold in both Poland and Hungary by then, this was the first hole being punched in the Iron Curtain, a fatal hole that just 6 months late on November 9th saw Berliners dancing on the top of the Berlin Wall.

25 years on and there are a host of new or newly-independent countries.  Some like the Czech Republic and Slovakia achieving this amicably and smoothly, some like the Baltic States and Slovenia after some fighting and sadly in the rest of the Balkans through years of horrific war.

But, what’s clear, 25 years on from the curtains collapse, and 15 years on from the end of the wars in the Balkans, Europe has stitched itself back together.

From Szczecin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic it’s been an interesting, and at times eye-opening journey through a part of the world that once looked like it had disappeared for ever.