Category Archives: Remembering

Wolf Blitzer’s Journey

The CNN correspondent uncovers his roots

The Peace Bridge author, me in other words, has just watched the amazing journey that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer undertook to uncover his roots. It took him far back to Auschwitz where his grandparents were murdered but his parents survived, and then to Buffalo, NY, actually Kenmore, where I also spent most of my childhood. We went to the same high school – Kenmore West. He graduated 2 years before me in 1966.

At Ken West there was a large contingent of really bright Jewish kids in my classes and I was always in awe of their intellectual development – far beyond mine, that was for sure. But at the tender age of 15-17, I had no idea about their backgrounds, that some of them must have been children of Holocaust survivors. In the late 60s I had only just about heard of the Holocaust and no way would it have occurred to me to make any connections between it and the Jewish kids in my classes.

But I do wonder if it was my memories of those bright kids, like Wolf Blitzer, that left me with a permanent historical fixation on the Holocaust, where some of the brightest and most productive members of European society were murdered. It may well be this that led me to write a story about a Jewish family trying to overcome the late and lasting consequences of Hitler’s Reich.

I am thankful to Wolf’s film for bringing this connection home to me. Better late than never! On a more upbeat note, I loved that he, too, when on a visit back to Buffalo, also goes on a pilgrimage to Anderson’s Custard and Ted’s Hotdog Stands on Sheridan Drive. Funny, the things you take with you on life’s journey.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MaiaIdjcK8

 

 

 

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Filed under German History, Holocaust, Remembering, Roots

GERMAN REUNIFICATION – 25 YEARS AGO

WE’VE COME SO FAR – WE MUSTN’T TURN BACK

I am shaking off the stupor caused by house-related renovations to comment on a breath-taking event that took place 25 years ago. Throughout the spring and summer of 1989, the situation in the German Democratic Republic escalated. East German “tourists” went on holiday to Czechoslovakia and Hungary – just about the only places they were allowed to travel. But they did not return home. They ended up camping on the grounds of the German embassies in Prague, Budapest and even Vienna, while behind-the-scenes frantic diplomacy was deciding their fate.

Back in East Germany, while the powers-that-were were gearing up to celebrate the up-coming 40-year birthday of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in October, activists in Leipzig and Dresden and other eastern cities continued their weekly Monday Demonstrations. The meetings and marches were non-violent and centered around the Protestant Church, an institution just about tolerated by the government. Plenty of “unofficial” Stasi operatives took part, to be sure.

What did these people want anyway? Just everyday things really. Like being allowed to travel unhindered and not be walled in. Like the freedom to speak their minds without fear of arrest. Like not being spied on by neighbors and “friends” who had been enlisted for this purpose by the Stasi – the secret state security police. Just simple things really, things we in the West have always taken for granted.

Of course on the west side of the wall, West Germans watched expectantly, fearfully. There was no telling where it would all end. And from past experience, there was a good chance it would not end well. But bit by bit, the regime granted concessions. And then, almost by accident, on November 9th the wall opened. People turned up at various Berlin border crossings, demanding to be let through. East German border guards who were not able to get any clear orders from above, raised the barriers. Thank heavens, they had no desire to fire on their own.

And my husband and I watched this spectacle, wide-eyed and incredulous, from the comfort of our West German living room, along with most other “Wessis” (West Germans). From one day to the next, separated families could be reunited, ordinary “Ossis” (East Germans) could suddenly go where they pleased. And over the following months the road taken in Trabis and Wartburgs would lead to what became an inevitable destination: reunification.

Those were heady days, weeks and months. We became addicted to following the news reports on TV and radio, anxious to hear of the next unbelievable milestone in the journey to once again becoming one Volk. And 25 years later a generation has grown up that did not know the sorrow of a Germany rent in two by the post-World War II settlements. Those young people can’t imagine what it means not to be free.

And although the east of the country still lags behind economically, huge strides have been made, billions have been invested in infrastructure. BMW builds cars in Leipzig, VW in Dresden. Berlin is now, once again as it should be, the capital of the country. Both the Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, hail from the east.

Of course, the fall of the inner-German border was just the beginning. Along with it, the entire Iron Curtain came crashing down and the Soviet Union dissolved. Voila, the end of the Cold War and the commencement of a new world order.

Unfortunately, black shadows loom overhead. Need I list the crises that dominate the news every night? The new world order has not brought world peace but new instability. One of the crises in particular seems to me to be so stoppable. That would be the Ukraine.

Why, dear Mr Putin, do you want to go backwards rather than forwards?
I wish he’d give us an answer.

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Filed under Beginnings, Cities, Endings, German History, Remembering

August 4th – Commemoration of Britain’s Declaration of War Against Germany

All day Monday services of commemoration took place in Belgium and across the UK. In the evening the BBC broadcast the services held at the military cemetery Saint Symphorien near Mons, Belgium ( the site of the first battle between the British and German forces). This cemetery where soldiers from all the combatant countries were buried next to each other was the idea of a German officer in 1915 – during the height of the war. The idea was to create a Waldfriedhof, a forest cemetery, honoring the sacrifice on all sides.

British, Belgian and German heads of state and several heads of government were present and participated actively in the proceedings. Serenely orchestrated combining music, poetry and prose, it was a fitting remembrance of the millions who died, I hate to say it,  completely in vain.

CORRECTION OF AUGUST 1st POST

I would like to correct my post in which I stated that Russia declared war on Germany on August 1, 1914. In fact it was the other way around.

In the lethal chain of events that precipitated war on so many fronts, Germany declared war on Russia when they mobilized on Germany’s eastern borders.The Russian-German border ran right down the middle of where Poland should have been!

Russian claims  that they were “only” mobilizing against Austria-Hungary because of the latter’s war against Serbia were of no help since Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary.

August 4th marks Britain’s declaration of war against Germany upon their invasion of neutral Belgium. And so the tragic timeline continues during the course of August and on into the following 4 years.

It is scary the way so many journalists are comparing the current situation with that of 100 years ago: Ukraine, Syria, Gaza, Libya, Iraq. And let’s not forget Afghanistan and Pakistan. Where else have I left out?

The only hope is that we did learn something from all the mistakes of the 20th century. Nothing is predestined. And there mustn’t be any attempts scorned at finding solutions

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Filed under Endings, German History, Great Britain, Politics, Remembering, World Wars

The Wooden Leg

100 years ago today Russia declared war on Germany and the fatal circus that had already begun between Austria and Serbia began its rise to global dimensions. In the course of 1914 there were 22 declarations of war.

This morning I heard on the radio a fascinating persepective from a man whose grandfather was wounded early in the war. A very young August Müller lost his leg and his war service was over. Every year that loss was remembered and celebrated within their family. On first consideration, it seems a weird thing to celebrate.But think about it. If August Müller had not lost his leg, he may well have stayed in the war long enough to lose his life. Considering the number of dead in that war – 17 million on all sides including civilians – this would not have been surprising. Thus this particular branch of the Müller family has August’s wooden leg to thank that they are living and thriving today, 100 years later.

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Filed under Beginnings, German History, Remembering, World Wars

100 Years Later – And Still No Wiser?

The past few months have been full of reminders of the events in the summer of 1914 that drove Europe to the most destructive war ever seen by man to that date. Echoing the title of Christopher Clark’s monumental work on the beginnings of the Great War, the empires involved – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain – sleep-walked into a conflagration that would change the continent physically, socially and politically forever. Seventeen million dead human individuals (9 m soldiers, 8 m civilians) from eight countries, that was the horrendous price paid for the hubris of emperors and politicians.

And yet that First global war has been eclipsed by the Second (with a total death toll approximated between 60 and 85 million!) in such a way as to have allowed the First to retreat into the dark black hole of memory we reserve for much of our history. This  centenary is the perfect opportunity to raise our collective – and personal – awareness of mankind’s inhumanity to its own species. Television is awash with programs to do just this and I can only recommend watching them.

And what is the point of digging up what is for some a period of history better forgotten? Besides remembering those who sacrificed their lives – on all sides and fronts – I still believe – if we really work at it – we are capable of learning from our past mistakes. Without the First World War and its ignominious Versailles Treaty (see photo below), there would have been no Second World War. Do any of us really want to experience a Third World War – with today’s nuclear potential?

Which brings me, the American ex-pat and German-by-choice, back to one of my favorite themes: The European Union…

The European Union may have many weaknesses and, Lord knows, we love to complain about its regulatory derailments and bureaucratic bloat, but it  is the child of a post-war France and a post-war Germany who were determined to end death and destruction on European ground. As a political body reacting to conflicts within as well as beyond its borders, Europe has a reputation for slow reactions. Think the Yugoslavian disintegration into war in the 90s, the recent Euro crisis and now the ever deepening Ukrainian crisis with its threat to the balance of power between the east and west. In these instances, however, I’d like to believe the slowness is deliberate. Rather than sliding –  sleep-walking – into escalating conflicts, today’s leaders must calculate their justifiable national interests and the consequences of pursuing them.

Personally, I am prepared to suffer a lot of somewhat inane and seemingly sclerotic bureauocracy from an as-yet-imperfect European political system if it prevents blood-letting on world war scales.

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Filed under Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Politics, Remembering, World Wars

The Warsaw Pact Takes on New Meaning

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When we were visiting Warsaw a week ago, I had no idea we were just missing Barak Obama’s arrival. After five days there, spent delving more deeply into the history of Poland in general and Warsaw in particular, I appreciate the President’s confirmation of the resolve of the US and NATO to defend, if necessary, Poland and the other former Soviet satellite states which are, indeed, now members of NATO. For the Ukraine crisis has certainly given the countries at our eastern outposts a mighty case of the jitters. And for good reason: Promises are one thing, carrying through can be quite another.

Warsaw is a city resurrected – by its own strength and resolve – from the ashes of World War II. Although under Soviet dictatorship, the citizens immediately started to rebuild their city, not a modern incarnation of it, but as it had been, as they had loved it before 1939.

Before / After

Before / After

After a visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which presented blow-by-blow the city’s last-ditch struggle to survive, I came away realizing that it wasn’t just the Germans and the Russians who raped Poland. In September 1939 when the country was invaded first from the west by the Germans and then from the east by the Russians, Poland’s allies – Great Britain and France – did not lift a finger. They were powerless; they could only let the invaders have their way.

With its low plains, Poland had always been an easy target for armies to march across. Napoleon certainly took advantage of that. And its geopolitical location between three greedy empires (Austro-Hungary, Russia and Germany) made it a tempting target. Thus in 1795 Poland became the tragic victim of its geography and topography. It was divided into pieces, like a cake, between Austria, Germany and Russia. Only at the end of the First World War did it reappear on the map as a sovereign nation.

In 1939 the German National Socialist regime was determined, once and for all, to quash Polish identity. One element of that was leveling Warsaw. In their perception, that would destroy their national identity. By 1945, 90% of Warsaw had been bombed and burned out. But they underestimated the will of the people to stay Polish, as evidenced by their final uprising in the summer of 1944. They went down but they went down fighting.

 Warsaw reborn_0002

Aerial view of a city devastated

 

During the war, the Polish government was in exile in London; Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, French, Americans, Canadians and others. What remained of their airforce flew with the RAF. They fought bravely and believed when the war was won that they would get their country back.

At Yalta, a seaside town in then (and now once again!) Russian Crimea, in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set the framework for the post-war political landscape of Europe. Poland was already occupied by Russia. The western allies, again, did not have enough strength to counter Stalin’s drive to secure his sphere of influence. Poland was left to Stalin. The rest is, obviously, history. My conclusion: Poland was f***ked, repeatedly, not only by her enemies but also by those she thought her friends.

Let’s hope and pray that the USA, within the scope of the NATO alliance, does in fact, this time, defend Poland and the other former Iron Curtain countries from Vladimir Putin’s latest version of Russian egomania and paranoia, should this become necessary. The rest of western Europe must move on from its tentative measures and show more backbone. For with one eye on 20th century history, it is easy to understand the nervous twitch from which Poland and her eastern neighbors are lately suffering.

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Filed under Cities, Fiction and Other Truths, German History, Great Britain, Holocaust, Politics, Remembering

Madiba Rests in Peace

…and we must pray that his country will have grown strong enough to live in peace without his presence.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela last Thursday, the world lost the most iconic man of the entire 20th century. He was one of those rarest of human beings who combined intelligence with the wisdom to use it. And with it he saved his nation. The struggle in South Africa is not yet over, but that the people have come this far without a bloody civil war must be credited to this one man with the moral authority to risk love and forgiveness when others would have preferred hate and revenge.

Just think how much better a place the world we live in could be if we all emulated Madiba.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

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Filed under civil rights, Endings, human rights, Obituary, Remembering, Tribute