Holocaust Memorial Day

I didn’t want to let Holocaust Memorial Day pass without a comment, but what could I add to the millions of words already spoken and written, expressing the grief and tears and hopes of the ever-dwindling numbers of survivors?

Television brings Auschwitz into our homes, and as that footage is shown again and again we risk becoming inured to the sight of those living skeletons filmed as the camp was liberated. That must never happen. We need to continue to feel, just as strongly, the horrified outrage and revulsion that hit us in the solar plexus the first time we ever became aware of these atrocities. This is a wound that must never be allowed to fade into a mere scar.

I have wandered through the heart-wrenching Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and felt nauseous on the tilted floor of the Garden of Exile in the Jewish Museum there. I think of the Jews I know and have known, people of my own generation or slightly older who were saved by the Kindertransport, or whose parents and grandparents were victims of Auschwitz and other concentration camps; each story a unique mixture of horror and miracles. I think of my friends in Israel, born in the Diaspora but who have returned there, made Aliyah, drawn by their centuries old homing instinct, still facing the attacks of their enemies, day in and day out.

What can I say about the Holocaust, and what it stands for on a global scale, where genocide continues in many parts of the world even now, and man’s inhumanity to man seems to be escalating out of control? It isn’t only about anti-Semitism, though that remains a focal point.

What can I add? I can point to my other blog, with 100 translated poems of Nelly Sachs. Nothing else I can say can be more poignant than that.

A Tale Of Two Brothers

Last February, I was moved to write a poem about my mother’s cousin, killed soon after his 20th birthday on the Somme. I had found out quite a lot about Cousin Willy, but the image that haunted me was of a bright-eyed young lad eager to get out of the choking dust of the coalmine and see something of the world. Enlisting promised adventure, foreign travel, and glory on the battlefield. Instead, less than a year later and after serving at Gallipoli and in Egypt, he was one of 430 British “other ranks” of the 34th Brigade butchered in one day in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. His body lies in an unmarked grave, but his name is carved on the Thiepval Memorial.

A couple of days ago a comment was made on this post by someone called Tim, so I replied to Tim’s e-mail address, thinking perhaps he was a relative. No, he isn’t family but the story is interesting nevertheless. Tim has recently purchased some medals in an auction, one of which is a memorial plaque for William Musgrave.$_12

The Internet linked him to my poem. Luckily, another cousin who is an expert on WWI had done some research for me, so Tim now has the full story behind that plaque as I filled him in on the details I have about Cousin Willy’s brief army career and death. In return, he sent me photographs of the medals in question, the death announcement in the local paper and the War Memorial in the local church where Willy is commemorated.post-616-077791500%201295530301

The medals are interesting for various reasons. They were awarded in the early years of the twentieth century by the City of Sheffield Education Committee to William and his younger brother Walter for “punctual attendance and good conduct” over 4 years, and another one to Walter for 5 years. That is some record. This site gives some background information on these medals, showing how difficult it was to achieve this award:

Regular and punctual attendance

The precise definition of regular and punctual attendance varied slightly over the years but in their conception the requirements were very strict. The 1902 School Management Code, for example, stated that ‘a medal is to be awarded to every full-time scholar who has attended punctually on every occasion on which the school has been open during the educational year ending July provided that absence on not more than four half-days or two whole days in a year shall not debar any child from receiving a medal if at least two days’ notice of such absence has been sent by the parent or guardian’. It went on to say that ‘By punctual attendance it means attendance at school at 9am in the morning and 2 p.m. in the afternoon’. These were, of course, the standard starting times in the days when virtually all children went home to their midday meal. As a proviso, the Code stated that ‘No child may receive a medal who has not satisfied the head teacher as to his or her cleanliness, tidiness and good conduct throughout the year’. For some years after 1908, a restriction of not more than six medals per class or form at any school was made.  

These two brothers were obviously keen, industrious lads doing well at school. Their father was a colliery labourer and not able to pay for William’s education so he had to leave school and go down the pit at 14 as a pit-pony driver. Walter, however, gained a scholarship to the prestigious King Edward VII School, apparently the only working class boy to do so in 1910, and went on to gain another scholarship which enabled him to obtain his university degree.FullSizeRender

He was then ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England. He spent some time in Africa as a missionary, then worked as a Prison Chaplain at HMP Dartmoor and Bedford before going back to Yorkshire and becoming the Vicar of Knottingley; eventually he was made a Canon, and finally, a year before his death in 1966, Master of Readers at Holgate Hospital, Hemsworth, where his ashes are buried in the wall of the Chapel of the Holy Cross. He left a widow, Monica Violet, whom he had married in 1931, and two daughters. His memorial plaque is very modest and unassuming, like the man he was.20140428_104513

I met Uncle Walter when I was a little girl, visiting him and his elderly mother – my Great-Aunt Polly – at the Rectory in Knottingley. Aunt Polly and my mother corresponded regularly, in spite of Aunt Polly being blind. She didn’t dictate, but wrote her letters herself in pencil on folded sheets of paper, following the fold-lines with her finger to keep her writing straight. It wasn’t easy to decipher, but my mother usually managed to figure it all out.

After her death in 1952, we lost touch with Uncle Walter and his family, so I have no idea whether he has any living descendants or not. The fact that these treasured medals have appeared on the market would suggest that there are no relatives, or at least, none who care about family ties.

I am pleased that Tim has them now, and is interested in finding out about the boys who earned them. And I am very pleased that we have been able to help each other in this quest. What he needs now is to find the other medals that William would have been awarded: 1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal, and the Memorial Scroll signed by the King issued to next-of-kin. That would be quite a valuable little collection for him.

Cousin Willy: A Yorkshire Lad

Cousin Willy turned fourteen:
Time to leave school and become a man.
Dad was a collier down the pit
And said, they need a lad down there
To drive the ponies.
Nice job, thought Willy, driving ponies.

The pit was dark and dusty,
Coal dust in your eyes, your nose, your mouth, your hair,
The ponies came out blinking once a year
To feed on fresh green grass
But not too much (colic!)
Then back into the black.
Willy and his pony were a team
Short and sturdy both
Bound by a bond of mutual dependence in the dark,

Willy turned eighteen:

Your King and Country need you!

Screamed the posters
So Willy came out blinking,
Went to war, seeking
Adventure, glory, honour, fun!
He went abroad, to France
And Flanders fields.
And fell.

MUSGRAVE: Pte. William, 15083, 8th Bn. Northumberland Fusiliers. 26th Sept. 1916. Age 20. Son of Joseph William and Mary Musgrave, of 41, Hatherly Rd, Tinsley, Sheffield.

Battle of the Somme

Sic transit gloria mundi

war memorial

The war memorial, bearing all the names
Of fallen heroes on its marble plates, stands
Guarded by its useless angel amidst the games
Of shrieking urchins. No more brass bands
Playing mournful dirges, no everlasting flames
Kept burning in their memory, no loving hands
To place a wreath of honour. Graffiti shames
And desecrates, ignoring the commands
To remember and respect young men who died
In agony and fear in foreign lands.
Mere lads. Mere lads the vandals too, who tried
To daub obscenities denying the demands
Of duty. Would they believe their death was justified
If they could feel their children’s scornful brands?

On This Day

Today – 9 September 2013 – is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden 500 years ago.  Coincidentally, it’s also the anniversary of the day I started Grammar School in 1952 and the day I left England to start a new life in Germany in 1963, though at the time I didn’t know that, blissfully believing I was going for just one year. I prefer not to reflect on how many years ago that was, as it means I have to admit to being over 45.

Both days seem like yesterday but a torrent of water has passed under the bridge since then, and if I dip my toe in it is most decidedly not the same river I was paddling in at that time. Not the same toe, either – I’ve forgotten how often cells regenerate in the human body, but I doubt even the oldest of mine were around in 1963, let alone 1952.

Today archaeologists digging on Flodden Field for remains of the men who slaughtered one another that day paused in their labours to allow a special service to take place honouring the fallen. It was attended by a large congregation, including descendants of those killed in the battle.

If you are the scion of a noble family, it’s easy to find out if your ancestor was there or not. But how can you tell if you are descended from a simple, illiterate pike- or cudgel-bearing foot soldier?  Some of the people there claiming to be relatives looked very ordinary to me, hence my question.

By digging around myself – metaphorically, not with the archaeologists – I have traced some of our family tree back to the sixteenth century, though not as far back as 1513. It is very difficult to ascertain who was who among hoi polloi in those days, unless they came to acquire some kind of fame or notoriety. The average law-abiding serf or villein was regarded as scarcely more than the animals he tended, just another pair of hands that the feudal lord could call upon when needed and pack off as cannon fodder when the King wanted to raise an army.

I suppose, once they have found a few bones, there may be a possibility of identifying more present-day descendants by means of DNA. However, unlike with Richard III, we won’t see the unearthing of the bones of James IV of Scotland, who bravely led his men into battle and achieved the dubious distinction of being the last king killed in battle on British soil, because his body was carted off to London and presented as a trophy to the crown. Henry VIII was off fighting the French (and leading from behind to ensure he survived), so it landed with Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had it dumped. By the time his grandson became King of England 90 years later, it had rotted away in a woodshed and there was nothing left to disinter. Thus even if he had wanted to rehabilitate his grandfather, he couldn’t.

There is one beautiful thing to come out of that horrific battle at Flodden field: the lament “Flowers of the Forest” which is played regularly when the Scots are remembering their fallen comrades, especially in the two world wars.  

1812 And All That

I’ve always enjoyed listening to music that tells a story. Sometimes the composer bases his music on an actual tale, but in other cases the music just seems to evoke scenes and events. For instance, Sibelius composed tone poems that would make wonderful soundtracks to a film, and I have spent many dreamy hours imagining the tales they tell.

On the other hand, overtures to operas and plays usually foreshadow the events, and so take you through the story. One of the earliest I stumbled upon as a child was Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I would listen for the jackass braying.  Another old favourite was The William Tell Overture, which tells its tale from the prelude through to the triumphant galloping finale with its much-abused  “Lone Ranger” motif.

(And just to throw in some trivia, did you know that the horn of the Swiss Postal Buses that is sounded every time the bus approaches a blind bend on a mountain road echoes those opening bars of the Prelude? Ta-taaa-toooo – exactly as Rossini wrote it, in the key of E.)

English: Tchaikovsky's famous 1812 Overture, w...

Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture, was played complete with cannons and pyrotechnics at the 2005 Classical Spectacular, in the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Photo taken at ISO 1600 with no tripod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I was pleased and interested when this post about Programme Music landed in my inbox this morning, with the story of the 1812 Overture. What I didn’t know until I read this post was that Americans often associated this piece of music with the Fourth of July and gaining their Independence in the War of 1812.  My first reaction to this was surprise that the stupid ignorant Americans hadn’t picked up on the French and Russian themes in the piece. Then I was surprised at myself for not having heard of the War of 1812. What was that? The War of 1812?  Who’s the stupid ignorant one now?

Well, a long time ago I took history at school and passed GCE O-level, focussing on British and European history from 1789 to 1914, so that certainly included 1812 and Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (I was very good on Napoleon) but I had never heard of this war before.  How remiss of my History teacher who used to drill us to a very high standard.

Then it dawned on me that we were studying for an exam that concentrated on European and domestic British history, and an American war didn’t come under that heading even if Britain had been involved (one of the pitfalls of studying for exams!).  As far as I knew, the USA had gained its independence in 1774 and that was that.  Of course I’d heard of the Battle of New Orleans, but I hadn’t known when it took place. Nor did I know of the precise circumstances described in The Star-spangled Banner. How lucky that nowadays we can turn to Google and Wikipedia to fill the gaps in our knowledge!

Cover of sheet music for "The Star-Spangl...

Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of British troops involved in the War of 1812 was relatively small, because most of our fighting men were deployed in the Napoleonic wars, in which far more was at stake. This conflict in a distant former colony was just a minor matter in British foreign affairs, and is scarcely mentioned in our textbooks.  It was, of course, a defeat for the British hence something of an embarrassment, but since it resulted in a status quo ante bellum with no changes in borders etc, we could afford to sweep it under the carpet and forget about it. For the Americans and Canadians, however, it settled their status as independent nations with clearly drawn borders. In fact, last year while Britain was once again looking inward and self-absorbed with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, over the Pond there were all kinds of bicentenary celebrations going on in the USA and Canada.

English: Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812...

Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) by Douglas Coupland in Toronto/Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wonder if the War of 1812 figures in modern British history books?

I must find a British teenager studying history …

WWII: Königsberg

Königsberg: the name has two strong associations for me, both connected with the Second World War.

The first concerns the air raid by RAF Bomber Command. The official campaign diary states that: “on the night of 26/27 August 1944, 174 Lancasters of No 5 Group (were despatched) to Königsberg, which was an important supply port for the German Eastern Front. The route to the target was 950 miles from the No 5 Group bases. Photographic reconnaissance showed that the bombing fell in the eastern part of the town but no report is available from the target, now Kaliningrad in Lithuania. 4 Lancasters lost.“Image0718

My Dad often reminisced about the flight to Königsberg and back, a journey of almost 2,000 miles lasting 10 hours 10 minutes, and ending in an unscheduled landing at Honiley on the last drops of fuel.  Since the Flying Fortresses aren’t mentioned in the campaign diary, I can only assume that they were there as part of 100 Group’s “ghost flyers”, giving bomber support and protection to 5 Group. Writing about it much later, Dad recalled:

“One chap in our billet … took a fancy to a pair of blue and white pyjamas I had. I told him that if we got the chop he could have them. We had taken part in the Koenigsberg attack and been diverted to Honiley near Coventry, landing there at 06-55 after a ten hours and ten minutes Squadron airborne record flight. Of course, because we hadn’t returned the previous night, he had come to the conclusion that he would exercise his right! But he gave them back with no hard feelings.”


Page from Dad’s logbook. Night flights in red.

It’s difficult nowadays to appreciate what a ten-hour flight over enemy territory and the North Sea in a 1940’s bomber must have been like: flying at an altitude of between 10,000 and 30,000 feet with no heating, no pressurised cabins, just the freezing cold and your flying suit and boots to keep your body temperature even. No comfortable seats, either, and I know my father suffered badly from airsickness. Again, from his memoirs:

“I used to get airsick very often but I learned the trick of sticking two fingers down my throat to make myself sick when I began to feel rough, open the side window, and with my head turned aft, rid myself of stomach contents. I could then carry on with my job. But I was caught out one day when I didn’t turn my head quickly enough, and spewed into my oxygen mask. Scrub as I would afterwards, I could not rid the mask of the smell, so after a week I had to exchange it for a new one.

Johnny used to tease me at the after-flight meal, saying “How about a bit of greasy pork, Ron, going up and down your throat on a piece of string?” He’d never been airsick and didn’t realise how it felt until one night when we had been in ten tenths cloud and great turbulence, having climbed up to 26 thousand feet and descended to 12 thousand without getting out of it, the whole crew except George and Freddie succumbed. Ricky, our bomb aimer, had been eating chocolate and was flying in the top turret – George’s peaked cap was just below the turret and received what Ricky rejected. I was sick into the tail wheel hand-cup into which I would later have to plunge my hand to lock and unlock the tail wheel to taxi to dispersal.

At the after-flight meal, it was my turn to ask Johnny “How would you like a piece of greasy…?” I got no further: he was up from the table like a shot and off into the ablutions with his hand over his mouth. But I felt sorry for him losing his meal, although I enjoyed mine. And he never ribbed me again.”

Listening to my Dad’s stories, I was familiar with the name of the city of Königsberg from a fairly early age, knew that it had been badly bombed and also more or less where it was located.

Ironically, twenty years after my father’s participation in the raid on Königsberg, I was married to a German and discovered I had a sister-in-law in East Germany who came from a village near there. Because of the division of Germany, I didn’t meet her until the nineteen seventies, when we became very good friends.

Eva’s story showed me the other side. The brutality of the Red Army and the exhortations of Ilya Ehrenburg were well publicised in the Third Reich:

 “Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these German women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm forward. Kill! You gallant soldiers of the Red army!”

It seems necessary in war to dehumanise and demonise the enemy, otherwise how can you go on fighting and killing? Horror and evil are the result. The people in the path of the Russian advance through East Prussia also knew what had happened in villages like Nemmersdorf.

Eva was a little girl in 1944, and remembers her father, who was a soldier in the German army, coming to their house secretly in the dead of night and having a hurried, whispered conversation with her mother. She deduced later that he must have deserted. In any case, she never saw him again and two days later she was told that her mother had drowned herself in the river Pregel. She and her two little brothers were bundled up hurriedly by a neighbour and they joined the masses fleeing westward.

The Russians soon caught up with them, and provided an army “escort”. Eva recalls how women would be pulled out of the group when they stopped to rest in the evenings, and their screams as they were raped and murdered. One soldier took a liking to her, though, and helped her, although his favourite game when they paused for the night was to use her hand as target practice for his knife throwing. Luckily, Eva was quick and always managed to snatch her hand away in time.

Eventually, she and her brothers were handed over to a displaced children’s home, where a doctor examined her and her brothers and concluded that they were about 6, 4 and 2 years old. Eva didn’t know their exact birthdays, so they were randomly allocated a date of birth based on their physical and mental devlopment. Eva had been very conscious of her responsibility as the big sister and was upset that in the home she was separated from her little brothers. She never saw the four-year-old again, and her baby brother only once, when he was very ill and she was allowed to visit him. She assumed he died, but she wasn’t informed.

After the war ended, thousands of German families had been split up and many people were desperately searching for their relatives. Parents would turn up at the home hoping to find their missing children, and Eva always hoped that some day a couple would come and claim her, although she knew deep down that her parents were both dead.

Eventually, when she was ten, she was adopted by a childless couple who were kind to her, but expected her to repay their kindness by housework. And at last she was able to start school, where she finally learnt to read, write, and do basic arithmetic.

When she was thirteen, her adoptive father began sexually abusing her and at the age of only fourteen she had a baby. However, she continued to live with her adoptive parents who brought the child up as if it were their own while Eva, who now had to leave school, went to work. Eva never complained about this situation, but always remained grateful to her adoptive parents for giving her a chance in life and for their love. Later she married my brother-in-law – yet another story! Amazingly, Eva turned out remarkably well-balanced and “normal”.

A few years ago, Eva joined a group of elderly people who, like her, had fled from East Prussia, and they travelled to the village where she was born. She thought that perhaps she might find something familiar, or even someone who remembered her parents. But no. The area is now part of the oblast, the so-called “free economic zone”. It was rebuilt and resettled by Russians, and she could find nothing at all that looked remotely familiar. Attempts to trace her brother also failed.

My father and Eva never met, but I know that if they had, they would have got along well. They were interested in knowing about one another. Their link was Königsberg.