Archive for category Genocide

Rwanda: remember – unite – renew

It’s twenty years since we all blinked and failed to notice that hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death in a small country in Africa.  Twenty years since we decided that the appropriate response to machete-wielding mobs on the streets, targeting anyone whose ID card gave the wrong ethnic origin, was to withdraw almost all the peace-keeping forces stationed there, and tell the rest they could not intervene.  Twenty years since we waffled and fudged about ‘acts of genocide’ and muddled up Hutus and Tutsis, and showered emergency aid on killers, and muttered about tribalism, and ‘six of one…’.

There are all sorts of excuses.  The failed intervention in Somalia, the joyous distraction of the South African elections (for once, a good news story from Africa), and the general reluctance to commit troops and risk ‘our’ people’s lives in such a messy, chaotic and volatile situation.  But it is inescapable that part of the reason that we didn’t stop it happening was because of where it was happening.  Because, as Francois Mitterand actually said, more or less, in Africa massacres aren’t such a big deal.

In many ways, genocides resemble one another more than they differ from each other. If we discount scale, as we must, since it is the intention to wipe out a race/group/community rather than the numbers involved, or the degree of success in that endeavour that defines genocide, there is a common trajectory that we can trace.  The group marked for destruction must be isolated, vilified, made objects of fear as well as hatred.  They may be identified as less than human – vermin, lice, cockroaches – since no one baulks at the death of such creatures.  They must be classified, marked, labelled, listed, so that they can be tracked down.  And once the killing starts, for the group marked for destruction there is the desperate search for safety, for shelter and protection, the knowledge that each person you encounter may denounce or protect you.   Not only that, but the threat to those who did try to help that they too, and their families, would die if they were exposed.   In fact, merely refraining from murder may be an act of resistance likely to be punished with death.

There are things about Rwanda however, that are different.  Firstly, the sheer speed of the events that engulfed that small country in Africa is staggering. There had been decades of sporadic massacres, which is why a Tutsi rebel army, composed mainly of refugees and children of refugees, was in the process of invading the country.  And preparations had certainly been laid well in advance, lists drawn up and machetes stockpiled.  But still, from the trigger of the shooting down of the President’s plane to the RPF victory only four months elapsed.  Four months, and 800,000 people dead.  Many more maimed, raped, traumatised, orphaned.  So much destruction in such a short time.  A tsunami of brutality, when everything was irrevocably changed in moments.

There was no great machinery of bureaucracy to process the destruction of the Tutsi, who were killed, for the most part, by their own neighbours, or by the militia on the roadblocks who simply needed to ask for their ID to know whether they should die.  There were no camps set up to process those captured and marked for death, just places where people sought refuge and instead found that their hoped-for sanctuary was in fact a trap where the killers waited until they were gathered together, before sweeping in to destroy.  There was not even the pretence of any fate for the Tutsi other than death.

And because of the speed, and because the victims, like their murderers, were in many cases rural people, not highly educated and literate, and if they hid it was in the bush, there is no Anne Frank, no Helene Berr from Rwanda, both murdered, but who left records of what it was like to have to hide, to live in fear, to be marked for death.  The narratives of Rwanda are those of the survivors.  Whole clans were wiped out, so that now it is as if, as a survivor put it, a page in the album of humanity has been torn out, and of many of those families and individuals there may be virtually no trace remaining.  After all, that’s what genocide aims to do. It’s never enough to kill all the people, you have to kill their history, their culture.

But that’s one of the odd things about the Rwandan genocide.  The Hutu and Tutsi peoples were not distinguishable from each other by a language – even an accent – or a religion.  They were – supposedly – different in physique, but in reality decades of intermarriage meant that one could not actually identify anyone reliably in this way.   The mythology of their enmity was fostered by successive colonial governments, who favoured first one group and then the other, exploiting the tensions that this created.  The different names existed, certainly, but the identities were not fixed.  Because Hutu and Tutsi were associated with different modes of life, if your circumstances or occupation changed, your ‘ethnic’ identity could change too.  It was the colonial governments who put in place the system of identity cards that stated which group one belonged to, and made that identity fixed and inescapable.

Many, many ordinary people did extraordinary things to protect friends, neighbours or total strangers.  And many of those who were there in an official capacity broke ranks to do what they could.  Major Stefan Stec, with the UN Peacekeepers, faced down militia at the Hotel Mille Collines, attempting to evacuate some of the many Tutsi and moderate Hutu who had taken refuge there.  He was so tormented by the events he witnessed, by his own sense of failure, and by the harsh judgement of many who weren’t there and had no choices to make, on the inadequacy of the UNAMIR response, that he died eleven years later, as a result of PTSD. Romeo Dallaire, who commanded those forces, suffers similarly, and attempted suicide six years after the genocide.  And Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese UN military observer, ferried people through roadblocks to the Mille Collines, bluffing and bribing his way past the militia until he was killed in a mortar attack in May 1994.

Yolande Mukagasana’s world changed on 6 April 1994.  Within days she had seen her husband killed.  She had lost contact with her children.  She had come close to death, and had seen people who she, as a nurse, had healed, ready to kill her or hand her over to be killed.  She also encountered people who owed her nothing and yet who kept her safe, just because it was the right thing to do.  She was tormented first by not knowing her children’s fate, and then by knowing it.   Once safe, she threw herself into her old role of healer, but her own healing took a long time – to the simple guilt of having survived when so many didn’t, she added the guilt of having survived when her own children didn’t, and of knowing that others had died for refusing to hand her over, or because they were mistaken for her.   She drew orphaned and lost children to her, and started an organisation called Nyamirambo Point d’appui, named after the area of Kigali where she lived with her family, and where she saw her neighbours become murderers.  She started to rebuild, there, where she’d lost everything.

Yolande writes ‘contre l’oubli’, so that the dead aren’t entirely lost, so that the truth isn’t buried with them.  And that includes uncomfortable truths about the role of international bodies, and most particularly of the French government, both actively and passively enabling the genocide.

But this duty of memory is not just for the past, but for the future.  Surely if we remember what happened twenty years ago in that small African country, as we remember what happened over seventy years ago in Nazi occupied Europe, what happened almost forty years ago in Cambodia, we will see the signs next time before it’s too late?  We will make the right choice about whether and when to intervene?

Surely?

 

http://www.jmv.hollowtomato.com/jmv/archivesjmv/Mukagasana.pdf

http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAMukagasana.html

Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)

Rwanda pour memoire, Samba Felix N’Diaye (L’Afrique se filme, DVD, 2001-2003)

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/04/20-years-genocide-rwanda-central-african-republic

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_6954/index.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacqueline_Mukansonera

http://www.freemedia.at/awards/andre-sibomana.html

http://voicesofrwanda.org/

http://www.hmd.org.uk/news/remembering-rwanda-%E2%80%93-20-years

http://www.kwibuka.rw/

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Journeys – Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

The journey that we most associate with the Holocaust is the one that ends at those gates.

Our imagination cannot go beyond that point, no  matter how many accounts we read from those who survived.  Our imagination baulks at the journey to the gates, not just at its ending – the cattle trucks from all corners of occupied Europe filled with people who not so long before had lives, loves, professions and occupations, and had all of those things gradually stripped from them till all that was left was a name on a list.

But for many of those individuals, the Holocaust journey began long before the cattle truck to Auschwitz.  The Plus qu’un nom dans une liste project has put together  many stories of individuals and families deported from France, and I’ve selected just a couple, to show what happened to them once their homes were no longer safe for them.

The Taussig family left Vienna in June 1939, having obtained a ‘Reisepass’, and left Reich territory the same month via the frontier post of Arnoldstein in Carinthia, where nowadays the three borders of Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet.  Rudolf and his wife Leonie, both 56, and their son Hans, 29, crossed into Italy through the Friuli province.

rudolf leonietaussiggif_1hanstauss

Italy had stopped allowing foreign Jews into its territory by this time, and  the authorities probably escorted the family to the Italian Riviera.   On 9 July the Taussigs arrived at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Cote d’Azur.  The gendarmes had been alerted by phone that a group of refugees were waiting on the beach for the people to whom they’d paid money for safe passage, and arrested them and took them to Menton.

Those arrested that night were:

  • Léonie Taussig, born 29/3/1885 in Vienna; daughter of Joseph Bondy and Bertha Donath
  • Rudolf Taussig, born 26/5/1883 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia, son of Adolf Taussig and Louisette Teveles
  • Hans Taussig, born 28/6/1910 in Vienna, son of Rudolf and Léonie
  • James Landau, born 21/08/1895 in Breslau, son of Wilhem and Henriette Kehlmann
  • Bruno Kulka, born 30/12/1894 in Prerou (Moravia), son of Jean and Emma Herzka.

On 11 July Rudolf and family were transferred to Lyon, where he and Hans were interned.  Rudolf was freed in January 1940, and Hans on 21 February. On 23 April 1940 Rudolf obtained a refugee worker permit for work as a metallurgist which was extended till 15 July 1941. However, the tribunal in Nice judged them in their absence for having entered France illegally, and condemned them to a month in prison and a fine of 100 francs.  Rudolf and Hans served their sentence at the prison St Paul de Lyon and were freed in September 1941.  They requested emigration to the USA, where their daughter Alice had already settled – she and her husband had managed to leave France for Portugal, where they got a visa in Lisbon in March 1940.

The Taussig family were arrested during the round-ups in the southern zone in the summer of 1942, interned at Drancy and all three deported to Auschwitz in September 1942 on convoy 27.

The Taussigs’ journey – Vienna to Arnoldstein to Friuli to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Menton to Lyon to Drancy to Auschwitz

Gisela Spira fled Berlin early in 1939 with her mother and elder sister Toni.  The three women arrived in Brussels on 31 January, where father Herzel and brother Siegmund were already waiting for them.  The youngest brother, Felix, had already been placed by the Comité d’Assistance at the house of the curate of Wezembeek, east of Brussels.

spira_childre

After May 1940, round-ups of German and Austrians in Belgium as enemy aliens prompted the Spira family to go into exile again, and they crossed clandestinely into France.   They were interned there almost immediately, at Bram, in the Aude.  They were freed on 30 June, and found somewhere to live in Salleles d’Aude, where Gisela met Bertold Linder, ten years older than her, who she married in January 1942.

On 26 August 1942, the Spira family was arrested, apart from Siegmund and Gisela who had moved to Lamalou les Bains, and then to St Martin Vésubie, near the Italian border.  Herzel, Rosa, Toni and Felix were deported on Convoy 31 to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

On 25 December 1942, Gisela gave birth to a son, Roland.

Hundreds of Jewish refugees had been forced to settle in St Martin by the Italian administration. Many tried to cross the mountains, hoping to meet up with the Allied army.  In August/September 1943, a new danger appeared, as the Wehrmacht occupied the old Italian zone, and on the 10th, the Gestapo arrived in Nice.

At St Martin, the local refugee organisations told families to pack their suitcases as quickly as possible, and to follow the retreating Italian army. Siegmund, Frieda and Roland, and around 1,200 men, women and children then tried to escape across the Alps, a biblical exodus which took place between 9 and 13 September.  328 people were intercepted and escorted to the Borgo San Dalmazzo camp in Italy, under the guard of Italian soldiers until the SS arrived. Two months later, on 21 November, the camp was evacuated, and its inhabitants transported to Nice, where they were interrogated by the Gestapo.

Gisela, her son, brother and husband were deported from Nice to Drancy.  On 7 December 1943, they left Drancy on Convoy 64.  On 12 December, 13 days after Roland’s first birthday, on disembarking from the cattle trucks, Gisela and her son were gassed at Auschwitz.

Siegmund alone survived.  His journey continued from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated.   He settled in the USA.

Gisela’s journey – Berlin to Brussels to Bram to Salleles d’Aude to Lamalou les Bains to Saint Martin Vesubie to Borgo San Dalmazzo to Nice to Drancy to Auschwitz

What’s striking is not just how those journeys ended – it’s that process of seeking safety, finding it illusory, moving on in the hopes that the next place will be different.  Taking their old lives with them as they went from one apparent haven to the next.   In any of the convoys from Drancy there would be those who had sought refuge in France from persecution over the previous half-century from all over Europe, and those whose families had lived in France for generations.  There would be workers and bosses, Communists and conservatives, believers and non-believers.  Some of their journeys were long and convoluted, like those outlined above, with many apparent reprieves along the way until that final denial of their right to live.  Others had been rounded up on French streets where they had spent all their lives, and like Helene Berr, made only a short journey from Paris to Drancy before the terrible journey from Drancy to annihilation.

Those who destroyed them saw them as one thing only.  That’s the nature of genocide, nothing matters except that one defining characteristic – you are a Jew, a Tutsi, and therefore you have to die.   That’s why we have to make them, wherever we can, more than a name on a list.  Gisela Spira, Rudolf Taussig, Helene Berr, deserve their own stories, so that we glimpse the people they were, the people they might have been.

And if we can enter imaginatively into their journeys, can we not also think of them when we hear of those in our own time who are driven from their homes by war and persecution, seeking safety where they can and often finding further perils instead?

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Transformation of Sounds

W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).

In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image.   This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving.  But:

‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version.  In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)

The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.

The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however.  A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here.   There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.

The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings.  Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.

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Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944

Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers.  Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.

Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.

Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals.  Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.

Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work.  He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.

Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague.  After Krasa and many of  his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film.  Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.

brundibar

Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed.  Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son.  Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.

“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”

 

http://www.terezinmusic.org/mission-history.html

http://www.theguardian.com/music/video/2013/apr/04/holocaust-music-terezin-camp-video

http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/theresienstadt/

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2006/dec/13/classicalmusicandopera.secondworldwar

http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/i-look-at-the-good-1.261878

http://claude.torres1.perso.sfr.fr/Terezin/index.html

http://www.musicologie.org/publirem/petit_elise_musique_religion.html

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Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’

Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:

A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.

A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.

On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.

Kristallnacht was a crucial turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. As Simon Schama crisply put in on BBC radio this week:

It’s incredibly important.  You can’t really overstate its importance: not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90…

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Farewell to Norman Geras, 1943-2013

As I only knew Norman Geras – Norm – through his blog, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to him on my own.  He was one of the writers who inspired me to use this form to write about whatever mattered to me, and he was kind enough to invite me to complete one of his profiles.

I cannot speak of his life, except as revealed through the many entries on Normblog, and now through the obituaries that have started to appear.  A life of conviction and passion, of family and friendship, of music and books and film, of cricket…  His very last entry was a list not of books that you must or should read, but of ‘books you might enjoy’ – no browbeating or pressure, just the suggestions of a friend, who wants to share their pleasure with other people.

He also used his blog for a series called Figures from a Dark Time.  This was a response to those who argue that we all go on too much about the Holocaust, that it’s all been said often enough.  Each entry was composed of testimonies of individuals who were engulfed by that darkness, some who survived, many who did not, and some too who risked everything to help those who needed it.   He wrote ‘contre l’oubli’, restoring to some few of those individuals their names and their stories.

atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale

Shalom, Norm.

 

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Safety in a Hostile World

English: Für Das Kind Kindertransport Memorial...

English: Für Das Kind Kindertransport Memorial at Liverpool Street Station, London 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport. In November 1938, after Kristallnacht demonstrated clearly to any doubters that Jews in Germany and Austria were in real danger, Parliament agreed to allow unaccompanied children to enter the country, under certain conditions, and with financial support from refugee organisations.  An appeal was put out for foster parents here,  and in Germany and Austria a network of organisers worked to identify priority cases, and to get the necessary paperwork.  The children could bring with them only a small suitcase, in which many parents placed photographs or other keepsakes along with more prosaic items.  Between December 1938 and May 1940, 10,000 unaccompanied children, mainly Jewish, arrived in Britain.   As the danger spread, Czech and Polish children were helped too.    They went by train to the Netherlands, and then crossed the Channel by ferry before taking another train to Liverpool Street station where most were met by their foster families.

The last group of children left Germany on 1 September 1939.  A party left Prague on 3 September 1939 but was sent back. The last boat transport left the Netherlands on 14 May 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to Germany.

Of the children who joined the transports, some were later reunited with their families, many others discovered after the war that their parents and other close family had been killed.  As were many of the children left behind, after the borders closed.

I wanted to tell a Kindertransport story this Refugee Week, and so I asked Pauline Levis about her father’s experiences.

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When 11-year-old Arthur Levi travelled to  England with his older sister Inge  in 1939, his strongest impressions of the journey were of the warm welcome when they crossed the Dutch border, and the train was boarded by people with flowers and gifts, and of the barrel of biscuits provided on the boat.  They were in the unusual situation amongst other children on the Kindertransport, that their father had already arrived here. (He was later interned on the Isle of Man, and then joined the army, where he changed his name from Levi to Levis, for safety should he be captured by the Germans.) Their mother was to follow, six weeks later, the last of the family to make it out of Cologne, and went into domestic service.  Both parents lived into their 90s.  Members of the wider family were not so fortunate – Arthur’s aunt was deported from France and an uncle from Belgium.   His grandfather was long thought to have been killed but it was later discovered that he had in fact died of natural causes in the Jewish old people’s home in Cologne.

Arthur and his sister were fortunate in so many ways.  They got out in time.  They found a safe place, unlike those who fled to territories later occupied by the Nazis.  His immediate family escaped too, and so whilst he lived in a series of hostels for refugee children and foster homes, he did have family, and links with his past, beyond the small collection of photographs he brought with him.

He always felt lucky, and grateful, and his love for his adopted country was such that after six years living in Australia in the 70s, he felt the need to come back where he belonged.  When he was given the chance to participate in the Spielberg Foundation’s Visual History Archive, his daughter Pauline had to work to persuade him that his story was worth telling – he was reluctant because he saw that so many others had lost so much more.

Arthur’s family was from Cologne, where they had lived for hundreds of years.  His father was a travelling salesman, much of the family had been cattle dealers.  Life before the Nazis was not idyllic – his parents’ marriage was turbulent and home life was tense and difficult.  Under the Nazis there were some close calls – the Gestapo came for his father just around the time of Kristallnacht, but he’d already left, with the help of his non-Jewish employer.   And the old people’s home where his grandfather lived, where many Jewish families had taken refuge in the cellar, was raided, and men and boys over 14 taken away.  Arthur had to attend a Jewish school (his own background was secular), where the foreign-born children were targeted first – he remembered the Gestapo arriving, with a list of the Polish children, who were taken away and never seen again.  Of Kristallnacht itself he remembered the mix of excitement and fear.

Arthur met Edna Gordon, herself the daughter of Lithuanian Jews who’d come to the UK at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was 21, and they were very happily married for fifty years.  He had a successful career as a dental technician, working for many years in the hospital service.

The aftermath of Kristallnacht, Jewish shops v...

The aftermath of Kristallnacht, Jewish shops vandalized. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He died in 2000, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, 9 November.

The stories Arthur shared with his daughter Pauline shaped her passion for justice, for example in her campaign against the deportation of young Iranian artist Behnam and his family, who were facing imprisonment and torture if they returned, which achieved over 11,0o0 signatures on a petition and ultimately saw the family being granted indefinite leave to remain.

His sister’s son and grandson, along with Pauline, are to take part in commemorations leading up to the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport later this year.  I’m immensely grateful to Pauline for sharing her father’s story.

 

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Exodus

For all mothers in anguish
Pushing out their babies
In a small basket

To let the river cradle them
And kind hands find
And nurture them

Providing safety
In a hostile world:
Our constant gratitude.

As in this last century
The crowded trains
Taking us away from home

Became our baby baskets
Rattling to foreign parts
Our exodus from death.

(Kindertransport, Before and After: Elegy and Celebration. Sixty Poems 1980–2007 by Lotte Kramer).

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Different Trains

Kindertransport Memorial

Kindertransport Memorial (Photo credit: wirewiping)

I’m not a train person in general.  Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines.  I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden.   Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.

In general.  But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance.   I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made  and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.

The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects.  And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food  in it.  Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.

His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.

French Jews boarding trains bound for concentration camps in Orleans and the Pyrenees, Gare d'Austerlitz, Paris, 14th May 1941 (b/w photo)http://www.shatteredcrystals.net/images/sc_co_plaque.jpg

Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred.  The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.

Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred.  Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety.    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.

I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’  Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced.  And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.

And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’.  In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.

 

But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark.  This photograph captures an extraordinary moment.  The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified.  They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this  moment they understood that they were free.

And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom.  They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.

 

 

For how hard it is

to understand the landscape

as you pass in a train

from here to there

and mutely it

watches you vanish

(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)

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