More crime fiction

Weimar Berlin—Stasi—Russia—Hungary

Berlin Alex

From Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.

MetropolisIn Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.

Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in

  • Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),

a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:

Doblin summary

Michael Hoffmann has risen to the daunting challenge of translating Döblin’s quirky Berlinisch prose—do read his Afterword, and this review. Cf. Hoffmann’s version of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):

Babylon BerlinAs to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,

  • Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)

is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:

Meanwhile David Young continues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.

For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:

It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.

Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.

For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.

Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but

after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.

To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.

Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.

* * *

Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.

A life in secrets: Vera Atkins and the SOE

SOE

Pursuing the harrowing themes of Nazism, concentration camps, and memory, [1] I’ve been most impressed by

  • Sarah Helm, A life in secrets: the story of Vera Atkins and the lost agents of SOE (2005)

—just as brilliant and distressing as her later book on Ravensbrück.

Apart from the story of the SOE itself, with many mysteries surrounding the life of Vera Atkins (1908–2000) (the wiki article, using Helm’s research, makes a rather fine introduction), the book is also a psychological portrait of a most inscrutable woman. The story may be divided into three main periods: the murky last two years of the war itself; Vera’s efforts in the immediate post-war period to unearth the fates of the victims; and then the continuing search for the truth, still ongoing. A fourth topic, Vera’s early years before she joined the SOE, is just as enigmatic

Utterly compelling, like Philippe Sands’ A Nazi legacy and The ratline, Helm’s painstaking research presents the complexities as a detective story, with constant twists and revelations as she delves ever deeper. Just as Vera was determined to uncover the fates of those she had sent to their death, Helm is no less tireless, tracking down survivors, relatives, and witnesses, unraveling scant clues in notes and postcards, amidst continuing official obfuscation.

In 1941, amidst the panic caused by Hitler’s invasion of west Europe, Vera was invited to join the F (French) section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed in order to organize the resistance in Nazi-occupied territories.

Romanian, and Jewish, by birth, she had come to live in England in the 1930s, where she soon came to sound, and look, quintessentially English. She never worked in the field, but masterminded the dropping of over 400 secret agents into France—among whom she identified particularly with the women agents, who were usually trained as couriers and wireless operators. The British authorities were resistant to the idea of employing women in such dangerous clandestine roles behind enemy lines, yet it was clear that they could often infiltrate more effectively than men.

Even as the D-Day landings and the invasion of Italy were opening up western Europe to the Allies, most of the resistance groups which the SOE agents joined were being infiltrated and rounded up by the Germans.

Though an inner circle in the British government had been aware of a network of German concentration camps since early in the war, it was only towards the end of 1944 that Vera learned of the camp at Ravensbrück, where several of her agents were to be murdered. Gradually the names of more camps such as Buchenwald began to surface, though their true horrors were unimaginable until the liberation in 1945. However tense the “normal world” of espionage in Nazi-occupied France had been, the arbitary brutality of the camps came as a hellish shock for those deported there.

It was now that Vera went to great lengths—largely as a private initiative—to discover the fates of her agents and track down the Germans who had captured, tortured, and murdered them. The assumption that women in war would receive better treatment than men proved naive; within Britain too the status of the female agents remained anomalous. After the SOE was closed down in 1946, it was intended that the files would remain secret indefinitely.

Among many sites that Vera visited soon after the war in search of clues was Avenue Foch, notorious Gestapo headquarters in Paris.

Romania

At this point, keeping us in suspense in the best tradition of thriller writers, Helm breaks off to explore Vera’s early life in Romania, whose high society (bridge, tennis, picnics, dances) recalls Patrick Leigh Fermor’s romantic explorations of the region. Seeking clues in Vera’s childhood home in northern Bukovina (now in Ukraine—cf. Anne Applebaum), Helm manages to unearth memories from people whom the Communist era had taught to forget. She learns of a wartime massacre that turns out to have been committed not by the Germans but by Romanian fascists. Moving on to Bucharest, as Vera had done, she discovers the increasing vulnerability of Vera’s family. By this time Vera would already have come into contact with the world of espionage.

And then, in October 1937, she made her home in London—where, still a Romanian citizen, she soon gained an Alien Registration Certificate. And, somehow, in March 1941 she was recruited to the SOE. In 1944 her second application for naturalization as a British citizen was successful.

Helm now resumes the story of Vera’s searches in devastated post-war Germany. She follows up leads to Natzweiler in Alsace, the only German concentration camp on French soil, where several of Vera’s female agents seemed to have been killed in 1944.

SOE

Some of the SOE female agents.

Vera took part in the Natzweiler trial of 1946, and in November she was asked to join the prosecution team at the Ravensbrück trial. Among her agents were Odette Sansom—one of very few who managed to escape from Ravensbrück—and Violette Szabo, who was murdered there in 1945. Vera also followed the Dachau and Sachsenhausen trials closely.

NoorClearly, both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by the tragic fate of Noor Inayat Khan—to whom I devote a separate tribute. In November 1946 Vera received a letter from a survivor that provided convincing evidence that Noor (known as Nora) had been in prison in Pforzheim in September 1944, and therefore could not have been murdered in Natzweiler three months earlier. Through a further series of interviews (whose reliability both Vera and Holm constantly reassess) it eventually transpires that Nora had been held in Pforzheim for ten months, her hands and feet shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the following morning.

Indefatigable as Vera was in tracing these stories, she went to great lengths to ensure that no-one ever knew she was wrong; even while seeking the truth, she was trying to obscure aspects of it for posterity. And all the time that she was trying to unravel the French spy networks, she was ensnared in a murky male establishment which had its own secrets.

Amidst media publicity, Vera remained busy after returning to England. But she now began to lose control over the story. By the 1950s, as the Cold War escalated, conspiracy theories emerged, and Vera was ever anxious that her status as an alien until 1944 might be exposed.

Late in the book Holm reveals another surprise when she learns of two “Belgian ladies” who attended Vera’s funeral in 2000. They provide a tantalising clue to Vera’s activities in the lacuna of the early war years before she joined the SOE—helping us to understand Vera’s need to keep her past concealed.

When Helm learns that Vera received another letter from Canada in 1975 corroborating Noor’s fate in Dachau, she is prompted to talk again with Noor’s brother Vilayat Inayat Khan. Still distraught, Vilayat is nonetheless instructive and perceptive—although subscribing to the conspiracy theories.

* * *

Brilliantly written, Helm’s study is admirably balanced. Vera’s inexperienced young agents had been warned that their chances of survival were about evens; indeed, despite the prompt disruption of resistance networks, around three in four survived, and it was largely thanks to Vera’s great sense of responsibility that those who did lose their lives were commemorated. Yet her responses to the survivors and families of the dead seem uncomfortable. Helm shows how Vera’s coldness and self-interest served to suppress her own emotion and sense of guilt; and she needed to keep aspects of her own story concealed.

All these stories, largely kept buried for over half a century by traumatised, now elderly people around the world…

 

[1] See under Europe: cultures and politics, and Life behind the Iron Curtain—notably SachsenhausenLes ParisiennesTrauma: music, art, objectsSachsenhausenThe psychology of evil, and Forgotten victims. All this might also lead on to famine, trauma, and memory in Maoist China: some posts are collected here.

 

 

The Celibidache mystique

Celi

Celibidache with the Berlin Phil, 4th December 1945.

Following on from my posts on conductors, and their fortunes under Nazism, another conductor who contributed greatly to the “maestro myth” was Sergiu Celibidache (1912–96; see herewiki, and many articles, e.g. here).

In his chapter on “The mavericks” in Norman Lebrecht’s stimulating book The maestro myth, he compares Celibidache—revered as “an idiosyncratic idealist, almost a musical saint”—somewhat unfavourably with Karlos Kleiber and Klaus Tennstedt. While some of my own comments here may seem less than reverent, the intensity of Celibidache’s vision made a welcome antidote to the blandness of many identikit maestros.

A Romanian, he trained in Berlin under the Reich from 1936. After the defeat of Germany, the Berlin Phil (“never a Nazi orchestra”—see this detailed article, on a useful site), struggled to revive in a city devastated by the war. Leo Borchard was temporarily appointed as chief conductor; but when he was accidentally shot dead by an American sentry at a checkpoint on 23rd August 1945, and with other local conductors tainted by their links with the Nazi regime, the young, inexperienced Celibidache, as an “untainted neutral citizen”, was soon chosen to take charge.

From 1947, when the great Furtwängler was deemed sufficiently de-Nazified to return to the stage, they worked harmoniously together, although Celibidache’s efforts to remould the orchestra met with resistance.

His last concert with them was the Brahms Requiem on 29th November 1954—the day before Furtwängler died. Karajan, a streamlined corporate prospect (cf. Stravinsky’s reported comment on his Rite of Spring) despite his well-attested links with Nazism, was chosen to take over as chief conductor, whereupon Celibidache flounced off in a 38-year huff. He went on to work with several orchestras, notably the Munich Phil from 1979—a fruitful relationship marred by the ignoble episode of his dismissal of the trombonist Abbie Conant.

The Celibidache myth was cunningly burnished by his refusal to make commercial recordings after 1950 (“listening to a recording is like going to bed with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot”. Discuss)—though a lot of his performances have since surfaced. Lebrecht’s conclusion is typically reserved:

He is a showman, pure and simple, with an eccentric, though effective, mode of self-projection.

* * *

From 1939, in the unlikely context of the Nazi regime, Celibidache had learned about Zen under the influence of his guru Martin Steinke (Daojun 道峻)—cf. other early Western Zen devotees such as R.H. Blyth, Eugen Herrigel (the latter a genuine Nazi supporter), and J.D. Salinger, and later worthies like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. Perhaps pundits made more of Celibidache’s interest in Zen than he did.

Celi with monk

Apparently in Japan, 1980s? Source here—anyone know more about this image?

Celibidache was among several fine conductors who performed from memory. Here he is with the Munich Phil in Brahms St Anthony variations—a wonderful piece:

and while we’re about it, here’s Furtwängler’s version with the Berlin Phil in 1954, shortly before he died:

Passing over Celibidache’s rare excursions into the baroque, such as Bach’s 2nd orchestral suite (here) and the opening of the B minor mass (here), he favoured slow tempi for the romantic repertoire too—his rendition of the first movement of Tchaik 6 lasts no less than 25 minutes:

Bruckner 7 was perfect for him (cf. this article by Tom Service, as well as my post Trauma, including Furtwängler conducting the Adagio in 1942 and my own memories of playing it in the NYO under Rudolf Schwarz). Along with many treasures such as the Rattle–Sellars–Padmore staged Matthew Passion, another boon of the Digital Concert Hall site (currently offering free access for a month) is Celibidache performing the symphony in 1992 on his return to the Berlin Phil after an absence of 38 years.

Bruckner 7 score

Coda of the Adagio, with magical pizzicato in the bass.

On the same site, do watch this documentaryfeaturing interesting comments from the musicians on Celibidache’s relationship with the orchestra following the war—with archive footage such as Menuhin rehearsing the Brahms concerto in 1946 (more here). But the core of the film is Celi’s detailed rehearsing of Bruckner 7 for the 1992 concert; in extreme contrast to the great Rozhdestvensky (and, you might suppose, to Zen), he demanded a lot of rehearsal time. *

Call Me Old-Fashioned, but Celibidache’s laborious approach to achieving a “transcendent experience” made a novel take on Zen and the Art of Rehearsal that the Tang masters would hardly have recognised. S-Simon Rattle, the orchestra’s chief conductor from 2002, adopted a very different style of working with musicians; click here for their Bruckner 7 at a 2014 concert in memory of his predecessor the great Claudio Abbado.

 

* OK, now I’m going to don my Jaded London Muso hat (indeed, here it is )—German musicians may be more accustomed to lengthy rehearsals than we Brits (Celi’s relationship with the LSO was not always smooth, a possible source for one of musos’ favourite maestro-baiting stories). Still, in the Bruckner rehearsal, as he goes over and over the opening few bars of the symphony, one can almost see them muttering to each other, “FFS, at this rate it’s gonna take us another 38 years just to get to the end of the movement…” (cf. this story).

Celibidache’s interminable instructions (sometimes evocative, sometimes less so) are just the kind of thing that orchestral players resent, helpless captives of a monologue. With a London orchestra such verbosity may lead to passive resistance. Small and Nettl have likened orchestras to factories or plantations in their unquestioning submission to an all-powerful boss in the service of a Higher Cause.

As conducting has come to be considered a less dictatorial, more collegiate task, nowadays many conductors try to work out how to achieve the result they envisage by relying more on their own gestures rather than on words; when the whole object is to achieve rapport, didactic cajoling can be alienating. It’s as if some conductors keep having to stop to tell musos how to play because they can’t manage to express it by conducting effectively. It doesn’t seem like a good way for a conductor to endear himself to them—

or maybe Celibidache was just exacting his revenge on them for having chosen Karajan instead of him

Still, it’s good that he made an effort to get them to control their vibrato (film, from 25.08). And the concert sounds great—the orchestra must have been so relieved that they could finally just play the piece without constant interruptions from the maestro.

 

 

Fassbinder’s bitter tears

Bitter tears

Tears feature in several of my posts, such as the Evangelist in the Bach Passions, Nina Hagen’s Naturtränethe Uyghur ashiq, and Yesterday (cf. the traumas expressed in flamenco cante jondo; see also What is serious music?!).

Yet another of those great arthouse films that captivated me in my youth (even if I could hardly have understood it) is The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972). Here’s a trailer:

With an all-female cast led by Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla, the atmosphere is unrelentingly claustrophobic. The soundtrack includes the Walker Brothers, Jo Green Guiseppe Verdi, and The Platters—here’s the Smoke gets in your eyes scene:

While we’re on The Platters, here’s the wonderful Only you (1955)—I’m not sure how deliberate this vignette was in laying bare the hierarchical structure of American society:

Often described as a successor to Fassbinder is Pedro Almodóvar. And for a bonus, almost as perfect in its simplicity as Härlig Är Jorden is Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears (1623):

Forgotten victims

 

 

Roma

Margerite Kraus, a Czech Roma who survived Auschwitz (her camp number visible on her left forearm) and Ravensbrück. GDR, c1966.

Only a few more days remain to view an exhibition at the excellent Wiener library in London,

The site gives extensive links to press coverage. Note also relevant sections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including this page on music (Roma musicians also play a major role in my post on Musical cultures of east Europe).

In the history of the Holocaust, the Porajmos (“Devouring”, though among the Roma the term is controversial and little used), far less publicised than the Jewish genocide, is often reduced to a footnote.

The exhibition explores Roma and Sinti life in Germany and Austria prior to the Second World War, and genocidal policies starting in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It also examines the post-war lives and legacies for Roma and Sinti, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for their oppression. It reflects on the situation in Britain and Europe today, with prejudice and discrimination against them still common—featuring the testimony of Józef Sadowski, the only known Roma survivor of Nazi persecution living in the UK today.

Fonseca

A most compelling ethnography is

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing: the gypsies and their journey (1995); she reflects on the Porajmos in ch.7. 

Gypsies have no myths about the beginnings of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations—that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest person among them. The rest, as it were, were not history. […]
The Second World War and its traumas are certainly within living memory; but there is no tradition of commemoration, or even of discussion. Some thought that such talk might actually be dangerous: “Why give them ideas?” a young Hungarian Rom asked, fifty years after the event. Under the Nazis, the Gypsies were the only group apart from the Jews who were slated for extermination on the grounds of race. It is a story that remains unknown—even to many Gypsies who survived it.

As Fonseca observes, whereas the Enlightenment brought European Jews opportunities for education and commerce previously closed to them, the Roma remained the “quintessential outsiders of the European imagination”, rejecting assimilation.

Belzec camp, 1940: left, perhaps Jozef Kwiek, self-proclaimed King of Polish gypsies; right, Kalderash gypsies from Romania.

Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, a law “Combatting Gypsies, vagabonds, and the work shy” was passed in Bavaria in 1926, with a counterpart in Prussia the following year. The plight of the Roma became ever more acute through the 1930s. The Nazis regarded gypsies as congenital criminals, subsuming them in a litany of “undesirables” or “asocials”—along with communists, social democrats, trade unionists, pacifists, homosexuals, dissenting clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, freemasons, Slavs.

Rough estimates of Roma murdered during the war (and their populations of the time) vary widely: from between 220,000 and 500,000 (25% to over 50% of slightly under 1 million Roma), to about 1.5 million out of 2 million.

Although German Gypsies had been out into German concentration camps as early as 1934, in November of 1941 Łódź became the first place in Poland where Gypsies were gathered for extermination in a camp setting. Here they were completely sealed off, and were out of sight; only the few Jewish doctors who treated a typhus epidemic, and then Jewish gravediggers, witnessed their end.

Apart from the Sinti of central Europe—German, Austrian, Polish, Czech, Slovak—those rounded up came from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and the Baltic states; from Norway, Belgium, France, and Holland. Many were herded into ghettos and deported to camps—including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Dachau, BuchenwaldRavensbrück, and Sachsenhausen—and subjected to forced medical experiments and sterilisation. In Auschwitz they were housed as families in Zigeunerlager; but the atrocious conditions there soon led to fatal epidemics.

And as Timothy Snyder points out, in the Bloodlands those summarily executed in mass shootings far outnumbered those who perished in the camps.

On commemorating the traumas of Nazism, note also A Nazi legacy. For the USSR, see under Life behiind the Iron Curtain: a roundup; for Maoist China, here.

Crime fiction: China and Germany

Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.

QXL

Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).

These books often refer back to the injustices of Maoism, but I can’t seem to find much set in the period—surely there’s potential here, along the lines of Su Tong’s Petulia’s rouge tin.

O
Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0 series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…

* * *

Kerr

Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorker here and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann and Goebbels)—and lashings of historically authentic sexism.

In the compelling Prague fatale, where Bernie’s main antagonist is Reinhard Heydrich, the reader is led to an awareness of the horrors of the Eastern front (cf. Bloodlands), the Lidice reprisals and Ravensbrück. Sub-plots feature the “S-Bahn murderer” Paul Ogorzow and a Klimt portrait.

In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.

For direct personal experience of the degradation of moral values and negotiating impossible quandaries, Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin is most impressive. There’s a rich vein of books to explore here (see e.g. here, and here). See also More crime fiction.

Stasi

Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in the Stasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolfA darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).

Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.

Doubletalk

To complement Flann O’Brien’s multi-lingual All-Purpose Opening Speech, a passage from Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! led me to the even purer form of doubletalk:

Lenny began to rely more and more on what he could do with his voice, hands and facial expressions. […] That discovery was the first step in the direction of abstraction.

The next step was to junk speech in favor of double-talk. Here he was following the lead of Sid Caesar, the greatest double-talk artist in the history of comedy. Sid was a genius with sounds and accents. He couldn’t speak two words of any foreign language, but he would converse for hours in double-talk versions of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese—and even more exotic tongues—with such passions and such a flair for the characteristic sounds of these languages that people would swear he was actually speaking the language.

Now, as Lenny realized eventually from his prolonged study of Sid’s stage act, when you make a character speak in double-talk, you actually abstracted the essence of his vocal mannerisms. Once the words were reduced to gibberish, the whole characterization resided in the inflections and tonal peculiarities of the character’s delivery.

Indeed, beyond mere verbal fluency, hand gestures and facial expressions are important aspects of language learning (for the vocabulary of Italian hand gestures, see e.g. here).

Language Log has erudite coverage of doubletalk, with further links. Here’s the famous Sid Caesar routine, with French, German, Italian, and Japanese:

Meanwhile Dario Fo was exploring Grammelot:

By extension, here’s a classic scene from Bananas:

 

 

Our hidden lives

 

My portraits of Chinese peasants before, during, and after the decades of Maoism, like the villagers of Gaoluo or the Li family in Yanggao, lead me to consider people’s lives elsewhere, including Soviet Russia, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, and even Britain (such as this sketch of my great-aunt).

All over Europe, not just World War Two but the years immediately following it were deeply traumatic, as evoked tellingly in

  • Keith Lowe, Savage continent (2012).

I cited his bleak opening passage in the biography of my colleague Hildi. Thoughout Europe it took many years to remould the physical and ethical landscapes. Amidst displacement, famine, vengeance, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and the consolidation of Communist regimes, people continued to face moral dilemmas as they struggled even to survive. Britain, never occupied, plays a rather minor role. Allied observers who had experienced the Blitz were still unprepared for the scale of the destruction of the landscape that they found in Germany. And the devastation was worse the further east one travelled.

Heilbronn

Housing displaced persons in Heilbrunn.

* * *

The battle against the cold this long winter, the continual Government crises and blunders, the cold, wet, delayed spring and everlasting austerity have exhausted us all to the bone.

Maggie Joy Blunt, 2nd April 1947

  • Simon Garfield, Our hidden lives: the remarkable diaries of post-war Britain (2005)

intersperses the daily diaries of five ordinary people writing at the behest of the Mass-Observation Project, evoking the period from the end of the war to 1948. Of course, both diaries and biography can be instructive windows on social history. How I wish we had such detail for the lives of Yanggao peasants at the time—themselves still mostly illiterate, of course.

queue

In their daily lives, often mundane, food shortages and rationing loom large. The diarists show concern for the wider world (the Nuremberg trials, Palestine, the assassination of Gandhi), along with some disturbing anti-semitism. The victors find the continuing deprivation and drabness hard to take, bemoaning the diversion of much-needed funds to help rebuild Germany. Hopes for greater social justice are tinged with concerns about lawlessness.

For ordinary Russians too, despite all their appalling losses, the war had brought similar hopes, and their disillusion was even greater.

On the cultural front, Maggie Joy Blunt receives a letter from a British soldier serving in Austria:

Then we are whisked off to a luxurious flat which is a Russian officers’ mess, where sober, stiff, disciplined soldiers serve us with caviar and vodka. There are about twenty officers and a number of Austrian girls all well dressed and crowding round an elderly officer who is playing Chopin on a grand piano. A senior officer with a ravishing blonde enters, and she says to me in lilting French, “I am a displaced person”, and gives me her hand to kiss. Suddenly they all begin to sing magnificently in harmony, a wild rousing song that on inquiry I find has the delightful, incredible title of “Yo Ho For The Day, the 10,000th Tractor Cut The First Furrow at Ekaterinoslav”.

The Colonel announces that he will sing an English song, and with a voice to challenge Paul Robeson sings with fervour “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow”. He then turns to me and asks what the words mean, for he learned them by heart without knowing the meaning. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the truth so I said it was called “The World Shall Be One People”.

Several diarists sing the praises of the new Third Programme. And B. Charles gives an intriguing take on Vera Lynn:

It seems this woman admits that she has never had a singing lesson in her life, never practises, can’t play the piano, yet manages to earn, so we are told, £1,000 a broadcast in Australia if she goes there. […] I have never heard Vera Lynn, and I certainly do not want to. But the idea of making £1,000 a broadcast for making a noise over the air seems fantastic. Money, really, has ceased to have any value.

They are most impressed by the 1945 film Brief encounter, reminding us how bold and truthful it must have seemed at the time.

Edie Rutherford’s comments on an item in The Brains Trust now look quaint:

The question asked was whether the phone had destroyed the art of letter writing. From the answers you’d have thought every home in the UK has a phone. No doubt all those round the table had phones and have had for years, but that obtains in so few homes that I could not help realizing how The Brains Trust is NOT representative of the people. No one thought to point out that phones are the luxury of the few. We, for instance, have never been able to afford one.

For the first landline in Li Manshan’s village, and Alexander Graham Bell’s prophesy, see here.

Reservations about royalty are nothing new. Edie reports some overheard comments:

Housewife: “I wish all I had to do was dress up and smile.”

Typist, aged thirty-five: “All that nonsense about not enough coupons and how they make over their clothes, as if anyone believes it!” […]

Housewife: “I thought we were supposed to be hard up. They are all the time telling us we are and yet we throw away thousands at a time like this for four people to swank at our expense.”

She also notes:

Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, “A few customers taken in”.

Even by the early 1950s, as Andrew Marr (A history of modern Britain, 2007) notes,

People still look different. Few schoolboys are without a cap and shorts. Caught breaking windows or lying, they might be solemnly caned by their fathers. Youg girls have home-made smocks and, it is earnestly hoped, have never heard of sexual intercourse. Every woman seems to be a housewife; corsets and hats are worn, and trousers, hardly ever. Among men, a silky moustache is regarded as extremely exciting to women, collars are bought separately from shirts and the smell of pipe tobacco lingers on flannel.
Above all Britain is still a military nation…

Most of the challenges that British people faced may seem minor in comparison to the terrible tribulations of their fellows on the continent; but it’s a reminder of the changing world of our own parents.

 

New tag: Iron Curtain

 

To accompany a growing list of posts, I’ve now added a rough-and-ready tag Iron Curtain to the sidebar. For want of a more succinct handle, it includes posts on the region both before and since 1989.

Most of these posts suggest Chinese parallels—including various essays on the GDR (here and here, as well as a two-part biography here and here), SerbiaBulgariamusical cultures of east Europe, and Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans. There are yet more links under the tag German too. Under the separate tag Czech are several (mercifully lighter) stories, notably from Švejk and my mentor Paul Kratochvil.

Notably I include the “bloodlands” of Timothy Snyder’s book, a vast region not easily characterized. In my post on his book, I wonder what would it take for the region to be recognized as the physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front.

map

Setting forth from A Nazi legacy and Anne Applebaum’s Between East and West, I described the blind minstrels of Ukraine, leading to posts on the famine and the intrepid journalist Gareth Jones.

I’ve included my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, since so many people from the region ended up at such camps.

Doubtless more to follow.

Between East and West

With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.

* * *

EW

Before I get round to reading Applebaum’s Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, and her recent book Red famine (again, both suggesting Chinese links; for the latter, see here), her

  • Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe

makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.

Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.

map

I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:

Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:

Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.

But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).

The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.

* * *

Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.

Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,

wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.

But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.

Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.

In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:

After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.

The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.

But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds

the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.

Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,

“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”

Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.

She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.

In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.

Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her

“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”

She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.

Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,

The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?

Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.

Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but

After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.

Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.

For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.

Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi

the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.

Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*

Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.

She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.

By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.

She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.

* * *

For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy unpacked his “othering” nostalgia in Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination (1998); but Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).

* * *

Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.

One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.

Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.

 

*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. See also here.

 

 

 

 

The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s. Concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no—my desk partner, bold as brass, decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.

tailgut

And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted as I was by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado, and the early music and humour subheads under the WAM category.

 

* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.

Europe: cultures and politics

While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual cultures (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a little roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.

And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!

 

China and Europe: local society and politics

 

 

My article on Guo Yuhua leads to several related posts on my blog—many collected under the Maoism tag in the sidebar.

For further alternative grass-roots accounts of Chinese society, see

For the troubled maintenance of local ritual life under changing regimes:

On recent conflicts between state and society, see e.g.

In Guo Yuhua’s interview with Ian Johnson she gives short shrift to the Intangible Cultural Heritage—as do I. Some tasters among the numerous posts under the heritage tag in the sidebar:

* * *

For Chinese parallels with authoritarian regimes in Europe, see e.g. my posts on

 

For another handy digest on a variety of topics, see here.

Learning the lingo

Sedaris

I’ve noted the unlikely connection between Li Manshan and David Sedaris.  Both are fine humorists, but the latter takes language-learning to the cleaners with his essay “Easy, Tiger” in Let’s explore diabetes with owls. As with Daoist ritual or any text expressed through performance, Sedaris’s literary ouevre works best if you read it in his endearingly whiny voice (for more on public speaking, see here, here, and here).

On trips to Japan, rather than adopting the sinister Teach yourself Japanese (which would be right up his street) he makes progress with the aid of the Pimsleur language program [sic]. But

instead of being provided with building blocks that would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left with using the hundreds and thousands of sentences that you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that, or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, “There is a bank in front of the train station,” or “Mrs Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years.”

BTW, the ability to adapt by using building blocks is just what Indian musical training provides. In WAM we don’t even memorize hundreds and thousands of sentences, we depend on reading them out of the score. FFS…

One of the things I like about Tokyo is the constant reinforcement everyone gets for trying. “You are very skilled at Japanese,” everyone keeps telling me. I know people are just being polite, but it spurs me on, just as I hoped to be spurred on in Germany. To this end, I’ve added a second audio program, one by a man named Michael Thomas, who works with a couple of students, male and female. At the start, he explains that German and English are closely related and thus have a lot in common. In one language the verb is “to come”, and in the other it’s “kommen“. English “to give” is German “geben“. Boston’s “That is good” is Berlin’s “Das ist gut“. It’s an excellent way to start and leaves the listener thinking, Hey, ich kann do dis.

My own German vocabulary extends only as far as the Matthew Passion, blut, ellenbogen [Wozzeck], and plötzlich—none of which are very handy when you’re trying to buy toothpaste—but I know it will expand exponentially once I get to grips with Nina Hagen and Ute Lemper. Evoking my own inept flailings, Sedaris comments,

People taught me all sorts of words, but the only ones that stuck were “Kaiserschnitt” which means “ceserean section”, and “Lebenabschnittspartner“. This doesn’t translate to “lover” or “life partner” but rather, to “the person I am with today”, the implication being that things change, and you are keeping your options open.
[…]
There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place. […] It’s a program [still sic] full of odd sentence combinations. “We don’t live here. We want mineral water” implies that if the couple did live in this particular town they’d be getting drunk like everyone else. Another standout is “Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell” (“The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast”). The response to this would be “”Anything else, Herr Asshole?” But of course they don’t teach you that.

For a trip to China he reaches the “Romance” and “Getting closer” sections of the Lonely planet phrasebook:

A line that might have been written especially for me: “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.”
Oddly, the writers haven’t included “Leave the light on,” a must if you want to actually say any of these things.

Sedaris doesn’t see politeness in foreign languages as much of a problem, recalling the phrasebooks of his youth,

where the Ugly American was still alive and kicking people. “I didn’t order this!” he raged in Greek and Spanish. “Think you can cheat me, do you?” “Go away or I’ll call the police”.

In my own ancient German phrasebook I’m still very taken by the script suggested by the sequence

“The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
“Are you the chambermaid?”

And while we’re about it, don’t miss the classic “Look!” story.

I also look forward to a phrasebook of Yanggao dialect—for me, better late than never. For impressionistically-translated Italian guidebooks, see Towers and wells.

* * *

Doubtless I will chortle further over David Sedaris on this blog, but meanwhile (still in Let’s explore diabetes with owls) I note an intriguing parallel with the choristers’ famous kangaroo story (in “Laugh Kookaburra”):

It was around this time that we finally entered the bush. Hugh pointed out the window at a still lump of dirty fur lying beside a fallen tree, and Pat caroled, “Roadkill!” Then she pulled over so we could take a closer look. […] We walked toward the body and saw that it was a… what, exactly? “A teenage kangaroo?”
“A wallaby,” Pat corrected me. […]
“Hugh,” I called, “come here and look at the wallaby.”
It’s his belief that in marveling at a dead animal on the roadside, you may as well have killed it yourself—not accidentally but on purpose, cackling, most likely, as you ran it down. Therefore he stayed in the car.
“It’s your loss,” I called.

A Nazi legacy

*UPDATED!*

EW street

While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private Passions I mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:

East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.

Leon

Leon Buchholz (1904–97).

This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.

“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.

Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)

After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)

The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:

Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)

The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:

“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)

Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)

Otto von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:

“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)

Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.

As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,

I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that  was family life.

As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)

Nazi legacy trio

While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:

Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.

Further to tourism,

In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)

Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).

The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who

launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)

Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.

Frank dead“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”

He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”
As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.

* * *

Sands is no less compelling on radio. In his major recent ten-part series Intrigue: the ratline on BBC Radio 4, by contrast with Frank’s well-documented fate, he gives a disturbing update on the murky post-war story of Otto von Wächter. He provides ample recaps (as in the chilling title of episode 3, “A lot going on in Lemberg”), with the aid of the “parallel universe” of the memoirs of Wächter’s beloved wife Charlotte. With much further forensic sleuthing he goes on to investigate Wächter’s mysterious fate in Italy, as the role of the Catholic church in helping Nazi fugitives evade justice leads to a extraordinary story of espionage. And still Horst seeks to defend his father’s reputation.

A selection of recent posts

 

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Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.

To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.

Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…

My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.

Berlin divided 1945

We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.

Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:

Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.

Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…

1953 poster

Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites, notably here), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.

Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?

Guides

Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.

Klier

Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.

There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99). For subversive film in the GDR, see here.

But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.

Lives 2

Lives 5

Lives 7

Lives 1

Lives 3

Lives 4

Lives 6

However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks, [1] the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance (cf. punk in Madrid, and jazz in Poland).

Stasi terms

who is who

The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.

punk straight

Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.

Here they are live in 1988:

Punks

wedding

Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,

But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.

kindergarten

Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.

school 1988

“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.

The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).
Pastor

Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.

Stasi comments

The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica. His diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.

Mielke breakfast

The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?

As throughout the socialist bloc (including China), for bitter relief, jokes always made a subversive outlet.

The museum also tellingly depicts the scramble of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.

* * *

It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.

Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:

Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.

And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.

 

[1] Among a wealth of coverage of punk in the GDR, see e.g.
https://www.dw.com/en/you-should-be-gassed-what-it-meant-to-be-punk-in-east-germany/a-51163866
https://www.europavox.com/news/anarchy-e-u-east-german-punk/
https://www.jugendopposition.de/themen/145334/too-much-future-punk-in-der-ddr
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p056srhr
http://punkintheddr.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/post-1-ost-punkszene.html?view=sidebar

Mahler 10

After returning from an exhilarating day with the Zhihua temple at the BM, I caught S-Simon Rattle‘s overwhelming Mahler 10 with the reborn LSO on BBC Radio 3.

Here’s the opening Adagio from the concert—BTW, yet another illustration of the benefits of conducting from memory:

And here’s the complete 1980 recording with Simon (“as he was then”—before he was awarded the impediment) conducting the Bournemouth symphony orchestra:

Only half-written before Mahler died in 1911, the work was hardly performed until Deryck Cooke’s completed version became popular in the 1960s. Though I got to know it not so long after, it’s ages since I immersed myself in it.

Under Mahler’s own torments the music often splinters, exemplifying the later devastation of European culture. In context (from 17.24 in the video, 16.15 on the 1980 version) the Scream chord of the Adagio is truly horrifying, presaged by huge nightmarish clashing granite slabs of sound, linked by a terrifying high sustained trumpet note, and followed by a screeching top D from the violins:

Mahler 10 scream

Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing,* but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):

  • 16.15 the descent into hell begins
  • 16.44 rise of Nazism
  • 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
  • 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
  • 17.37 the concentration camp system
  • 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.

Of course, you can ignore all that, and just hear it as a cumulative drama of agony.

Here’s Bernstein conducting the Adagio (with the Vienna Phil still uncontaminated by women…)

* * *

An ominous opening to the Finale—inspired, according to Alma, by hearing from afar the funeral of a heroic fireman in New York [1]—leads into an exquisite flute solo (from 53.57) and sustained string lines (with more of those climactic struggling quintuplets, e.g. from 1.11.51) almost recalling the finale of the 3rd symphony. Despite interruptions from the funeral drum and the Scream, the mood is more serene, less desolate than his other late works.

Mahler 10 end

In last week’s LSO version the violins (and violas?!) made their final searing leap on the G string!!! [My Mahlerian exclamation marks].

M10 end

The Barshai version of the symphony is also much praised:

(for a discerning series of photos to accompany the finale, see here)

* * *

Mahler’s “late” works are such a comprehensive series of farewells (Abschied) that it’s always strange to realize that he died at the age of 50. What would have become of him, and his music, had he lived into the 1940s?

Not so late, but perhaps most moving of all, is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommenwith a final violin leap similar to that at the end of the 10th, only pianissimo.

 

[1] For accessible accounts of Mahler’s last years, the 1907 New York funeral, and the history of Deryck Cooke’s version, see Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.171–223, 275–9. Here’s Alma’s recollection of the funeral (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.135):

Marie Uchatius, a young art-student, paid me a visit one day in the Hotel Majestic. Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out of the window and saw a long procession in the broad street along the side of Central Park. It was the funeral cortege of a fireman, of whose heroic death we had read in the newspaper. The chief mourners were almost immediately beneath us when the procession halted, and the master of ceremonies stepped forward and gave a short address. From our eleventh floor window we could only guess what he said. There was a brief pause and then a roll of muffled drums, followed by a dead silence. The procession then moved forward and all was over.

The scene brought tears to my eyes and I looked anxiously at Mahler’s window. But he too was leaning out and his face was streaming with tears. The brief roll of the muffled drums impressed him so deeply that he used it in the Tenth Symphony.

 

* Imputing verbal programmes to musical detail, I mean: the whole point of music is that it expresses things that can’t be expressed in words. Even novelists—who do use words!—find this irritating; I can’t find a source or precise quote, but as I recall, when asked “What were you trying to say in this book?”—one frustrated novelist replied, “I was ‘trying’ to say exactly what I did say.” (Martin Amis, would be my guess. Anyone?)

Bearing witness 2: Sachsenhausen

Notes from Berlin, 1

Appell

Roll-call at Sachsenhausen, February 1941.

Screening my film in Berlin last week gave me the chance to explore a city that I hardly knew. It seems timely to negotiate a new place, a new transport network—I was beginning to feel that I can only find my way from my house to Li Manshan’s village.

Rather than some anodyne heritage flapdoodle à la chinoise, here I’ll introduce Sachsenhausen concentration camp, with a sequel on Stasi sites in Berlin itself.

* * *

Having been so moved by Sarah Helm’s harrowing book on Ravensbrück, I had hoped to get there, but with limited time Sachsenhausen (cf. wiki and many more detailed sites) is more accessible, and anyway demands a whole day (and I’m acutely aware that we can be suitably horrified by our day-trip and then come home to friends for a nice plate of pasta with wine.)

At the same time, it’s deeply inspiring to see not only how well documented such sites are (including the Stasi memorials) but also how busy they are—the grounds are constantly full of school groups receiving the most important education.

All such camps saw prolonged use, both before the war (Oranienburg concentration camp started operating in 1933, moving to Sachenhausen in 1936) but also long after, under Soviet (indeed allied) and GDR regimes.

* * *

I visited Sachenhausen last Friday—which happened to be Hitler’s birthday, occasion for a repellent Nazi festival in parts of eastern Germany.

To arrive by train at Oranienburg station is itself disturbing, thinking of how the inmates reached the camp. One of the most hideous accounts at the site tells how in September 1939 the rabid inhabitants of the town abused 534 Polish Jews as they marched to incarceration and death—though they had been duped that the arrivals were themselves murderers, one suspects this wasn’t an exceptional case (Wachsmann, KL [definitive source on the camp system], p.230).

In the barracks I was taken aback by the sitting toilets and washrooms—of course, inmates were highly vulnerable in these places, often being brutally beaten to death there, so it’s hardly relevant to contrast the primitive conditions at Chinese laogai camps, or ordinary Chinese homes.

Inmates (from all over Europe, and Russia) included political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and “antisocials”. In autumn 1941 alone over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war were executed at the camp. But individual lives play an important role both in the exhibitions and online, such as Dutch resistance fighter Ab Nicolaas (who later became a clown), or the German Sinto Walter Winter.

camp mouth organ

As Helm describes harrowingly for Ravensbrück, even the twice-daily Appell roll-call (see photo at head of article) was purgatory.

The infirmary exhibitions are substantial too, including sections on medical experiments on young Jews and the reunion of survivors fifty years later; and on the camp brothel.

Brothel

Among the most disturbing exhibitions is in the watch tower, on the relations of locals with the camp and the SS—“What would we have done?” again. The SS were billeted in town, with their own bands, taking part in street parties. People recalled how as kids they were handed out balloons and lollies by the SS.

Tarantella

“Tarantella for German soldiers”—SS officers attending a folklore festival on Capri, alleged to be the Blockführers of Sachsenhausen who had been shooters in the 1941 Russenaktion.

 

Death march and “Liberation”, 1945.

After the war
Then on to the display about the Soviet camp 1945–50, just as gruesome—12,000 of 60,000 prisoners died there. Here too the documenting of individuals is sobering, such as the meticulous diarist Günter Sack, and Stella Kübler-Isaakson, a Jewish spy for the Nazis who was imprisoned here from 1946 to 1956 (see Peter Wyden, Stella, reviewed here and here).

The Soviet Special Camp was closed in 1950, but not all of the prisoners were set free. The majority of the prisoners sentenced by the Soviet military tribunal were sent to East German prisons. Some of the internees were tried during the Waldheimer cases in the GDR, and Soviet prisoners were deported to camps in the USSR.

The site’s GDR history (see here, with sequel here) provokes thought too. There are exhibits, including films, of the first commemoration in 1955, with GDR citizens touring the camp; after 1961, as the memorial calendar became more busy, it became a site of “anti-fascist education” even as the repression continued. From 1976 couples even visited on their wedding day—not a simple case of indoctrination, but often related to the sufferings of their parents at the camp.

At the same time (as the catalogue describes), the state appropriation of the memorial for its own purposes was gradually subverted; peace movements, church groups, citizens’ initiatives, and “excluded groups” began chipping away at the GDR’s “monopoly on heroism”.

Again, you can choose if you can bear to watch films like this:

* * *

How such catastrophic moral failure occurred remains imponderable—so much for the German Soul. As Neil MacGregor asks,

How did the great humanising traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse?

It does indeed seem a bit late for me to take all this to heart now. I can’t claim that if I’d have trodden a different path if I’d been exposed to all this history in my teens, but still. And at least now with my work on China I’m not churning out the patriotic agenda of the glories of Han­–Tang music, or merely collecting happy folk ditties: it’s all political.

Until recently it might have felt a blessing to be English, not to have been beset by such agonizing dilemmas—yet another “What would we have done?”. But how admirable the Germans have become since the 1990s: not only do they put us to shame in their response to the migration crisis, but further to have set up this network of memorial sites—whereas in Britain there are many who not only consider themselves separate from Europe but still have the hubris to protest the exposing of the crimes of our own imperialism, denying the lessons of history.

I also hope that one day in China there will be meticulously documented sites like this, to commemorate the self-inflicted disasters of its own modern history (cf. this post). Mind you, talking of memorials, here’s one in the southern USA.

In all these places—Germany, China, the USA, and so on—such traumatic histories are an essential aspect of the cultural soundscapes that we so blithely celebrate. Including the Chinese ritual soundscape. And Britain?

For Mahler’s prophesy, see here. For the first gulag in Soviet Russia, see here.

* * *

Returning to civilisation, on my walk from the S-Bahn at Jungfernheide I would pass charming door statuettes over the entrances to pre-War apartment blocks in Herschelstraße and Fabriciustraße (for shutter catches in Venice, see here; for the accordion, see here). Ordinary domestic life… I wonder what happened to the inhabitants.

 

Operetta in extremis

Tillion

Anne Sebba‘s book Les Parisiennes is high on my reading list. Meanwhile, it’s good to hear her on Private passions paying homage to the great ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who somehow composed the operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers while incarcerated in the hell of Ravensbrück (see link in Bearing witness)—a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing”. Here’s a revival from 2011:

A salutary link with the Ten Kings of the Underworld?

Enfers

Bulgaria: seeking buried identities

KK cover

After Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book on her upbringing in Yugoslavia and later life in the UK, Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) makes a worthy follow-up.

I know even less about Bulgaria than about the GDR[1] but such observations strike a chord with my experiences of China. Such works also explore my theme of post-traumatic historical amnesia.

Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She reflects:

Totalitarian regimes are not interested in personal stories, they are interested in the Party, the People, and the Bright Future. Nor are post-totalitarian democracies. They are too busy staying alive.

Equally, in the West there hangs about a vague idea of collective life behind the Iron Curtain, and life after it, but there are surprisingly few personal stories to go with the idea.

Fair point, though such accounts (even in English) do seem to be growing. Kassabova cites an unnamed Yugoslav child in the 1990s:

I love my country. Because it is small and I feel sorry for it.

With the candour of childhood, she too asks her mother, “Mum, why is everything so ugly?” Still, she cites Walter Benjamin:

When an outsider comes to a new place, he [sic] sees the picturesque and the freakish, whereas the local sees through layers of emotion and memory.
So while a newcomer would have looked at Youth 3 [her housing block] and seen an uninhabitable dystopia of concrete and mud, I learnt to see it for what it really was: my home.
[…] There was also the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten, the grocery store, the Universal store, the bottle store. So what if they were all housed on the ground floor of blocks, or in small, bunker-like concrete buildings we called trafoposts because they were built to house the suburb’s electrical transformers? So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the baker only had two types of bread, white and wholemeal, and the Universal store was universally empty except for, say, a just-arrived pull-out sofa bed? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? You like lemonade, and you liked meatballs, and you already had a pull-out sofa-bed anyway. It’s not as if you lacked for anything. It’s not as if there was anything more you wanted. After all, you didn’t know there was anything more to want.

One product that might be available in the Universal store was the more accurately-titled Ordinary biscuits. On Bulgarian shops:

They weren’t actually shops, not in the conventional sense of the word. They were unheated ground-floor rooms with shelves on which something may—or may not, depending on the day—be displayed, perhaps even sold, if you could bear to queue up, fight with other citizens, and emerge battered but triumphant, clutching a pair of shoes, a kilogram of Cuban oranges, or a tub or margarine.

Sometimes inadvertently evoking Molvania, it’s a fine line that divides us from the old Commie-bashing trap of sneering at the failure of the socialist experiment—laying bare the privations comes better from people living under such systems than from foreigners or even expats. Whereas a book like Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR shows a more varied response from that generation born under socialism, in Bulgaria it seems harder to find people who appreciated anything about life either before or after 1990.

This is hardly comparable, but as a foreigner in China I soon lost the capacity to be shocked, growing used to clambering up unlit concrete stairwells piled with cooking equipment and cardboard boxes to visit families squeezed into tiny bare one-room apartments. This was just how people’s lives were. Even now I don’t bat an eyelid as I walk past stinking pits of litter strewn in village alleys. Whereas on fleeting visits to the GDR before 1989 I merely felt alien and out of my depth, not equipped to pass patronizing pronouncements.

Kassabova’s father went on work trips abroad, and sometimes foreign friends come to visit, laughing companionably with them:

For a moment, you could even think we were equal.
But we knew, and they knew, that we weren’t equal. Behind the laughter and the wine, I sensed my parents’ permanent nervous cringe. They knew the foreign guests saw the ugly panels, the cramped apartments, the mud, the overflowing rubbish bins, the stray dogs, the empty shops, the crappy cars, the idiots in the brown suits, and they were ashamed.

We were living in a banana republic, but minus the bananas.

Young Kapka even feels like a poor cousin in neighbouring Macedonia, and even more so on a trip to East Berlin. When her father gets a six-month fellowship in Delft on, his wife visits him:

It wasn’t the supernaturally clean streets, the tidy bike lanes, the smiley people, but the university toilets that tipped her over from stunned awe into howling despair.

Mind you, I’ve felt a bit like that in Holland myself… On their return, her father puts a brave face on things.

“They’re just normal people. OK, they have more material things than us, but otherwise their lives are not that different.”
“Of course they are,” my mother insisted. “Whether we like it or not, they are different.” They think differently. They take so many things for granted. They have rights, they demand things… They live in another world.”

When her father’s Dutch colleagues come on a visit they too look on the bright side, which leaves the family lost for words.

Kassabova relates another Soviet joke (which actually resembles my granddad’s joke):

A man in the deli section of the supermarket says to the butcher behind the counter: “Can you slice up some salami for me?” The butcher replies, “Sure. Just bring the salami.”

Our parents shared the same world: a world where political jokes and birthday parties were the norm, and you were united by a distrust of the idiots in the brown suits.

Even in her teens she could deconstruct the motto “Let us Construct Socialism with a Human Face”:

a) Socialism with a Human Face did not occur naturally, it had to be constructed like so many blocks of flats; and b) there was also Socialism with an Inhuman Face.

The teenage Kapka watches Brazilian soap operas, The thornbirds, and Star wars; she listens to the Beatles, and the gritty songs of Vladimar Vysotsky. Like Goldsworthy, she attends a lycée, where

The general idea was not to get top grades, but to mix with Sofia’s brightest brats, wear your navy-blue school mantle short at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, smoke in the toilets, wear blue make-up, and sulk. (p.105)

She immerses herself in hoarse, acerbic French songs (Renaud, Sardou), translating their rage against the capitalist machine:

to our ears, there was only one machine to rage against, and that was Socialism with a Human Face.

Aged 16 when the Wall fell, she moves on to The Scorpions—a most long-lived and prolific band who graduated to heavy metal (as you do; am I the only muggins who had never heard of them? Cf. my mum’s comment on the Beatles). After the collapse of the regime, she basks in their 1990 Wind of change (one of the best-selling singles in the world, over fourteen million copies sold!), and then

The nation’s new year present was the televized execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by a three-man firing squad. It wasn’t quite as good as having our own Todor Jivkov shot in the head, but it was better than nothing.

After a brief sojourn in Colchester, the family returns to their block in Sofia:

It had turned from the wild East into the wild West, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafés and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Mechev son was a racketeer.
[…]
One thing was clear: money was king. Education, culture, and the life of the mind were for sissies, and sissies sold pantyhose on the street, walked the streets with a lunatic grin, starved to death, and were run over by speeding black Mercedes.

After moving abroad, Kassabova’s own life remained rootless for many years. For the rest of the book she assumes the role of travel writer, skillfully combining the struggling present and the socialist deprivation of her youth with digestible vignettes of Bulgaria’s complex ethnic history. She visits superficially idyllic scenic spots, quite aware of being an outsider. [2] And she finds a lot of dying villages with left-behind people, like in China.

She notes the meek behavior of passengers as their flight is delayed:

Nobody is complaining. They are used to waiting: in state hospitals, shop queues, immigration offices, visa departments…

Landing at “the world’s worst-named airport” Vrajdebna ( “Hostile”), she returns to visit her rural relatives, enduring literal and metaphorical potholes. They watch a TV documentary about Bulgarians abroad, whose director has “artfully collated people’s homesickness to form a home-affirming narrative.” Yet

Between the small, confused person who sat here anaesthetizing herself with cakes and the impossibly foreign Richard Chamberlain in The thornbirds and the grown-up person lying here with a “foreigner” and two passports, there is no common language. They can’t meet in time, they can’t speak, they can only lie in this bed, very still, without touching.

In another scene that must be familiar to many such migrants, she meets an old school friend, who surmises, “Well, if I’m not happy now, I must have been happy then.”

Kassabova joins in a saccharin song from the Zhivkov era, “an ironic but secretly nostalgic serenade”. She glimpses the provincial innocence of village girls that makes them prone to trafficking—“an innocence that springs from the poisoned village-well of ignorance, conformity, and fear”.

She describes the expulsion of the Turks (“the Revival Process”) in the 1980s, another grim component of a long history of ethnic cleansing over a wide area.

The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State. There was no official announcement that the Turkish exodus had dealt a deadly blow to the already decrepit economy, but it soon became obvious. [Hm, sound familiar?] We knew, even in the torpor of our ignorance, that the long holiday of our compatriots was no holiday. It was a purge.

Meeting Turks, she gingerly enquires about their experiences. She also introduces Pirin Macedonia, and the Pomak minority of Rodopi, early Muslim victims of the “voluntary” change of names under Zhivkov. She cites Brecht: “the State was dissolving the people and electing another people”. Yet amidst what seems like an impressively toxic rate of xenophobia, Armenians had found refuge, and Bulgaria’s resistance to the deportation of the Jews was creditable.

Kassabova tells the harrowing tale of the mausoleum of Dimitriov in Sofia, and in Veliko Taronovo she introduces the ill-fated 19th-century satirist Aleko Konstatinov. Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila makes cameo appearances—a kind of prototype for Ivanka, only the former’s wacky eastern mysticism made a less perfect fit with the “values” of the leadership than does the crass materialism of the latter (cf. “the values of the Carphone Warehouse”). Just before Lyudmila’s mysterious death in 1981 she led an expedition to Strandja, on the southeast border with Turkey, to seek the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet. Still, her esoteric artistic tastes didn’t prevent her designing “the ugliest and most conspicuous monument in Bulgaria”.

As Kassabova notes, more East Germans were killed at the Strandja border than at all other border crossings put together (“the number of dead Bulgarians is unknown because no one has bothered to find out”). On a train she gets talking with a survivor of the labour camps, who segues nonchalantly from a harrowing account of her youth there into an anti-Semitic rant.

Finally she returns to the apartment block of her youth, which belatedly and unexpectedly has become a leafy neighbourhood, if still hardly salubrious. But still she needs to escape again, unable to heal her fractured psyche.

Kassabova expands on these themes in Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017, also reviewed here), broadening the area covered to Greece and Turkey. Again reminding me of China, she writes,

As I set out, I share the collective ignorance about these regions not only with other Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.

* * *

The soundtrack to all this would be enticing: for turbo-folk and traditional music, see here, and for irregular metres, here. On the bus back from Istanbul the driver puts on a tape of gritty chalga, and Kassabova also catches an Ivo Papazov gig. Her tastes since emigrating turned to tango, which she has also evokes in Twelve Minutes of Love: a tango story.

 

[1] This broader overview by Jacob Mikanowski, considering studies of East Europe, is also intriguing.
[2] Unlike Patrick Leigh Fermor, I must say, who unfailingly does that really irritating thing of instantly getting clasped to the bosom of ordinary folk. Nigel Barley debunks this conceit in his classic “harmless idiot” spiel—but that’s not important right now. For Leigh Fermor, see this review from Neil Ascherson.

 

Echoes of the past 2

Echoes of the past: refuge and memory, 2

Hildi 1962 lowres

Hildi directing school choir, March 1963.

After twice fleeing danger, by 1950 Hildi’s family had arrived in Detmold, in the British zone of occupation, where they found a more secure home as society slowly rebuilt.

Westphalia
In both Russian and Allied zones after the war, many prisoners were still held in squalid conditions, often in former concentration camps. At Minden just north of Detmold there was a British-run displaced persons’ camp, [1] which by the time Hildi arrived had become a British army base.

For a whole year Hildi’s family lived in a garden hut belonging to a friend, which had previously served to accommodate two other refugee families. The authorities, who had to find adequate housing for all of them, threatened to nail the door shut to put an end to this.

But in spite of the cramped conditions, living in freedom, enjoying the garden with its bench and table under the opulent cherry tree, listening to the chirping birds hopping on the roof of the hut—all this seemed bliss. In the morning the postman would shout from the bottom of the garden: “Dornröschen, wach auf!” [Sleeping Beauty, awake!]. Inside the hut there were three bunk beds on top of each other with not much room to manoeuvre; my father slept on a narrow bench under the window, but occasionally there would even be a place for a visitor on a field bed, with just a head peering out from underneath the table! A special treat for Sunday was one of the delicious loaves baked with yeast and full of juicy raisins.

We had lovely Sunday walks in the Teutoburger forest, taking picnic lunches. On Christmas Eve 1950, as my parents prepared for a festive celebration, decorating a tiny Christmas tree in a flower pot, my brother and I walked down the snow-covered street looking into the lit-up windows. Some of the houses were occupied by British families. Since their decorations were rather different from most German ones, we wondered if perhaps these colourful garlands meant some kind of carnival?

As the schooling system was different from that in the GDR, Hildi had to jump two classes to start her high-school education. In most subjects this didn’t seem to be a problem, but although her mother had tried to prepare her, she didn’t find English so easy at first—especially as she had to tackle the second language French as well. It was music classes that gave Hildi most pleasure, above all her violin lessons with Erwin Kershbaumer.

The following spring they were moved into a flat on a newly-built housing estate, which felt something of a luxury. They now had to find some furniture. When a professor from the local music academy, who was leaving to take up the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig, posted an advertisement offering a table, six chairs, and a small sideboard of solid oak, Hildi’s mother agreed to the sale at once.

With money still very tight, both parents gave private lessons, often walking long distances to nearby villages to coach children who had difficulties at school. Still, given their lucky escapes, Hildi remembers it as a happy time:

We were content and made do with what we could afford without feeling deprived, although people around us seemed to be better off, and the choice in the shops was plentiful and perhaps tempting.

[This is neither here nor there, but I note that similar comments have been made by people recalling life in the GDR! People’s modern sense of entitlement to instant gratification was still some way off.]

Only later in my life did I fully appreciate the sacrifices my parents made in order to provide us with a good education and comfortable life. As long as my brother and I were studying they never took a holiday, and even afterwards they were there for the whole family whenever financial help was needed.

In August 1951 they all travelled back to Thuringia to attend the wedding of Hildi’s sister. This would be the last time they were all able to go together: by 1952 the GDR had closed its borders. Until 1963, when Hildi’s father became a pensioner, only she and her mother were able to make occasional visits—his profession in education made him immediately suspect to the authorities, so he felt it would be unwise to go.

Heimat
In 1951 Hildi’s father, with his pre-war experience as Rektor, was appointed headmaster of a school just further north in Minden. Whatever their wartime backgrounds, qualified employees were desperately needed in the new Germany.

During the 1952 summer holidays, Hildi and her mother went to join him. Hildi’s brother stayed at boarding school in Detmold to finish his last year before the final high-school examination. Hildi, now 15, attended the high school for girls in Minden. By this time she was also a promising violinist.

Their flat in Minden was again a newly-built one, and Hildi was delighted to have a little room to herself for the first time. Another excitement was to acquire a second-hand piano, on which she immediately tried out some tunes with a few fingers—having just joined a local choir, she liked attempting the Hallelujah chorus. Quite soon a piano teacher was found and she began learning properly.

In 1950 the GDR had signed documents officially recognizing the Oder–Neiße border as permanent boundary between Germany and Poland, a gesture which in 1970 was followed by the western part of Germany at the Treaty of Warsaw, signed by the West German chancellor Willy Brandt. For the older generation of refugees from the east, like Hildi’s parents and grandparents, this meant a conclusive end to their hopes for a return to their Heimat. At the time such refugees made up about a quarter of the population of the GDR—who had to keep quiet about their past (socialism looks forward, not back, as Hildi observes!). They were officially called “resettlers” (Umsiedler); “expulsion” (Vertreibung) was now to be known as “evacuation” (Aussiedlung).

Silesian costume

Traditional Silesian costume.

While the complexities of Silesia’s ethnic history were being erased under the GDR and Polish regimes, Hildi´s parents, uprooted from their “Heimat” to Minden, and living with the realization that there was never to be a return, joined the local Silesian Association (Schlesier Verein), [2] where they found friends amongst people who shared a similar past, exchanging cherished memories, reciting poems in dialect and singing. Once a year there would be a festive occasion when everyone dressed up in traditional costume. [3] Such Heimat-Nostalgie was common—though their own nostalgia was not for Weißwasser but their ancestral home further east in Silesia, now part of Communist Poland. [4]

At the time Hildi was busy growing up, finding her own friends and activities. While her parents took comfort from celebrating the past, for her all this was slightly embarrassing and sentimental. Looking back now, she realizes her lack of enthusiasm for the family’s Silesian heritage must have disappointed her parents, but they never pushed her.

Studying and teaching
Hildi was firmly rooted in the present, looking to the future and enjoying her fortnightly trips back to Detmold at weekends for violin lessons, staying with her teacher.

When the British left in 1955, the houses they had occupied in Minden became vacant, and the British cinema closed, but people hardly noticed any change.

After matriculating in March 1957 Hildi began her studies at the NWD Musikademie in Detmold, resolving to become a teacher of music and German. Her brother was just finishing his studies in art and German.

Hildi was full of enthusiasm, not just working hard but enjoying her time with friends. She received a monthly allowance from her parents, and if she ever overspent her friends would share their second helping at the Mensa. Still, by the end of each term they had generally lost weight, and were looking forward to proper meals at home. In April 1960 Hildi graduated in German, and in July she qualified as a music teacher.

For the summer of 1961 I was awarded a scholarship for the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. I was given two tickets, one for Parsifal and one for The flying dutchman. As my violin professor was in the orchestra he managed to sneak me into the covered pit for a performance of Tannhäuser, conducted by Sawallisch, where I perched amongst the musicians of the first violin and could briefly stand up when they were not playing. This gave me the occasional glimpse of my idol Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, Victoria de los Angeles as Elisabeth, and Wolfgang Windgassen in the title-role. The production of the Béjart Ballet in the Venusberg Scene and the first black Venus, the fabulous Grace Bumbry, caused quite a stir in the press. I was also able to get into the dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger. This was my introduction into the world of opera, in which I would be involved myself at a much later stage of my life.

My first employment was at a primary school in a small town a short bus ride from Detmold. This first year in my teaching career proved to be demanding, as I had to cover all the subjects and do a lot of reading—sometimes I was just a few pages ahead of my pupils! Every lesson had to be prepared in writing, available for the supervisor who appeared, unannounced, on a number of occasions.

I was waiting for a position teaching music and German to become available in Lemgo nearby, which was to become vacant in 1961. There I was the first and only music teacher of the school, and I now had a modest budget to buy the necessary equipment. I promptly bought six violins and music stands and started teaching my violin pupils in the afternoons. This was the humble beginning of a little school orchestra later on. I also formed a small choir to perform for special occasions. In the beginning these were always a bit stressful for me, as I felt responsible for each of my singers and could not be sure how they would react under pressure. In my teaching I was always very careful not to have any “favourite” pupils in my class. When we prepared a play for parents’ day I was just guiding the children. The children wrote the play, they decided who should get the individual parts, they made the costumes, and as there were a number not directly involved in the play, I made sure they had other duties and thereby did not feel left out.

In the early days of the GDR Hildi’s sister (now married with two small children) could visit occasionally—always without her husband. Hildi’s parents regularly sent food parcels; their finances still stretched, her mother resumed teaching.

It was a terrible shock when the Berlin Wall (“Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”) was built in August 1961. As it happened, just beforehand Hildi’s sister managed to visit her family in Minden, with her little boy and a daughter still not one year old. Of course they wanted her to stay—but despite the GDR’s escalating problems, they understood her decision to return again to her husband and home.

From now on, visits from East to West were only granted under exceptional circumstances. It became increasingly difficult for Hildi’s family to visit her sister too: after filling in elaborate forms, they faced uncomfortable checks at the border, with guards watching on both sides of the train, Kalashnikovs poised. Visitors were invited  to attend the political “welcome meetings” to extol the praises of the GDR; though not compulsory, any absence would have been noted down. Hildi’s mother had returned from a previous visit seething and debilitated; later, afraid that her mother would be unable to sit through the propaganda without exploding, Hildi’s sister discouraged her from going.

1963–66: Zurich and the world
In 1963 Hildi’s life took yet another new course. By now the violin was playing an increasingly important role in her life. She pursued her studies further by continuing her lessons with Prof. Otto Schad at the Akademie in Detmold, and she enjoyed the chamber-music tuition with Prof. Günther Weißenhorn. She received her violin-teaching diploma at Münster in May 1962, and began getting occasional engagements for concerts.

Inheriting an attraction to Switzerland from her mother, she now boarded her first aeroplane (alone and terrified) to audition for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Wanting to keep it a secret, she took a flight from Hanover directly after school finished on a Saturday. After the audition on Sunday she took the sleeper back home, and went straight back to work at her school. The following week she received a letter offering her the Zurich job. She was overjoyed, but now she had to break the news to her parents, and (right in the middle of term) to the headmaster of the school where she was teaching. But of course they were pleased for her, even if they assumed she would come back one day.

However, saying farewell to my class was more difficult and caused quite a few tears from my pupils. I was deeply touched by their affection. They had prepared a moving little ceremony for me, presenting a booklet in which they had recorded in writing, accompanied by some photos, events in the course of our time together. At the end each of the girls gave me a beautiful pink rose before they waved me off and ran after the bus which finally parted us. When they were all out of sight and I sat holding my huge bunch of thirty-six roses, I too felt sad, realizing how much I had enjoyed my teaching. Little did I know then that much much later on I would indeed return to this profession when coaching singers in the performance of German repertoire.

Although the pay was low and Swiss prices high, these three years with the orchestra were a happy time for Hildi, unimaginable after the hardships of her early years of refugee displacement.

I loved the playing, and I am still grateful that I had the privilege of rehearsing with many world-famous soloists in the rather small room in the villa of the founder and conductor Edmund de Stoutz. In this intimate environment we experienced these wonderful musicians in a way that is hardly possible on the big stage—they were so close, this was chamber music at its very best! There would be Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters Hepzhibah and Yalta, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, André Gertler, Erica Morini, Maurice Gendron, Pierre Fournier, Gaspar Cassadó and many others—forever treasured encounters!

I bought a really good violin and studied with Ulrich Lehmann in Bern. Apart from concerts in Switzerland, I loved going on tour to places like Italy and the USA. Touring was a great way of visiting places I might otherwise never have seen.

 My first trip to Venice was unforgettable. The orchestra had a tradition that every newcomer would be taken blindfolded to the middle of Piazza San Marco—as the scarf was removed, imagine the breathtaking impact of finding myself surrounded by all the stunning architectural beauty!

Also unforgettable was my first tour of the USA, with forty-nine concerts, travelling for two months by Greyhound bus through the eastern states! We did not get any subsistence (meals were pre-ordered for the whole group), and we shared rooms—but I loved it. However a shocking experience for us all was to be confronted with the rigid segregation of blacks in the southern states. Seeing signs: “No blacks admitted!” in many public places gave us a guilty and very uncomfortable feeling. One saw blacks working in the kitchen, but none inside the restaurant. Only when we played in Atlanta did we notice black people in the audience.

In November 1963 news of the assassination of JFK spread like wildfire during the interval of our concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich. We were stunned—only a few months earlier he had been the focus of international news when he made his famous speech in Berlin. As soon as the concert ended we rushed off to the Bahnhofsplatz to join the throng of people staring in shock and disbelief at the news bulletin projected on a screen high up on a building. On our US tour the following April we visited Kennedy’s grave and the Eternal Flame at the Arlington Cemetery.

I was very conscious of the fact that I was privileged to experience this freedom while my sister’s family in the East was living under severe travel restrictions. To let them take part in my excursions, at least visually, I sent them as many picture postcards as I could, which they collected and have kept to this day.

Meanwhile in Germany, Christmas 1963 marked a temporary pause in the complete segregation of East and West Berlin: West Berliners could now get a 24-hour visa to visit relatives in the East. Of course it was a one-way deal, and the concession only lasted for eighteen days, but still it gave a glimmer of hope to all those families had been forced to live apart. As a sign of solidarity Hildi’s family always put a candle on the window-sill on Christmas Eve.

1966–68: from Hanover to London
Much as Hildi loved working with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, after three years she began to feel it was time for a change. Wanting to experience the big romantic sound of a symphony orchestra, in late summer 1966 she applied for positions in various German orchestras. Meanwhile in Zurich she did some freelancing with the Radio Orchestra, where she met her future husband, viola player Andrew Williams, who had just finished his studies with Max Rostal in Bern.

While Hildi waited to find out which direction her life would take, she returned to Germany, taking further lessons with her teacher Otto Schad in Detmold. In January 1967 she started work with the Niedersächsisches Symphonieorchester in Hanover—experience that stood her in good stead for her later career.

In 1968 Hildi married Andrew and they came to live in London—this time a willing migration for her. Her parents were happy to come and see her there, and they had a wonderful holiday in Scotland while she was performing there with Scottish Opera.

With her basic English learned at school in Germany, she often sank into bed exhausted from trying to communicate. Her ear now attuned to the nuances of German and English, she appreciates my bemusement at some of the mouthfuls cited here, but observes:

The English ear can be quite overwhelmed by all the composite nouns of German, like Brückenbauingeneuranwärter, “engineer apprentice for building bridges”! Of course, it sounds absurd out of context; but German poetry also has some exquisite creations that touch me every time I hear them, such as Richard Strauss’s Morgen:

inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden (sun-breathing)
zu dem Strand, dem weiten wogenblauen (wave-blue).

Sometimes I would try and invent such words in English, only to be told, “You can’t say that—it’s not in the dictionary!”

Such language—like the Matthew Passion, the settings of Berg, and Nina Hagen—further encourages me to learn German.

Here’s Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with George Szell and the LSO in 1968 (with Edith Peinemann on violin), just as Hildi was making her home in London:

(For the Four last songs, see here).

Hildi continued her studies of the violin with Manny Hurwitz, but having to make connections all over again, freelancing in London was hard for her at first. For the first year, as a German citizen Hildi was unable to join the Musicians’ Union. So after marrying she applied for British citizenship—seemingly a sensible step, since she had made London her home. She didn’t realize at the time that German didn’t accept dual nationality, which later caused her considerable problems. In Hildi’s poetically succinct evocation,

Sitting in an office among the clatter of typewriters, swearing allegiance to the Queen, I lost the nationality of my birth.

As to freelancing, the immediate problem was that Hildi’s musical training on the continent was very different. Since most continental orchestras have plenty of rehearsal time to get familiar with a work, she found herself ill-equipped with the sight-reading skills of British musicians, who might not even know what was on the programme before they showed up for the one rehearsal on the day of the concert. Further, the freelance scene depended largely on introductions and recommendations. Lacking such connections, she was a foreigner who hadn’t studied in Britain.

So Hildi made a slow start. Her account will strike a chord with many an early-career freelancer:

My first engagements were mainly out-of-town dates. I remember playing in stunning but freezing cathedrals, welcoming the breaks when I could cup my cold hands around a warming mug of tea served with home-baked goodies provided by dedicated elderly ladies. Sometimes I ventured out with my new friends in search of some affordable sustenance. Money was always tight. Andrew had bought a new viola, so from each payslip a deduction was made to pay for it in instalments. We were also saving up to buy a home. Between us we managed on £10 a week for housekeeping. Sometimes my parents would help out, but in those days the exchange rate was low—11 Deutschmarks to the pound!

We can’t erase memories of the “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” posters of the day (Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of blood” speech in 1968), but there was also an enduring undercurrent of anti-German sentiment, both in the media and in society. Hildi was shocked when a well-meaning colleague took her aside and said, “Don’t tell anyone you’re German! Pretend you’re Swiss.” And in a fatuous tradition marginalized until the sinister rise of “the UKIPs”, even her new neighbours told her, “Go back to your Cologne, or wherever you come from”—their relationship remained frosty throughout her first decade in London. Since living in Swizerland had felt no different from being in Germany, such remarks felt hurtful. After the caricatures of British comedy, latterly—with Germany’s image improving constantly (I suspect the Apollonian Joachim Löw‘s rebranding of the national football team may be an element)—the legacy of such racism now resides mainly in odious tabloid headlines.

Of course, it is quite understandable that having endured such hardships as a result of standing against Hitler, many British people would feel long-lasting animosity—but as time went by, the personal consequences were unsettling. Since Hildi was still not two years old at the outbreak of the war, she gradually came to feel that she shouldn’t have to go on bearing the taint of being German; she hoped to be taken as an individual, to be judged by how she conducted herself and related to people.

Indeed, this was soon the case in the musical world where Hildi now found herself. As time went on she began to find work with leading chamber groups like the English Chamber Orchestra and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Orchestra; other formative experiences were playing for Kent Opera, the London Classical Players, and the Academy of Ancient Music. She sometimes came across Hugh Maguire, who was soon to teach me

This was the swinging sixties—Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix… Even the more staid classical music scene was still seasoned with dalliances with pop—the session scene was burgeoning, with Hildi’s colleagues playing in the string quartet accompanying Yesterday and She’s leaving home.

In 1969 Hildi was also playing in the run of the musical Anne of Green Gables, doubling on violin and viola. As the music became grindingly familiar, some players in the pit replaced the score on their stand with a magazine; during the dialogues Hildi managed to read through the whole of War and peace and Anna Karenina. (Blair Tindall’s fine book on the New York freelancing scene also encompasses life in the pit.)

Meanwhile I was a teenager in suburban London, playing violin and surreptitiously listening to the Beatles on my little transistor radio.

While refugees played a major role in British cultural life, a painful blanket of silence reigned. There was no sharing of reflections. Of course, those orchestras also contained a substantial quorum of Jewish refugee musicians, who had endured far worse sufferings than Hildi’s family; later their children were also among our colleagues.

So throughout the post-war period, in all walks of life (service, industry, the arts, including music), refugees were ubiquitous yet unacknowledged. Survivors of the war, both victors and vanquished, were relieved to tend their begonias, go shopping, and bring up their families without raking up the past.

Still, within Germany, films like Wir Wunderkinder (1958) and Die Brücke (1959) were hotly discussed, especially among the younger generation. Among myriad discussions, conflicting moods among Germans in the early 1960s are movingly evoked by Gitta Sereny. [5]

Life in the GDR
Meanwhile, the life of Hildi’s sister was taking a very different course. [6] She and her husband were teachers. Their lives under the GDR remained private; this isn’t the place to try and fill in the gaps, so I can only imagine her story through the prism of major events.

After the trials that immediately followed the war, West Germany as yet largely preferred to bury the ghosts of the recent past. In the GDR, despite some more perfunctory show-trials, there was still less soul-searching: the topic of its citizens’ relationship with Nazism was even more verboten.

My mother and I visited my sister at least once a year, mainly during the summer holidays. In the early years one would be confronted with red banners everywhere as soon as one reached the border—self-congratulatory slogans praising the achievements of the State, the fulfilment of the Five-Year Plan, and exhortations to strive hard for the socialist ideal. Photos of individual workers were displayed on a board in front of the factory, with captions giving their names and accomplishments. As time went on, fewer of these displays were evident.

In June 1953 there was widespread unrest. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 added to people’s moral dilemmas. Hearing of these upheavals on the radio, Hildi was disturbed by the crushing of popular dissent while worrying for her sister. By 1968 the GDR authorities decided to destroy the ancient Paulinerkirche in Leipzig, where Bach had directed services. On 4th April the university choir performed the Matthew Passion there. But the church’s heavy student traffic was causing suspicion, and on 30th May, “the darkest day in the history of the city”, it was dynamited “to make way for a redevelopment of the university”; many of the protestors against the blasting operation were to spend years in prison. Similar protests accompanied the demolition of the Garrison Church in Potsdam.

Paulinerkirche 68

Destruction of the Paulinerkirche, 4th April 1968.

At this very moment, the Prague spring and its repression by Soviet tanks were also causing difficult moral decisions in the GDR.

By the 1960s, along with the nationalizing of industrial and trade sectors, most land had been expropriated into collective farms called Landwirtschaftliche Produktiongenossenschaften, mercifully known as LPG. Dispossessed farmers would often find themselves laboring on their own land. A rigid work-to-rule atttitude came to prevail. Schools were often recruited at harvest time to help out “in solidarity with the workers to further the socialist ideal”. A friend told Hildi how on one such mission they had to gather potatoes after the plough had dug them up. By 5pm there was only one row left to gather, and the children were perfectly prepared to finish the job—but the order came to down tools, so they had to return the next day.

A distinct lack of individual commitment was evident. Reminding me of China, Hildi notes how the lack of a product in a shop would be acknowledged by a bored shrug from the assistant. Shopping was a lottery. Whenever word got round that an unusual item was in stock, it would sell out fast—even if it was of no particular use at the time, people snapped it up “just in case”.

For those who could afford to pay a bit more, there were Exquisit shops with higher-priced clothing and shoes, and Delikat shops for more “luxury” foodstuffs—mostly made in the GDR, but not generally available. In December 1962 Intershops were introduced, state-run stores stocked with goods from West Germany and elsewhere. Mainly intended for foreign tourists, they only accepted hard currency, at first mainly West German marks. For Hildi and her mother it was a welcome opportunity to purchase items that couldn’t easily be posted—including Nutella, which remains her sister’s favourite spread to this day.

Still, just as in China, it’s unsatisfactory to describe people’s lives solely in terms of deprivation, repression, or national crises, confrontation, and compromise; alongside “Stasiland” paranoia, one wants to reflect the normality of life under a paternalistic welfare state. Housing, and basic provisions like bread, potatoes, and milk, were cheap.

While the more adventurous GDR youth had long managed to gain clandestine access to popular culture from the West, by the late sixties the leadership was reluctantly allowing society to open up, and alternative underground scenes began to thrive—under close scrutiny. Nina Hagen (b.1955), who continued the anti-establishment stance of her mother and stepfather, eventually left for the West in 1976.

When their father lay dying in 1981, Hildi’s sister, restricted to a single visit, could come only for the funeral.

The world of early music
Back in London, Hildi was shocked whenever there were reports of GDR citizens being shot trying to escape. In her freelance work, Hildi had begun working for John Eliot Gardiner in his Monteverdi orchestra from 1968. She was in the vanguard of his pivotal move to early instruments in 1977, going on to play in his new English Baroque Soloists—as she still does today. In a Guardian report on the extraordinary 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage that was just unfolding, we find:

Hildburg Williams, a German violinist, was among those who made the leap with Gardiner in 1977. Gardiner had realised, after a particular performance of Rameau that year, that he simply couldn’t get the colour he wanted from modern instruments. So for a short time the orchestra used baroque bows on modern instruments. “We all struggled a bit,” she says, “and John Eliot soon realised that this halfway approach was unsatisfactory.” So, the following year, Gardiner switched to period instruments. Several regular players refused to follow him, and the split effectively led to the creation of the English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner’s instrumentalists ever since. Williams, though, remembers it as the most exciting time of her career: “The instruments and bows dictated a complete rethink of playing technique. It became possible to achieve absolute clarity in texture, to articulate, to speak with the instrument.”

As I suggested, Richard Taruskin thus seems to do something of a disservice to the genuine explorations of the time—as does Norman Lebrecht, in a soundbite that bears no scrutiny at all:

The early music movement has won an elective majority in the market place. The cult has claimed the centreground, homeopathy has defeated the BMA.

Hildi also features (along with Pete Hanson) in video reflections by members of John Eliot’s Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique.

After her divorce in 1974, Hildi fended for herself, developing impressive DIY skills. As she gained in confidence she gradually came to feel less alien. In Paris she met the diplomat, Francophile, musician, and translator John Sidgwick, who became a soulmate, joining her in London when he retired from the British Embassy in 1984. They married in 1999.

With her vivacious personality and utter integrity, Hildi has always been a popular musician. In 1985 we did Israel in Egypt with John Eliot at the Handel Festival in Halle, and in 1987 we performed the Matthew Passion in East Berlin. For me, these trips (one on the eve of my first six-month stay in China in 1986, the other just after my second) made a niche variation on our tours to Spain, Japan, or wherever; it didn’t occur to me how deeply personal they were for Hildi. But it was wonderful for her to see her sister and family again.

A slight easing of travel restrictions for GDR citizens had taken place in 1982. More usefully, a GDR regulation that people over 60 could visit relatives in the West enabled Hildi’s sister to join their mother for a holiday in London in 1988—though her children were kept behind. Still no-one had any inkling of the imminent convulsion.

But by the autumn of 1989, following Gorbachev’s dramatic rolling back of restrictions—and, in Beijing, the abortive Tiananmen protests of the summer—unrest was suddenly rife throughout Eastern Europe. Hildi’s niece was working in Leipzig for the celebrated music publishers Peters—which we had all raided for scores on our 1985 and 1987 visits (I heard a story about Karajan’s visit to the shop: casting an eye over the stock, he simply declared, “I’ll take the lot.”).

By September Hildi’s sister was anxious whenever her daughter joined the growing crowds of demonstrators setting off every Monday in peaceful protest marches from the Nikolaikirche, where Bach had directed his John Passion. The conductor Kurt Masur joined the demonstrations, going on to play a leading role. As the Wall fell on the 9th November—almost as suddenly as it had been built in 1961—Hildi watched the TV broadcasts in London with excitement.

Since 1989
The fall of the Wall was momentous, allowing long-separated families to be reunited. It’s easy to celebrate “freedom”, but we should at least hint at the complexity of people’s feelings in the East. People now “just wanted a life”, as Hildi observes. Hildi’s sister and her husband didn’t want to enquire about their Stasi files—and nor does Hildi, who must have one too.

But as throughout East Europe and Russia, people now had to adapt to harsh and bewildering new economic realities. In China too, the dismantling of the commune system from the late 70s had led to great uncertainty; Li Manshan’s Daoist band were now thriving once again, though it was still to be over a decade before life became significantly more bearable.

After unification Hildi’s niece lost her job at Peters. Their precious stock was destroyed when its partner in Frankfurt decided it should be pulped: they couldn’t even sell it off cheaply.

The building of a modern church on the site of the Paulinerkirche, dynamited in 1968, was now on the agenda, and in 2009 the first service was held in the imaginative new buildings. Leipzig is now full of thoughtful commemorations of its troubled GDR past.

In 2000 Hildi and I were part of the pool of musicians taking part in weekly concerts throughout the year for John Eliot Gardiner’s extraordinary Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. While I was naively relishing the music, Hildi’s enjoyment would have been mixed with her personal history. She reflects with a certain irony how the poverty of the GDR had enabled towns there to preserve dilapidated old architecture that was being dismantled with abandon in West Germany (although it has been observed that in the East they compensated by ravaging the environment).

By 1994 Hildi’s life was taking a new course as she found herself in demand as a German language coach for singers. She has gone on to work mainly at Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Academy of Music. She dearly loves this work, combining her early teaching experience (in the family tradition) with her later career as orchestral musician—even if she sometimes has to bring into play the skills of diplomacy that she has honed in playing for conductors. Meanwhile she still plays for John Eliot.

H with Bach painting

Hildi (right), with Bach and John Eliot, Leipzig 2015.

As Hildi tells me the story of the 2015 return to Leipzig of the famous 1748 painting of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, she clearly takes it to heart. The portrait had itself been on a lengthy odyssey (see also here)—from Leipzig to Berlin, Hamburg, Breslau (Wroclaw), London, Fontmell Magna, Princeton. Its final return to Leipzig in 2015 was a kind of homecoming for Hildi too. Bach’s generation, of course, also had to live in the shadow of the devastating trauma of the Thirty Years’ War.

Walter Jenke, whose Jewish family had bought the portrait in a curiosity shop in Breslau in the early 19th century, fled Germany for England in 1936. Remarkably, to protect it from air raids, he kept it at the Dorset country home of his friends the Gardiners; so John Eliot grew up with it, as he describes in his wonderful book on Bach.

But after the war, Jenke had to sell the portrait at auction in 1951, when it was bought by the American philanthropist William Scheide. It then hung in his living room for over sixty years. When he died, aged 100, in 2014, he bequeathed it to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, where it now welcomes visitors. It was fitting that Hildi took part in the Leipzig ceremony in 2015 with John Eliot and assembled luminaries.

* * *

Before making her home in London, Hildi lived under the Reich, the American Military Government, the Soviets, the GDR, the British zone of occupied Germany, and the Federal Republic.

Just recently, “hopping mad over Brexit”, Hildi—with great difficulty—has managed to reclaim her German nationality alongside her British passport.

Meanwhile in Germany, a vast and laudable reckoning has taken place for both the Nazi and GDR periods. For all the valiant attempts there to reckon for the past, the vast majority preferred to forget; but all our diverse societies continue to bear the scars of trauma. Indeed, such scars form an essential part of my fieldwork on ritual groups in rural China—and while I have documented the story of Li Manshan’s family with him in a certain detail, writing this account with Hildi reminds me that we always need to evoke Chinese lives more profoundly.

Like many, growing up absorbed with everyday problems amidst social reconstruction, Hildi later came to reflect, learning more and finding her own way of digesting and coming to terms with her country’s history. The pain of the mid-20th century is unimaginable to our pampered later generations; yet it needs to be remembered. Merely to survive was some kind of blessing—as evoked in Chinese films; and aware of her sister’s constrained situation, Hildi was moved by German films like The lives of others.

So the point is not that Hildi’s story is exceptional. Rather, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all surrounded by such memories—in an office, on the bus next to us, or me naively sharing a desk with Hildi in the violin section of an orchestra. And with refugees—and their contributions—ever more common, we urgently need to take them to heart. So this whole story is not just about Hildi’s early life, but about our whole relationship with our past, present, and future—in Germany, Britain, and worldwide.


[1] MacDonogh, p.413. Hildi notes that the connection of Minden with the House of Hanover and the British crown has made it a popular theme of British history books.
[2] For such groups, also known as “clubs for the Silesian homeland” (Schlesischer Heimat Bund), see e.g. Andrew Demshuk, The lost German East: forced migration and the politics of memory, 1945–1970 (Cambridge UP, 2012); Gregor Feindt, “From ‘flight and expulsion’ to migration: contextualizing German victims of forced migration”. For the ongoing conflicts over Upper Silesia, see e.g. this recent article. For narratives from Germans in Silesia, see also Johannes Kaps ed., The tragedy of Silesia 1945–46. Stephan Feuchtwang (a refugee from Berlin, later to become a masterly anthropologist of China), reflects on “the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan” with pertinent comments on Heimat, in After the event, p.157, 172, 196–8, 201–4.
[3] While kitsch traditionalist sentimentality was less politically manipulated in the West than behind the Iron Curtain, a related feeling of manipulation and alienation is brilliantly dissected in Milan Kundera’s The joke.
[4] Echoes of an uncomfortable past have persisted. Another native of Weißwasser, Werner Schubert (85 in 2010) had served in the Wehrmacht, and went on to become a teacher. After retiring, he learned that the notorious SS commander Rudolf Lange, responsible for the mass murder of Jews in Latvia, came from his hometown. Schubert then set about exposing Lange’s biography, naming other local Nazi criminals.
[5] The German trauma, pp.59–86.
[6] In my post on the GDR I listed a few basic sources, not least Maxim Leo’s Red Love, a detailed and moving account of three generations in one family; and (for lives of those born under the regime) Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR. For subversive behaviour, clothing, jokes, and so on, see also Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain, ch.17. For the whole period in China, see here.

Echoes of the past 1

Echoes of the past: refuge and memory, 1

Train refugess 1945

Refugees, 1945.

Hildburg Williams is a long-serving and popular violinist in London chamber and early-music orchestras, who has latterly added a major string to her bow [1] by becoming a distinguished German-language coach for singers in opera, lieder, and oratorio repertoires.

I’ve known Hildi since 1982, when we were playing a Handel opera in Lyon with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. Though I worked with her on and off for the next eighteen years (mostly in EBS), somehow we never managed to have a proper chat. As is the way with orchestral life, we moved in different circles, different groups going off in search of restaurants, and she was rarely to be seen in the bars that my mates frequented after gigs.

So I knew nothing of Hildi’s early years, fleeing twice from war and trauma; or the tale of her sister, who stayed behind in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Their stories are just a drop in the ocean of the continent-wide migrations in the period immediately following World War Two, not to mention more recent ones from farther afield—many such accounts have been published. But only very recently have I realized how important it is to tell the stories of such “migrants”; and this also bears on the post-traumatic amnesia that took hold not only on both sides of the German divide, but throughout Europe (including the UK)—and indeed China. All these lives are precious. [2]

After a couple of long sessions together, and some background reading, I produced a preliminary draft. Meanwhile, as Hildi was stimulated to reflect further on her life, more and more memories came to the surface, prompting her to give a more comprehensive account of her life—for her own sake, not merely at my behest. This, the first of two instalments, is my own adaptation of her story.

Chatting belatedly with Hildi has made an intriguing contrast with my main experience of fieldwork since 1986—making notes while hanging out with chain-smoking Chinese peasants between ritual segments at funerals. But the principle is rather similar: to document and empathize with people’s experiences through troubled times. Still, whereas in China my clear outsider-status somehow makes such talks quite smooth (though note my comments on “stranger value”), in this case, being somewhat closer I sometimes feel more impertinent. So it reminds me that we foreign fieldworkers intrude too blithely into the personal lives of our subjects—a privilege that is hardly earned.

Thankyou, Hildi—and a belated happy 80th birthday! Having boldly offered Stephan Feuchtwang some Bach for his own 80th, this tribute will at least be less aurally challenging.

Early years: Silesia
Hildburg was born in November 1937, the youngest of three siblings, in the town of Weißwasser in the Sorbian enclave of Upper Lausitz, east of Dresden—right by what is now the Polish border. The family ancestry can be traced back to Lower Silesia—her grandparents and parents originally lived in Bunzlau (now Bolesławiec, in Poland).

Both of Hildi’s elder siblings were born there, but by the time she was born the family had moved west to Weißwasser, where her father had been appointed as Rektor, school headmaster.

Hildi’s mother was also a teacher, but had to resign when she got married, as was the ruling in those days. However, when the war broke out she was reinstated. A young woman lived with the family, looking after the children.

Germans had made up the great majority in Silesia for many centuries. Weißwasser was just west of the Oder–Neiße line, which was to remain German even after 1945.

Through the 1930s the Jewish populations of such communities were ever more vulnerable. When Hildi was barely a year old, anti-semitic violence escalated with Kristallnacht; near Weißwasser, the Jewish population of Görlitz was among those targeted. In October 1939 a camp just south of Görlitz, originally for Hitler Youth, was modified into a PoW camp and began to receive inmates. Indeed, it was at this very camp that Messiaen, captured at Verdun in 1940, was interned—soon to compose and perform his amazing Quatuor pour la fin du temps there, as if untouched by human society.

By 1939 Hildi’s father was in his forties; in August, as the war started, he was called up by the Wehrmacht, going on to serve in the army administration in Poland, Russia, and France. Hildi reflects:

I can only remember one short visit when he was on leave. Apart from this, I only knew him from photographs and his letters home, which would often include little paragraphs to us children, with some drawings. [3]

But after the war he hardly talked about his experiences, so Hildi knows very little of this period in his life.

When she began attending school in 1943, her mother was her first teacher there (“a fact she enjoyed more than I”)—Hildi remembers addressing her in the third person like all the other pupils in class, anxious to fit in and not be treated differently from her classmates.

Up to the summer of 1943 the family spent the holidays at Hildi’s grandparents’ home in a little village just outside Bunzlau—they owned the former village school, with its large garden and a wooded area known as The Park. For the children it was an idyllic setting.

First flight
As we chat over coffee and cake in Hildi’s gemütlich little house in north London, I struggle to imagine the utter devastation of Germany by that time, evoking the most appalling images we have seen from Syria in recent years—and refugees then were just as vulnerable as Syrians today, desperately trying to survive by fleeing. Keith Lowe tellingly sums up the devastation of post-war Europe: [4]

Imagine a world without institutions. It is a world where border between countries seem to have been dissolved, leaving a single, endless landscape over which people travel in search for communities that no longer exist. There are no governments any more, on either a national scale or even a local one. There are no schools or universities, no libraries or archives, no access to any information whatsoever. There is no cinema or theatre, and certainly no television. The radio occasionally works, but the signal is distant, and almost always in a foreign language. No one has seen a newspaper for weeks. There are no railways or motor vehicles, no telephones or telegrams, no post office, no communication at all except what is passed through word of mouth.

There are no banks, but that is no great hardship since money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. The great factories and businesses that used to exist have all been destroyed or dismantled, as have most of the other buildings. There are no tools, save what can be dug out of the rubble. There is no food.

Law and order are virtually non-existent, because there is no police force and no judiciary. In some areas there no longer seems to be any clear sense or what is right and what is wrong. People help themselves to whatever they want without regard to ownership—indeed, the sense of ownership itself has largely disappeared. Goods belong only to those who are strong enough to hold onto them, and those who are willing to guard them with their lives. Men with weapons roam the streets, taking what they want and threatening anyone who gets in their way. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection. There is no shame. There is no morality. There is only survival.

For modern generations it is difficult to imagine such a world existing outside the imaginations of Hollywood script-writers. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of people alive today who experienced exactly these conditions—not in far-flung corners of the globe, but at the heart of what has for many decades been considered one of the most stable and developed regions on earth.

By 1945, Silesia was ever more lawless. As German defeat was imminent, and with zones of occupation constantly shifting, the American and British inmates of the Görlitz PoW camp were marched westward in advance of the Soviet offensive.

On 17th January 1945 what was left of Warsaw was “liberated”; Krakow and Lodz soon followed. Budapest fell to the Soviet forces on 13th February; and as they were closing in on Berlin, Dresden was obliterated by RAF bombs on 13th–15th February.

There was still desperate fighting (see also here) around the Silesian region in April. The 1st Ukrainian Front captured Forst on the 18th. As Hildi recalls:

I remember our last days in Weißwasser vividly—the food shortages, the frequent air raids, the sound of fighting, the endless treks of refugees fleeing westward passing along our street. Every night my mother would take a family in to give them food and a bed before they continued their journey the next morning. The raids intensified daily and on the 13th February the light from the burning Dresden was clearly visible. As the fighting drew nearer, we could hear the bombardments coming from Forst just north.

During these anxious days there was a young woman briefly lodging in the flat who was betrothed to a German lieutenant. He told her she should urge Hildi’s mother to leave. The last military train going west was due on the 19th February from Hoyerswerda, 7 kilometres from Weißwasser. So along with a throng of desperate people (mainly women, children, and the elderly, since most men were either dead or away fighting), they now fled their home. Hildi, then seven, vividly remembers the chaos, with refugees panicking as they fled in all directions.

The most essential items were hastily packed, and I still remember gratefully that I was allowed to take both my beloved dolls. The lieutenant sent his orderly with an open lorry for us to catch the train—which turned out to be already overcrowded with hardly any room. My sister was precariously perched on top of several suitcases, resting her feet on the handle of a pram.

The train eventually left the next morning, but even on the night before there was an air-raid. Some people panicked and fled, but luckily the train was not hit. The journey was agonizingly slow, with the train frequently grinding to a halt. At some stations it was possible to get some soup and a hot drink, but these were dangerous moments, as nobody knew how long these stops would last and people were afraid the train might set off without them.

Planning to get to the small town of Kahla, near Jena in Thuringia, to stay with the family of an uncle, Hildi’s family finally climbed out of the military train in Zwickau, embarking on several complicated train changes. Again the carriages were packed with huge numbers of other refugees and luggage, so sometimes people could only get off the train by clambering out of a window. It was snowing and the ground was covered with dirty slush.

Thuringia, 1945: brief US occupation
When after three days they at last reached their destination, Hildi’s aunt gave them the use of one room in her flat, with the children sleeping in a little attic room. But even here they found that far from being safe, escalating air raids meant spending anxious hours in the cellar huddled together with the other occupants of the house.

Communication was sporadic: there were disruptions everywhere, with large sections of the railway lines destroyed (at the end of the bombardment only 650 of 8,000 miles of track were operating), and so any letters that made it through were long delayed. With millions on the move, tracing the whereabouts of family and friends proved arduous.

The family did at least have a little radio, and Hildi was delighted when a broadcast of a classical concert came on. Meanwhile, news broadcasts were less instructive than rumours of the allied troops’ advance, which created great anxiety.

American forces began occupying the province of Thuringia from 1st April; Patton’s forces entered Buchenwald on the 11th (for my post on Ravensbrück, see here).

Dresden in ruins.

On 20th April the Russians reached Berlin. As agreed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as early as 1944, and confirmed at the Yalta conference in February 1945, the defeated Germany (including Berlin) was to be divided into four zones of Allied occupation. Thuringia was to belong to the Soviet zone, but the Americans arrived there first before the fighting ended. Hildi’s family had no inkling of all this until later.

In Kahla, the situation deteriorated dramatically early in April, just after Easter, with frequent air raids. In a last-ditch effort, the German forces blew up the bridge over the river Saale. Warplanes were flying low over the town, with bombs exploding alarmingly close.

We seemed to spend most of our time in the cellar, anxiously listening and waiting for the all-clear signal, and then, climbing upstairs again, being thankful that, for now at least, we had been spared.

Then the day came when, with a roar of heavy motorcars and tanks, the Americans announced their arrival. Cautiously peeping through the windows, we saw the whole street full of cars and jeeps, which were constantly washed and polished.

The GIs went from house to house to find accommodation for their people. Nearly all the houses in our street had to be evacuated, but ours was spared. When the GIs came to investigate it was lunchtime, and our large family was sitting around the kitchen table—my mother, my aunt, my grandparents (who had recently arrived from Silesia by trek), and we children. When one man in uniform asked: “How many children?”, my mother answered in English “Five”, whereupon they left.

We mainly stayed indoors—there was a curfew in place, and at first only two hours were allowed daily for people to try and get provisions from shops, where there were long queues. On 2nd May ration cards were introduced, and the electricity supply seemed to be becoming more stable, but sadly, one day our radio was confiscated. From now on we could only get snippets of news while queueing for food. News of Hitler’s suicide on 1st May, and the signing of the act of surrender on the 7th, was anxiously passed around. We children picked up the atmosphere of doom and desolation.

Hildi recalls the GIs:

It was the first time in my life I saw a black person. I had heard that these were the people who were kind to children and were known to give them sweets and chocolate. So one day I plucked up my courage and gingerly approached one of them, uttering my first English words—“Have you chocolate?” I had never tasted chocolate—whenever I asked about it I would always get the answer: “When the war will be over”, to which I would wearily reply: “This is always your excuse!” Now the war really was over, this seemed to be the moment—but the soldier, somewhat bewildered, just shook his head.

At first the officials of the American Military Government were under strict orders to treat the defeated population with stern discipline. Rations began to shrink, often to under 1,000 calories per day. My mother lost so much weight that one day she was blown over by a gust of wind, spilling the precious thin broth she had just acquired from the butcher after queueing for ages. The black market flourished, but as refugees neither my mother nor my grandparents had anything of value to offer. Food shortage was a constant problem, but somehow they managed to put something on the table.

Under Soviet occupation, 1945–49
However, Thuringia was only to be very briefly within the US zone; in a deal unbeknown to locals, as the Allies had agreed with the Soviets for part of Berlin, the American troops began withdrawing on 1st July, ceding it to the Soviet forces—precisely those that Hildi’s family had fled from the east to evade.

 Then on 2nd July, without forewarning—almost overnight—the scene changed. The US jeeps disappeared, followed by an eerie, foreboding silence; and finally, as we all peeked anxiously through a small gap under the closed jalousie, Russian pony-driven carts arrived. What a change from the smart vehicles of the Americans! What a shock! What would become of us now?

US Russian handover 1945

Russian troops passing GIs into Weimar, 4th July 1945.

For the time being, having only just escaped the east with such difficulty, Hildi’s family stayed put. They were now to live under the Russian regime until 1948, when the administration began to transfer to what in 1949 became the GDR.

Still, Hildi’s family had done well to flee early from the east. Over three million people had fled west before the organized expulsions began, mainly driven by fear of the advancing Soviet Army; and another three million Germans were expelled in 1946 and 1947. For many, the formal end of the war was not an end to their suffering but a beginning; vast numbers died in the process.

As a post on armaments in the Kahla region comments,

The population’s fear of retaliation at the hands of the incoming Red Army resulted in a gigantic wave of German refugees. […] All through May, the American military witnessed the panicked streams of refugees heading west. In addition, there were masses of people from further east fleeing before the advancing Soviet troops.

Hildi reflects on my impertinent queries asking if they now considered taking flight from the Russians once again in July 1945:

In July 1945 the whole of Germany was in total chaos. Everyone was solely occupied with survival—there was no time for reflection, still less for coming to terms with the past. While travel was still possible, not only were journeys arduous and complicated, with the rail network still in disarray, but where should we go?

The housing situation was dire. Apart from the millions of refugees from the East, there were all the survivors of the bombings, now homeless, who had to find a roof over their heads as most cities lay in ruins. One couldn’t just turn up anywhere—one had to know someone who could guarantee at least some sort of accommodation. My mother’s youngest sister lived in the northwest, but she only had one room for herself—though she became an important point of contact for our entire family, at a time when so many people were desperately trying to locate their loved ones and friends, or simply to find out if they were still alive.

Above all, in 1945, apart from the zones of occupation, one was not yet conscious of a divide within Germany into “East” and “West”. The whole of Germany faced the same chaos of devastation, having to deal with the aftermath of war. Mountains of rubble had to be cleared—a task mainly performed by women, since their men were either still prisoners of war or too old and infirm to take part. [6] Everyone was living from one day to the next. With our large family including aged grandparents, there was no hope of resettlement in the near future. Besides, there was no indication then that life was any easier anywhere else.

Were we worried? I am sure the adults were. Were we safe? I think, on the whole, we were. Following the departure of the American forces, the Soviet soldiers were now on strict orders to behave accordingly, and were severely punished, often beaten, when they transgressed. Fraternization was strictly forbidden—there was a definite “them” and “us”. The hegemony of the occupying forces was never in question.

Considering the widespread punitive measures against Germans in these first few years after the war, and many horror stories, they were relatively unscathed. But as Hildi observes, hunger was still a constant companion, especially for city dwellers. In the villages, in the early days before farms were confiscated by the state, there was still enough produce; townspeople brought anything they could find of any value to exchange for food. It was said that the only thing missing at the farms were the Persian carpets in the cowshed!

Although we were given ration cards, the shops did not have enough supply, so wherever there happened to be a queue people would join, even if it was unclear what was for sale.

I remember our excursions to pick mushrooms in the woods nearby. We became quite knowledgeable about them. At home we would clean and slice them, threading the slices on a pieces of string to dry for the winter. We did that with apples too. Eventually we were given a small plot of garden, and my grandfather worked hard growing vegetables and salad. As living standards improved in the Allied zone, the highlights were occasional food parcels from relatives there with essential provisions—and to our delight they would sometimes even reveal a chocolate!

My older sister, now 17, helped enormously, working for a farmer in a village 7 kilometres away—not only could she now get enough to eat, but we had one less mouth to feed. On many weekends she would walk this long distance, carrying back as much food as she could manage.

After the harvest the townspeople were allowed to glean the fields. They would all line up at the edge of the field and only after the farmer had raked it over thoroughly was the sign given to enter. The stalks were gathered like a bunch of flowers before the heads were cut into a sack. Back home my grandfather would beat the sack until the husks separated, then blow them away carefully until he had just the grains in his palm. They were worth their weight in gold; some would be ground in an old coffee grinder to make porridge, and if there were enough then the local mill would exchange them for flour, a welcome supplement.

Occasionally slices of bark and pieces of wood were available from the local sawmill, which we piled up high on our rickety wooden cart. My grandfather then used an axe or a saw to cut them for our stove and wrought-iron oven. He also built a rabbit hut. We children loved these cuddly animals, and got quite upset whenever one suddenly went missing—my grandfather made sure we were not around when he sacrificed it for the pot.

Women had to be inventive with their dishes. I remember a brownish bread spread, ambitiously called Leberwurst, made from a flour mixture and spiced with marjoram, as well as Schlagsahne (whipped cream) made from whey, a thin greenish liquid that was available for free at the local dairy. For some time these recipes were carefully stored in a box, but, thankfully, never used later on! We children could not be choosy— we ate everything.

For cooking we had enormous pots in the kitchen, as the food lacked the necessary substance. Later they were adopted for boiling the washing.

Looking back now it seems amazing how we adapted to the deprivations of our daily life. Power cuts were frequent, and with candles in short supply we just stuck a piece of resin-wood into an earth-filled flowerpot and set it alight—a sooty affair! At other times we just sat in the dark and sang.

In 1945 Hildi’s father had been captured and interned in a PoW camp; [5] by June he was able to rejoin his family in Kahla. He must have known that his wife would try to get them away from Weißwasser, but with no means of telephoning, and only a sporadic postal service, Hildi doesn’t know how he found out where they had escaped to.

As Hildi’s father approached, pushing a bicycle, she was standing at the gate; recognizing him as he called out her name, she was so excited to see him that she jumped up to greet him and chipped a corner out of one of her front teeth.

Now at last we were a real family! My father immediately applied for a job. At a time when numerous factories were dismantled and their machinery taken away, he was lucky to find a job at the still-functioning sawmill. For a man who had never had done any physical work in his life, this was hard for him. There was no other footwear but heavy wooden clogs, and my mother spent hours sewing patches onto his torn gloves.

My brother and I spent the summer holidays of 1946 with our former help and her family in a village near Bautzen, east of Dresden. For my parents this was a godsend, since they could be sure we would be properly fed there; for us children it meant an exciting long train journey and a wonderful time in the country. But the journey confronted us with images that remain ingrained in my memory even today. Passing through Leipzig we witnessed with horror the devastation on both sides of the track—ruins everywhere, eerie monuments of gruesome battles, tall buildings sliced through the middle, with the occasional lone piece of furniture precariously balancing on the edge.

Leipzig devastated.

Just opposite their house was a school that served as a barracks; during this time another building was used for some teaching. So Hildi’s grandfather (himself a former teacher) gave her additional lessons, with daily reciting of maths tables. When the troops finally moved out, the barracks became a school again, which Hildi now attended. Among the subjects there was Russian, which she learned reluctantly. But she was much keener on learning the violin, taking lessons along with her brother from elderly local musician Emil Wittig—Hildi’s brother became his star pupil, and to this day she still treasures a copy of the Kreutzer violin studies with a dedication to him from their teacher.

If their radio hadn’t been confiscated, Hildi would have loved to hear broadcasts of the classics with conductors like Furtwängler. Here he is in 1948, rehearsing Brahms 4 in London—where his visits were still sensitive, since though acquitted of collaboration late in 1946 it would still be some time before he was entirely rehabilitated abroad:

Like Chinese people, Hildi’s father never discussed his war experiences—which, apart from perhaps being politically uncomfortable, must have been deeply traumatic.

Although we children seemed to find our own way through this period of deprivation, we could not help picking up the general atmosphere of resignation, uncertainty, and fear. Outside the home people did not engage in conversation before making sure no-one was nearby who could possibly listen. At school it was not uncommon for a teacher to use children as tools to gain vital information from them about their elders’ opinions. My brother and I were instructed never to mention any sensitive topics we might have heard at home.

By October 1949 Hildi’s family found themselves part of the new German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Apart from the major trials of the worst culprits, de-nazification [7] was pursued patchily even in the first couple of years after the war, as the occupiers soon discovered it was both impracticable and undesirable; in the Allied zones, reconstruction took priority over principles as Cold War loomed. People heard about the war-crimes trials, but they were little discussed, and never part of the school curriculum.

Discretion became still more important when in 1949 Hildi’s father planned to cross the border to Westphalia in the British zone, hoping to find a new life in the West so the family could join him eventually. His parents-in-law had already made the journey earlier without too many problems, since “old people” were considered not just unproductive but a burden on the state.

Sure enough, after a long trek northwest Hildi’s father managed to reach Detmold, where he was offered the use of a hut in a large garden belonging to a friend of a friend. At once he found work as a gardener, later getting an office job with the British authorities.

With the de-nazification process now inevitably something of a formality, it was formally abolished in 1951 with the ponderously-named Entnazifierungsslußgesetz law (expanding my acquaintance with German polysyllables). Meanwhile, senior German conductors jumped through the requisite hoops as the new authorities pored over their careers under Hitler. The search for culprits still continues even today, but there was no call for repentance, and nothing resembling Truth and Reconciliation—either here or later in China.

In Kahla, Hildi’s mother was questioned twice about her husband’s whereabouts by two officials knocking on the door. She simply replied, “He has abandoned us. I have no idea where he is.”

Second flight
In March 1950 Hildi, with her mother and brother, managed to flee the new GDR to join her father. But this time her sister made the choice to stay behind. Her life had changed for the better in 1947, when she was accepted for the pedagogic school for mathematics and natural science in Gera, east of Kahla. In what Hildi observes was a strange way of beginning one’s studies, all the students had to take part in clearing the Thuringian forest, sawing and stacking felled tree trunks—at least they were allowed to take some wood home.

By 1948 Hildi’s sister had a diploma, and soon found a teaching post. She realized her qualifications would count for nothing in the Allied zones, and she couldn’t face having to retrain; and besides, she had fallen in love with her future husband. The family parting was difficult.

After the trauma of their original flight as part of a mass exodus west in 1945, this second journey posed different challenges.

Our preparations for escape were complicated. The few belongings that we had gradually accumulated needed to be sent ahead in parcels. This was not officially allowed, but we had found one guard at the station who would turn a blind eye and post them. If he was not on duty, which was often the case, we just had to turn back home again with our wooden cart laden with parcels, and try our luck another day.

Just such a cart is an iconic image of the refugee exodus, displayed in museums like the excellent Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig:

Finally we set off on the hazardous journey across the Harz mountains, by the same route that my father had taken. I was now 13. With the help of a guide, a woman who knew which route to take and was familiar with the schedules of the border guards, we made our way with rucksacks on our backs, my brother and I clutching our violins. At the time there was still movement in both directions, but since trains were rigorously searched at the border, a whole family travelling west would have aroused suspicion. So we got off one stop before the terminus and climbed down the railway embankment. Crouching at the bottom of it, we waited anxiously until the train set off again. It was already dark. Then started a long and difficult walk. Our nerves at breaking point, no-one spoke. We watched our footsteps, carefully avoiding the dry leaves on the ground. Occasionally there would be a rustle—our heartbeats racing, we all stopped and held our breath. But often it was just someone returning from the West, going in the opposite direction. The journey seemed endless, but at last we made it!

So after a trek of two days they once again found refuge, reunited with Hildi’s father in Detmold.

Given Hildi’s later immersion in Bach, her trek has an interesting parallel with Bach’s Long March from Thuringia to Lübeck in 1705 to seek his hero Buxtehude—in very different circumstances, and even further, over several months.

Meanwhile in rural China, the Li family Daoists, having mostly survived the Japanese occupation, were soon plunged into civil war and the turmoil and violence of “Liberation”—somehow continuing to provide ritual services for their local community throughout the whole period. All over the world convulsions continued in the wake of war, with over a million dying in the Partition of India.

Nearly four decades later, as we sat together in orchestras playing Bach and Handel, I had no inkling how very stressful Hildi’s early experiences were. In the next instalment we follow her from Westphalia to Zurich, and then on to London, as she embarks on a life of music; and we reflect further on refuge and memory.

 

[1] Sic: the metaphor is from archery, not fiddles, of course.
[2] Whatever the Daily Mail, or the Putrid Tang Emanating from the White House, may tell us. Among many documentaries on the current plight of refugees, the BBC series Exodus is remarkable.
[3] Cf. Hester Vaizey, Surviving Hitler’s war: family life in Germany, 1939–48.
[4] Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp.xiii–xiv; I find this book a most instructive and sobering introduction to the period right across Europe. I can barely scratch the surface of the vast literature on the immediate post-war period. Other accessible books include Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich, and Frederick Taylor, Exorcizing Hitler—where the appalling situations in Silesia and Thuringia can also be pursued. Moving and detailed is Gitta Sereny, The German trauma.
[5] For the desperate conditions of the PoWs, see MacDonogh, ch.15; Taylor, pp.173–87; Lowe, ch.11.
[6] See also MacGregor, Germany: memories of a nation, ch.27.
[7] MacDonogh, pp.344–57; Taylor, chs. 10–12, and Epilogue (for the Soviet zone, see pp.323–31, 360–61).

Lieder

Apart from the Matthew Passion and Nina Hagen (yet more unlikely bedfellows), here are further compelling reasons to learn German. While I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream lieder scene, yet again I owe my enchantment by these song cycles to Boulez (cf. Mahler’s Rückert lieder, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade).

First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Christa Ludwig, with Klemperer, 1962:

or the wonderful Anne Sofie von Otter:

Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs (which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom):

(or a live version here, with helpful Japanese subtitles);

and the (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls. Fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku?):

The third song is haunting:

Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus
Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus!
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus

Berg

After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word), find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!

See also Strauss’s Four last songs. For a spellbinding recent addition to the canon, see here. Sgt Pepper and Abbey road also rank alongside these orchestral song-cycles.

Hidden histories

The current BBC Radio 4 series

hosted by the engaging Clarke Peters, introduces a treasury of recordings illuminating the social history of Europe.

The first series covers the period from 1900 to 1930—notably Black Europe, a richly-documented 44-CD set from Box Family Records.

From the series website:

Received wisdom has it that black popular music arrived in Europe with the Empire Windrush in 1948, but Clarke brings us black sounds recorded in Europe from as far back as 1900.

Programme 1: Focusing on early commercial discs made in the recording studios of London, Paris and Berlin, we hear from dozens of different performers, including African American travelling entertainers, traditional African musicians, black British classical composers and more.

Clarke discovers a huge variety of black music recorded in Europe at the start of the 20th century, including very early examples of blues harmonica, scat singing and stride piano. The programme also includes some of the earliest African music ever recorded, from Senegalese war songs captured at the Paris World Fair in 1900 to the music of a troupe of Congolese pygmies who toured Britain in 1905-07.

Programme 2: Clarke explores the music of black Europe at the time of the First World War. The sounds of what would become jazz start to emerge, including African American banjo bands who entertained London high society, and the military music of Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe which enthralled France. The programme also includes music by captured African Prisoners of War, recorded in camps across Germany.

Programme 3: Clarke explores the sounds of Zonophone records, a pioneering label that recorded a huge amount of early African popular music. Many of these discs were made in London for export to West Africa, including several Nigerian hymns recorded in 1922 by Fela Kuti’s grandfather. The programme also includes the sounds of African American jazz in 1920s Paris, especially the work of Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar.

For James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, see also

and this short Channel 4 feature.

Series 2 and 3 are now available, taking the story through World War Two, the 60s, and the 70s—antecedents of what even then was still not called “world music”. These programmes too are full of gems, such as hot jazz in Weimar Berlin, calypso in Cardiff Bay; underground bands in Hitler’s Germany, black American trumpet stars in occupied Paris, Caribbean swing bands playing through the Blitz in London; and in the post-colonial era, on to Ambrose Campbell and his West African Rhythm Brothers, Sterling Bettancourt, Lord Kitchener, and the emergence of the Notting Hill Carnival sound; Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba from Brussels, Algerian chaabi in Paris, Surinamese jazz from Holland, the songs of Cape Verde—and black flamenco. To Name But A Few…

Here’s Sam Wooding’s Orchestra playing Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin:

For Algerian chaabi, here’s Dahmane El Harrachi’s Ya rayah:

And here’s Ronald Snijders live:

All these diverse cultures have made up a major part of European social history over the last century. It’s a really ear-opening series, providing many leads to explore.

Bach and patronage

Following the riches of Bach on Radio 3 and my recent survey:

Bach’s letters to his patrons are a sad vignette on the sordid realities of working for them. Along with his unsolicited gift of the Brandenburg concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg [“What does that even mean?”], he wrote this covering letter (in French, courtly language of the time), dated 24th March 1721:

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him. For the rest, Sire, I beg Your Royal Highness very humbly to have the goodness to continue Your Highness’s greatest favours towards me, and to be assured that nothing is so close to my heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your Royal Highness and of Your Highness’s service—I who, without an equal in zeal, am, Sire, your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant.

Sure, we have to read such a letter in the context of the day, but it’s hard to beat for brown-nosing. Servants indeed— to cite Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

… exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society… We’re living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy, in which the working classes…

Didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.

And there’s no evidence that the Margrave even wrote back. Pah! I hope Bach told him where to stick it. He might have well as sent the concertos to Tweety McTangerine.

Bach had been happy at Cöthen, where Prince Leopold was an exceptionally musical patron—Bach’s need to seek new employment has been blamed on the Prince’s “airhead” new wife (typical). With the Margrave deaf to his appeal, Bach was soon to find a permanent haven in Leipzig—and the rest is geography. Even there his struggles with patrons continued.

Thing is, despite all such routine tedious scramblings, Bach never stopped creating a wealth of music that stands as a rebuke to all mundane concerns.

And so in imperial China—right down to today, as a chain of fawning operates from grass-roots performers to regional cadres to central pundits. Only with less magical results.

I trust I shall have the honour to remain your faithful and humble servant

Dr S. Jones (available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and screenings of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist)

The psychology of evil

Still thinking about fieldwork, I’ve cited an extreme instance of “participant observation” in the work of Germaine Tillion in Ravensbrück concentration camp, as well as the ethical quandaries of Sudhir Venkatesh in Gang leader for a day.

Among all the literature on the psychology of evil, as a chilling instance of fieldwork interviewing, Gitta Sereny held lengthy talks with Franz Stangl over three weeks in 1971, after he was belatedly sentenced to life imprisonment for co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people at the Sobibór and Treblinka extermination camps. [1] Stangl died of heart failure nineteen hours after Sereny’s last visit.

As she observes (The German trauma, pp.88–9),

I decided to find one perpetrator if possible less primitive and with at least a semblance of moral awareness, who, if approached not as a monster but as a human being, might be able to explain his own catastrophic moral failure. […] I found Stangl more complex, more open, serious and even sad than any of the others I had observed; the only man with such a horrific record who appeared to manifest a semblance of conscience.

Within the extraordinary circumstances of these prison interviews, Sereny’s account is a model of detailed and sensitive work, reflection, and even empathy; as she carefully elicits as much candour as can be expected, she meticulously documents both his self-delusion and her own feelings.

Also importantly, her interviews are founded on much research and personal authority—experience of the period in question, in-depth study of the material, and discussions with people who worked under Stangl, witnesses, and survivors. All such background is important for fieldworkers, enabling them to ask apposite and probing questions sensitively.

Equally sobering is Sereny’s discussion of her meetings with Albert Speer—which indeed he initiated after reading her book about Stangl. [2] She unpacks the different and complex feelings of the generations since the war, notably in “Children of the Reich” (including their early worries about right-wing sentiments in the east after reunification).

I can’t think of a close parallel for other societies lastingly afflicted by the ghosts of unspeakable evils—certainly not for China, where what little we know of the “catastrophic moral failure” under Maoism (which was very far from being limited to the “usual suspect” of the Cultural Revolution) tends to be through the accounts of with victims rather than perpetrators—and it’s just as important to explore the mass of cases along the spectrum between those extremes. And of course, whereas such exposés depend on free media, for China such first-person reflections might only ever be muffled at best—since despite a change of direction, the same Party remains in power. Anyway, Gitta Sereny’s interviews are a model.

 

[1] “Colloquy with a conscience”, in her brilliant book The German trauma; more detailed is her book Into that darkness.
[2] The German trauma, pp.266–85, based on another of her books, Albert Speer: his battle with truth.

Ute Lemper

In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.

In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end (cf. Lulu). Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuse is a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).

Susan McClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).

Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplane clip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—

I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemper in concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.

As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.

For a recent incarnation of the femme fatale, see here.

Critical reviews

I won’t have a word said against S-S-Simon Rattle.

But here’s one, by Alex Bruggemann (Die Welt am Sonntag, 2004), about a concert he gave with the Berlin Phil. Indeed, I found it posted with uncharitable glee on the notice board of the Chicago Symphony when we were doing a gig at Symphony Hall—our stay in Chicago another welcome opportunity to slope off to bars afterwards to hear some amazing blues.

I cite from the review not as an endorsement, you understand, but for the charm of the image:

While Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband.

No pleasing some people. It was just a phase they were going through.

A more inadvertent critique was offered by a Radio 3 announcer introducing Brahms’s Tragic overture:

We don’t know which particular tragedy Brahms had in mind when he composed this overture. … But here it is, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Metamorphosen

The Aurora orchestra recently performed Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Proms—where, like the John Wilson orchestra, it has made an invigorating recent addition to their house bands. The piece is always a moving experience, not least thanks to its intimate chamber form, with eloquent elegiac solo strings.

(I wasn’t even going to mention their Eroica in the second half. But with the band standing, now playing from memory before a rapt Prom audience, it had all the electrifying directness of involvement that you get from a live jazz big band. As with the orchestra’s other memorized renditions, however inauthentic such a practice may be, this is the 21st century, and this is one way of communicating now.)

* * *

Strauss composed Metamorphosen during the closing months of World War Two, from August 1944 to April 1945—just as Nazi panic at imminent disaster was leading to ever-more inhuman violence. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, to whom Strauss dedicated it.

Much I as love many of Richard Strauss’s works, in that simplistic binary trap of ours I find myself siding firmly with Mahler.

Alex Ross devotes the first chapter of The rest is noise to “The golden age: Strauss, Mahler, and the fin de siècle”. Both composers “released images of fragmentation and collapse”, yet whereas Strauss (“earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical”) often seems sumptuous and glossy, Mahler was always heartfelt. Sure, I found it overwhelming to play Elektra (composed in 1909! Just as Mahler was being fêted in New York) in Dresden in 1980. And everyone knows the opening of Also sprach Zarathustrabut how many of us bask in the passage that immediately follows it, some of the most sumptuous string writing ever? Metamorphosen is among rather few of Strauss’s works where I can detect true sincerity.

* * *

Reading through endless discussions of Strauss’s relationship with Nazism, I’m little the wiser. (For context, see Ross, pp.333–70).

Both Nazi official and anti-Nazi émigrés made the same complaint about Strauss—that he acted like “a total bystander”.

As Michael White observes,

As for Furtwängler and the others who performed under the swastika, there was an undoubted mixture of foolishness, delusion, opportunism and cowardice. You can say of all these people that they should have had more courage, more integrity, and been prepared to sacrifice careers, futures and maybe lives. But that’s a big ask. What would you or I have done? I like to think I’d have been brave, but I can only thank God that I’ve never had to find out.”

Strauss was four years younger than Mahler, but outlived him by thirty-eight years. Who knows how, or if, Mahler would have adapted to Nazism—having already been welcomed to New York from 1908, one imagines him seeking refuge there. He (rather than a host of imitators, or his estate) might have profited from the film-music boom for which he was too early, but it’s intriguing to wonder how his work might have developed over a further three decades or more.

* * *

In 1947, the year after the first performance of Metamorphosen, with Europe in ruins, the Berlin Phil recorded the threnody (“authentically”) under Furtwängler (just imagine):

For me it was another formative experience to perform it at Cambridge in 1974 under Charles Groves—in the same concert where we played the summery Mozart C major piano concerto.

As a late flowering of depth and intimacy, Metamorphosen belongs with The four last songs. Here’s Kirsten Flagstad with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia in London in 1950—when the world, however deeply scarred, was being transfigured again:

Bearing witness: If this is a woman

*For sequels, see my posts on Sachsenhausen and A life in secrets*

As this turns into a lengthy review, I ponder why I’ve been trying, in an amateurish way, to educate myself about the traumas of modern Europe—beyond the obvious answer, that we all must.

I guess it’s related to my studies of China, and my engagement with the lives of people like Li Manshan; a feeling of duty to report the sufferings of ordinary people I encounter in China—including not just their ritual life but their tribulations under Maoism, with famine, struggle meetings, and labour camps; and my growing awareness of the sufferings of Europeans over a similar period. I don’t want to spoil your holidays (or mine), but as we relish the cultures and scenery of these countries, we shouldn’t forget the ghosts that haunt the landscape.

Among the innumerable studies of the Nazi concentration camp system, Primo Levi is justly famed—actually, I find the sequel The truce just as disturbing as If this is a man, after the camp is finally liberated yet their Odyssey of suffering continues, homecoming ever receding. But I’ve also been deeply moved by

Helm’s account is based on amazingly thorough research and interviews with both victims and perpetrators—much of which was submerged until the end of the Cold War. Of course a historian’s account will give different, more holistic, perspectives from those of an individual inmate, but in a way I find Helm’s work even more moving than that of Levi. At 823 pages, it’s hideously readable—both balanced (whatever that might mean) and personal, in a way that ideologically-driven accounts such as those of Dikötter (for the degradations of Maoism in China) can’t achieve. Even the excellent index is harrowing.

I suppose I’m not alone in thinking of the whole catastrophe in terms of a few appalling place-names like Auschwitz and Belsen, but along with the focus on Ravensbrück, over the whole six years of its existence, we see how very extensive was the whole network of camps, subcamps, death camps, work camps, transports and marches, scarring the whole landscape.

At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.

The book opens with an arresting and complex image:

“The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,” writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary… She would pray to God to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into the office her face would fill with hatred…

So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, who she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years, and tries to explain her behaviour. (1)

The book goes on to tell the stories of Langefeld, Buber-Neumann (who also had the terrible distinction of already having been incarcerated in a Russian gulag), and a tragic cast of inmates and their tormentors, with chapters focusing on personalities over the years.

Among them were political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”, “useless mouths”, “idiots”, and (later) children; in this camp only around 10% were Jewish. Its shifting population was international, including Germans, Poles (the largest group), Gypsies, Russians, Czechs, French, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Dutch, all transported there at various stages.

In April 1944 recent arrivals included evacuees from Majdanek, including more Red Army doctors and nurses, as well as 473 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz. There were Italian partisans, Slovenians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Danes, as well as three Egyptians and seven Chinese. (419)

They were often in desperate straits even when they arrived.

Ravensbrück guards rowing on the Schwedtsee.

Helm also delves into the lives of guards, doctors, and Blockovas (prisoners—at first often criminals—coopted to carry out the day-to-day work of running the camp). The twice-daily Appell roll-call was an ordeal that regularly led to death, as did stays in the Revier “hospital”.

As she observes, the “asocials”, such as prostitutes (pp.56, 96–108, 417–19, and index), have gone largely undocumented:

Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. […] The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the Communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help “asocial” survivors. (98)

Perhaps the most sickening story (how might one concoct a hierarchy of inhumanity?) concerns the 86 “rabbits” (mostly from a group of 195 women from Lidice near Prague, deported after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich and the punitive razing of the village), objects of unthinkable medical experiments. [1] But it’s also moving for the way in which the whole camp later rallied round to protect them from being murdered so that their terrible story could at least be told—miraculously, 63 of them survived. Again, Holm switches tellingly to the present day:

I found Zofia Kawińska in her tenth-floor flat overlooking the cranes of Gdansk shipyard. She was one of the second group of victims of Himmler’s sulphonamide experiments. A tiny, bent figure, she walks with difficulty, and has done since the war. I ask if she still suffers pain from the experiments. “A little,” she says, as she offers tea and biscuits.

She stoops to show the scars on the sides of her legs. “They put the bacteria in, and glass and bits of wood, and they waited.” She looks up and fixes me with deep brown eyes, as if to see if there is any chance that I understand. “But I didn’t suffer as much as some. Everyone in Poland came home with wounds.” (243–4)

Surviving “rabbits”, 1958.

The smuggled letters of the rabbits were among many acts of defiance.

In similar vein, Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps (perhaps the most authoritative study of the whole system), refines the view of “prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will”, recognizing the heroism of such agency, “however small and constrained”. But he makes an important caveat:

We must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair.

For anthropologists, the most extremely disturbing instance of participant observation is Germaine Tillion (1907–2008), an ethnologist who had done fieldwork in Algeria before being arrested while working for the French resistance. In impossible conditions she comprehensively documented the activities of the camp, somehow managing to hide her notebooks from the guards. After the war she continued her research on “the history of the de-civilisation of Europe”, and returned to her work on Algeria; her distinguished career was recognized by many awards.

Tillion

While in the camp Tillion even composed and staged an operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers, a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, attempting to help prisoners “resist by laughing” (567). It has been revived since 2007—my post Operetta in extremis includes a complete performance from 2011.

As the camp population grew constantly with prisoners evacuated from camps in the path of the Soviet advance, the 959 French prisoners (known as the “vingt-sept mille” after their camp numbers) who joined Tillion from Paris in February 1944, “jeunes filles biens élevées”, were quite unprepared for what awaited them at Ravensbrück, and adapted badly. Quartered in the “slums” of the camp, soon they were more hated than the Poles; their health quickly failed. Another group of women arrived in August from Warsaw, obliterated after the uprising—reporting to their compatriots, “There is no Warsaw. There is nothing left.” Hungarian Jews were deported to Ravensbrück in October. Babies were soon starved to death.

As it becomes clear that the Nazis are in retreat, the final chapters are just as tense. Desperate to conceal their crimes, with order collapsing, their brutality becomes even more extreme and random. The reader wills the inmates to survive.

By the end of March [1945] the camp was “like a mysterious planet”, said Denise Dufournier, “where the macabre, the ridiculous and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.” Karolina Lanckorońska, watching the crematorium flames shooting higher every night, was reminded of the beginning of the Iliad. She was still giving lectures on Charlemagne and Gothic art as children in Block 27 played a game of selecting for the gas chamber. In the Red Army block the women were making red flags to hang out to welcome their liberators, while the painting gang had been sent to redecorate the maternity block, where, according to Zdenka’s lists, 135 more babies were born in March, of which 130 died. (616)

Despite the shocking complicity of the Red Cross in Geneva, the tireless, heroic work of young Norwegian student Wanda Hjort (1921–2017), using her status to visit the camp and establish contacts, at last achieves results as many prisoners scramble to be taken to safety in the White Buses, with the tense diplomatic negotiations of Folke Bernadotte, Swedish representative of the ICRC, with Himmler.

Wanda Hjort.

But while the buses were being bombed by the Allies, for the majority of women who remained in the camp to await rescue by the Soviet troops, “Liberation” was also horrifying, with widespread rapes perpetrated on women of all nationalities.

* * *

And so into the whole post-war period. Many survivors returning home found there was no home to return to. The Hamburg trials of 1946–8 (a sideshow to Nuremberg)

achieved a great deal. Within a short time the court […] established in the clearest terms the simple fact that everything about the camp was designed to kill. (706)

But the trials were soon followed by amnesia on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and ignominy for the valiant women in the USSR (pp.287–313, 710–11) and the GDR (339–58, 711–14) who had somehow survived only to descend into a new nightmare, now suspected of being traitors. And until 1950, camps like Buchenwald were adopted by the NKVD as gulags for their own prisoners, with many (not only former Nazis) dying in squalor (MacGregor, Germany, pp.468–72).

By 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing the Nazis and both the war crimes trials and the process of “de-Nazification”—whereby top Nazi supporters were brought to book and denied top jobs—were shut down. (707)

Wachsmann explores the issue in his fine Prologue:

Survivors … were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said. On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic voice rose up after liberation. … During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.

But as he notes, popular interest soon waned:

Public memory of the camps was being marginalized by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. … Within ten yearts of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—the result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen.

Though popular interest was rekindled to some extent in the 1960s and 70s, more detailed research only took off from the 1990s—with German scholars taking the lead.

By this stage you will be able to decide whether you can face watching this documentary:

* * *

So only now am I beginning to understand the apparent amnesia that took hold all over Europe during my youth—and which still persists in China for the Maoist era (and other more recent events that it’s prudent to bury). Levi explains it well. His If this is a man was published in 1947, but

fell into oblivion for many years: perhaps also because in all of Europe those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war that had just ended.

Republished in 1958, it then became exceptionally successful—although even in the 1970s, as Paul Bailey observes in an Afterword, “Primo Levi wasn’t so much forgotten in Britain as totally unknown.”

Not just Neil MacGregor’s “What would we have done?”, but just our capacity for evil, need to be kept at the forefront of our consciousness.  As MacGregor comments,

How did the great humanizing traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse? (473)

In a Postscript to If this is a man and The truce, Levi gives succinct replies to what have come to be called FAQ, like “Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?” and “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?”.

On “ordinary Germans”, I already noted Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin (now also the subject of a film). Levi expands wisely on the topic “Did the Germans know what was happening?” Observing the authoritarian control of the media (not only in Germany, and not only then), he comments:

Under these conditions it becomes possible […] to erase great chunks of reality. […] However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for the people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics; the whole country knew it and knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.

Nonetheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. […]

He goes on to cite Eugene Kogon’s Der SS staat:

Even many Gestapo functionaries did not know what was happening in the camps to which they were sending prisoners. The greater majority of the prisoners themselves had a very imprecise idea of how their camps functioned and of the methods employed there. […]

And yet there wasn’t even one German who did not know of the camps’ existence or who believed they were sanatoriums. There were very few Germans who did not have a relative or an acquaintance in a camp, or who did not know, at least, that such a one or such another had been sent to a camp. All the Germans had been witnesses to the multi-form anti-Semitic barbarity. Millions of them had been present—with indifference or with curiosity, with contempt or with downright malign joy—at the burning of synagogues or humiliation of Jews and Jewesses forced to kneel in the street mud. Many Germans knew from the foreign radio broadcasts, and a number had contact with prisoners who worked outside the camps. A good many Germans had had the experience of encountering miserable lines of prisoners in the streets or at the railroad stations. In a circular dated November 8, 1941, and addressed by the head of the police and the Security Services to all… Police officials and camp commandants, one reads: “In particular, it must be noted that during the transfers on foot, for example from the station to the camp, a considerable number of prisoners collapse along the way, fainting or dying from exhaustion… It is impossible to keep the population from knowing about such happenings.”

Not a single German could have been unaware that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country. Thousands of magistrates and police functionaries, lawyers, priests and social workers knew genetically that the situation was very grave. Many businessmen who dealt with the camp SS men as suppliers, the industrialists who asked the administrative and economic offices of the SS for slave-labourers, the clerks in these offices, all knew perfectly well that many of the big firms were exploiting slave labour. Quite a few workers performed their tasks near concentration camps or actually inside them. Various university professors collaborated with the medical research centres instituted by Himmler, and various State doctors and doctors connected with private institutes collaborated with the professional murderers. A good many members of military aviation had been transferred to SS jurisdiction and must have known what went on there. Many high-ranking army officers knew about the mass murders of Russian prisoners of war in the camps, and even more soldiers and member sof the Military Police must have now exactly what terrifying horrors were being perpetrated in the camps, the ghettos, the cities, and the countryside sof the occupied Eastern territories.

Levi adds:

In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.

Turning to memory, Helm notes:

In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors—east from west—and broke the history of the camp in two.

The abomination wasn’t the only part of the story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.

Even in Britain, where we enjoyed the rare privilege of not enduring occupation, with all its risks and moral compromises, my parents’ generation—even if they hadn’t personally experienced appalling suffering in active service, or in POW and concentration camps—were all scarred by bombed-out buildings, separation and loss, maimings, food shortages, and terrible insecurity. So I shouldn’t wonder that they were relieved to live in peace, unwilling to inflict traumatic memories on children like me, unwittingly blessed to have been born after the war. But there were survivors all around us—like Maria Bielicka, whom Holm visited at her Earls Court flat in 2010:

She said she had rarely spoken of the camp before. When she first came to live in England after the war nobody believed what she had to say. “Nobody here even wanted to know about the camps.” Since then she has “got on with life”, working for Barclays Bank. (175)

How very much more understandable was this amnesia in an utterly devastated continental Europe. So bruised parents retreated to their well-tended gardens and shiny consumer goods, while their children complacently explored the counter-culture of the 60s. For those who cared, politics was about current problems, at home and in the third world. Meanwhile the nightmare continued in East Europe (and China, and the Soviet Union), as the past was buried and distorted even more mendaciously. Victims and tormentors had to coexist.

With all the vast documentation of mid-20th-century abominations that has eventually surfaced, it is hard to comprehend Steven Pinker’s detailed thesis in The better angels of our nature that violence has declined over millenia, and that the two world wars were but minor spikes in the grizzly statistics (see also his website, and FAQ). At least, it seems cruelly irrelevant; of course Pinker himself would be the first to encourage memory of modern trauma.

See also my posts on Sachsenhausen and Les Parisiennes; and for the first gulag in Soviet Russia, see here.

 

[1] See e.g. http://ahrp.org/ravensbruck-young-girls-subjected-to-grotesque-medical-atrocities/
http://www.elizabethwein.com/ravensbrueck-rabbits

Homage to Nina Hagen

 

Nina

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one YouTube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme Dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.

More useful socialist vocabulary

I’ve mentioned several distinctive terms in the vocabulary of former socialist countries, like China and the GDR. But still more usefully:

It’s good to learn that what is called caffé corretto in Italy (an espresso “corrected”, with grappa, or what the Chinese term with blunt accuracy dub “white spirit”) was known in Communist Albania as a Lumumba. (Garton Ash, The file, p.45). Well, you do need a snifter to get through all those Norman Wisdom films. (Cf. elsewhere in north Europe, where it is a somewhat different beverage).

This is rather in the spirit (sic) of the cubalibre[1] one of my favourite tipples in Spain as a change from my standard G&T. By contrast with the mealy-mouthed measures of English pubs (which should come with a microscope), both are notable because you are presented with a large tumbler into which the waiter pours an unlimited quantity of gin/rum/bacardi, leaving only a token amount of room for a casual dash of tonic/coke.

The cubalibre is quite familiar to our Spanish waiter, but I always enjoy the little ritual we go through whereby he looks enquiringly at the range of spirits behind the bar while I specify, with one of my few fluent phrases,

Con Ron, por favor!

Back in Blighty, the Spanish influence on my own domestic aperitifs is clear in my generous measures from the Azure Cloud Bottle—to which my address on the home page pays fitting homage. I ring the changes by buying the occasional bottle of Tanqueray, purely in homage to Amy.

In China, where the 1957 Anti-Rightist backlash following the Hundred Flowers movement was prompted in no small measure by the recent Hungarian uprising, the threat of liberal agitation was charmingly known as Goulash deviationism. That sounds funny to us now, even if at the time it was a taint that could ruin people’s lives and destroy whole families.

The Lumumba never caught on in China—why ever would you want to dilute white spirit? But they did stage a rally to protest his killing in 1961:

 

[1] “Free Cuba”—descriptive or prescriptive?! Cf. the British tabloid headline
“Free Nelson Mandela”,
to which a reader wrote in,
“I dunno what a Nelson Mandela is, but if it’s free, can I have one please?”

And now we have this headline, which could do with a bit of punctuation:

Come on England

Lives under the GDR

*See also sequel here*

The experiences of Eastern European countries under state socialism, not to mention the Soviet Union and China, were all very different.

From a comfortable distance, looking at the GDR can seem voyeuristic, some kind of Stasi porn. But perhaps it’s more like “What would we have done?”—as Neil MacGregor asks in Germany: memories of a nation, full of insights on successive eras.

I guess I’m also trying to atone for my lack of curiosity as a touring muso on early trips to the GDR. In 1980 I played Elektra with Welsh National Opera in East Berlin and Dresden. With John Eliot Gardiner, in 1985 we did Israel in Egypt in Halle, staying in Leipzig—apart from Michael Chance’s divine rendition of Thou shalt bring them in, my main memory is the whole orchestra and choir descending on Peters bookshop like locusts, to spend our over-generous Ostmark subsistence allowance (OK, unlike locusts) by buying up their entire stock of, ur, texts—sorry, I mean urtexts. In 1987 we did a memorable Matthew Passion in East Berlin (note also Hildi’s story).

My readings are also stimulated by my experience of China.

In Leipzig, I already mentioned the fine Forum of Contemporary History, and the Stasi Museum at the Runde Ecke is suitably disturbing. On the exceptional degree of surveillance under the Stasi, I can’t address the literature in German, but two books in English make useful introductions:

  • Anna Funder, Stasiland, a brilliant piece of writing,

and

File

Garton Ash notes how Stasi is chasing Hitler fast as “Germany’s best export product”:

Ironically, this worldwide identification of Germany with another version of evil is a result of democratic Germany’s own exemplary commitment to expose all the facts about its second twentieth-century dictatorship, not brushing anything under the carpet. (229)

In 1979, when many Western observers were downplaying or ignoring the Stasi, I felt impelled to insist: this is still a secret police state. Don’t forget the Stasi! In 2009, I want to say: yes, but East Germany was not only the Stasi. (230)

The opening up the Stasi records had enormous consequences:

You must imagine conversations like this talking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting-rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. (105)

The file ponders the wider problems of writing about people’s lives, and memory:

I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This, in case you were wondering, is not the same as “my life”. What we call “my life” is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. “My life” is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. (20)

He notes

the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! (37)

The very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts, like an archaeologist letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. […] There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. (96)

Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.
Even today, when I have this minute documentary record—the file, the diary, the letters—I can still only grope towards an imaginative reconstruction of that past me. For each individual self is built, like Renan’s nations, through this continuous remixing of memory and forgetting. But if I can’t even work out what I myself was like fifteen years ago, what chance have I of writing anyone else’s history? (221)

Indeed, my process of writing about people’s lives in China has made me unpack the blurred lines of my own story.

As Garton Ash comes face to face with the people who had informed on him, he experiences constant moral doubts.

As I leave I can see in her eyes that this will haunt her. Not, I think, because of the mere fact of collaboration—she was, after all, a communist in a communist state—but because working with the secret police, being down in the files as an informer, is low and mean. All this is such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world. And, of course, there will still be the lingering fear of exposure, if not through me then perhaps through someone else.

I now almost wish I had never confronted her. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (129)

He notes the irony in the careers of West German academics:

Cultured, liberal men in their thirties or forties, they are scrupulous pathologists of history, trained on the corpses of the Gestapo and SS. Theirs, too, is a peculiarly German story: to spend the first half of your life professionally analyzing one German dictatorship, and the second half professionally analyzing the next, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. (196)

West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgement, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. […]
Certainly this operation has not torn East German society apart in the way some feared it would. In an agony of despair at being exposed as a Stasi collaborator, one Professor Heinz Brandt reportedly smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes, including, we are told, the only known specimen of a female gnome. Somehow a perfect image for the end of East Germany. (199)

Two schools of old wisdom face each other across the valley of the files. On one side, there is the old wisdom of the Jewish tradition: to remember is the secret of redemption. And that of George Santayana, so often quoted in relation to Nazism: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, there is the profound insight of the historian Ernest Renan that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. (200)

He recognizes the accident of birth:

I was just so lucky. Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background, my parents, my education. Lucky in true friends like James and Werner. Lucky in my Juliet. Lucky in my choice of profession. Lucky, too, in my cause. For the Central European struggle against communism was a good cause. Born a few years earlier, and I might have been backing the Khmer Rouge against the Americans. Born in a poor family in Bad Kleinen, East Germany, and I might have been Lieutenant Wendt. […]
What you find here is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who have never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (223–4)

He notes people’s withdrawal into private lives:

Intelligent, well-educated, well-informed through watching Western television, they nonetheless devoted virtually all their energies to their private lives, and particularly to extending, decorating and maintaining their cottage on a small lake some half-an-hour’s drive from Berlin. […] My friend Andrea too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle-rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. (66)

The intersection of family and political history is well described in

a microcosm of modern Germany. I’m also most impressed by

—not least by the author’s amazing counter-cultural parents: compared to the lives of my own parents, theirs have been anything but drab. And then there’s

  • Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR: living in the shadow of the Wall

To return to The file, Garton Ash observes the insidious use of language:

The process for which English has no word but German has two long ones: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “Treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past. The second round of German past-beating, refined through the experience of the first round, after Hitler. (194)

Another distinctive mouthful with echoes of China is Parteiüberprüfungsgesprach, “a ‘scrutinizing conversation’, a kind of confession for loyal comrades” (Red Love, p.212).

And after my citation of an over-generous definition of the Chinese term dundian, in German not just words but definitions can be expansive too. Abschöpfung is

laboriously defined in the 1985 Stasi dictionary as “systematic conduct of conversations for the targeted exploitation of the knowledge, information and possibilities of other persons for gaining information”. The nearest English equivalent, I suppose, is “pumping”. (108)

Garton Ash goes on to ponder the surveillance system of his own country:

The domestic spies in a free country live in this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it. That’s where I stand. (220)

And

Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free country to an unfree one. I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do. In fact, East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain. Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health most when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all. (232)

German fictional treatments of the period include

  • Christa Wolf, They divided the sky, and
  • Eugen Ruge, In times of fading light.

And then there are films like Barbara (2012)

and The lives of others, perceptively reviewed by Garton Ash.

Going back a little further, among innumerable portraits of ordinary German lives compromised, warped, under Nazism, I admire

  • Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a playlist of 65 English-language documentaries on the GDR:

not apparently including the 1970 BBC film Beyond the Wall, which you can still watch here. For subversive feature films made under the regime, see here.

* * *

The nuance and detail of studies like those of Garton Ash contrast with Dikötter’s blunt and pitiless agenda in exposing the undeniable iniquities of the Maoist system.

While China and Germany were utterly different, parallels are explored by

  • Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan,

and by Ian Johnson.

But for China, archives, and even memory, remain hard to access. For the Maoist era, the literature on the famine is growing—note especially Wu Wenguang’s memory project. Among fictional treatments, few films are as verismo as The blue kite and To live, or (for the last throes of Maoism) the films of Jia Zhangke. Chinese novels too either tend towards magical realism or over-dramatizing.

For crime fiction from China and Germany, see here; for life-stories in the Soviet Union under Stalin, see here.

A major contribution to civilisation

It seems that, like the Bolton Choral Society in their own chosen métier, my goal of Encapsulating the Intricacies of the oeuvre of Flann O’Brien recedes ever further.

Ian Sansom reflected on his mixed success:

Imagine: you’re better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington.

I take the point, but for many fellow-Flanneurs it may not seem germane. Myles’s oeuvre is Sue E. Generis (if he didn’t say that, then it must have been me), self-standing—which, allegedly, is more than he was.

How can I have been so remiss as to neglect Timothy O’Keefe’s edited volume Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan (1973)? Fortunately, my old friend Rod (himself an honorable, nay upstanding, member of the Royal Society of Flannologists) has stepped into the unsavoury breach of my Stygian ignorance [Hope we wiped his feet afterwards—Ed.], drawing my attention to a fine reminiscence therein by Niall Sheridan:

His interest soon shifted to a suggestion of mine—the All-Purpose Opening Speech. This was to be one endless sentence, grammatically correct, and so devoid of meaning that it could be used on any conceivable occasion: inaugurating a President, consecrating a Cathedral, laying a foundation-stone, presenting an inscribed watch to a long-standing employee. This notion delighted him, and he decided it must be given to the world, translated into every known language. If nation could speak fluently to nation, without any risk of communicating anything, international tension would decline. The Speech would be a major contribution to civilisation, enabling any inarticulate lout who might lever himself into power to emerge (after a brief rehearsal) as a new Demosthenes.

I was to make the original draft in English. Denis Devlin was to undertake the translation in French and Brian himself would do the Irish and German versions.

I can remember only the opening portions of the Speech, which ran (still incomplete) to some 850 words:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, and reluctant as I am to parade my inability before such a critical and distinguished gathering, comprising—need I say—all that is best in the social, political, and intellectual life of our country, a country, I may add, which has played no inconsiderable part in the furthering of learning and culture, not to speak of religion, throughout all the lands of the known globe, where, although the principles inculcated in that learning and that culture have now become temporarily obfuscated in the pursuit of values as meretricious in seeming as they must prove inadequate in realisation, nevertheless, having regard to the ethnical and moral implications of the contemporary situation, etc, etc, etc.”

When the translations had been completed we had a reading in Devlin’s home. Any rubbish can be made to sound impressive in French, and Denis had produced a superb version, rhythmic, mellifluous and authoritative. It conveyed (to our delight and amazement) even less meaning than the original.

Brian (who delighted in the simplest sleight-of-hand) whipped a walrus moustache from his pocket, fixed it under his nose and read his Irish version, in a wickedly accurate impersonation of our Professor of Irish, Dr Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, looking from one to the other.

Denis told him that he admired his brio but deplored his occasional slurring of consonants. I told him that listening to his delivery was like wading through warm stirabout at one’s feet.

Undeterred by this mixed reception, Brian quickly replaced the walrus moustache with a toothbrush affair and poured out his German translation in imitation of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally. As he ground out the Teutonic gutturals, spitting and snarling in comic menace, he knew that he had made the hit of the evening.

Actually, if the speech wasn’t already in use then, it has since become entirely standard.

Talking of inarticulate louts levering themselves into power, this seems all the more necessary in our own fractured age.

And vis-à-vis my own Catechism of Chinese Cliché, must I now gird my loins for a Chinese version of their fine creation?

Trauma: music, art, objects

Norman Lebrecht has long laid bare the links of celebrated senior conductors (as well as Karajan…) to Nazism: it’s one subtext of his fine book The maestro myth.

I just read his review of Fritz Trümpi, The political orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich.

The book actually takes the story through to our own times. As Lebrecht observes, neither orchestra emerges with any credit—indeed, it’s a shocking story.

For me, as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB), another inspiring conductor (apart from Boulez) was Rudolf Schwarz (1905–94). Member of the Vienna Philharmonic in his youth, later inmate of Auschwitz and Belsen, after the liberation of the camps he eventually ended up in Bournemouth, remoulding the orchestra there. His Bruckner 7 with the NYO was wonderful—all the more intense with his laboured conducting style, partly the legacy of a broken shoulder blade in Auschwitz. Never a superstar in the Karajan mould (which was why musicians appreciated him), he was a formative influence on the young Simon Rattle, my contemporary in the NYO.

Bruckner 7 is in the incandescent key of E major, just like the basic scale of the Li family Daoistsshengguan music—I often think of it while I listen to the shengguan piercing the bright blue sky of rural north China (e.g. playlist, track 3).

Meanwhile, as Rudi was being dragged through the camps, here’s Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Adagio with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942. Like Philippe Sands’ choice of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938— and just as with Daoist ritual—we have to personalise such seemingly disembodied works, and place them in time.

You can find a newly remastered version here. For Celibidache’s Bruckner 7, see here.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Nazism has been much debated. Generally reluctant to collaborate, he did what he could, even helping some Jews escape, and with close ties to the resistance. Yet inevitably people baulk at his participation in events like this Beethoven 9 for Hitler’s birthday, also in 1942:

Lebrecht sums up his legacy (The maestro myth, p.93):

In Furtwängler the Nazis retained an interpreter who performed German music with undiminished conviction while genocide was committed in his name. By opting to remain, he endowed the Nazis with cultural respectability at a  crucial moment in their ascent, and in wartime gave moral sustenance to their cause. In his confrontations with tyranny, Furtwängler proved a feeble adversary who was all too easily manoeuvred into outright collusion. The humanity he expressed in music was was traduced and travestied by his paymasters. His legacy as a performer may well be among the most significant in the annals of conducting, but his conduct under political pressure compromised the very profession on which he wielded so formative an influence. [for Lebrecht’s more recent exposé, see here.]

Still, it’s easy for us to say that. Reflecting on the Nazi era from the perspective of our blessed safety from invasion and  agonising choices, Neil MacGregor poses the disturbing question “What would we have done?”. In his brilliant 2014 book Germany: memories of a nation (and no less enchanting are his podcasts—the perfect Radio 4 voice!), using both works of art and everyday material objects, he ponders how we can fit the great humanistic traditions of Germany into the same picture with Nazi barbarism. And having suffered throughout this whole period, people of Central and Eastern Europe would still have to continue making appalling moral choices for decades to come.

Apart from MacGregor’s astute discussions of earlier historical artefacts, one can’t help being drawn into those from more recent history—like the slogan (“to each what they are due”) above the camp gates of Buchenwald—just a few miles outside the Weimar of Goethe and Bach:

Bwald

MacGregor observes the noble lineage of words that had once signified an ideal of justice—the very words that Bach used as the title of a cantata in 1715 Weimar. Indeed, as a prelude to John Eliot Gardiner’s epoch-making Bach Cantata Pilgrimage all through 2000, I played a modest role in the Christmas oratorio at the Herderkirche in Weimar:

Next day we all visited Buchenwald.

I’m not sure we can derive any encouragement from MacGregor’s idea that the stylish lettering of those words above the gate (designed by an inmate, Communist and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) might be read by fellow inmates as a subtly subversive message that the SS would eventually get their just deserts. By the way, Ehrlich survived, also disturbingly, to become a Stasi informant under the GDR.

MacGregor gives a fine diachronic survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s work,

as well as the incarnations and migrations of Ernst Barlach’s Hovering angel (1926, cf. the 1966 GDR film The lost angel),

angel

along with reflections on Remembrance ceremonies.

But he also discusses movingly the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) who rebuilt shattered Germany after the war, and objects such as a little hand-cart pulled by refugees from Eastern Pomerania in late 1945—now reminding us tellingly of the refugee crises of our own day.

The wonderful Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig has a similar exhibit.

But to return to Trümpi’s book, this tale of two orchestras brings us, shamefully, right up to the lives of my generation and later. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide—including Richard Strauss’s patron Baldur von Schirach, who (also in 1942) described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Viennese Jews to the death camps as a “contribution to European culture”. Indeed, our feelings about those celebrated Viennese New Year’s concerts can’t help being stained by learning that it was Schirach who instigated them.

As an aside, these orchestras haven’t exactly been at the forefront of gender equality either. Competing hotly in the misogyny stakes with “Rear Admiral” Foley, Karl Böhm (a Great Maestro far more flawed than Furtwängler) is quoted as saying that “the Nazis aren’t that bad—they want to eliminate women from politics.” Digging himself into a deeper hole, he went on, “Of course, not all women are worthless—Rainer Maria Rilke [sic] wrote some good poems.”

And now there are new causes for anxiety, threatening all the liberal values that have been achieved so painfully over several centuries.

 

NB also posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and Metamorphosen.

The definitive transliteration

Svejk

I just can’t resist constructing a headline to incorporate some of my favourite Chinese transliterations (for more, see here, with thread):

帅克耍耍圣桑的兔子不拉屎
Shuaike shuashua Shengsangde tuzibulashi

or

Conquering General plays with the Rabbits-don’t-shit of Sage Mulberry

or, if you insist,

Švejk plays with the toothbrush of Saint-Saëns

What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland. Beat that, China Daily.

Among several references to the toothbrush in The good soldier Švejk, try this:

Then she took out of the hamper three bottles of wine for the convalescent and two boxes of cigarettes. She set out everything elegantly on the empty bed next to Švejk’s, where she also put a beautifully bound book, Stories from the life of our Monarch, which had been written by the present meritorious chief editor of our official Czechoslovak Republic who doted on old Franz. Packets of chocolate with the same inscription, “Gott strafe England,” and again with pictures of the Austrian and German emperors, found their way to the bed. On the chocolate they were no longer clasping hands; each was acting on his own and turning his back to the other. There was a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription “Viribus unitis,” so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria.

The latest research, however, suggests that Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) once carelessly left his toothbrush behind at his hotel while on tour in Prague—he was indeed a keen traveller, but his biographies are curiously silent about this incident. Later the Good Soldier came across it by chance while rummaging in a junk shop, and proceeded to toy with it.

Still, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the toothbrush may be employed here in its popular Slovakian metaphorical sense. In a comment suggestive of Molvania, Andrew Lawrence Roberts (From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Švejk: a dictionary of Czech popular culture) notes:

Slovácko is best-known for its traditional culture: distinctive national costumes are still occasionally worn, folk traditions like The Ride of the Kings [a major theme of Kundera’s The joke—SJ] still celebrated yearly. The largely rural residents of Slovácko are known as well for their love of slivovice, which they refer to as their morning toothbrush.

So have I been barking up the wrong tree? In this case, one wonders further: just what kind of liqueur was Saint-Saëns’ so-called “toothbrush”? In our headline, perhaps we may now interpret the verb shuashua “fooling around with” as referring to a tasting session—given Švejk’s Bacchic propensities, surely an epic event, at which Flann O’Brien would have been more than welcome.

Myles: a glowing paean, or The life of O’Brien

Flann

For a Parisian deviation, see here.

What’s all this fuss about Flann O’Brien, I hear you ask. (One perceptive tribute by Kevin McMahon is penned entirely in the form of a Mylesian pub conversation). [1] Padraig Colman, in a fine series of detailed tributes, sums him up dispassionately as “a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin”. For anyone not O’Fay with O’Brien (as the Great Man must have said somewhere?), here’s a little resumé, before you plunge into sundry other posts under the Myles tag.

Well, for one thing, as fellow Flanneurs will know, he was an astute observer of “Poor suffering Hugh Manity”, that’s why. He was a dedicated chronicler of the Hugh Mann condition—a common and distressing affliction. He had a keen ear for the conversation of The Plain People of Ireland, The Brother, and insufferable bores of any Ilk, whether pretentious or just trite. He had the Cut of their Jib, whatever that is. His intolerance of cant (and doubtless Kant) has brought him a cult following [Autospell running amok?—Ed.].

Apart from The Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript, another snowclone that is constantly on the lips of the aficionado is

The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular.

This meretricious character inevitably takes a bow in the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché,

a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public.

Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.

Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.

Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.

What article of his was always at the disposal of the national language?
His purse.

And what more abstract assistance was readily offered to those who sought it?
The fruit of his wide reading and profound erudition.

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.

And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the rôle of time-server and sycophant.

What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.

Whom did he marry in 1879?
A Leitrim Lady.

And at what literary work was he engaged at the time of his death?
His monumental work on The Oghams of Tipperary.

And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.

For my own tributes to the Catechism style, see here, here, and indeed here.

Looby describes Myles as

a postmodernist at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular,

and McMahon signs off with a flourish:

When did you start reading this stuff?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

(Go, and never darken my towels again—Rufus T. Firefly)

What with our Psalm, and our Sermon, I hereby declare our impertinent sequence of Trois petites liturgies quorate.

OK, watch this, now I’m going to make a subtle transition (and Myles would have relished the voiceover to Away from it all):

Gondolas, gondolas, gondolas. Everywhere… gondolas.
But there’s more to Venice than gondolas […]
We pause to reflect that despite its cathedrals,
its palaces, its bustling markets,
and its priceless legacy of renaissance art,
the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.
[scene changes] But there’s no shortage of leprechauns here:
Yes, Ireland, the emerald island…

Here we are again. Normal service resumed. A critic, and a critic of critics, Flann O’Brien discussed art, music, and theatre acutely—sometimes even more acutely than this:

Literary criticism
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was sometimes only five or six %.
The rest was only words and sound—
My reference is to Ezra £.

He would have enjoyed my Heifetz story too.

His Keats and Chapman series is full of shameless yet often arcane puns:

“My dear girl”, he said, “You have been living in F. Huehl’s pair o’dice.”
When she was gone he turned to Chapman.
“F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted,” he observed.

Some more from Groucho:

“Sir, you try my patience!”
“I don’t mind if I do—you must come over and try mine sometime.”

For all his withering disdain for pretension, Myles’s essays are liberally sprinkled with French, German, and what Peter Cook, in a not-unMylesian sketch, called “The Latin”:

(or for surly purists, the full authentic urtext here).

Nor is the Catechism of Cliché limited to English. It becomes increasingly unhinged (as one does):

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Mulieres eorum.

And one for the Jesuit sinologist, methinks:

Noli me quidere?
Tang.

And, for the Indologist, no trawl through the Milesian ouevre would be complete without

Ubi nemo mi lacessit (inquit Gandhi)?
In Poona.

In 2016, writing in The Irish Times (since Myles’s day, allegedly an organ otherwise less hilarious than The China Daily), Frank McNally did a rather good sequel on the elections. Indeed, it’s a fun game to play. One day, if you don’t watch your step, I may regale you with my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché. You have been warned. [Oh all right then, if you insist—here you are. Now I’ve even penned a Catechism of Chinese Cliché. Is nothing sacred?]

On my visits to Germany I constantly giggle at Myles’s Buchhandlung service:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. […] Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty of observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.
I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
“When I get settled down properly,” said the fool, “I’ll have to catch up on my reading.”
This is what set me thinking. Why would a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not [pay] a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Tweety McTangerine take note…

And we haven’t even discussed At-swim-two-birds or The third policeman, Begob. Here one may even detect a certain affinity with Cold comfort farm. As Myles observed,

It goes without Synge that many of my writings are very fine indeed.

I can only deplore the paucity in his oeuvre of allusions to fieldwork reports on Daoist ritual. And vice versa. Still, it is pleasant to imagine the travails of the Chinese translator of these great works.

Flann O’Brien survived longer than Hašek, but drank himself to an early grave (“But it’s not even closing time yet!”, I hear him exclaim) in 1966—sadly not in time to reflect

If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

There are some nice radio and TV tributes online, like

and the only filmed interview with the Great Man, here. And even interviews with people who knew him, here.

One last time—Altogether Now:

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.
So what capital adornment do I take off to him?
(It’s your turn.)

 

[1] Other discussions include https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/the-best-of-myles-by-flann-obrien/ and Robert Looby at http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/o/OBrien_F/xtras/xtra5.htm. Note also the egregious Flann O’Brien society, with its weighty bibliography.

Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys

CMB

Under the rubric of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, having just added a meretricious page on Gregorian chant, I now offer an equally piecemeal post on punk.

Further to Lives in jazz, Viv Albertine’s memoir

  • Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys [1]

(to give it its full title—her mum’s reproach to her as a teenager) is a beautiful inspiring book, full of sincere humanity and insight. We can draw a veil over the story of her messy “dalliance” (dunno why I’m suddenly coming over all Jane Austen) with Johnny Rotten. The account of her post-punk life is no less compelling than that of her time in The Slits, with their amazing singer Ari Up (RIP). Women, and sexism, in punk are justly favoured topics in musicology and glossies alike—more so, I note, than Daoist ritual (funny, that). For female punk band Vulpes in Madrid, see here.

slits

For Viv Albertine’s next book, see here.

I was sadly unaware of all these brilliant singers at the time, except (for some reason) for Nina HagenNaturträne (1978) has long been one of my favourite songs:

You can, and must, watch her singing it live on video too, but that recording is astounding. I was busy being a Boulez groupie… OK, there’s room for technique in punk too, but it’s not quite the point; I could presumably square that song with my snobby sensibilities long before I also learnt to rejoice in the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. Or Daoist ritual…

Just as much as the Matthew Passion, or Wozzeck, it makes want to learn German:

Natur am Abend, stille Stadt
Verknackste Seele, Tränen rennen
Das alles macht einen mächtig matt
Und ich tu’ einfach weiterflennen

We can save punk in China for another time—but again, it’s all part of the rich ethnographic tapestry. Not quite punk, but Cui Jian’s classic song Nothing to my name

prompted a fine complaint from Wang Zhen, veteran of the Long March:

“What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?”

Mutatis mutandis, Thatcher might have concurred.

 

[1] Pedantic note: most superior reviews abide by the title’s lack of punctuation.

Recognition

Talking of language-learning, I like this sequence in my old German phrasebook:

The chambermaid never comes when I ring.
Are you the chambermaid?

Maybe the scenario goes like this:

Englishman rings bell.
Woman in black uniform and white apron arrives.
Englishman shrugs; she leaves.
He rings again. Woman comes back.
Englishman shrugs; she leaves.
He rings again. Woman comes back.
Irked, he says to her, “The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
She leaves again. He rings again. Woman comes back.
(He, with dawning realization) “Are you the chambermaid?”

Yesterday…

I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It’s a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.

In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言, more commonly known here by the melodic label Wailing to Sovereign Heaven, Ku huangtian 哭皇天) is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.

It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) gives the sixth verse:

Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.

kulou-2kulou-1
From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).

* * *

For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Performative tears feature in many posts on this blog—links here.

Some common versions open:

昨日去荒郊玩游        Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…

So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney heard his own version in a dream, like Aboriginal singers.

Yesterday

Though secular, it’s deeply moving. Here’s an early solo rendition, live (and Paul’s unaffected style is a major element of the song’s impact—no cover versions come close):

Here’s the remastered version from 2009:

As I observe in the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums, analysis, while optional, can supplement our response; again it’s instructive to read Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Dating from the same period as A hard day’s night, Mellers considers Yesterday a “small miracle”:

Although the opening words tell us that yesterday his troubles seemed far away, the music in the second bar immediately enacts these troubles with a disquieting modulation from tonic, by way of the sharpened sixth, to the relative. The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles “return to stay” with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B♮is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence. […]

The immediate nostalgia of the song is without suspicion of sentimentality, and the corny accompaniment of string quartet can be employed, with validity, to reinforce the music’s frail bewilderment.

Pollack’s analysis is also insightful.

I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about the responses of various types of Chinese mourners to the Skeleton, over time.