Tag Archives: history

Auschwitz

Auschwitz. The very word is enough to send a shiver down my spine. It equates to unspeakable horror, monstrous crimes. Nazi Germany was the focus of my studies at university, so I can claim to know a little more than many people about the Holocaust. But the history degree was many years ago. Before we set out on this trip, I read Thomas Keneally’s award winning book, Schindler’s Ark, and I watched Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie interpretation, Schindler’s List, when we got home. Schindler’s enamel works was in Cracow, one reason I’d wanted to see the place. The factory is still there, something of a tourist attraction, but our tour director, Tomas, told me the Poles don’t think much of Schindler, since he exploited Jewish labour to make a profit. Yet in Israel, he’s a hero. Certainly, the twelve hundred or so Jews whose lives he saved appreciated his efforts. By some weird coincidence, when we came home I found myself stumbling over articles and documentaries about the Holocaust, as if the Universe was reminding me that this was real, this happened to real people of my parents’ generation. Yes, not long ago at all.

On a grey, drizzly morning the bus took us the short distance from Cracow to Auschwitz. I could so easily turn this post into an essay on the Holocaust, but other people, far more qualified than I, have done that. I shall try to confine myself to a tourist’s impressions. Even so, it’s worth giving a little bit of context.

Auschwitz was huge. It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps. Auschwitz I was a Polish military base which the Germans initially used for Polish political prisoners, and that is the camp with the famous sign “arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). But Auschwitz II – Birkenau is the one I’m told you’re more likely to recognise – the picture at the head of the post.

When Himmler and the SS embarked on the ‘final solution’, the area within 20km of the old military base was cleared of all Poles, and their villages destroyed. There was a level of secrecy in the whole operation. The Germans didn’t want the Jews to know what was happening, or the local civilian population, or, indeed, the Allies. Auschwitz was run like a factory, with a production line. The start of that production line was the first place we visited; Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau.

If you’ve seen Schindler’s List you’ve seen this portal, an entrance for the trains of cattle cars carrying the Jews to their fate.  Black and white photographs, taken by the Germans at the time, have been placed on boards with explanations. When those still living exited the cattle cars, they were sorted; women and children on the left, men on the right. From there, everyone was inspected, and the old, sick, and infirm (anybody who couldn’t work) were added to the left-hand column, and the fit and childless women sent to the right. Our guide stressed that these people had no idea what was happening, and in fact believed after the ordeals of the ghettos and the cattle trucks, they’d come to a better place. Before they were sent away they’d been told to pack their bags and label them carefully so they could collect them when they arrived. Some Hungarian Jews actually bought one-way tickets to Auschwitz, believing they were going to set up new businesses.

The people in the right-hand column were marched off to the barracks.

The people in the left-hand column were marched off to the gas chambers.

After the sorting

The left-hand column

Let’s follow the left-hand column – which would consist of around ninety percent of the group just processed. The guards continued with the subterfuge, telling the people they would need to shower. They gave them soap, told them to leave their clothes in neat piles. There were even shower heads in the gas chambers – but no plumbing. The people were killed with a cyanide based poison, Zyklon B. When the gas had done its work, Jewish special prisoners (called Sonderkommando) came in to shave hair from the bodies, remove any gold in their mouths, dispose of the remains, then clean out the chamber ready for the next lot.

Birkenau was a death camp. The gas chambers and crematoriums, and the wooden barracks, were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated, but they ran out of time to destroy everything before the Russians arrived. A few of the horrible barracks have been rebuilt to show visitors how the prisoners lived. Our guide showed us inside one, explaining that six to eight people slept in each bunk, across from side to side. Although they were expected to do hard physical labour, they were given starvation rations. When they could no longer work, they were sent to the gas chambers. A lucky few had skills the Germans prized, like the women who made fashion garments for the officers’ wives. This story is particularly confronting because our guide told us that when Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was transferred, his wife didn’t want to go. She lived a life of luxury next to that hell-hole camp.

Bunk beds in a Birkenau barracks

So how did Birkenau affect me? The photographs were the thing. Look at the people, the women and their kids. They look tired, perhaps a little apprehensive, but not frightened. They’d swallowed the con, and in a couple of hours, they would be dead. Their hair would be cut off, any gold in their teeth broken out. Everything of value had been stolen from them, including any last vestige of dignity, then they were burned. In the Spring of 1944 the SS killed as many as 6,000 people at Birkenau every day. The air was thick with ash, drifting down like snow.

When I watched the scene in Schindler’s List where the 300 women who were supposed to have been sent to Czechoslovakia are driven through that dreadful archway into Birkenau I felt a shiver of recognition. Our guide told us that no one – not one person – escaped from Auschwitz. Some escaped from work parties, but no one from the camps. Yet Schindler got those women out of there. He negotiated their release, paid for them. He was offered a different 300, better able to work, but he refused. The SS put his Schindlerfrauen into cattle cars and sent them back out that archway to Schindler at his new factory in Czechoslovakia.

We all climbed back onto our bus in the now-crowded car park and were driven the short distance to Auschwitz I, where we saw the famous sign erected at every concentration camp; arbeit macht frei – work makes you free. It’s not the original. The sign has been stolen, more than once. At first the camp is like any other military establishment – neat rows of brick buildings surrounded by grass and trees, quite pleasant, really – but then you notice the electrified fences with regularly-spaced sentry boxes. We were taken inside several of the buildings to see how the prisoners lived, and hear the stories about the morning roll-calls. If someone died while on a work detail or overnight, his colleagues had to bring the corpse out to the roll-call, otherwise that person was listed as an escapee, and ten people from the barracks were killed. Our guide took us to block 11, where any prisoner raising the ire of a guard was incarcerated, never to return. It was here in the cellars that Zyklon B was tested on people for the first time.

glasses, brushes, shoes

Our visit to Auschwitz I is something of a blur. Our group of sixteen was dwarfed by much larger groups, all pushing to see the same exhibits in a given time. We shuffled along through cramped, crowded corridors, never given time to look at things, to pause and reflect. One corridor had glassed-in exhibits of piles of reading glasses, boots and shoes, and human hair. Another had documents, in German and Polish, some with the orders to carry out killings or move prisoners, others more poignant – like the one-way tickets to Auschwitz. But never time to look and consider. People pressed behind, or tried to push past if there was room.

People streaming across to Birkenau

Pushing their way into the infamous block 11

Crowds

Thousands of people must have been at Auschwitz when we were there, busloads of them. Many were young, students in their mid-teens no doubt taken on a school excursion. I was told selfie-sticks have been banned after smiling pictures of teenagers appeared on the net – ‘me at Auschwitz’. One gas chamber did remain intact. You might have seen images on the net, complete with scratches at about fingernail height. But they’re not fingernail scratches. That gas chamber was a temporary one, not blown up because it was used for storage and later as an air raid shelter, so the marks have a much more prosaic origin.

I was frankly disappointed in how the visitors were handled. Perhaps more buildings could be opened to the public, giving guides choices in where to go, instead of squeezing everyone into the same space with hardly enough time to shuffle past. Maybe visits could be timed for a certain number of people. One can’t help but feel it’s a money-making concern these days.

I wonder how much those kids, whose great grandparents were of World War II vintage, would have made out of the visit. Like those black and white photographs, the reality of the Holocaust is fading into the past. I suppose that’s inevitable. Time marches on. But I, for one, hope it’s never forgotten. I know that genocide still goes on. The killing fields in Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and right now the Rohyngya in Burma. Terrible as they all are, what the Nazis did is worse because the SS set up a factory process to murder people after first exploiting them for everything they had. It was systematic and absolutely ruthless, designed to wipe Jews from the face of the earth.

Lately I’ve seen growing signs of anti-semitism. A post appeared on Facebook of a car in the US with a sticker on the bumper proclaiming ‘proud anti-semite’.  Here’s the story. I read another story of a sixth-grade Jewish child (in the US) finding a sticky note on her locker with the words ‘Jews will burn’. Here’s the story. I know anti-semitism is old – two thousand years old. It was why Hitler found it so easy to blame the Jews in Germany, why the civilian populations in Eastern Europe were not averse to the ghettos and such. It needs to stop. Visits by young people to places like Auschwitz will help – if it is supported by proper education about what it is they’re looking at. In the US and Australia, young people need to know what the swastika stands for.

Young people MUST learn history. If they don’t, somewhere, sometime, the Holocaust is going to happen again.

Further reading and sources:

And one more factoid I didn’t know – the famous tattooed number was only ever used at Auschwitz, only on people who were in that right-hand column, and only towards the end of the war (1944), when so many people were being pushed through the camps.

If you’re interested in why the Germans wanted human hair, look here

And a few more photos … because

A map of Aushwitz II (Birkenau). The gas chambers and crematoriums are marked ‘E’. The rows to the right of the railway lines are barracks. The clear area on the right was marked for expansion. To make the picture larger right click on it, select ‘view image’, then us ctrl+ to expand.

Describing roll call

The wire was electrified. Some people used it as a means of suicide

Inside the wire are rows of chimneys. Each chimney marks the site of a barracks

 

Rudesheim, the Rhine Gorge – and Miltenberg

The Rhine Gorge enveloped in mist

The thing about having done parts of this trip twice or three times is that sometimes I don’t have much more to say than I did in my previous blogs. That was the case with Rudesheim, where we visited the wonderful Siegfried’s Musical Kabinet in 2015, and the Germania monument (via chair lift over the vineyards) in 2016. If you’re interested, you can read all about it via the links. Same thing with the Rhine Gorge. For sheer beauty, a warm late October in 2015 resulted in the best pictures, but we were there again – with a LOT more water in the river – in 2016.

We’d also seen glass-blower Hans demonstrating his craft in 2015. But this one IS worth adding to. Last time, I ducked out rather a lot to admire the glorious beauties of the river. This time it turned out that an elderly couple on our cruise could trace their ancestry back to Hans’s village of Wertheim, just a few generations ago. Hans was entranced, and arranged with our tour director, Jude, to take them with him when he left the ship at the next lock so he could take them back to his village to meet his family and have a look around. He brought them back to rejoin the ship further down the river. I thought that was simply awesome.

Needless to say, Hans used his long-lost relo to help him make a blown glass ornament, just as he’d done with our mate Bruce a couple of years ago. That couple will have had an adventure they’ll never, ever forget.

Although we’d been to Miltenberg before, our visit this time was different in many respects to the last time in 2015, because the guide was different. Each guide has his/her own interpretation of what’s important to show, I suppose. Our guide was Raul, a septuagenarian Canadian who had married a German lady and lived in a nearby village. He was dressed in the costume of a medieval night watchman, complete with halberd and Bavarian flag. The basic structure of the visit was the same as last time – a sort of treasure hunt where the guide explained some of the features of medieval life, including an opportunity to sample some of the food and drink. Of course, the history hasn’t changed, but no guide can tell everything.

The witch’s house, using the town wall to reduce building costs

The steps to the Jweish cemetery

Raul took us away from the picturesque main street with its seventeenth century half-timber facades and up away from the river, where the streets are steep and narrow. Miltenberg has a town wall, and Raul pointed out a building he described as ‘the witch’s house’.   He was quick to clarify that it wasn’t really a witch’s house, but it’s easy to imagine it in an illustrated version of Hansel and Gretel. Raul pointed at the archway further up the hill. “The old Jewish cemetery is up there.” Then he took us back down into the town, stopped in front of a house, and pointed at five brass plaques set in the cobbles. These weren’t book titles, though. These were lives. Five Jewish people had lived here until 1942, when they were deported, and murdered. Miltenberg was the site of one of the oldest synagogues in Germany. Later (he pointed) a new synagogue was built there. It’s gone, along with the Jews. One hundred and forty Jews called Miltenberg home before the war. Now there are none, and there is no synagogue.

Brass plaques all that remains of lives. For a closer look, right click on the image and select ‘view image’. Then make it larger using ctrl+

After Raul finished his formal tour, Pete and I retraced our steps to that archway up the hill to see the Jewish cemetery. The town council cuts back the grass twice a year, but apart from that the tombstones linger in the shadow of the town wall, the markings fading with each passing season. Even so, these Jews have a memorial, unlike the anonymous ashes blown on the wind from the belching chimneys at the death camps. The brass plaques in the cobbles outside the houses where they lived at least bear their names.

The Jewish cemetery

Strange. When we started this trip, one of the reasons was to take the extension into Poland and Germany. Auschwitz was on my bucket list, but long before we reached there the spectre of those events seemed to beckon us on. Starting with the book burnings in the square at Bonn.

One other thing Raul said has stuck with me. I’d always thought Miltenberg had been rescued by the rise in tourism along the river. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s plenty of work in light industry in the Main valley, unemployment is low. Nobody lives in Miltenberg’s old town anymore. All the ground floors of the buildings are shops and all the upper stories are empty. The cost of renovating these old heritage-listed buildings for 21st century living would be astronomical, and even with modern flood walls, the danger from the rising river waters is always there. So when the tourists leave, the street is empty.

People living in the surrounding villages don’t want the tourists, thanks. The buses hardly fit the narrow streets and the increased traffic belches fumes that damage the old buildings and help to break down what had been an idyllic way of life. That meshed nicely with what we’d heard in the Rhine gorge. Fewer and fewer vines are being planted. Each year the harvest is less. The work is back-breaking and hard to automate, and the young people are moving to the cities. It’s as if the boats cruising down the great European rivers are catching a last glimpse of something that is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Raul in the old town square

A more modern monument, celebrating (I think) the town’s nickname. Grown up versions of Brussels’ mannekin pis

Swans. There are always swans

Batavia’s Graveyard is being excavated at last #history

TDADD-ebook-webIt’s been a while since I wrote a Batavia post. It has also been a while since Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard) has been vacated and the fishing shacks removed. With those impediments to a proper investigation out of the way, teams of archaeologists and anthropologists are getting down and dirty, excavating the island for more skeletal remains from 1629, in the aftermath of the ordeal faced by the survivors from the wreck of the Batavia. If you’re not familiar with the story, please check out my historical fiction page, or make a note to do it later.

Here are three articles from the team working on the island.

Fragments point to more skeletons being discovered on island after Batavia shipwreck

Unearthed grave sheds light on Batavia shipwreck mass murder

Batavia mutiny: More human remains uncovered by archaeologists at Beacon Island

I’m hoping the searchers find the remains of the predikant’s family. (Predikant is the Dutch word for pastor) In one horrifying night the predikant’s wife, six of their seven children, and their maid, were slaughtered by men acting on the orders of Jeronimus Cornelisz, leader of the gang controlling the island. The predikant and his oldest daughter were spared – the daughter because she was desired by Cornelisz’s lieutenant and the predikant because he might prove to be useful. Pelsaert’s journal records that the bodies were dumped in a mass grave on the island.

It seems 13 bodies have been found so far. When you consider that many of the victims – numbering around one hundred – were drowned, or their bodies thrown into the sea – that’s a good start.

Here’s a short excerpt from my book To Die a Dry Death. The predikant (Batiaensz) and his daughter Judyck are dining with Cornelisz, his lieutenenant (van Huyssen) and Lucretia. Cornelisz and van Hussen have been talking about hunting with hawks, back in Holland.

________________________________________

Lucretia sipped her wine. Hunting. The animals they chased with hawks were almost as defenceless as the poor people on this island. She heard noises, muffled voices in the night. The cold of dread froze her hand. A woman’s cry, abruptly ended. Then a high-pitched scream that curdled the blood, as quickly silenced.

Judyck jerked to her feet, lips parted, eyes staring. “Roelant.”

Van Huyssen pulled her down. “It’s nothing, dearest. Not your concern.”

“That was Roelant. I’d know his voice anywhere.” Judyck pulled away from van Huyssen, but he held her fast.

“Not your concern,” he said again, the words sharp, commanding.

Lucretia caught the girl’s eye. Hopeless terror. Not fear for herself, but for the child. She wondered if Bastiaensz would say anything but he sat rigid, watery eyes fixed on Cornelisz.

Cornelisz ignored him, ignored Judyck and continued the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. “Did you catch hares, rabbits?”

Chuckles from outside, voices muttered. Lucretia was sure she’d heard Mayken’s name. The knot in her stomach twisted, tightened. Silent, appalled, she signalled to Judyck with the barest shake of her head. Say nothing, stay still.

“With snares.” Van Huyssen kept his hand tight on Judyck’s arm. “Although sometimes we let the dogs loose and let them run. Often, there isn’t much left when they bring the prey back, all battered and bloody.”

Somewhere in the settlement, a scream swiftly ended in a gurgle.

A triumph for an amateur historian

This hole is the exact spot where the Batavia lay

This hole is the exact spot where the Batavia lay

Fifty years ago, the last resting place of the Dutch merchantman Batavia, which hit a reef on the Abrolhos islands off the coast of Western Australia in 1629, was finally found.

Fifty years. It had taken three hundred and eighty-four years before the wreck was finally found. It wasn’t as if the incident hadn’t been recorded. It wasn’t as if nobody went looking. In fact, a number of times people thought they’d actually found the right wreck. That’s how the Abrolhos’s Pelsaert Group got its name – people thought that’s where the Batavia lay. I must say, it seems odd that anyone believed something so obviously incorrect. The Zeewyck went down in the Pelsaert group in 1727, almost one hundred years after the Batavia. The Batavia could not have carried coins minted after 1629, which (of course) the Zeewyck did.

So why was it so hard to find the Batavia‘s wreck site? In a word, longitude. No precise method of calculating longitude was available until the late 1700s at best. I had a few things to say about longitude and how the Batavia was wrecked, here. However, mariners always attempted to record latitude and longitude for specific locations, and Adriaen Jacobsz, captain of the Batavia, was no exception. He recorded the location of the wreck as best he could. But he was wrong, so the ship’s hulk disappeared into the reef, becoming a home for sea creatures. The Abrolhos Islands themselves continued to be a hazard for sailors. As mentioned, at least one other Dutch ship, and many other vessels, were lost on these wind-swept islands, their surfaces just a few meters above the sea.

For several centuries the islands were left to the sea birds and the ghosts. Then fishermen from Geraldton, the closest town on the mainland, discovered that the warm Leeuwin current flows through these islands. Corals grow there, and pearls. Fish abound, along with the much sought-after rock lobster, known in the West as crayfish. The fishermen established fishing shacks in the Wallabi Group for the few months of the cray fishing season, but other than that, the islands kept their secrets to themselves. My guess is that the fishermen knew very well about the wreck on Morning Reef. On a clear, calm day they would have been able to see the shapes of the cannons and the tell-tale timbers. But they kept that information to themselves.

Beacon island, Traitor's Island and Morning Reef from the air

Beacon island, Traitor’s Island and Morning Reef from the air.

The person who finally told the world where the Batavia lay was Henrietta Drake-Brockman. Born into a prominent pastoral family in the Geraldton area, she researched the events surrounding the shipwreck there in 1629. She had Pelsaert’s journal translated into English, contacted Jakarta and Amsterdam for more information and – most importantly – she thought about what she’d read. She obtained a copy of Predikant Bastiaenz’s letter after his rescue, in which he described the locations he’d visited during his ordeal. From those descriptions Henrietta identified Beacon Island as the journal’s Batavia’s Graveyard. And from Bastiaenz’s remarks about sitting on a little beach from which he could see the Batavia’s two remaining masts jutting above the reef, she knew the ship was on Morning Reef.

In 1963 a team of divers, accompanied by a local fisherman, finally found the wreck site, and told the world, an absolute triumph for an amateur historian. Henrietta died not long after her book about the tragedy, Voyage to Disaster, was published in 1968.

Since the discovery, many artefacts from the vessel have been raised and brought to Fremantle’s Maritime Museum. Beacon Island’s shacks are finally deserted. Soon archaeologists will be able to excavate Beacon Island properly. I’m certain there will be more to find.

If you’d like to read more about the Abrolhos islands, I talk about my visit there, here. Do take a look at my novelisation of the wreck of the Batavia, and the fascinating, gruesome, aftermath, To Die a Dry Death.

Using real history as a plot. Not as easy as it sounds?

Picture of Historia

From Wikipedia

It’s time to start a new writing adventure, face the cold, blank screen and begin. For me, it’s the hardest part of the whole process – the empty page. Once something – anything – is down, words are written, then you can read them back and change them, because the thought is there, translated into words.

In a way, this book should be easy, because I know the whole plot. It’s based on historical fact, a real life drama translated into a whole new setting. But is it really so easy?

Sure, I know what happens, but the essence of a good story is not the dry-as-dust facts, it’s the WHY. Why did the characters do that? What was their motivation? It’s the difference between learning a bunch of dates in history class, and learning the story of what happened.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. My first published novel was historical fiction, a dramatisation, if you will, of real events, acts carried out by real people. You can find out more about the book here. The point, though, is that working out why something happened at a particular time isn’t always easy. In a history book you can write that the bad guys delayed their attack for a month. It’s a fact. It happened. But fiction isn’t like that. You’re in your character’s head. You have to have a very good reason why he would delay his attack. Your readers will demand it. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s true. Your plot must be plausible, you must write the events so they make sense in every way – in how your characters speak and react, what they wear, what they believe or fear.

I had to take all those things into consideration when I wrote “To Die a Dry Death” and believe me, at times it wasn’t easy. This time, I’m not going to be writing a dramatisation, using the real people in the real setting. I’m grabbing a story from history and setting it in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a Long, Long Time in the Future. In that respect, the journey will be a little easier. But I know it won’t be as easy as join the dots or colour by numbers.

Have any of you done something like this? What was hard? What was easy?

Forget about Hallowe’en – it’s nearly Cup day

Poster for Melbourne cup dayHallowe’en is no big deal in Australia – despite the best attempts by the retail stores. No, we set our sights on much more important matters than the Day of the Dead. Next Tuesday, the first Tuesday in November, the Melbourne Cup will be run and won. It’s a horse race, dare I say one of the most famous handicaps in the world. Run over 3200 metres (2 miles), these days it attracts stayers from around the world. But we’re a parochial bunch in Oz and we always prefer our own to win.

Australia has a love affair with sport, and horse racing gets a gig in the calendar all its own. Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival fits in nicely between the end of the football season (AFL and rugby league) and the beginning of the cricket. They run the Oaks, the Derby, the MacKinnon Stakes. But the Melbourne Cup’s the thing. They say it’s the race that stops a nation – and believe me, it does. Melbourne has a holiday on Cup day and for any other places, it might as well be. Restaurants, pubs and clubs around the country have Cup Day lunches, where you wine and dine and watch the Cup on the big screen. Even if you have to go to work, there’ll be a special spread of chicken and champagne and you’ll gather around a TV for the ten minutes it takes for the starters to go out on the course, run the race and return to scale. You’ll find a Cup sweep in every tin-pot country town, Aussies all over the world collecting in pubs and bars or around a tinny radio if there isn’t anything else. And for many, many people, it’s the only day in the year they’ll bet on a race. Forget about the form guide. What colours is the jockey wearing? What number is on the saddle cloth? What was last night’s dream about?

The popularity of this horse race is immense. The crowd on race day is expected to be over 100,000 people. That says something in itself, in a city with a population of about 4 million. But the first time the crowd stood at 100,000 was in 1926, when Melbourne’s population hadn’t quite reached 1 million. Think on that. One person in every ten was at Flemington racecourse at around 2pm on the first Tuesday in November.

So all you folks around the world, if you can’t get much sense out of an Aussie mid-afternoon next Tuesday (Eastern Daylight saving time), you’ll know why. Raise your champers, say ‘cheers’ and join the race that stops a nation.

Do you guys have anything similar? Please share.