Unter den Deutschen – Among the Germans: 4. Standing on Hitler’s Grave.

These are my last two days in Berlin: by this time Wednesday 28 January I will be in the air en route to Frankfurt to catch the flight home. It’s been a quite a ride and no more so than this last week when I bussed to Dresden, took a 100-year old US flag back to the city from which my great uncle Ulysses Bywater had removed it from the roof of the American  Consulate in 1912, and presented it to Holger Starke, a surprised and delighted historian at the Stadtmuseum in Wilsdorfer Strasse.

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The 45 Star Old Glory.

I also got to sit in the magical restored Frauenkirche and have my soul and all my senses drenched in the most celestial organ music I have ever felt. I say felt and not heard as its sublime power went right through me and rendered me silent and still, like all the other visitors. If ever a city underwent a resurrection, it is this one, burned rubble in February 1945 and strewn with charred human remains; today, an island of peace, even amidst the rumblings of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration activists, Pegida.

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In the Frauenkirche

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Lovely old Deutsche Post box, Dresden.

Back in Berlin on Thursday, I was getting ready for a trip on Saturday to Wolfenbuttel with Konrad and Gaby, who wanted to show me around the famous August Herzog Bibliotek and the Lessing Museum nearby. I was probably a bit worn out for another big day on the road and it did prove stressful, but well worth the journey. We even saw the sun and blue sky after passing through what were the two checkpoints Berliners had to get through until 1989, if they wanted to visit West Germany.

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August Herzog under snow, Wolfebuttel.

My hosts remember the Cold War only too well. Konrad was hired to work in the Ministry of Education in Berlin in 1969, the first Federal German agency inside the encircled city. The Russians responded to this “provocation” by flying Mig jet fighters over the city and above the Ministry building, breaking the sound barrier high above as well, in a pointed message that they were not to be trifled with. We forget this time now, when so many fingers were on hair trigger.

Back from the Bibliotek – a bibliophile’s heaven of ancient printed and handwritten manuscripts,  delighting also in snowfall that whited the town – I was ready for Sunday and a trip to the Grunewaldkirche with my new friends, Rainer the veterinarian and Alexandra, his pianist wife. The service was being recorded for radio and the priest had emailled everyone to come and fill the church.

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Rainer and Alexandra on Teufelsberg.

During his sermon he mentioned the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer several times and questions to Rainer and Alexandra revealed that the young Bonhoeffer had been confirmed there with his sister in 1921, the family living nearby in Wagenheimer Strasse 14 (where I determined to go if I could). Here was a man who confronted the Nazi evil head on and paid the price, suffering death by hanging in 1945 when the war was all but over. His memory is a shining star in that long night of darkness.

The next – and last – visit to a site of great interest was to be Teufelsberg, the famous mountain and Cold War spy station run by the American NSA to track Soviet bloc communications. A graffitied ruin now, in those days it kept watch over what Moscow and its satellites in the East were up to. Abandoned and sold to developers after the Wall fell in 1989, it proved to be a major commercial failure as none of the projected apartments were completed and sold and its promoters went bust – then the spray can tribe moved in.

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There is a locked gate there now and a couple who act as caretakers. Rainer has privileged access as the vet who looks after the three dogs that guard the fort these days, a Rottwieler, a Dobermann and a little Schnauzer. We drove straight in and took a guided tour through a labyrinth of dark concrete corridors and cold bleak stairways, every available surface so choked with graffiti that it resembled the set of some dystopian epic, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

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We made it to the top, freezing, looking out not on Berlin but on a blanketing canvas of swirling mist. It was time to go and find the dogs and give them their injections. The caretaker and his partner live inside the Minotaur’s cave like postmodern techno-hippies. You really would have to love the lifestyle to survive up there in winter. Confidences preclude any further revelations of their privacy, but the coffee was great and the atmosphere in the bunker – out of this world.

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As we left, Rainer pointed out to me a small series of what looked like porcelain figures, white flowers on the wire that upheld them. He told me it was a memorial to the Trummerfrauen, the German women of Berlin wh0 cleared away the millions of tons of rubble that the Allied bombing campaign had  reduced their city to.

This then was not a natural rise. It consisted of 20 million tons of bomb-broken stone, brick and concrete that was trucked to Teufelsberg from the war’s end until 1972. The Americans had built their spy base on top of it, on top of a site where Hitler himself had laid the foundation stone of a never to be completed military school. This was Berlin’s wartime graveyard and the grave of Hitler’s dreams.

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This was a good place to end my journey, overlooking a city and a people I have come to embrace in the past three months, upending my old stereotypes,  showering me with goodness and human stories.  Berlin! Berlin! as Tucholsky saw it was a place not to be resisted or ignored. Standing silent today before Bonhoeffer’s house in Grunewald, my prayer was for them, as much as myself. The good Germans.

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Konrad and Gaby Kutt, Grunewald, my peerless Berlin hosts.

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Unter den Deutschen – Among the German: 3. Moin, moin, Hamburg!

The broken umbrellas of Hamburg would have been a good title for what might be my last post from Germany, as time is running out and I leave in just over a fortnight with some writing to do and some visits to make: hopefully to Dresden and maybe, Gottingen. But last weekend it was Hamburg, my first real trip in the pursuit of material somewhere that I knew for sure my quarry had lived, at least until 1928, at Klosterallee 20. What I was to find – in the teeth of a powerful North Sea storm that battered us the entire weekend – was broken umbrellas.

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Another victim, this time near Alexanderplatz in Berlin.

Since my course at the Goethe-Institut had ended on 18 December and the following day I had flown to England on Germanwings from Texel, travel and family connections had been uppermost in my mind. I had first stayed with my friend Paul Ewen and his family in Denmark Hill after a baptism of commuter fire at Paddington Station fresh off the Heathrow Express. After Berlin railway stations, it seemed like I had entered a feeding frenzy of bluefin tuna, swarming around me from every direction. Welcome back said London and gave me a shove.

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Paul playing with Violet and Vincent.

Paul, who I have only known for just over a year is a sublimely talented satirist and his rightly acclaimed spoof on the Booker and literary prize industry in general is too funny for words. I have – truly – never laughed so loud or so long and almost choked trying not to on the flight back to Germany ten days later. Seek out “How to be a Public Author” and see for yourself. His family – wife Linda, children Violet and Vincent – were delightful and it was sweet to lean back into their hospitality in a London ex-pat household, with Hotere and McCahon on opposite walls of the living room where I slept on the fold-out couch.

2014-12-21 06.47.15The Ewen Gallery, Denmark Hill.

After two nights of R&R I headed off to Woking and an evening with my cousin Jen; the afternoon though was spent with us taking my other cousin Gary from another Holman branch to see his 90 year old father Colin in a Haslemere rest home. We joined in a Fawlty Tower-esque set of Christmas carols with a brass band in one room just visible but highly audible, as Colin sang away to himself, a sweet sound, a song known there and then to no-one but him.

I pressed on the following day to Chesham in Buckinghamshire were another long lost family member awaited: Clive Newlands, the grandson of my famous great uncle Hector Bywater and my second cousin, if I have this whakapapa correctly grasped. I had contacted him from New Zealand earlier in the year as I searched for any family members who might know anything about great aunt Lillian and Carl Hasenburg – but he had nothing at all.

In fact, he hardly knew anything of the wider Bywater connections: his mother, Sylvia, had said very little about her family; he knew of but had never met her brother, his uncle Robin who had wonderfully written to me in 1990 when I had discovered his existence through reading Bill Honan’s book on his legendary father, Hector. If not for Robin’s letter, I would never have known of Carl’s Jewish ancestry, his death at the hands of the Nazis nor Lillian’s repatriation from Germany back to England during the war.

We spent a wonderful evening together with his wife Pat comparing notes, meeting his brother Nick, a cousin and their wives, Pat’s daughter and her Irish boyfriend. They put on pre-Christmas feast which was as good the one on the 25th when it came, and the next morning drove me to a pub lunch at England’s oldest ale house, the 900-year veteran, The Royal Standard of England near Beaconsfield, before dropping me off for my next trip, down the Sussex coast to Selsey.

2014-12-23 13.56.37A memento mori near the door: “Last Orders, Please!”

My time at Selsey was with family connections from my first marriage: I had been the best man when Tony and Kate Grant got married and we’d stayed in touch ever since, with a few gaps. They were my down home Christmas hosts and we had a great time catching up, watching Tony feed his flock of seagulls every morning and sympathizing with him as his once great West Indian cricket team gave him the Jamaican blues with a series of dropped catches against South Africa.

2014-12-30 09.45.53Stephen Seagull rules the roost.

Next stop in the whistlestop tour was Poole and my elderly auntie Pat who is now also in a rest home, not very far from the house she lived in for many years in Broadstone so she can still wander around and visit her neighbours. She was – as I would be too in the same situation – very happy to see me and we spent three precious hours in her upstairs room catching up with my family news and me milking her memories of the Holman clan of Southwark, the ageing aunts and grannies of a long gone era before the Second World War when they lived poor but close and formed deep bonds. She may not have been pining for the harsher side of that era but she conveyed to me something of what our affluence has cost us in loss of community. No sentimental “poor but happy”; rather, “poor and connected”.

2014-12-27 15.07.51Pat Snow, my English aunt with the merino wrap I took for her.

By five pm, my next ride was at the door: Jeremy Windust, a union organiser and secretary of the RBA in the 1990s when I worked for Waterstones Booksellers on Charing Cross Road and was for quite a few of those years a delegate for the London M25 area. We too had stayed in sporadic contact, kept alive by our mutual love of Bob Dylan’s music; he’s way deeper in that fan culture and the musical element than I am, but we follow His Bobness through thick and thin with eyes and ears wide open. I said farewell to my auntie and we drove off down to Weynouth for my furthest reach south before I was to turn around and head back to Selsey.

2014-12-29 09.06.43 HDRSunderland Flying Boat, “The Last Patrol”.

Jeremy’s Dad flew Sunderlands off West Africa during the war, which is one more thing we have in common, a love of planes and this big boat especially. I have been spoiled that way on this trip as Clive in Chesham loves flight too and as a boarder in England flying from Nigeria to London every year, more than once over his years of schooling he got to fly in some very exotic types, including a Boeing Stratocruiser, a postwar airliner based on the B-29 atom bomber. So two more days passed in seaside mode as I was treated to pub lunches and a walk on the famous Chesil Beach at sunset. Magic.

2014-12-28 15.53.42How Maui actually caught the sun: pebble, hole, light.

My time there was too soon over and it was back to a brief stopover in Selsey on the way north to a four day hotel stay at the Arora near Heathrow, chosen for its price (excellent), its proximity to the airport when it did come time to leave (convenient) and its halfway point location between central London and a trip I wanted to make to see Jacqui, another old friend from London days now living in Reading.

That was sorted through a National Express bus trip there and the kind offer of a ride back to Heathrow with her daughter and family who turned up for tea in the evening after her Mum and I had had a few hours to touch base and reconnect. It was another special encounter with much to share, but by this time, I was getting very low on battery power and needed to chill out the next day. I was simply peopled out and exhausted, and still had a couple more dates on my dance card and a visit to the National Archives in Kew, in search of Lillian’s time on the Isle of Man as an internee during the war.

2015-01-02 10.05.12Entrance to The National Archives, Kew Gardens.

That was to prove a little frustrating: no trace of her and then to discover that very few of the internees are recorded in what the NA holds; it would be more fruitful to chase the Isle of Man government sources, the helpful man from Lower Hutt New Zealand informed me from behind the bookshop counter. I suspect he knows more than a lot of the archvists. I bought a book from him, “How To Research Your German Ancestors” and left after photographing some files in the archives about Hector Bywater’s hassles with the Foreign Office as he tried to prove he was actually a British citizen, not an American (a fake US birth created for him by his brother Ulysses in the American Consulate in Dresden, so Hector could carry out his espionage activities in Germany and not be taken for being British). Hector was granted the “favour”in the end but it was obvious there was no love lost between officialdom and my great uncle once the war was over.

2015-01-02 13.06.07The end of the Bywater file.

My last two contacts were an old AA friend from London days who of course must remain anonymous here, but I did have a really amazing encounter after a central city meeting with someone who had actually been enrolled as an “enemy alien” during the war, but as a child was not sent to an internment camp. He did recall going to the Aliens Registration Office at 16 Bloomsbury Square, being registered and sent home. My other hoped-for contact, the son of the Czech Jewish obstetrician who had delivered my brother in February 1946 and saved my mother from dying from pregnancy toxaemia, was not to be. Maybe next year.

So it was back to Berlin after four very handy days in the airport hotel, with free buses taking me a ten minute ride to Terminals 1,2 and 3 where I could either catch a flight or a  the Tube into town. We had a bit of flight delay as Germanwings were clipped by the delays of incoming flights due to fog, but by midnight I was back in Berlin, zipping home in Konrad’s black VW Golf and very pleased to be in a German language zone again, as I’d been losing the little I had, I knew it. The next step was to get some good sleep and prepare to go to Hamburg the following weekend.

2015-01-07 05.56.10 HDRWelcome home and goodbye: the Kutts head to Norway.

No sooner was I back than the globetrotting Kutts were off to a conference in Norway and a holiday in the fjords near Stavanger, but not before Konrad had framed a couple of my Phantom Billstickers’ poster poems to hang on the wall for the upcoming Hauskonzertt they are planning for January the 16th. They are hosting Katsuya Watanabe, a Japanese oboist and Ulugbek Palvanov, a pianist from Uzbekistan. Into this illustrious lineup they have invited me to read some poetry and enjoy the experience of seeing them hanging on the walls with their art collection that fills the house. They are such an inspiring couple.

2015-01-07 05.55.02The hanging poems of Grunewald.

So to Thursday and the bus journey to Hamburg: it worked a treat, with plenty of room, only three hours whizzing along the autobahn passing and being passed at speed, arriving in the city as the rains began. I foolishly opted to walk the 1.5km to the A&O Hostel as the rain set in and soaked me on what would prove to be a stormy weekend. The night on the third floor was not much better as traffic noise finally drove me at 11pm for ask for another room. I went from 337 to 814 and the noise abated. Sleep was pretty much wrecked by then, but I survived a rocky landing into Hamburg in search of my Hasenburgs.

2015-01-08 10.19.24Flash Berlinlinien bus about to leave Messe Nord.

The next morning, I waited in my room for Kate to arrive, my German friend who had stayed with us in Christchurch last year and promised to help me with translation when I needed it in Germany on my research trips out of Berlin. She is a professional translator now training to be an interpreter at a college in Mannheim and she had travelled all that way by bus too, overnight. Once we had connected, it was time to make our way over to the Staatsarchiv where we had arranged to meet Manuel, a friend of Kate’s friend Britta who I knew from Berlin. He was a committed and expert genealogist, an engineer by profession who had taken a day off work to help me. Just look at the kindness of these people, children of a nation I had been trained to distrust and fear.

Manuel was quiet, shy and as they say here, “so freundlich” – so kind. He and Kate noted the remarks of our expert adviser and he went to work on the files in the system, making a copy for me of all the relevant numbers we would have to pull up later. The catch was, anything required had to be ordered for the following day, in this case Saturday and they were closed. I was leaving on Monday, so – I would have to come back. We sat in the cloakroom with cheap coffees and decided that we could do no more and it was time for lunch. Would he suggest somewhere local: indeed. Would he join us: of course. We shared and excellent meal in a spacious Tex-Mex restaurant that could have been anywhere in the world except for the German spoken all around me.

2015-01-09 13.14.50Staatsarchiv, Hamburg, home of the municipal records.

Manuel departed, promising to do some more work on the Hasenburgs for me in the old telephone directories of homes and businesses and being more than willing if I did come back in July as I am planning. Kate and I went sightseeing in the rain down on the canals of the waterfront, only turned back from some fascinating and delightful architecture by the gathering storm that was filling the rubbish bins of Hamburg with hundreds of dead, skeletal umbrellas, their pretty canopies ripped to shreds and their spines sticking up like fishbones.

He later sent me both an PDF with dates of Carl’s addresses in Hamburg from 1924 to 1931 – and an invitation for Kate and I to visit for coffee the next day, Saturday. The wind and rain had dashed their plans for an outing, along with smashing all those pretty brollies ( a new English word I taught Kate). So that was just what we did, after another sight-seeing jaunt to the famous church of St Michelis, chased hither and thither by the the moody weather. Kate lit a candle for her grandmother while I took in the international Holy Family with its Japanese baby Jesus and multi-national Three Wise Men. In view of the current Islamophobia sweeping the West, it was nice to see an Arab sage worshipping a Christ figure wrapped in a tiny yukata gown.

2015-01-10 11.28.26Early manifestation of inter-faith worship.

The afternoon with Manuel, Helena and the delightful three year old Louise capped off a difficult but richly endowed weekend. No, we had not seemingly struck oil, but we were now pretty certain Carl – and Lillian? – left Klosterallee 20 in 1931 and one or both of them left Hamburg. The Crash and the Depression may well have killed Carl’s rubber business: he had gone from a partnership in 1924 (Hasenburg & Lerch) to working from home by 1931. He might just have had to go elsewhere for work. That was a result: more facts to work with.

Then there was the prospect of contact the Hamburg Jewish Genealogy Group when I got back to Berlin, Kate’s offer to contact the authorities in the locality where Carl was born and Manuel’s offers of future help. I gave him a copy of one of my poetry books, Autumn Waiata and promised more. I also left him a copy of the pages of my grandmother’s address book, which had the name of the woman whose nearby house they lived in after they left Klosterallee: Frau Bosche of Mundsburgerdamm 25.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERACarl Hasenburg, 1875 -.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERALillian Hasenburg (nee Bywater), 1877-.

Manuel has since been in touch with the information that Frau Bosche – and I assume any Hasenburgs with her – left that address after 1934. The pieces come together: last night I kept hearing “Wuppertal” in my broken early morning visions. The broken umbrellas of Hamburg. The abandoned shelters of my ancestors, the whispers of their vanished dreams.

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Unter den Deutschen – amongst the Germans: 2. Gib Gummi.

It feels a little strange to write a blog with a title that tells you to where to put your chewing gum (“Gib Gummi”), but this was small moment of triumph on a bad day for my language learning. We had been studying the emphatic form, where an order is given and as I walked down Barbarossa Strasse on my way to meet some friends,  saw this bright orange rubbish bin with that same form of words used to say, “do this!”

2014-11-29 11.51.53Using the polite form in the second line, “bitte”.

So from a public message about where Berliners should dispose of their chewing gum, I was given a small boost after a lesson that had begun badly and gone downhill. It is not wise to be responding to Viber messages from home as the teacher begins speaking in German with the first volley of instructions for the day (this applies even if a loved one is locked out in the rain, and asks where is the spare key, and you can’t remember). I was, in a word, distracted.

Of course, this was not the cause of my struggles: I am not as good as I thought I might be at this language learning today, seventeen years after starting to learn Maori at the age of fifty. I have lost a bit of top edge since then and three years plus of earthquake-related PTSD, which has re-activated my childhood stuff, leaving me a little the worse for wear in the retention of new knowledge, viz, complex German grammar formulations.

 Our teacher believes – probably quite rightly – that German is a more logical language than English (yes, we were learning the Komparativ form today). Sadly, my aging brain learned that illogical language as I drank my mother’s milk; it seems that these neural pathways deep in my brain actually consider that German is illogical and continually attempt to push Deutsch into Englisch. As well, Maori in there too slides in helpfully and provides conjunctions etc, in a process known as “code switching”.

It’s all a bit bewildering at times and I know I’m not the only one having a few problems; but with only two weeks left, it is a bit late to accept the offer of switching to a one-to-one coaching class and anyway, I like my fellow students and I don’t want to be a quitter. I managed to buy my Monatskarte for December travel at the Hauptbahnhof yesterday in an exchange of Deutsch which seemed to satisfy the teller (he didn’t switch to English, which is what happens as soon as you stumble).

2014-11-01 12.40.44Berlin Hauptbahnhof – main station.

One of the most helpful things that has happened however has not been the injuries to my ego, which are salutary, but the experience of feeling lost, confused, angry at times and at others, wanting to give up and go home. Yes, I am a adult leaving middle age, but no,  this does not mean I have no access to child-like states of mind if I am reduced to a vulnerable state by circumstances.

This was especially true at the start of the course when I was jet-lagged and for the first fortnight, sleep-deprived. I could barely concentrate in the first week and only at the end of the second, did I begin to feel remotely human. Mix in culture shock and these were not ideal conditions, followed in the fourth week by a nasty cold that drained me and is still in no hurry to leave.

To all this, add now freezing temperatures and a knife-edged wind and there is good cause to  make a few allowances for oneself – except that my habitual default setting is to beat up on my “failings”. Nature took over last week and I became so overwrought I had to leave the class and flee to the toilet where I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

2014-11-22 11.45.29Statue on fence near children’s playground, Eisenacher Strasse.

I am placing this sequence of events under the microscope not to elicit sympathy – while of course not refusing any – but to make a point about some other language learners whose plight became much clearer to me as a result of these experiences. I’m talking about the generations of Maori children in New Zealand from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth who in rural areas where most of them lived after the Land Wars went to school speaking their native language and were forbidden to use it, and often punished when they did.

I had read about this many times and was well aware it had happened; I was also aware of the downstream effects of the colonial culture on Maori society and gave intellectual assent to the sins of my forefathers and my own, as a benefactor of colonisation. What I had never felt however, was what it might feel like to sense yourself a fool trapped in your mother tongue, unable to comprehend the language of power.

2014-11-29 11.35.40 HDRPaora Tuhaere, 1985, by Gottfried Lindauer.

In this painting of a powerful chief, the Bohemian painter Lindauer has captured a vanishing world and certainly, the subject would have dressed in traditional garb for the portrait and then walked out of the studio in his usual clothes. But his children and grandchildren, if any, were being educated in the Native Schools; they would have walked into those places as themselves and left as somebody else.

The experience of feeling overwhelmed, unable to understand the voices controlling the classroom, confused, feeling anger and wanting to leave, withdrawing into passivity and finally, experiencing a lasting sense of failure and worthlessness – all these were carried from the schools to the homes to the wider society. It is called internalised oppression and it can be seen  at work throughout the colonial cultures of nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This set Maori on a course of generational failure in Western educational cultures which is only now being reversed and whose wounds still blight New Zealand’s image in an indictment that shows up in the statistics on imprisonment rates for Maori on a per capita basis compared to the Pakeha population: 15% of the population make up 50% of prisoners.

2014-11-16 13.41.19Electric fence, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Germany.

A prison is a prison is a prison after all, and while there is no direct comparison between the camps in Germany during the Nazi era and New Zealand prisons today, there is still a political element in this grossly unbalanced incarceration rate of Maori prisoners that speaks to me of the undeclared war on Maori language and culture that was prosecuted by the settler government on behalf of the European inhabitants who largely dispossessed and displaced the indigenous people of New Zealand in the second half of the nineteenth century.

That this process can be seen to be ongoing and not yet resolved, in spite of the many worthwhile and positive steps taken in the recent history of Treaty settlements, is an effect of all those children entering all those schools; leaving feeling defeated and second rate, then passing on to their children – and them to theirs – a deep seated distrust of the Pakeha system and a belief that they could not succeed in a society ruled by the English language that plainly had no respect for theirs.

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How amazing then that since the 1970s and 1980s, Maori have fought back against this demoralisation and discrimination to set in train a true renaissance, a resistance to loss and assimilation. I can never feel what they have felt, but my experience in this language class in Berlin over the past five weeks has opened my door just a few inches more, helping me to imagine what it must have been like to have your own words stolen right out of your mouth.

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Unter den Deutschen – amongst the Germans: 1. Sachsenhausen.

It’s been over three weeks now since I arrived and began to fall in love with Berlin  and enjoy the street life and style of the Berliners. As I struggle with their language in my classes, I live a little like one of them: catching the S-Bahn, arriving at my station Hackescher Markt, buying a coffee at the Steinecke Backen shop on the corner and making my way down the street to the Goethe-Institut for another day of my studies, staggering out after five intensive hours of Deutsch lernen, grabbing a donor kebab and maybe joining the shopping crowds at Alexanderplatz under that phallic rocket-age former Communist spire, the Fernstehturm, a television tower built between 1965 and 1969, still the tallest building in Germany at 368 metres, complete with a beacon to warn low-flying aircraft and of course a revolving restaurant.

2014-11-07 08.10.00The tower from Hackescher Markt.

It hardly seems an act of appreciation then to begin my reflections on being here with an account of a trip to Sachenshausen concentration camp, the first of a deadly series of prisons, interrogation centres, work camps and finally, extermination factories designed to eliminate anyone the Nazis chose as undesirables  and un-German.  From the moment Hitler gained power in 1933 and quickly dissolved the Reichstag, declared himself sole leader of the German people and began to persecute and murder the Jews, his political opponents and a range of other victims from church leaders, intellectuals, gypsies and the gay community, a total revaluation of values was set in motion and the rich inheritance of German culture was all but dissolved.

 I had previously been to Theresienstadt/Terezin in what was still Czechoslovakia back in 1993, so it was not as if I needed proof – as if proof were needed – that the Holocaust deniers and the neo-fascists of today required me to gainsay them. I went because like anywhere, history is always present and a people and a culture cannot be understood if that present past is ignored. It was really all about our shared humanity, of what we all might do, given the right set of circumstances. I am going to let the pictures, mostly, speak for themselves.

P1020773Arriving at Oranienburg, as the prisoners did from 1933 onwards.

P1020776At the gates under grey, drizzly Sunday skies that seemed apt.

P1020780The original welcoming committee.

P1020778The survival kit and the star.

P1020785Archaeological traces of imprisonment.

P1020788The death march when the camp was cleared in April 1945.

P1020795Detail from a memorial to victims from Luxembourg.

P1020804Falling human sculpture in memorial forest.

P1020824The deadly irony of the entrance gate.

P1020828The electric fence.

P1020831A wash handbasin in the deserted infirmary, a former mortuary.

P1020835Smoke from the present boiler room has an ominous echo.

P1020853A local boy from the town is groomed for Hitler’s war ahead.

P1020855A neolithic adze found by a slave labour work gang outside the camp.

By the end of my time there, I felt like a tourist in a past hell I would never comprehend, yet must approach and come as near as I could to what was, in case it once more became what is, right next door to me.

In the Visitor Centre, amongst the books for sale I was drawn to a very remarkable memoir by Otto Dov Kulka, an 80-year old survivor of Auschwitz who as a ten year old Czech Jew was taken to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt and survived seven months in that hell and the death march when the camp was liquidated.

I have not yet finished it but it is a remarkable and chilling first person account by a man who as a child lived in what he now calls ‘The Metropolis of Death’. His testimony also brings the reader face to face with the obvious: no one who knows what he knows and has been haunted by since 1944 could be other than alienated by the writings of others – like me – who really know nothing.

When he reads the conference papers of fellow academics (he moved to Israel postwar and became a respected historian), he writes,  “The only response I feel able to express is alienation; all that is authentic is the authenticity of the alienation”.  He cries out to us, “Therefore I ask: in what am I different? Something is wrong with me!” (80).

The opening epigraph is a paraphrase of a parable by Kafka: “there remained the inexplicable landscape of ruins. – History tries to explain the inexplicable. As it comes out of a truth-ground it must in turn end in the inexplicable”.

From Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, Otto Dov Kulka, Penguin (London: 2014).

He is right: history is ultimately inexplicable but in the present, I seem to need to make the attempt. For me it was never about ‘bad Germans’, more about damaged and damaging humans, human cruelty given full permission and absolute free rein. We could all – given the right training and opportunity – become SS guards. That we do not is more of grace than will.

Perhaps my journey to Sachsenhausen today was to find this man in his book, to hear a voice from that silence otherwise broken only by the calls of the black-and-grey suited nebelkrȁhe crows that strut over the waste spaces like the ominous guards of an ancient tomb.

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The Road to Berlin #3: on German soil.

I found myself in the company of Germans before I could get out of Singapore: a bunch of teens on a school trip surrounded me like a flock of boisterous chirping German birds. On the midnight flight they soon roosted while I dozed like some wary owl as the great Airbus 380 carved through both still and turbulent airs to land us safely and efficiently in Frankfurt. It was simple enough to find the Fernbahnhof and get a ticket to Frankfurt Main Station.

2014-10-27 08.26.57Frankfurt Hbf.

The journey from Frankfurt worked well once I found my seat; the ride wasn’t cheap at €120 even with the Goethe Institut discount. I had a conversation with a woman called Christine who works selling food handling equipment to airlines. She asked me what I did and so eventually she got the Hasenburg story. I was helped on the Berlin station by another guardian angel who showed me where to go and how to buy a ticket. People were so kind.

Only two S-Bahn stops to Hackescher Markt and I was at the Institut in ten minutes. Humping my suitcase on cobbles made me think of a visit to Prague 1999. I told the interviewer at the school that I was a raw beginner and was too jetlagged to sit the test so he gave in and put me down for Level One. I spoke to Petra in accounts about paying the travel repayment in cash and she agreed it would have been better to have given me the money in my bank in New Zealand, but some emails crossed. I hope to get my online German bank open soon; I sent away the documents today and once it is approved she can put the money in there.

I emailed Konrad my host that I was coming and he met me halfway down the street outside Grunewald station. He’s a lovely man of 72 with good English but he struggles to understand me unless I speak slowly. He made me coffee and we had some homemade biscuits. I will be living separately in this comfortable private upstairs room with a view of the large tree-lined garden in an old established well heeled area.

2014-11-07 16.40.40Konrad Kutt at the Rathenau Memorial, Grunewald.

He took me walking to Gleis 17, the memorial platform and tracks next to the present station where from October 1941 to March 1945, 50, 000 Berlin Jews were transported. He and his wife Gaby had pushed the railway company to do this against years of resistance, 1977-1998. They have a plaque on the wall outside my room, showing that six palms are planted for them in the Itzhak Rabin gardens in Israel. Truly they are righteous Gentiles.

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Konrad and I got on very well. I was absolutely buggered, but had to keep going and meet Gaby when she came home and cooked us a meal. She is lovely too, very warm and friendly and like Konrad a little less than fluent but hey, I have to learn German to make it easier for all of us! She cooked us a chicken and potato meal as a welcome, but from now on it is mostly self-catering.

I hit the sack soon as I could, crashed, woke at 2.30pm, went back to sleep, woke at 5.30 and had to stay awake as I needed to catch a train at 7.30 to get to the Institut at 8.15. I worked out the bathroom in my fog but with no coffee or any food up here, I had to go cold turkey till I got to the local Kaiser superette.  The Kutts were still asleep when I left. I had a coffee at the station to kick my batteries over (average, but mead of the gods to me by then).

I spoke German to the girl in the cafe and she understood. I asked a commuter which train was coming even though I knew the answer, because I mean to speak German as much I can. I got to Berlin early and had another coffee at the station (latte, below average). I made it to Goethe and found my name on the class list. In the classroom the teacher didn’t read my name out with the others (she wasn’t the teacher on the list I was on and so I’d been sent to the wrong room). It was like being back in the primers.

2014-10-31 08.14.26Goethe-Institut Neue Schonhauser Str 20 Berlin.

I found Room 102 and a met my new teacher, Nicole Braeuer who is very professional. This is a class of people from India to Benin, Brazil to Italy. Jacopo at my table was from Genoa: I think he’s Jewish and so I think is Rebecca from London (also at the same table). Jacopo is a rocket scientist (true!!) who resigned his job in Turin as he was bored. He wants to retrain in Berlin in sustainability engineering, the big thing here it seems.

The class is run very like the ones my wife teaches in New Zealand: lots of preparation, handouts, pairs and groups, intense and interactive. Damn near killed me! I was gasping by 10am at coffee break. We survived. At one point Nicole was watching me trying to do an exercise and I said, ‘Please go away, you are making me nervous’! I was just soooo tired.

I went to Alexanderplatz afterwards and posted my bank application, took in all the cycles (just like Holland, no helmets, all very casual). I looked at a cellphone to use here (this has way cheaper texts if you are using prepay) but the cashier refused Visa and MasterCard. Cash or American Express. Weird. Big store too, Saturn, Dick Smith on steroids. Will have another look when I get my €€ cash situation sorted.

I headed back to Grunewald and visited the memorial at the station for a second time, on my own in the light of day. I walked slowly, trying to take it in, as I took photographs of the fallen leaves on the plaques and the wilting roses left by pilgrims.

I went home via Kaisers again and shopped for some food for the night. I wasn’t hungry really so just snacked on cheese, crackers and toast. Hard to have an appetite after what I’d just walked over.

My visit to Gleis 17 is turning into a draft first chapter, The Jews of Grunewald. Walking along the station platform, with every transport to the east recorded, it is too hard to explain. What number of post-mortem words written by unrelated strangers can do justice to that number of deportations and deaths?

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You say it so easily, it slips off your tongue, fifty thousand, fifty thousand. You have reached the point where words fail and only silence has the power to speak.

2014-10-29 07.52.20“Stolpersteine” (stumbling block) cobblestone street memorial, Berlin.

These commemorate individuals outside their homes: in this case, Gisela Niegho, an infant who briefly lived near where I now study German and was deported to Auschwitz a babe in arms in 1943 and murdered.

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The Road to Berlin #2: The trail of the rubber seeds.

2014-10-24 14.42.48The Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Today was time to get on the trail of the rubber seeds that were brought here to Singapore in the 19th century after they’d been taken from Brazil years earlier, raised in Kew Gardens and then the seed of those seeds came here to be the progenitors of the world rubber industry and a vital strategic resource in the wars of the 2oth century.

2014-10-24 15.03.38Some of the original trees.

I’d been told that the trees were planted right here, before their seeds in turn were taken and planted in Malaya and what became Indonesia, in plantations that could be bled and milked like tame herds of cows. The trees in their natural state in Brazil’s rain forest were scattered and while they were tapped for rubber, it was on nothing like the scale that happened here. By the early 1900s, Malaya was producing 40% of the world’s rubber. No wonder the Japanese made sure they secured the supply in 1941.

2014-10-24 15.05.25Early plantation workers bleeding latex.

I took some pictures of the history on the panels and set off through the humid air into a garden of equatorial delights. There were plenty of diversions and distractions along the way to the Information Kiosk in the centre of the garden where I hoped to get some directions.

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It took me about half an hour of sweaty wanderings to find the man I needed to help me and yes, he assured me, the original trees were planted nearby and there was another ancient grove at the far end near the Tanglin Gate. I set off with his handy map.

2014-10-24 16.18.22Site of the first plantings.

I got to the place and as I didn’t quite know what a mature rubber tree looked like, I had to wait until someone from the Park staff came along. In the meantime, I watched two Indian workers clearing around some palms and baking in their uniforms with rubber boots to cook their poor feet. The man running the weed eater was dressed up like a bee keeper armoured against stings and he must have been roasting.

2014-10-24 15.57.22Roasted.

Finally, I saw an aged Chinese gentleman approaching with a broom and asked him where the tree was; he pointed it out and I confess I wouldn’t have guessed. A slow lazy lizard scuttled across my path as if to say, “Here be dragons”.

2014-10-24 16.04.49Once I got up close to the tree, there was an immediate giveaway: the angular slanting cut in the old bark, healed up now but a sure sign this rubber tree had at one time been bled of its latex riches and started a whole new industrial revolution that enabled motorised transport to encircle the globe on land and in the air.

2014-10-24 16.05.21So this was the natural resource, the wonder material that had brought my grandmother and my great aunt into contact with a German rubber company manager in Liverpool in 1898, Carl Hasenburg. Both of them would – according to my mother – bear him a son, my grandmother out of wedlock, my great aunt in.

2014-10-24 16.10.07A stroller takes time out to cool off by the lake.

This was the same substance that ruined my great grandfather’s fortunes during the great war. My grandmother told me often how they had lost their money when her father’s shares in a German Indonesian rubber company had been made worthless by the outbreak of hostilities. This is the trail I am following to Germany on Monday: it is pretty certain that he took these shares in some way connected to his German son-in-law’s presence in the Bywater family.

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The equatorial jungles have brought down many venture capitalists in their time and when men and nations fight over strategic resources, there must be losers. Here in this lush and well manicured park, it is hard to imagine that we would kill each other for a substance as harmless as latex, or risk our life’s savings on the produce of trees in far off gardens in somebody elses slice of the globe.

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But it is as the song says, Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun. I was past any more wanderings and deliberations and headed for the gate, catching an air-conditioned bus back to my air-conditioned condo with its cool radiant pool for the expatriate colony that lives here, I suppose, as the early rubber barons did. Jenny the Filipino maid was there to greet me; my Nanny too had a life with maids, before the Great War rubber crash.

2014-10-24 16.37.55Henry Ridley, the man that got the seeds to grow.

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The Road to Berlin #1: Singapore stopover.

After two days near the equator, I’m getting used to the heat and catching the rights tides of sleep. A trip into the town centre by bus on Tuesday was enough to persuade me I was still a bit too jet lagged for shopping, but you have to love the public statuary.

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This fiery lion caught my eye and is only one of many works of art that compete for attention with the supercharged power of the neon brands on shop fronts. Wednesday was going to be different, as I planned to find and visit the Changi Memorial Museum and chapel to locate a plaque I believed was sited there. This is a memorial to two of the nine airmen executed by the Japanese in August 1945 on Changi Beach.

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Sub Lieutenants Baxter and Haberfield were Kiwi pilots with the Fleet Air Arm, men of the RNZNVR who had flown off carriers in the British Pacific Fleet and were shot down and captured in the attacks on the Palembang oil refinery late in 1944. Haberfield was a relation of a Māori friend in Christchurch and Baxter had flown in 1833 Squadron off my Dad’s carrier, HMS Illustrious.

The taxi ride found me there quickly and cheaply – taxis here are really an extension of public transport rather than a luxury – and there it was. The chapel was there with its altar and wartime cross made by prisoners from an artillery shell. It was an outdoor site of worship and a living memorial to those prisoners who had lived and died under the Japanese occupation.

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To one side was a sandbox with sand from the beach where the men were beheaded, their bodies dumped at sea. There was note paper for messages to be placed on the memorial board opposite. I wrote a mihi mihi for the dead and lit two candles.

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There were a few tourists coming into the chapel including Japanese and their children. There were Tsuru garlands, peace offerings hung there sent by school children from Japan.

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After a quiet prayer and giving my poroporoaki to the mate, I left them to their rest and toured the museum. A man came out from a door behind the chapel as I left the memorial and walked past me with a sheaved samurai sword wrapped in cloth. I had a flashback to Japan and Hideaki Nishida offering me the sword of his dead kamikaze brother, Hisashi.

In the museum I learned of the suffering and the bravery of the Singaporeans and the Allied prisoners. I found the plaque I was looking for. His sister had come in 2002 and laid him to rest with comrade Baxter.

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E te rangatira, maua ko to hoa, rere atu, haere atu ra!

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