Just imagine

While Trump claimed he had been vindicated – and therefore his Russian headache and cloud had lifted (fake news and alternative facts, as usual) … While Theresa May had created a big, huge, enormous splitting headache – for herself, her party, plenty voters who had supported her … I accidentally hit upon a very bad idea.

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Book review: “Nina Schenk” by Konstanze von Schulthess

This is an interesting biography, written by a daughter about her mother and family. So what? Well: nearly everybody is familiar with the husband and father. Hardly anybody is interested in the mother, wife, family of the man who tried to blow up Hitler.

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Meet the author: Karin Kalisa and her novel “Sungs Laden”

It just failed – only just – to snow. So it was a relief to enter the warm venue, peel of the wet and heavy winter coat and take a seat. What I and quite a few others were unaware of: we would shortly head for Vietnam! Not physically, but through Karin Kalisa’s new novel.

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Meet the author: Stephanie Bart and “Der Deutsche Meister”

Totalitarian states usually need to destroy, reinvent, rewrite, in an attempt to support their distorted views and right to exist. A recent example is IS and a less recent one is Nazi Germany.

Deutsche MeisterStephanie Bart’s novel “Der Deutsche Meister” is based on historic events. It describes how the Nazis nearly got away with obliterating all traces of a sporting match. In 1933, Johann Wilhelm Trollmann won his country’s middle weight boxing title and became “Deutsche Meister” – boxing champion.

In 1933, the Nazis were already so powerful, they were able to manipulate and control practically everything and everybody. Trollmann was a Sinto. To Nazis it was of course unthinkable that a non-Aryan won sporting matches and titles. It did not fit their values, ideas, ideology.

Once you’ve read this book, which only records part of the 1933 events, you’ll be aware this is an example of incidents which took place and are still taking place under regimes throughout the world. The human suffering caused by such self-aggrandisement, ruthless egoism and opportunism, manipulation and justifications of distorted ideas, opinions and views – is of course immense.

This is not Stephanie Bart‘s first novel. In 2009, “Goodbye Bismarck” appeared. A year later, so ms Bart told her audience during a “meet the author”- event, she read three sentences about a temporary memorial. The topic lodged itself firmly in her brain.

She explained she usually needs at least a year to mull over a book topic. This is followed by extensive research. In this case: trying to find people to talk to, gather information, learn about boxing, taking up boxing, watching a great many boxing matches. All this turned ms Bart from a totally non-boxing fan into a firm admirer of this ancient sport.

Writing the novel took her another two years. “Der Deutsche Meister” appeared in 2014. It was awarded the Rheingau Literatur Preis 2014.

The novel records events just before and after Trollmann wins his match against the Nazi favourite in 1933. It shows how Nazi supporters tried to block him being awarded the title. The novel ends just before another Nazi-fixed match will take place, which Trollmann is supposed to lose.

Stephanie Bart did go shortly into what happened to Trollman afterwards. He divorced his wife, to try to give her and his daughter a chance to survive the war. They and a few other family members did.

Trollmann himself was drafted into the German army, arrested in 1942, and – as is so often the case under totalitarian regimes – interned under a false name so he could be declared dead. In 1944, an SS-Kapo actually beat him to dead.

During this “meet the author” event, ms Bart read from her book. It contains humorous and highly entertaining scenes. The description of the boxing match is of course fabulous. The scenes which erupt when it becomes clear the Nazi supporters did not want to award the title to Trollmann, show violence by present-day football hooligans is not new.

What was interesting was to learn that we still consider Sinti, Ziganes, Travellers and others as having no fixed abode. Ms Bart righted this presumption and explaining how some groups only travel a few weeks a year. So like we do during our summer holidays. It is revealing that even now, our summer holiday camping does not brand us as outcasts – yet ensures other members of our countries are still stigmatised for doing exactly the same.

Another thing I found upsetting was discovering that the 2010 Trollmann memorial was a temporary one. After all these years, it’s apparently still problematic to have a more permanent memento. Fortunately, what happened in 1933 to a German boxing champion, is now commemorated by Stephanie Bart’s novel.

“Der Deutsche Meister”, Stephanie Bart, 2014. No English translation available yet.
German CD, Kindle, Ebook versions available.

YouTube: Stephanie Bart reading an excerpt from her novel

Travelling with panthers

The old lady and her walker overtook me in a neat sprint. I gasped. She was at least two decades older than me.

We were both running. A nice chap stood in the doorway to ensure we both made it – just. She got a seat, way before I jumped on board the last carriage of the local tube.

Both still breathing heavily, I congratulated her on her speed. Boy: she started out way behind me, then overtook me as if I was a tortoise. She said a walker was a great help, even when loaded with overstuffed shopping bags. Silently, I wondered which brand hers was: Ferrari Formula I, or a simple rocket launcher?

At the next stop, two panthers got on: one black and the other spotted. All the passengers craned their heads. It’s a spectacle you see here only once a year.

They were hungry. They started feeding on crackers and fruit. Inside different panther print jumpsuits, there were two young lads. They were obviously heading south.

The old lady and I wondered aloud,m if the two were heading for Mestrich? No, no, no. They were on their way to Lampengat (Lamps-hole). No, you won’t find that on Google maps.

They had their personal belongings, money, more food in small plastic carrier bags. They demonstrated how they’d put their plastic bags into the jumpsuits, zip up, pull down the hoods. They hadn’t decided yet, if they were going for make-up or masks. I dared not mention their stuffed bags inside the suits made them look like pregnant kittens.

They’d join a crowd of friends in various other suits, to celebrate carnival non-stop for three days. At least: that was the plan. There was probably a “mopping up” band playing on the platform of the train station to welcome them: a brass band playing special carnival music.

Yes: in dull cloggy country, they do celebrate Carnival. No, they don’t celebrate it the Venetian or Brazilian way. Yes, cloggies also celebrate Caribbean Carnival. It’s organised during what’s supposed to be summer, so-called Summer Carnival. London’s Notting Hill one is far, far grander.

For a cloggy Summer Carnival, you head off to Rotterdam in July. Of course, no guarantee it’ll be sunny, warm, brilliant weather. But hey: you’re there for the pretty girls, rhythms, steel bands – I presume.

For ordinary carnival you also quit Amsterdam. In some places it starts the Saturday, in others Sunday, or Monday before Lent. Fun ends on Ash Wednesday.

Some places have a traditional Carnival church service. Others don’t. Many have a special show: a long line of rolling floats. These contain comic and satirical scenes with as subjects local power-brokers, national politicians, world affairs. Practically each town and village has its own music, Prince Carnival, traditions.

Most northern cloggies don’t understand carnival. So all carnival lovers head south, though there are a few towns in northern regions, which also celebrate it. This is either because these towns sport universities; or because historically, they were Catholic pockets in a mainly Protestant country.

But the best regions to celebrate carnival remain the provinces of Limburg and Northern Brabant. If you end up in Maastricht for instance, it’s only a bus or short train journey to Cologne and other German towns. Both provinces also border Belgium. So if you find cloggy carnival boring, there’s nothing to keep you from hopping across the border to join celebrations in Germany or Belgium.

Of course, like both panthers, you’ll need to dress up as something. And of course, you’re not travelling to Eindhoven, Nijmegen, ‘s Hertogenbosch, The Hague, and any other places known by Google Maps. For three days, these places disappear from the earth.

Instead, you travel to Lampengat, Knotsenburg, Oeteldonk, Mestrich, Kresidentie (pronounced “crazydancy”) and other otherworldly names. For a list of place names during cloggy carnival: alternative place names.

PS: I wanted to include a pic of several German floats focussing on Charlie Hebdo and other world events. Unfortunately enough, I received a message that pics of these floats are so dangerous access to the server(s) was barred.

The continuing Thalidomide scandal

End of the week: I’d had it with the serious news. Time to browse the web. Surely something funny would pop up, like the “Lost in Translation” series? No: on the Guardian website, something caught my eye. It was not the kind of flimsy news I was after. Quite the opposite: it was heart-breaking.

Whenever the medicine Thalidomide hits the news, it captures my attention. I have two acquaintances who are victims of this poison.

One has the outward marks of a Thalidomide victim. Her right arm stops just above the elbow, there is no hand, there are three stumps instead of fingers. Meeting the other one, you would be surprised to hear she is another victim. Her body is damaged on the inside. Though they are among the “lucky” victims, of course their lives have been deeply affected.

So the header “Justice evaded: Thalidomide” made me click the Guardian link. Surely, this scandal had been settled by now? Weren’t victims already receiving compensation?

The Guardian link landed me on the page of an article by Harold Evans titled “Thalidomide: how men who blighted lives of thousands evaded justice”. It is a very long article. The involved pharmaceutical firms have been evading justice for over fifty years. They are still fighting victims. They fight extremely dirty.

A few victims and their families have received a paltry compensation. The majority of international victims have not. The article mentions this poison is actually still prescribed, sometimes under new names.

Will my two acquaintances ever hear about this article? Will they learn about the latest scandal surrounding the thalidomide case? Like many victims the world over, they only speak their own language – not German, nor English. Like many victims, they do not earn the kind of money to start yet another court case.

Meet the authors: Literature about the Fall of the Berlin Wall

At this “meet the author” event (see previous “Steiners Geschichte” or “Il faut beaucoup“), three authors were interviewed about their books. These books concerned the fall of the Berlin Wall and DDR. They came from three different countries. This ensured three very interesting interviews, followed by a panel discussion, and made for a very  thought-provoking evening.

Journalist Sophie Derkzen who interviewed the three, had just flown in from the US. She mentioned there had been hardly any articles in newspapers related to the fall of the Wall. In this EU member state, all newspapers and opinion magazines had brought out special editions, described timelines of events, interviewed eye-witnesses, discussed its after-effects. I presume Russian tanks being able to occupy your country within twenty-four hours, kind of heightens interest in what goes on “next door”.

The first author interviewed, came from Potsdam. Dr Hans-Hermann discussed and read from his “Chronik des Mauerfalls”, which is already in its twelfth edition. The Wall ripped his family apart, with some members stuck in the DDR; others – including him – living in the West. It is difficult to fathom what this must have been like. His book chronicles the events of the “Wende“, the revolution which led to the fall of the DDR. He was able to talk to many former DDR and West German power-brokers, as well as ordinary people.

Just hearing him read an account of how hours before the collapse of the wall, it was decided DDR people were allowed “out” to the West, but would never be allowed back into the DDR by the Stazi – so would become stateless, homeless, refugees: it was both hilarious in its pettiness, as well as deeply shocking in its cruelty. Nobody living in the West, will ever be able to fully understand what life in the DDR was like.

The second book, “Menschen, Mauer, Mythen”, is one of a planned quartet of books covering the same period. It is written by Dr Ewald König and rectifies a few myths surrounding the events leading to the fall of the Wall. At the time, Dr König was a foreign correspondents allowed to work in the DDR and in Western Germany because his home-country Austria, was neutral. He was at the famous press conference. He mentioned the Leipzig and Dresden protests and events taking place outside Berlin.

The third author, Drs Hanco Jurgens, wrote a book focussing on the effects the disappearance of Wall and DDR had on the Netherlands. According to him, the “Wende” had a great impact on Dutch politics, attitudes, world view. The country is now far more US focussed than a quarter of a century ago.

The event was hosted by the German embassy, which welcomed everybody warmly. Staff ensured there was plenty to drink and served a yummy buffet during the break. Of course there were Kartoffelsalat, Frankfurter sausages, German bread and much more. Most guests could not resist having two helpings of Käsekuchen.

After the break, the panel discussion between all three authors and their audience followed – before a book-signing session. During the discussion, many suddenly realised how this fairly peaceful revolution could have ended quite differently. There was China with its Tiananmen Square and recently, the Arab Spring. As the authors mentioned: peaceful demonstrations do not guarantee a peaceful revolution.

While loitering through a quiet night, I wondered how things might have gone wrong. The fear of those weeks and the speed of events had been forgotten. Everybody had said that fortunately, Gorbachev had been there, not Putin & co. Internet, mobile phones, social media had not yet arrived. Twenty-five years later, circumstances, chronology, events had faded from memory. The first book to read clearly was “Chronik des Mauerfalls”, followed by “Menschen, Mayer, Mythen” and “Köhls Einheit ünter drei“.

Chronik des Mauerfalls” by Dr Hans-Hermann Hertle, Christoph Links Verlag, first published in 1996.
Menschen, Mauer, Mythen” Dr Ewald König, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2013.
Kohls Einheit unter drei”, Dr Ewald Köning, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2014.
“Na de val”, Drs Hanco Jurgens, 2014

Balloons and poppies

In Germany, they celebrated their reunion. Hard to believe it is over a quarter of a century since the fall of that dreadful wall. Other countries split Germany which was their spoils of war, in two.

Then a government put up a wall along that artificial border, as it could not curb migration towards family, relatives, friends, a different ideology. Like so many others, this government imprisoned its people, took them hostage, occasionally set a few free when someone was willing to pay a ransom.

As with JFK’s assassination or the 9/11 attacks, many remember what they were doing when this wall was scaled and two halves of a nation became one again. I only remember seeing pictures on telly after work and wondering, not about this nation and its people’s future. No, about those who died and those caught, while trying to escape their prison.

They could not have been better commemorated, than by setting free the balloons which symbolically recreated that wall, its minefields, its barbwire, its trigger-happy guards. The most beautiful view must have been the release of each balloon, one after another, though they symbolised the wall and not lives lost.

On the other side of Europe, those who had given their lives willingly, unwittingly, forcefully, were commemorated. There the poppy represents lives lost during another World War.

The sea of ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower of London is immense. Each single poppy represents a Common Wealth or United Kingdom life, lost during this argument amongst nations. So the poppies do not even represent the total number of casualties, nor lives permanently damaged or blighted. Yet this red carpet is immense. It is an impressive sea of lost lives. Many who have seen it say it is impossible to grasp and understand.

The poppies commemorate the First World War. The Berlin balloons commemorated the after-effects of the Second. There are other days and other symbols commemorating victims of these and other conflicts. All should remind us, people once lost their lives for peace, freedom, human rights. We should remember how carelessly we take all for granted.

The poppies and balloons should also be a warning: the two interconnected World Wars may not be the last major conflicts. At this very moment, there are wars being fought affecting people who only want to live in peace. At the moment, the number of border incidents between Russia and the EU is increasing and at Cold War level again.

Monday 11th of November, an international commemoration took place in the Netherlands to pay respect to the victims who had boarded a civilian plane which was shot down with a rocket during a war which was not theirs. Belongings and body parts of the MH17 victims still litter a now wintry Ukrainian plane.

No line of balloons or sea of poppies seem to teach certain people anything. This seems the overwhelmingly saddest part of these three acts of remembrance.

Early Music Festival Utrecht 2014: part 14

Fabulous Fringe Concert: Camerata Bachiensis

According to their calling card, Baroque music can be … spicy! They being the Camerata Bachiensis, who had the hard task to emulate or even surpass the previous Fabulous Fringe Concert by the Ensemble Weimar (see part 13). Did they succeed?

Judging from the reaction of the majority of the public at the Grote Zaal of Tivoli-Vredenburg after their concert: yes!

Personally, I loved the choice of music by Castello and Schmelzer far better. The performance of the Ensemble Weimar greatly impressed me. And last but not least: the Pieterkerk is a far more lovely and impressive venue, a period building with quite a history. Tivoli-Vredenburg is a modern building used for an Early Music Festival.

As with practically every fringe concert I attended, there were changes in the program. The theme of this concert was “Italian spring in Germany: Vivaldi meets Bach”. As with more fringe concerts: the title of the extra Vivaldi concerto was mentioned and that the concert would open with it. Then the program would follow as on the sheet. This introduction was reasonably audible, with a bit of background to the selected cantata: “non sa che sia dolore”. Not much, but at least that it was “Italian Bach”.

Vivaldi is of course a safe choice. A Bach cantata is often appreciated by the average Dutch classical music public. It was the first piece by Bach of this Early Music Festival for me. It must be said that Julia Kirchner, the ensemble’s soprano, has an impressive voice. It easily reached every nook and cranny of the Grote Zaal.

There was another standing ovation for the Camerata Bachiensis. They did deserve it, but personally, I preferred the Ensemble Weimar’s concert. Far more to my taste than the “spicy” rendering of Vivaldi and Bach by the Camerata Bachiensis on this day.

Early Music Festival Utrecht 2014: Camerata Bachiensis, 3rd of September 2014, 12:30, Tivoli-Vredenburg, Grote Zaal.

Camerata Bachiensis:
Julia Kirchner, soprano
Roberto De Franceschi, traverso
Anne kaun, Friederike Lehnert, Magdalena Schenk-Bader, violins
Isolde Winter, Philipp Weihrauch, cello
Julia Chmielewska, harpsichord

Website Camerata Bachiensis

 

Book Review: “Im Krebsgang”, Günter Grass

Some people may think that the recent downing of flight MH17 is the first time, hundreds of people have become the innocent victims of warring factions or countries. This is of course not true. Hundreds and thousands of innocent people have been and are still being murdered, whenever and wherever humanity is at war.

Günther Grass uses a forgotten act of war which occurred towards the end of the Second World War, to illustrate that such acts and their aftermath will never end. He shows the impact these acts have on the lives of survivors and their kin. He illustrates that people will never stop using such horrifying acts to continue murdering innocents, using the past acts as an excuse to serve their own interests, needs, aims. The last two sentences of the story are: ”Das hört nicht auf. Nie hört das auf.” (It does not stop. It never ends.) And this truth means this small story has no happy end. It does not even offer humanity and the reader any hope.

Journalist Paul Pokriefke tells the story “im Krebsgang”, like a crab going back, forth, sideways. It is his way to try and cope with traumas and horrors and to try and make sense of his family’s history. Of course, the family’s traumas are linked to Germany’s distant past, more recent past, and present.

Pokriefke starts his story by focussing on the lives of three people living in the late 19th and early 20th century. Wilhelm Gustloff becomes an early Nazi supporter and is murdered by Jewish David Frankfurter. To commemorate Gustloff, his name is given to a German cruise ship. Towards the end of the war, this ship will be attacked by the Russian U-boot captain Alexander Marinesko, born in Odessa.

The Gustloff is torpedoed and sinks on a voyage while carrying as many refugees as possible to the relative safety of a German port. Nearly 10,000 refugees, many of them children, do not survive the ice-cold water and ensuing horrors. It is the largest loss of life in a single ship-sinking in history. Yet like so many similar acts of war, this one is largely forgotten, because it suited the then warring parties.

Paul’s mother is one of the few survivors and he is born just before or shortly after the destruction of the Gustloff. Mother and son end up in communist Germany, though Paul is able to flee to the West. He marries, but the marriage breaks down. Once the Berlin Wall falls, Paul’s son settles with his grandmother, in the former DDR, where the spiral of violence continues.

Though the book is no comfortable read, after the first few pages, the reader becomes immersed in the various story-lines. The “Krebsgang” manner of interweaving the various stories, the pacing of incidents, the sympathy the reader feels for Paul and the suspense and dosed revelations make it a good read. After finishing it, the reader certainly has several things to think about.

“Im Krebsgang”, Günter Grass, first published 2002, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2004, 215 pp.
“Crabwalk”, Günter Grass, Faber 2003, 234 pp

For two reviews of the English version of the book:
Observer 2003
Guardian 2003