Vont les fantômes de Verdun mon Seigneur?

‘And then, looking out in deep sorrow across and beyond the killing fields of Verdun, the mud stained with the blood of thousands of young men who fell for their country, I thought of Strasbourg. And I thought of peace and beauty…I thought of life. And of love.’

Extract from a letter home to Strasbourg from an unknown French army officer, November, 1917

Soldats français à l'assaut sortent de leur tranchée pendant la bataille de Verdun, 1916.


AS I strike out east on the long drive from Dieppe to Strasbourg, the early morning sun already starting to intensify on the horizon, I set myself the first of my usual French driving challenges. Do not, under any circumstances, David, react to the maddening French motorists who stubbornly stick to my rear bumper at 130 kph. Calm, David, calm. I’m trying. It’s not easy.

I absorb the featureless, gently undulating greens and greys of the Pas de Calais flanking the autoroute, the recently anointed Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan playing above the drone of the car, and I think about a collection of journalism set in France by a former Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Ernest Hemingway, penned over 90 years ago.

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Back in 1922, Hemingway and his wife also headed out to Strasbourg, flying from Paris in those pioneering days of commercial flight. Here is the great man, filing a story for the Toronto Daily Star, published on September 9, 1922

‘We headed almost straight east of Paris, rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted by some giant, and the ground began to flatten out beneath us.’

It looked out into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand Cubist painting.’

It’s a beautiful description, harnessing a well-disguised simplicity of language and purity of tone, and already bearing the stylistic hallmarks of the great work yet to come.

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Hemingway’s flight took around 2.5 hours from the capital. My drive from Dieppe was nearer to seven hours, taking in the killing fields of Verdun and the great city of Reims.

It’s a long way, but at least, I thought, there were no hold ups. Just fast driving, paying to use roads which are well maintained and for the most part clear of any meaningful congestion.

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Ah, the joys of European motoring – but for how much longer will we be able to enjoy this relatively seamless passage – and where better to sample the thoughts of our French neighbor on our impending departure from the EU cocoon than Strasbourg, imperial seat of Alsace power and wielder of limpet-like bureaucratic control?

Despite battles raging in and around the city down the centuries, Strasbourg is as impeccably preserved as a jar of Swiss pickles.

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A reassuringly bourgeois ambience pervades the spotless boulevards. Designer boutiques bustling with the chic and the moneyed, restaurants and packed bars gently competing for the high-roller business funded by diplomatic corp salaries.

Strasbourg’s old town, site of one of Europe’s greatest cathedrals (and incidentally where my daughter now resides while attending the nearby music conservatoire) resonates with profoundly lovely medieval architecture, which, extraordinarily, has escaped the ravages of both time and the ferocious attempts of the Third Reich to obliterate it from the face of the earth.

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And if the city does not quite cut it, there is always Germany a short hop and a jump away. Just as I do today, Hemingway found it a breeze to pop across to war-scarred Deutschland all those years back. A quick flash of the passport and you are in.

And as French troops discovered back in 1918, cycling into Germany is a pretty efficient way to travel. You’ll be speaking in German, rather than French of course, but apart from the language and the labels on the beers, the immediate border country is virtually indistinguishable. Think of it like crossing from England into Wales, just with more sunshine.

Yet ease of passage through these border zones may soon become a distant memory for Brits, as the process of disentangling the UK from the European Union begins in earnest.

Then again, maybe it will not be quite so hard to do business – in France at least – as some have made out.

While Strasbourg is (currently) undeniably the city du jour for political decision-making in the heart of Europe, it could be that Paris, for so long a magnet for global tourism, is also set to become home to the UK’s upper strata of investment bankers and the crème de la crème of our business decision makers.

The French government recently pledged to make its tax regime for expatriates the most favourable in Europe, in a grab for London-centric banking business displaced by our decision to quit the European Union.

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“We want to build the financial capital of the future,” stated the prime minister, Manuel Valls, sabre rattling in a recent gung-ho address, presumably designed to reassure alarmed voters as well as a direct appeal to the banking and financial decision makers. “In a word, now is the time to come to France.”

Mais oui. Bien sur. But is it really?

France’s general disdain for big business is well documented. The Republic’s ideals, built on the foundations of radical ideologies underpinned by Robespierre and his followers, created a universal socialism of sorts, which permeates contemporary French society.

And while the French – as evidenced by the well-heeled denizens of urban fortresses such as Strasbourg – invariably demonstrate a clear appetite for the finer things in la vie, business, and the overt successes which are inevitably inculcated within major blue blood brands, are all too often dismissed as vulgar and plebian.

So as I drift through the polished cobblestones of Strasbourg, absorbing the timeless beauty of buildings designed and constructed by determined men and women centuries before, avoiding the pleading eyes of the beggars and the destitute ironically staring hungrily from under ragged hoodies, I wonder how the domestic and international landscape will look a few years’ down the line from now.

The great European frontiers, which Hemingway and his bohemian entourage traversed so easily almost 100 years ago will become more forbidding, less inclined to the friendly wave.

Some, Greece, perhaps, Austria and other countries exasperated with political and economic refugee influxes may extend a frosty unwelcome to UK travelers also, erecting the Closed sign and effectively terminating decades of post-war goodwill.

We shall find out soon enough.

Plus ça change, as the French would have it. Things change…but they don’t change. Hemingway might have had different ideas.


Day's Journey Into Night at the end of the A43...

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”

Marcel Proust

PROUST, as we know, built his life’s great work on memory. Our memories are triggered by random events, smells, signifiers, casual observations, arousing and unsettling our sub-conscious minds.

As we begin the transition from autumn to winter, I find myself thinking about the day I first began writing for Credit Management magazine, back in October 1988.

It seems like an eternity ago. But I remember it well.

In those days the publication was based in Easton House, a rather gloomy, former manor house, perched on the edge of Easton on the Hill. The house seemed in stark contrast to its environs, a picture postcard pretty, medieval village, lying just to the south of the market town of Stamford.

With a scattering of pubs, a fine, 12 century church and post office and very little else, it was an unlikely setting for a group of financial publications. But there it was, nestling in deep countryside, the centuries having quietly passed by. Not a lot happened in Easton on the Hill.

I recall the drive that first day, in my ancient Alfa Romeo, stuttering up the A1 from my flat in north London for an ‘informal’ interview with the then editor, Richard Smith.

I was rightly apprehensive of the impending meeting with a seasoned financial journalist.

 

Because:

a)     I knew nothing about finance. Zilch. Nada.

b)     I had had no formal training in journalism

c)      I was entirely unfamiliar with the content of the magazine

d)     I could barely work a computer

e)     I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a journalist anyway

And I think now, these many years later, that the only reason I was invited to an interview is that the magazine was located in such an inaccessible part of the world.

That, plus the fact that my CV was a masterpiece of invention. The snippets of experience I had managed to acquire had been beefed up to such an extent that even I had become to believe I could turn around financial press releases.

Perhaps the editor took the view that he would be lucky to get anyone at all to make that journey to the middle of England. In those days it was rare for writers to be allowed to file stories from external locations. It was technically very difficult for one thing. There was no email, and faxes were labour intensive.

As I sat before him in the tiny smoke filled room which passed for a ‘newsroom’ – with its smattering of early Amstrad desktop PCs – Richard Smith, puffing furiously on a sodden, hand rolled cigarette, looked at me sceptically.

I guess he thought that the fact that I had driven for the best part of two and a half hours through driving rain to get there was reason enough to carry on with an interview.

“How much financial writing experience have you had,” he asked, knowing, I felt sure, that I had had precisely none.

Not a lot, I replied. A more truthful answer would indeed have been ‘none whatsoever’, as my journalism experience to date back then consisted of an abortive few weeks at a local agency, filing dire stories to a ferocious, alcoholic news editor who would shout and roar at me for my inability to write what he termed ‘colour stories’.

But, I added, I’m a fast learner. And I can write.

Richard rolled another cigarette. There was a palpable silence, broken only by the mournful tolling of the bells in the church tower. The rain thudded insistently on the grimy panes.

“Ok,” he said. “You’re here now. Let’s give it a go.” And with that he sprang up from his chair, picked up an alarmingly large pile of press releases – to this day still the source of much of the information we read in our daily news services – and pointed to a spare desk , adorned by an off white Amstrad and a calculator.

“You can work here. I’ll need around six stories by close of play. If you can deliver the goods, you have the job. It’s £75 a day, plus travel expenses.”

Well, reader, needless to say, I did deliver the goods – don’t ask me how – especially since I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to figure out how to work the Amstrad.

One of the first stories I ever wrote for CM was about credit unions, and I see – with more than a fair degree of irony – that these venerable old institutions are once again coming back into favour, as the likes of Wonga and the other avaricious so-called ‘payday lenders’ come under fire for their usurious interest rates.

I also wrote many a story about the creeping rise in interest rates. Little did I realize at that time that the mortgage I had on my London flat, arranged at 6 per cent in 1986, would soar to just over 15 per cent in 1989.

Now, in 2014, there is talk once again of a base rate rise. As we know, the Bank of England base rate has been kept artificially low to stimulate the economy, but now as we emerge from recession, and rising property prices once again set off alarms in the Bank of England monetary committee, governor Mark Carney has signaled a rate rise is on the way.

A rise – even a very modest one of 0.25 per cent – would have a cooling effect on a housing market which has seen, in the south east at least, prices rise beyond the reach of most first time buyers.

A recent survey reveals that the average first-time buyer salary in London was £44,513, and yet the average first-time buyer home reached a record £251,061 at the end of August.

Doing the maths, the first time buyer needs 5.7 times their annual wage if they wish – as I did all those years back – to buy a place in London.

But as these lending ratios are now outlawed by the Bank of England, the requirement will be for ever larger deposits.

I can’t for the life of me see how prices can keep going up at this rate. Who is going to be able to afford to buy a property? Inherited wealth, plus the lucky few who may benefit from generous parental help, maybe, but the reality for most UK citizens – we are not concerned here with overseas buyers investing into the capital as a safe haven for their money – is that home ownership at a relatively youthful age, is a bleak and distant prospect.

While it seemed a struggle back then, I think now to how lucky I was, that my generation did not face quite such an impossible task, getting that first foot on the housing ladder, being able to buy somewhere they could call home. Not being obliged to pay through the nose for an ill-maintained buy –to-let joint designed to keep the landlord in well-cushioned clover in the retirement years.

And I think back to my early days in that smoky Credit Management newsroom, cutting my teeth in financial writing before I made the transition to national newspapers, gazing out on the damp, undulating fields surrounding Easton House, my face reflected in the blinking green glow of the Amstrad screen.

And I can hear the chuckles and chit chat of my fellow journalists, some, including Richard Smith, who took such a gamble on me, sadly no longer with us, and I think, my, how things have changed.

 

David Andrews August 2014


Arbeit Macht Frei and the sounds of silence

The gates of Hell.

We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can also play Bach and Schubert. And go and do his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning

– George Steiner

At Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.

– Rudolph Hoess, Auschwitz Kommandandt

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Technically [it] wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers…. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn’t even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.

– Hoess, explaining how the camp gassed 10,000 people in one day


TO write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, observed the German radical philosopher Theodor Adorno.

Like so many Germans who came of age in the post war years, the era when that nation was attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the Final Solution, Adorno wrestled with perceptions of art and beauty.

How, he asked, can we have any appreciation of beauty in the world, visual, written, audio or otherwise, after the de facto horrors of the death camps?

It is a question that perhaps has no answers. And it is has long perplexed me.

Which is how I find myself in a Soviet era, bright yellow tour bus headed out of downtown Krakow bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp situated around an hour and a half’s drive due east from the old city.

There’s no seatbelts, and as I doze fitfully, I wonder abstractedly about my chances of survival should we lurch off the pock-marked E40 highway winding between Krakow and Oswiecim.

The coach judders and groans its way towards the camps on an uncharacteristically warm Polish March day. The dangerously obese man slumped in the seat in front of me doesn’t smell too good, and there is a barely discernible aura of apprehension among my fellow travellers. This is after all not any old coach outing.

It’s an uncomfortable journey, but then I’m not racked into a cattle truck with no food or water for days on end, as was the case for the majority of the 1.1 million Jews who were gassed in the camps between 1942 and 1945 after being shuttled from varying locations throughout war-torn Europe.

Drawing up its meticulous plans for a Final Solution, the Nazi hierarchy needed a location both remote yet with good transport links in order to execute their ambitions to wipe out the Jewish race in Europe.

With around 11 million Jews to murder, their plans were ambitious, but workable in that robust can do German way, which had seen the country recover so spectacularly well following its collapse in the aftermath of the WW1 defeat.

Pragmatic Nazi planners and architects must have been delighted to identify the drab town of Oswiecim, with its excellent railway system. The middle of nowhere but easily accessible for locomotives and their doomed human cargoes.

As we approach the town and its principle attractions, a deafeningly loud, Soviet era television perched precariously above the driver’s head booms into life.

The black and white screen flickers and crackles. Haunted faces – we don’t know them, but know them so well in that silent argot of the Holocaust – unravel in front of us. Rare footage shot by a Soviet cameraman in the first wave of the camp’s liberators show the dead and the nearly dead.

Their faces…we know them…

We know those sunken, bewildered eyes, the shredded striped uniforms, the shaved heads, the skeletal frames.

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And while the ubiquitous images, documentaries and movies which accompany reams of Holocaust-related literature are intrinsic to our latent 20th century Western experience, the suffering which projects from the tiny coach screen into the consciousness of its captive audience nonetheless draws gasps and cries, as we are taken from one grainy chamber of horrors to another.

The coach finally sighs to a stop in an inauspicious coach park corralled by a couple of shabby fast food joints. My fellow travellers look apprehensive, some appear distressed. The film was harrowing, and along with the airless coach and the sudden warmth of this late March morning, the grim intent of the day finally registers. Auschwitz has been there, buried, recessed in our collective consciousness. Now it is here, looming in front of us.

On this bright spring day it looks innocuous. Ordinary. We could be outside an Asda superstore. The ‘banality of evil’ phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, in her reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem resonates.

On arriving at Sobibor, that other terrible place of industrialised death, the investigative writer Gitta Sereny observed that the main impression she had was “one of beauty.

“The quiet, the loneliness, above all he vastness of the place, which left everything to the imagination.”
At first glance, there was nothing beautiful about Auschwitz.

Outside the camp entrance, there are several high-spirited groups of German schoolchildren fulfilling their curricular obligations. The Germans are obsessed that contemporary and successive generations know every ghastly detail about the plans of their forebears to wipe out a race of people.

In their designer clothes, equipped with the innocence of their teenage years and the benefits of enlightened diets and affluent homes, the kids look like they could be off to a beach party in Ibiza.

Not so the older visitors, the Saga-style tourists here perhaps to tick off another must see landmark, or maybe to witness what their mothers and fathers and relatives fought for.

Among the grey hairs there is a good deal of hardcore smoking, steeling themselves for the journey that lies beyond the gates – the gates of Hell, as they are known.

One couple who look to be in their late 70s, silently puffing away with a familiarity of those who have spent a lifetime together, exhibit the grey, heavily tracked skin of the two-pack a day smokers.

The woman is wheezing painfully in between nicotine draws. I wonder if she is about to go into cardiac arrest, let alone make it around the camps. I can’t see any mobility scooters to hand.

Auschwitz, the original camp – formerly a Polish army barracks – has significantly smaller land mass than nearby Birkenau, which my guide advises is the size of around 197 football pitches laid side by side. That sounds like a lot of walking.

The first encounter is with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, which was bizarrely stolen a couple of years back. What do you do with a sign like this? Sell it on the black market to a fanatical Holocaust denier? Try to off it to an unscrupulous dealer? For one thing the sign is huge – far bigger than it looks in pictures. So familiar is this symbol of Nazi repression that its familiarity comes almost as a relief. I’m in the right place, kind of relief.

Dozens of people are standing under and around the gently swaying sign, clicking away with mobile phone cameras, chattering excitedly.  There are no black people here, I think. Not a single black face have I seen on this entire trip.
Curiously, there are no Japanese people either.  Not that I can see, at least.

The camp is not a high point of a European cultural tour, I guess.

I am more interested in the spot a few metres inside the camp entrance. A sign – there are lots of signs in Auschwitz – explains that this is the spot where guards would carefully position corpses, several at a time, which inmates would be obliged to shuffle past to and from their daily work details.

A few metres along again from that sign is another sign. This time its muted matter of fact everyday English explaining that here is a replica of the gallows erected for multiple hangings of prisoners.

I tried to imagine dragging my exhausted body along that pedestrian highway to Hell at the crack of dawn, everyday, somehow completing a 12 hour shift of numbingly hard labour on starvation rations in extreme temperatures. It gets down to minus twenty in the harsh eastern Polish winters, and up to 40 plus in the summers.

THE SS, said my guide Szymon Fliapek, squinting against the watery sunlight, were endlessly inventive when it came to devising ways of killing Jews and other inmates in Auschwitz. ‘The ones, that is, who were not sent immediately to the gas chambers,’ he qualifies in impeccable English.

Szymon has encyclopedic knowledge of the labour and death camps, which opened fully for business, as it were, in March 1942.  Several of his relatives were detained in the labour camp, somehow surviving to tell the tale. He peppers the more formal structure of the tour with personalized anecdotes handed down through generations of Poles. There is no love of Germans, even now, you sense.
As we tentatively step, blinking in the half darkness, into the innocuous looking Block 11 of the former Polish army barracks, Szymon explains that they were once doubly feared.

They housed the nightmarish starvation and suffocation cells, specially reserved for those who the SS guards preferred to suffer in the extreme, rather than administer the usual bullet in the back of the head.

“There’s been a lot written about Auschwitz-Birkenau – but you won’t find much on these cells. Remember, the SS didn’t have a lot to do out here – working out ways to guarantee appalling suffering appealed to the more creative among them,” said Szymon, pausing to examine some graffiti on the walls, dating back to 1942.

There were, as we know, innumerable daily horrors visited on the prisoners here, or in the ‘sister’ camp Birkenau, a few short kilometres away. But Block 11 goes directly in to the darkness, to embrace the worst of all our dreads and fears. It’s a horrible place and even today you can feel the dank, penetrating cold emanating from the bowels of the building.

It’s a relief to get outside.

‘It was a badge of honour for the SS to exercise the maximum humiliation on Jewish prisoners while busy working and starving them to death,’ said Szymon, as we shuffle in muted silence to the next block, wondering what new extremes of suffering we were going to encounter.

Being so organized meant the Nazis went to fastidious lengths to photograph all new inmates coming into the work camp. I gaze at row after row of pictures of inmates ‘processed’ through the camp between 1942 and 1945. The clarity of the images is startlingly good.  Zeiss lenses, I wondered, thinking of the photographer painstakingly positioning his tripod and ordering the traumatised subject to stand upright and look at the camera. He would not have asked them to smile.

‘Labour’ camp,’ snapped Syzmon, his eyes roving along the hundreds of gaunt images, ‘is meaningless.

‘They were not here to work – that was of course a pretense. They were here to be humiliated – it was a Humiliation camp.

Concentration camp is the polite term. I prefer not to use it,’ he said, his voice trailing off to a whisper.

I pause to look at the image of a strikingly handsome young man. In the now familiar striped garb of the camp uniform,  Stanislaw Milobedzki look to be almost breaking into a smile – presumably to the consternation of the official camp photographer.

Stanislaw, I note, was born on 7 July 1922. He died, according to the caption beneath his picture, on 7 September 1942. He would have been in the camp for a matter of weeks. It occurred to me that Stanislaw was more or less exactly the same age as my son, when he either succumbed to disease – typhus and dysentery were the big killers – or was executed.

Syzmon our guide notices me studying the rows of the doomed – ‘remember, it was not a work camp. It suited the Germans to say it was a work camp. But we all know it was a death camp as well as a humiliation camp. Very few came out alive.’

One man who did come out alive was the commandant, Rudolph Hoess. But when he was arrested shortly after the war ended, Hoess, found guilty for the mass murder of a million plus Jews, was taken back to the camp he formerly ran and executed in the grounds.

A replica of the scaffold from which he dangled stands more or less equidistant between the house the Nazi once occupied with Frau Hoess and their five children, and a gas chamber.

Like the gas chamber, the gallows looks unthreatening today. More unnerving is the extended scaffold which was the site of group hangings. The latter is adjacent to the area where the camp orchestra would play as the prisoner work details filed in and out.

It is bizarre to think that lovely orchestral music was played with gusto in this place. But it was. If there is a soundtrack for Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is not that of Bach or Wagner, but the reverberative roar of the locomotives chugging the final metres through to the selection ramps.

Or the guttural shouting of the SS guards, the cracking and stinging whips of the kapos, the frenzied barking of ferocious dogs, the screams of thousands of half starved, confused and terrified prisoners as they are jostled and separated from loved ones.

On the day I visited, more or less 70 years to the day that the first transports packed full of Jewish families wondering if the promises of ‘resettlement’ were to be a reality, I stand on the spot where the selections took place.

In the movie versions of Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, the ramp area is perpetually packed with terrified people, jostled and shoved and ordered to their deaths.

No more the wind

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But standing there in the silence of that March day, where the birds do not sing, and the trees seemed bent under the horrors that have been perpetrated before them all those decades ago, there is no screaming carried on the wind by the ghosts that have passed through on their final, desperate journeys.

It is the silence which resonates. It is eerie, partly because we are in the middle of nowhere with not a building in sight out of the camp complex, and partly because of our knowledge now, that 70 years ago this was the spot where SS doctors would choose who was to live and who was to die within hours of arriving at the ramps.

I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s, “Silence, yes, but what silence! For it is all very fine to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”

We are also a very short distance from the main, gigantic crematoria where up to 10,000 people a day were being gassed in the two vast crematoria complexes in Birkenau. The numbers are hard to compute. Ten thousand people a day.

That’s more than the entire population of Guernsey, murdered in a single week. A process methodically and exactingly carried out, week in, week out for the best part of three years, before the Red Army eventually liberated the camp in January 1945.

Now, walking back towards the dread Gates of Death, flanked by the infamous twin command towers, the experience is numbing, like an anaesthetic that is in the system and has muted all nerve sensors. There is a blank bewilderment at the sheer scale of the mechanics of  human endeavor which was channeled not so long ago into creating this killing factory.

A brief detour through the ‘hygiene huts’, where hundreds and hundreds of prisoners would have to go through their morning ablutions squatting side by side with one another leaves one nonplussed.

After bearing witness to the crematoria and the huge so called ‘shower’ areas, where 3,000 Jews were gassed at a time, there is almost a sliding scale of horror-ometer, where it is impossible to comprehend how the process could have not just been allowed to happen, but so meticulously planned.

I felt the need to go to the toilet when walking through one of the communal wash huts. It would not have been easy for  inmates back then to simply relieve themselves, said our guide. They were only allowed to go twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening, that was it. Being caught performing a bodily function outside of those times was invariably punishable by death. But most of the inmates were racked with disease, and diarrhoea was a constant. What do you do if you are suffering from diarrhoea and you are forbidden to use the toilet, asked Szymon?

‘I’ll tell you what you do. You go in your pants. And that is what they did. And then, after 12 hour work details on little or no food, they would have to lie in a bunk in their own filth shared with many others.

‘And they called these the lucky ones.’

As I walked out of the gates for the first and last time – for I will not be returning – I felt relieved. Relieved I had seen it for myself, with my own eyes, and not just relied on the testimony of others. Relieved that I could now, finally, attempt to process how this epic, concerted attempt to wipe out an entire race of people had taken shape, how it physically manifested itself within a supposedly civilized universe. And how it had very nearly succeeded.

And I felt relieved that I had walked in the steps of the doomed. Because it is there and it exists and, while we wish it hadn’t and many people now and after us will attempt to persuade us that it did not exist in the way we know it existed, we know. And we can only know by being there. So you should go. You’ll find that once is enough.


Musings on Madrid - boom and bust in the beating heart of Spain

A couple of days before I arrive in Madrid, the streets of the Spanish capital were jammed with ‘Marches of Dignity’ demonstrators protesting at the government’s austerity measures.

Madrid Old CityUnder the slogan, “bread, work and a roof for all,” many thousands of Spaniards demanded an end to government budget cuts and debt payments they say are strangling the welfare state and helping impoverish the majority of Spaniards.

Spain is enduring horrendously high levels of unemployment, most acutely felt in its under 25 work force. Around 50 per cent of all working age Spaniards under 25 are out of work. Their frustrations were evident on that Saturday prior to our arrival, as the demonstration unfortunately ended in violent skirmishing – nothing like the horrors which tore through London in August 2011, but unsettling nonetheless.

While the UK is enjoying a steady return to growth, Spain, in common with Portugal and Greece – and to a lesser extent France – remains mired in a stubborn trough. And it is not looking like it will recover any time soon.

Madrid Man

Approaching the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza for the major Cezanne retrospective, I notice two elderly women, both destitute, slumped by the walls of this most imposing of galleries. Well-dressed Spanish bourgeoisie file past, barely sparing these desolate creatures a glance. I am reminded of George Orwell’s impressions of Madrid in the mid-1930s, when the great writer allied himself to the Socialist side during the bitter fighting of the Spanish Civil War. It was, said Orwell, a city of extraordinary contrasts, with unrelenting poverty rubbing shoulders with relative prosperity. Not unlike Orwell’s observations of Paris and also London in the 1930s.

But now Spain, once the go to destination for so many Brits wanting a place in the sun is one of the sick men of Europe, saddled with an economy which has thus far failed to drag itself back from the brink.

So why has the UK bounced back and Spain, which had also been enjoying a pretty good run up until the wholesale collapse of its economy at the end of 2008, been left behind in a cloud of toxic dust?

Whereas the UK’s recovery has been partly driven by a recovery in manufacturing demand, and a gradual return to pre-recession employment levels coupled with a booming financial services sector in London, Spain’s economy has been heavily dependent on real estate and construction since General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1950s.

When the country’s banking system all but collapsed in late 2008, its construction and development industry went down like a pack of cards with it – and there was very little to fall back on. The tourist industry was also concomitantly hit for six, as fellow Europeans slashed their holiday budget. In short, no-one wanted to go to Spain.

What a difference a decade makes. Back in the 90s Spain’s economy roared ahead at nearly 4 per cent a year, leaving much of the rest of Europe marvelling at how the canny Spanish had done it.

Now the ongoing fall-out from the collapse has seen the country riven by bitter divisions. Inevitable in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

But wander around the streets of Madrid, and, I daresay, Barcelona and you will struggle to find many obvious signs of misery and economic hardship, my examples of the forlorn street women notwithstanding.

I wonder what George Orwell would have made of it all.


And quiet flows the Bosphorus…

I’m waiting for a tram in Istanbul’s majestic Old City.

It’s a late Sunday afternoon in mid-December, and the limp, watery sunshine filtering through the minarets of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque – or Blue Mosque as it is popularly known – is about to fade entirely.

It’s going to be a cold night. There’s a biting wind ripping through from the Bosphorus, and I consider jumping a cab. But the choked roads and furious cacophony of horns from the static traffic – Istanbul’s perpetual Achilles Heel – persuades me to take my chances with the jostling crowds.

Judging by the grimly determined countenances of my fellow passengers, I’m thinking it’s going to be touch and go, getting onto the next one.  Like everywhere in this teeming city, the tram stop is rammed. Locals returning from a day’s wandering around the maze of ancient streets with their families, tourists and workers finishing yet another long shift. An elderly man standing next to me sighs loudly, and then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, extends his arms, and astonishingly creates some personal space. He lowers himself gently onto a shoe-shine box, and waits.

He must be at least 75 years old – maybe 80. Gosh, I think, looking more closely at the deep rivulets carved into that striking face, this guy could be pushing 90.

He’s been out cleaning shoes all day – I noticed his own robust looking boots carried a gleaming, impeccable shine – and now he is grateful for a brief interlude, a sit down. Another long day closeth. A hard day, I don’t doubt. For that is the economy of the street, where hustling and badgering for a few Turkish lira a day is the lot of millions and millions of workers in Istanbul. With an official population of 13.9 million it is the second biggest city in the world and the furiously pumping engine powering one of the fastest growing global economies.

The lengthy shadows cast by earlier imperial masters – the Romans were quick to see the city’s potential for commercial gain back in 330 – resonate down through the centuries, and everywhere I look there is a relentless energy devoted to squeezing every opportunity for a few more lira.

But Istanbul is also a city of extraordinary contrasts, and for all the wealth pouring in to underpin the massive property and infrastructure development programmes, there is also a grinding poverty, where workers like my ageing shoeshine man labour all the hours under the sun for pitifully small reward. I’m told by locals that the typical take home wage in the city is around the £600 a month mark. For the more prosperous middle classes this can climb to around £4,000 – a salary nudging £50,000 a year can go a long way in this city. But the vast majority of workers earn nothing like this. Then there is the uber class, the rich, a relatively small pocket of entrepreneurs who have mined the city’s rich seams to be rewarded with gilded lifestyles way, way beyond the hopes and dreams of the indigenous population.

There is of course nothing new in this scenario – wander into downtown Shanghai or Mumbai and you will see extraordinary levels of wealth and ostentation rubbing cheek by jowl with extreme deprivation. It is the way of the world, and one senses that locals are too busy earning a crust – or simply too exhausted by the logistics of trying to access their places of work through some of the most congested roads in the world – to worry too much about the massive economic divides apparent in their community.

Sauntering along the river, collar turned up against the biting wind, I step into the road to overtake some dawdling teenagers, and leap almost out of my skin as the impatient driver behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 blasts his horn before snarling down through the gears and fishtailing up the road, only to be stopped dead by the inevitable traffic jam which awaits a few hundred metres along. Extraordinary, I think, I’m almost taken out by a £175,000 motor in a city where the economy is officially classified by the IMF as an emerging market. Ferraris – and that’s not to mention the many, many other high end petrol muscle on liberal display – usually suggests to me that an economy has long since emerged.

While the likes of Spain and Portugal and – to a lesser extent, France – struggle to recover from the global financial recession, the Turkish economy expanded by 9.2% in 2010, and 8.5 percent in 2011, effectively making it the fastest growing economy in Europe. The country has long been on the Brit holidaymaker radar, but the vast majority of UK tourists head for the sun-soaked beaches of the south of the country, taking advantage of relatively low prices compared to France and other European destinations.

But you get the sense that they are missing out on the real Turkey, as evidenced by the vibrancy and hustle of Istanbul. It’s a city which never sleeps. Restless, eager.  A city still perpetually in search of itself. And if they can ever sort out the traffic jams, then who knows what the city can go on to achieve.

Taking my reluctant leave of Istanbul, I found myself heading out to the airport in the back of a beaten up yellow Fiat cab.

My driver was a young gunslinger, barely in his 20s. He greeted me with a beaming smile before tearing away in a screech of tyres, propelling me back in my seat, weaving in and out of traffic as fast as the straining engine would allow. The rear seatbelt had long since given up the ghost, and I resigned myself to a fraught journey, hoping for once that the volume of traffic would force a less frantic ride. I was wrong, of course, as my driver joyfully embraced the difficult conditions, roaring through heaving four lane traffic as if he were on a track day at the Nurburgring. Along the way, to take my mind off wondering how we would fare in a collision with an Audi A8, we had a fragmented chat about the local economy. Are you making good money, I asked the young Aryton Senna. Yes, yes YES, he said….it is all good. Very busy – good money to be made, especially driving to the airport, he shouted above the revving howl of the engine.

Lots of foreign people now coming to Istanbul, he beamed, swerving neatly in front of a brand new 5 Series BMW. I looked nervously at the speedometer. 120 kilometres an hour. I could feel the sweat building in my palms. That’s great, I said, wondering if the Range Rover hovering around a metre from our front bumper realised we were there. I hoped so.

Foreign people, developers, foreign MONEY, chuckled my young driver. It’s good. Good for Istanbul. Good for Turkey. Good for me……

Screeching up to the departures gate, I stumbled, dazed, out into the thronging crowds. Lots of people leaving, thousands more pouring in. To spend more lira.

GETTING back to Brighton, and running along the sea front, I’m thinking of the relative calm of my home city compared to the manic bustle of the one I have just left, and the contrasting energies of place.

I jog past the two guys still sound asleep on the covered bench looking out to the old pier, sleeping off the night before, I reckon, if the empty vodka bottles which are littered around are anything to go by. And I think back to the old guy waiting, with the patience of Job at the tram stop, and the dignity of his labour in a land where there is no safetly net, no bail outs, no State-provided pensions or benefits and I think, ok, each to their own, but while the streets and walk-ways of Brighton are liberally sprinkled with those who have long since given up on any ambitions to contribute to our economy for whatever reason, that is not an option for the shoe shine man or his millions of fellow workers all those long miles away in Istanbul.