Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Forests of Riga

Last weekend Ste and I went to Latvia for a long weekend.  I'd wanted to go for ages, having heard how beautiful Riga is, in particular the entire quarter that is apparently full of Art Nouveau buildings.  The city didn't disappoint: the old town is beautiful and genuinely charming, everyone seemed incredibly friendly and spoke amazingly good English, and the Art Nouveau section was stunning.  I really quite fell in love with the place.

Riga Old Town: Former German Merchants' "House of the Blackheads"

Art Nouveau Heaven

Riga Old Town

We even did one of those "Escape Room" things, where you're locked in an abandoned apartment and have an hour to escape through a door locked with 7 keys.  You have to find them by solving puzzles.  Just brilliant.  We also took a hire car on a day trip to neighbouring Lithuania, to the former northernmost German city: Memel (now Klaipeda) and the Curonian Spit on the Baltic Sea where Thomas Mann had a holiday home.  Russia (former German East Prussia) was 2km south of us, which was all a bit bizarre.

Ste, hiding his spray graffiti can near the abandoned apartment

On the Curonian Spit: Nida Sand Dunes in the distance


Anyway, that's enough about the lovely touristy bits.  We also visited the forests outside Riga, which is somewhere I've wanted to go for a while.  The background to that is that there's a fantastic project that began in Germany, which has extended across Europe, called Stolpersteine.  They're the idea of Cologne artist Günter Demnig, and mark the homes of holocaust victims with a small brass stone set into the pavement outside.  You now see them all over Berlin, or indeed Salzburg, for example.

All we know about the murdered 65 year old  Kleinhaus couple

They simply give the name, year of birth, date of deportation and date/place of death (if known) of the victims who previously lived in the house or apartment.  They personalise the holocaust and give names to the numbers, but still leave much to the imagination.

I'd noticed many times when seeing these stones in Germany that rather than the name of one of the extermination camps, they frequently gave "Riga" as the place of death.  I therefore wanted to know more.

1,000,000 murders

I thought myself relatively knowledgeable about the holocaust.  I knew that the broad chronology of the holocaust is: 1) expulsion; 2) creation of regular concentration camps; 3) creation in ghettos;  4) use of death squads (SS Einsatzgruppen); and then finally 5) the operation of the six extermination camps in Poland as killing factories.  What I hadn't computed until this point was that the number of deaths of the Nazi extermination camps totals about 3,150,000 people.  This figure represents only roughly half of the 6,000,000 total number killed, which obviously means an extraordinarily high number of Jews were murdered in places other than the gas chambers.  Somehow I automatically think "holocaust" and "gas chamber".  I guess many people do.

To my surprise, the figure attributable to the SS Einsatzgruppen is in fact in excess of 1,000,000 murders.  These killing squads followed behind the German lines after the invasion of the Eastern Poland, the Baltic States and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.  They were "personal" killings: mass shootings, but where soldiers took aim and fired at their victims individually from short range, rather than thousands of people being forced into a gas chamber and killed together.  The bulk of these killings took place before the decision was taken on 20 January 1942 to systematically murder all the Jews of Europe as the "Final Solution" at the Wannsee Conference just outside Berlin.

The subject of the Einsatzgruppen just doesn't seem to have caught the public imagination in the same way as the existence of Auschwitz has.  1,000,000 is a staggeringly high number.  It is also almost the same as the total number of people killed in Auschwitz, yet there are far fewer books, movies, documentaries or anything available on the subject - at least that I've seen.

Rumbula Forest

Where did these massacres take place, then?  Again I assumed they were many miles outside cities, in hidden deserted locations.  The first site we visited corrected that perception.

Right next to the main A6 dual carriageway, in what is now the built up suburbs of Riga, lies the site of the Rumbula Forest massacre.  It takes literally 12 minutes to drive there from the Old Town centre.  It's opposite a petrol station and less than 100 metres from the main road, which was already there during the War.  It is far from an isolated forest spot in the middle of nowhere.  It's more like a small woods.  Locals reported hearing the sounds of what took place there very clearly.

A black marble stone at the entrance to the site reads:
"Along this road in November and December 1941, Nazis and their local collaborators drove to death in the Rumbula Forest thousands of Jews from the Riga ghetto.  The erection of this monument is funded by the former ghetto prisoner Boris Kliot whose father Moses, mother Rosa, sisters Pesa, Mira, Bertha and Sarah were among those killed in Rumbula"

Victims on their way to the forest

What isn't made clear there is that the number of murders involved was 25,000 and that these all took place on just two days: 30 November and 8 December 1941.  It was the second most murderous operation of the SS death squads and isn't that far off the total number of prisoners who died in 12 years of operation of one most well-known "regular" German concentration camps, Dachau.  Only in Babi Yar, the ravine outside Kiev in Ukraine, were more killed: 33,771 in two days the previous September.

Actual scene photographed at Babi Yar.  No such photos exist of Rumbula.

It's so hard to envisage these numbers.  Think of 500 coaches lined up one behind the other, each full of 50 people: that is 25,000.  Or think about how crowded it is lining up at the gate to get on a typical Easyjet A319 plane.  Now think of 165 completely full plane loads, and you have 25,000 people.  These were vast lines of people, forced by hundreds of Latvian police and soldiers to march the 10km from the ghetto to the site.  The elderly, the sick, and little children were given lifts to the forest.  Those who refused to leave the ghetto were murdered on the spot, including (according to ghetto survivor Max Kaufmann) children thrown from third floor windows by "absolutely drunk" Latvians and Germans.

The central memorial at Rumbula Forest

Around 250 Russian prisoners of war had been forced to dig enormous deep pits in the forest in advance.  24,000 of the victims were Latvian Jews, all of whom previously had been forced to move and live in the Riga ghetto.  1,000 were Berlin Jews whose train from the west had arrived early (more of this below).  There was no space for them in the ghetto, so they were brought here and murdered.  Himmler had actually personally made a telephone call to Heydrich to try to prevent this happening in the so-called Keine Liquidierung ("no liquidation") phone call.  However, by the time he did so, all of the people on the train had already been murdered.

The victims lined up, were told to strip off, and were then told to lie down on top of dead victims already in the deep pits.  Around 12 men, German SS soldiers, did the actual shooting: an individual bullet to the back of the head, one by one.  25,000 of them.  There are horrific descriptions about not yet dead people writhing round in the pits, which I won't go into.

One of the many "burial" pits at Rumbula.  A simple stone marks each one.

Central memorial: murdered families together

After Rumbula

The reason that the Riga ghetto was "cleared" in this way, was that the government in Berlin had decided that Germany should become Judenrein ("Jew Free").  At this point there still hadn't been any concrete decision to murder all of European Jewry: as mentioned above, that came shortly afterwards in late January 1942.  Instead German Jews were to be shipped out of the country, eastwards, to either be worked to death or to die "naturally" in the appalling conditions of the overcrowded ghettos.

Himmler intervened to try to stop the 1000 Berlin Jews from being murdered, but his reasons are unclear.  Professor Fleming suggests it was because there were 40 cases of "unjustified" evacuation on the train: Iron Cross holders from WW1; or it may have been because the still neutral USA would react badly if news of the murders got out.  Professor Browning suggests it was because the SS found it harder to murder German Jews who looked and spoke like them, as well as a desire to postpone the killings, so they could be done in greater secrecy.

By the summer of 1942 such considerations had long passed or been dealt with though.  The Rumbula massacre had been witnessed by leading Nazis.  Rudolf Lange was one of them, and he was one of the 15 who attended the Wannsee Conference.  He reported that even the hardened SS had had issues about shooting assimilated German Jews.  Likewise Wilhelm Kube objected to German Jews "who come from our cultural circle" being casually murdered by German soldiers.  Mass shootings were ruled out as impractical for the millions of intended victims, and the industrial methods of murder perfected in the extermination camps therefore evolved.  German Jewry was most certainly now to be included in these plans.

Bikernieki Forest

The German Jews who arrived in Riga found houses that had clearly been left in some considerable rush.  One of the first transports, other than the ill-fated Berlin one, was the Bielefeld Transport of 1000 Jews from what is now North Rhine Westphalia.  I lived for two years in Bielefeld and went to junior school there.  They reportedly found cooked food on the tables, frozen solid, blood stains, and even dead bodies that were discovered up to two months later.

In theory these German Jews had been given a year's extra life by the "Keine Liquidierung call".  Many actually died in the terrible conditions of the ghetto from starvation and disease.  Those who survived through to the summer of 1942 were brought out to Bikernieki Forest, also now in the suburbs of Riga, but to the north of Rumbula.

Just east of Bikernieki is Riga University Hospital
The forest is much larger than Rumbula.  Today it's a popular place for joggers and walkers from the city.  People picnic here and go sleighing and cross-country skiing in winter.  It is littered with 55 separate mass graves like the one below.

One of the 55 mass graves in the Bikernieki Forest

Here in Bikernieki, a similar operation to the Rumbula one occurred: 12,000 German Jews, as well as remaining Latvian Jews, some Czech Jews, Latvian political opponents of the Nazis, and Soviet Prisoners of War, were forced into pits and shot, but over a much longer period.  The total number of victims murdered in Bikernieki is around 30,000 over the entire period of 1941 to 1944.  Despite later efforts to exhume and burn the bodies, around 20,000 bodies are estimated to still lie there.  People go jogging here.

Bikernieki Forest Massacres Central Memorial

The Bikernieki Forest memorial was designed by a Russian architect, and paid for by the German War Crimes Commission, and the German and Austrian governments, with donations from several German cities.  It is a stunning memorial, and it choked me with emotion - even more than Rumbula.  There are two reasons for that: the more peaceful setting, and the huge area the mass graves take up in the forest; but for me it was the jagged stones you see above.   They are gathered in areas around the central structure and symbolise the relative numbers of victims from 16 particular Jewish communities in Germany (plus two more for Vienna and Prague).  The names I saw on the markers in front of the stones simply floored me. 

Gütersloh: where I went to senior school

Münster: where Dad was stationed when he met Mutti

Coesfeld: where my cousin and his family live

Steinfurt: a tiny town just 25km from Mutti's home town

And Bielefeld: where I lived and went to junior school

I had no idea this place specifically was so related to the fate of the Jews of North Rhine Westphalia.  To get some sense of what this meant to me, I'd like you to imagine seeing place names from the area you live in.  Names incredibly familiar to you.  Ones that you've grown up with.  For me that's Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Manningtree; or Portsmouth, Southampton, Chichester.  Towns big and small.  And then imagine you encounter them, out of the blue, in the middle of a distant pine forest in a foreign country, 1000 miles away from where the towns are.  And they mark the place where people from those towns you know so well were forced to undress, to lie on top of their dead family members, friends, and neighbours, and received a bullet in the back of their heads one by one.  

I nearly vomited it affected me so much.

I guess it shouldn't have had this effect: for example I've seen Polish place names on stones like this in Treblinka, and they were victims just like these - but it was the familiarity and the surprise that did it.  I guess these were victims "from my cultural circle" and for some reason that really mattered.  I'm actually in tears again writing this.  Of all the holocaust sites I've visited, Bikernieki left me the most stunned and the most upset.

Earth, don't cover my blood.
Let my cry have no place to rest.


Unfortunately, I also felt another emotion as I visited both of the forest sites, in addition to the crushing sadness.  Despite loving the city and having had a sensational time there, it was some amount of anger towards the city of Riga and the country of Latvia.  As mentioned, the Nazis had not chosen particularly distant or hidden places for the forest massacres, but the present day authorities certainly hadn't made our job finding them very easy.  All along our drive through Latvia we'd seen those brown tourist signs pointing out places of interest: picnic sites, beauty points, ostrich farms, crappy pilgrimage churches - the country is apparently just full of fantastic places worthy of a visit.

Baron Münchhausen's birthplace. Most definitely deserves a sign.

Yet, here, for two sites where a total of 55,000 people had been butchered in acts of genocide right on the outskirts of the capital city, there was nothing.  Not one road sign pointing the way from the centre of town, not one sign to show you'd actually found the places successfully.  The marker point for Rumbula on Google Maps via TripAdvisor was in the wrong place, and I only found the site using a Jewish website that gave the correct coordinates.

There was no information in the Riga city guides in our hotel, and we saw no one who offered guided tours out to the places for people without hire cars.  There were no visitor facilities at the sites at all.  There was no museum, and no attempt to explain what had happened in detail through information signs: the background, the perpetrators, or any of the information I've dug out and put in this blog post.  There are no WC's, no proper car park at Bikernieki, and only a dirt track leading to the one at Rumbula, where the carpark had a solitary overflowing rubbish bin.

The memorials, which are incredibly beautiful, have been privately funded.  The German War Graves Commission pays for the upkeep of the Bikernieki one, which is apparently regularly vandalised and has to be repaired. 

I don't expect crass commercialisation around such sites.  I do expect some indication, though, that people in the country actually care about them, and think they're worthy of having their existence recognised.  Compare this to places where far fewer people have died and the way they are marked: the 9/11 memorial or Pearl Harbor are obvious examples.  Even the memorial in London to animals who died in the war has far greater prominence than these sites.  55,000 people were murdered here.  I'm afraid I can't help thinking that if the victims had been Latvian gentiles, a lot more would have been made of it.  But they were Jews, who (similar to the situation in Poland) apparently don't count as Latvians, and instead seem to form a different "nationality".  They were of course murdered with the active assistance of a lot of local people - some of whose grandchildren casually go jogging past these genocide sites on the edge of their city, I guess.

It's partly for this reason that I've written this post.  It is our duty to remember them: those who died in these horrific circumstances, butchered in two distant forests in Eastern Europe, because of the group they belonged to.  The Talmud says that "a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten"  I can't hope to remember all 55,000, but I know I will never forget the names of Rumbula and Bikernieki, now I've been to them.  And it's now actually sunk in that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other sites across the former Soviet Union where similar acts took place, on a smaller scale. 1,000,000 victims.  That surely deserves an enormous amount of recognition.

May they be remembered, and may they rest in peace

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Collie Puppies: What's in a Name?

I suppose I could actually just post a load of Hector and Florian collie baby photos as that's basically the purpose of this post... But instead, let's dress it up as something about the meanings of their names and illustrate it with lots of random collie baby photos instead!

Back in the horrible months last year after I'd lost Oscar, we didn't know what colour collie puppy we were going to get, but we were clear on what name whichever pup it was would receive:
  • Leopold for a tricolour puppy
  • Florian for a sable puppy
  • Hector for a blue merle puppy
As it turns out, of course, we got both a blue merle AND a sable, so used up two of those names.

Hector (L) and Florian (R)

Why did we decide on the names?  Well I've always been interested in the meanings of names and thought they suited the various colours somehow.  Oscar's name was Germanic and meant "Spear of Light" which was wonderfully ironic given his jet black coat, and the fact his pedigree name was "Tameila After Dark".  More importantly though, I just loved the actual sound of the names themselves.  I'd personally so much rather have been called something interesting like one of these names than just boring old "Peter".

Snapped on a visit to Aunty Jennie - @pensionlawyeruk


So let's start with the name Florian first of all.  It's a Latin name, after a Roman soldier and Christian martyr called Florianus.  That is not incidentally pronounced "flory anus" as Ste would have it.  They were going to burn Florianus, but he came out with some nonsense about the flames carrying him up to Jesus, so just to be cute they tied a stone round his neck and lobbed him in the Danube instead, where he drowned.  That taught him and he didn't do it ever again.

Anyway, the name lives on very strongly in Austria, the Southern part of Germany, and Poland in particular - though I've also come across it in Northern Germany and Holland.  The town of Sankt Florian, which is on the Danube, is off the Salzburg-Vienna A1 motorway as the snap above I took this summer proves.  I always get desperately excited when I see his name anywhere.  LOOK, for example!

Saint Florian is the patron saint of firefighters (and chimney sweeps) which kinda makes sense given his watery end.  Superstitious Austrian and Bavarian peasants would often name one of their sons "Florian" as either a first or middle name, because they believed it would protect the family home from fire.  Very old fashioned German speakers say "Call Florian!" when they're referring to the fire brigade.

Somewhat oversized Florian putting out a house fire

And most splendidly there's something in German called the "Floriansprinzip".  It translates roughly as "NIMBYISM" and you see it carved onto old wooden farmhouses.  It reads:
Heiliger Sankt Florian / Verschon' mein Haus / Zünd' and're an!
That translates as "Holy Saint Florian / Spare my House / Set fire to other people's."  Gotta love Christians.
The name Florian might be popular in Central Europe, but clearly it's not in Britain.  A fellow dog walker in my village asked his name and said "oh that's a mouthful" with great disdain.  No, dear, Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Oscar winning German director's name, is a mouthful.  FLOR-I-AN really isn't.  Three not really terribly tricky syllables, you see.

Florian, the collie, is such a little flower as it turns out.  He is the softest, cuddliest, most affectionate, fat little womble imaginable.  I've never seen a dog greet other doggies or people so warmly and affectionately.  His entire body wags, not just his tail.  Here he is with his fox toy, already looking like the huge fluffy teddy lion that he's destined to become when he becomes an adult.  He's just gorgeous

It also turns out he's also rather good at chess.  Here he is about to beat Ste, paws down.  Look at his sweet little furry face and button eyes.  Descended from a wolf?  More like descended from a stuffed toy.

One rather adorable aspect to Florian physically is his enormous fat collie bum.  The pup has junk in his trunk as the expression apparently goes, and it seems he's quite unaware of it.  I had to snap this photo of him wedged between a chair and a sofa: he was just standing there utterly perplexed.  His big nose had fitted through, so why couldn't the rest of him?

When you think you're a size zero, but you're a size 18

And how about this photo below?  His arse is ENORMOUS.  It genuinely is mostly fluff by the way: although nothing is more important in Florian's life than his dinner, you can actually feel his ribs and the vet has confirmed he's a really healthy weight.  He just has a VERY BIG BUM and looks like an oversized golden WOMBLE.

"Does my bum look big in this fur?!"

Also, just to prove he isn't an entirely sedentary fluff ball, he can move when he feels like it.  Here's a lovely 30 second clip of him taunting Hector and racing round my sitting room and destroying my little back garden (opens in a new window).  Below there's a great photo of him play-attacking his big brother in the front garden of our farm where they go every day and have a lot more room to stretch their paws.


Florian is gold and his name is Latin.  Hector is his opposite number: he is silver coloured, and his name is Greek.  It means "holding fast".  If you know your Greek mythology, or indeed if you've letched over Eric Banana and Orlando Bloom (phwooooooar) in their little leather skirts in the Hollywood blockbuster Troy, you'll know that Prince Hector was the greatest fighter for Troy in the Trojan Wars.  He "holds fast" and is loyalty embodied: courageous, noble and courtly.  So much so, in fact, that he deserves his name on a can of Coke Zero.

Hmmm. What went wrong with my Hector, the collie, then?  Haha, he's a total hooligan: the naughtiest little scamp imaginable.  You can see the brightness and mischief in his eyes.  He always seems to be smiling, contemplating what next he can get up to.  Just look at his cheeky little mug.  He adores me and is very loyal by my side... until some opportunity for naughtiness comes along, and then he's off!

We chose "Hector" in part because we thought it was a really old-fashioned name: a little old gentleman's name.  Blue Merles look old even as young dogs because of their amazing markings and mottled coat, so it seemed to fit.

And wow, his coat is coming along stunningly.  His mane is growing very long and full, and as you can see above his "skirt" (the long hair between his front and back paws) is also really quite full for a 9 month old pup.  I can't wait until they both get their winter coats, because they are going to look utterly magnificent.

Speaking of coats, I've invested in some splendid flying jackets for the winter, and some lighter anoraks to keep them dry during autumn and spring.  You don't want to have a wet collie in the house: much less two of them.  These keep them surprisingly dry in a downpour: all you need to do is towel their heads and paws, and almost all of them is bone dry underneath.

Hector is such a smart dog he even went for a graduate office job interview the other day.  Well, it was either that, or his Daddy went and put a tie round his neck for no specific reason, and took a photo of it.  I'll let the reader decide.  Check out the smile again: collies really are grinning the whole time.  And there's nothing happier than a happy dog, let's face it.

I think we need one more photo of that cheesy grin.  Here he is at the farm, all proud because he has a plum.  What more reason do you need to smile from ear to ear and aren't his colours stunning?  Every Blue Merle has different markings and is completely unique.


Leopold, if you're wondering, means as brave as a lion, and the name is Germanic.  I still have in mind that once I've moved and built my new house that Leopold may arrive, perhaps in 2 or 3 years time.  So watch this space for a little tricolour collie baby in due course.  It might even by Florian's son, if I can work it.

What a grumpy little Baby Leopold might look like....


Now let's finish up with some wonderful shots and a video from a day out at Holkham Beach in North Norfolk with Ste.  It's just glorious up there and one of my favourite places to walk.  First there's the approach through the green dunes with that delicious salty sea air that drives the boys nuts.

Then comes this splendid photo of the big East Anglian sky and the totally unspoiled sandy golden beach, which stretches as far as you can see.  And of course two rather handsome collie princes.

Collies don't normally like water.  Apparently instinct tells them that if their huge fur coats get weighed down with water they will get exhausted quickly when swimming and drown.  They aren't waterproof like other dogs with big coats such as Newfoundlands, for example.  But all that said, in they went, and they loved it, even though some coaxing was required when it got up past chest height! 

That's Florian in the distance above, of course.  And here he is running on the sand in the weirdest position imaginable.  I'm sure that's not supposed to happen with their paws, but he looks happy enough.  Look, another huge great collie grin!  I think he's probably doing an impression of a Cromer Crab or something.

Now what do good collies who go in the water get?  Well a huge snog from one of their daddies of course.  And Hector loves giving collie kissies, as the photo shows.

This short video in SLO-MO (!) is just wonderful.  Ste races them both, and of course athletic sexy Hector beats him paws down.  Poor fatty Floofian tries to keep up, but with that huge collie booty it just isn't going to work.  Watch Hector catch up and race past him 1m 15s in.  Here's a still from the video.  Amazing.

Now what does a tired collie at the end of a 2 hour walk need when he gets home (other than drying off, being fed, and being brushed)?  More snogs of course.  And Ste is a willing victim.  Once Hector has him on the floor, there's no escaping.

And that's it from Collie Cottage with our update.  Keep tuned, there will be more.  They photograph so perfectly and I'm always willing to bore anyone interested with sharing it all.  Last of all, probably my favourite photo of the pair to date, snuggled into each other, from a couple of months back when they were looking a bit younger.

They are so cuddly, furry, happy, and bring me so much joy.  Every moment of the day.  Florian and Hector.  Latin and Greek.    Loving and Naughty.  Needy and Independent.  Bootylicious and Svelte.  Tim-Nice-but-Dim and Incredibly Bright.  Gold and Silver.  They're the perfect collie complement to one another: my little princes.

Thanks for reading, we're off on a walk!  Love and licks,

Peter, Hector & Florian x

Sunday, 9 August 2015


I was lucky enough to visit the wonderful brand new Polish Jewish Museum in Warsaw during a two week holocaust study trip I led last month to Poland.  It's located in the heart of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto and is a celebration of 1000 years of flourishing Jewish life in Poland.

It is a stunning post-modern building and tells the story of how the Jews of the Rhineland moved eastwards to settle in what is today's Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.  They brought their language, Yiddish, (or Jüdisch in German) and German sounding surnames (Sonnenschein, Hirsch, Goldberg, Morgenstern, Spielberg, Silverstern etc.) with them.  The museum's highlight is probably a staggeringly beautiful full size reconstruction of the painted interior of a 17th century wooden synagogue.

The Warsaw Polish Jewish Museum

This part of the world formed the heart of Jewish life in Europe.  Poland's Jewish population numbered around 3.5 million, or 10% of the entire country before WW2.  By comparison the Jewish population of the UK today is around 290,000 or just 0.45%.  Lwów had a 45% Jewish population, Cracow 25%, while Berdychiv in neighbouring Ukraine was 80% Jewish, with 80 synagogues serving the local population.  Warsaw, where one in three residents was a Jew, was second only to New York in the total number of Jewish residents.  The city was the crown of European Jewry.  

The reconstructed Gwoździec synagogue inside the museum

Then, brutally, and without any warning, the story in the museum changes to the German invasion of September 1939, and to the horrors of the holocaust that followed.  The 3.5 million Jewish population of Poland was decimated: 90% were murdered by the Nazis in those short six years.  Jewish Europe's "New York" ended up primarily in the gas chambers of the death camp at Treblinka.  And there the story stops.  Nowadays there are an absolute maximum of 20,000 Jews in the country (0.05% of the population).

All of this was amazingly well told in the way that only brand new museums can do, but for someone really interested in this whole subject, one name was missing for me in the exhibits: a town called Kielce.  It's 3 hours south of Warsaw and I decided to stop there with my group on our way to Cracow for a look round.

The Kielce Jewish House

When we arrived in the nondescript former mining town, ringed by grim communist tower blocks, I wondered what we would find there and how this would go down with the group.  Using the wonders of Google Maps on my iPhone, I got the driver to drop us off close to the centre.  Just as our coach pulled up, three coaches filled with kippah-wearing orthodox Jewish high schoolers from New Jersey were getting ready to leave.  I trusted this meant we weren't barking entirely up the wrong tree.  Other than them we saw no other foreign visitors at all in the town.

After lunch, I took my group the 5 minutes from the town square to Planty Street 7, an address I had found on the internet.  And there it was: a neat, ordinary looking house next to the little Silnica river that flows through the town.  The images on the side perhaps give a clue as to what this once was: the former "Jewish House" of the local community.  On a trip that was full of remembrance of horrors, this one stood out for a number of reasons.

Planty Street 7, Kielce

On 1 July 1946 the Jewish House was home to around 200 Polish Jews.  These were people who had by miracle survived the starvation, disease and death in the ghettos (there had been one here in Kielce), the murder squads of Einsatzgruppen that followed behind the German army front line, and the living hell of Nazi concentration camps.  Around 1/3 of Kielce had been Jewish just seven years before: some 24,000 of their fellow community members had perished in this time.  The handful of returning holocaust survivors often found their reception hostile.  Their homes had been taken over, and Catholic neighbours who had been entrusted with possessions were not always forthcoming in returning them.  This is classic, historic Christian-Jewish economic rivalry and jealousy in action.  But what happened here went way beyond that.  It was a little over a year after the War had ended.

The Pogrom

That day, 1 July 1946, an eight year old local Catholic boy called Henryk Błaszczyk disappeared.  His father reported him missing, and when he reappeared on 3 July, he told his father he had been kidnapped (actually he'd been visiting a friend in a village 25km away).  A family friend suggested this was probably the work of Jews or Gypsies.  On their way to the police station, young Henryk pointed to the Jewish House and a Jew standing outside and said he had been held there in the cellar.

On the morning of 4 July the police dispatched a force of 12 men to search the property and let it known more widely that they would be searching for the bodies of other Christian children who had disappeared and allegedly been "ritually murdered".  At the same time around 100 soldiers and five officers were also sent along and a crowd rapidly assembled and began pelting the house with stones.  The police and soldiers entered the house forcibly.  Their search rather unsurprisingly revealed no bodies and more to the point, no cellar.  Henryk had been lying.

Faces of some of the victims

Firing broke out inside the house and Dr Kahane, a holocaust survivor and head of the local Jewish Committee, was shot in the back by an officer and killed.  He had been trying to call the Kielce Office of Public Security for help.  The soldiers forced the Jewish residents out of the house into the hands of the angry Christian mob.  By noon up to 1000 steel workers had assembled and began to physically attack the handful of Jews with steel rods and clubs.  Twenty were clubbed to death in the street outside the house.  Others were stoned to death in the river.  Nine were shot by the police or soldiers.  Two were stabbed to death with bayonets.  The killing frenzy lasted over a period of all a full five hours, with attendant security forces not only failing to intervene, but actually responsible for starting the the violence.
The sight of the large, modern apartment house on Planty Street was the ultimate in ruthless havoc. ... The immense courtyard was still littered with bloodstained iron pipes, stones and clubs, which had been used to crush the skulls of Jewish men and women. Blackening puddles of blood still remained. ... Blood-drenched papers were scattered on the ground — sticky with gore, they clung to the earth though a strong wind blew through the yard.
S. L. Schneiderman, “Between Fear and Hope, 1947

The violence spilled over into other parts of the town.  A Kielce resident and former concentration camp inmate described a Jew being beaten in the head and face on Sienkiewicz Street by a group of 8 young Poles:
I would like to mention that as a former prisoner of concentration camps I had not gone through an experience like this. I have seen very little sadism and bestiality of this scale.
Other Jewish survivors were taken from their homes elsewhere in Kielce, including Regina Fisz, who was murdered along with her baby Abram.  He was three weeks old.  He was apparently killed with his mother "whilst trying to escape".   Jews not killed, but injured (sometimes seriously), were robbed and beaten by soldiers on their way to hospital, and wounded Jews were also attacked in their beds by other patients.  Trains out of town were searched for Jews trying to escape the violence and at least two more victims were thrown off moving trains and killed.

A total of 40 Jews (and 2 non-Jews) were murdered during this post-holocaust bloodbath.  It occurred just 69 years ago in a peacetime European nation.  Two somewhat understated and technically inaccurate plaques on the wall of the house at Planty Street 7 mark the events.

One of the remembrance plaques

1000 Years of History Ended 

News of the horrors tore through the battered post-holocaust Polish Jewish community.  Almost all of the surviving Jews in Poland took the massacre as their prompt to leave the country.  For many it was the signal that there could no longer be any Jewish life or future in this country.  A flood of 150,000 survivors had left the country by the spring of 1947.  This was the final end to the 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland.

That's why it's so surprising to me that Kielce wasn't even featured in the Warsaw Jewish Museum.  Or perhaps not.  The Polish police, soldiers, steelworkers and Christian mob in Kielce in many ways finished the work of the Nazis in making the heart of European Jewry Judenrein - and that's a very uncomfortable narrative to deal with.

Polish WW2 Collaboration

The museum is keen to stress that Judaism and Christianity co-existed peacefully in Poland for centuries.   That is true to a great extent, but co-existence is just the word.  It was as if there were two separate nations living within the country for most of the time.  Unlike in other countries where Jews assimilated, at least to some extent, and became for example French or Dutch Jews, in Poland most Jews retained their own language (Yiddish), schools, theatres and other community structures to a remarkable extent.  They traded and mixed with Polish Catholics, but they remained Jews, not Poles.  The sheer size of the communities tended to keep them safe.

During WW2 Poland suffered horrendously.  Nazi crimes were instant and they were particularly brutal.  Poland lost a total of 17% of its population during the war (just under 6 million total, which the Poles interestingly still tend to split into "Jewish" and "Polish" victims).  Only far smaller Belarus endured a higher death rate at the hands of the Germans at 25%.  Britain lost less than 1%.  Unlike in Western Europe, the sentence in occupied Poland for even giving a single night's help to a Jew was the death penalty instantly.  Anne Frank's helpers did not face any such penalty in the Netherlands, for example, and only two of the men who gave help to the hidden group over a far longer period spent any time at all imprisoned (one for just 7 weeks).

Despite this there are 6,532 righteous gentiles from Poland honoured at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, more than from any other single country.  These are Polish Christians who aided Jews in the horrific circumstances of the German occupation at enormous risk to themselves.

Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

It is also actually quite uncontroversial to assert that collaboration between Poles and Nazis during WW2 was considerably less than in other occupied countries.  Israeli War Crimes Commission statistics indicate that less than 0.1% of Polish gentiles collaborated with the Nazis.  This wasn't neighbouring Catholic Slovakia, for example, where the fascist government of priest Father Tiso paid RM500 per person for the Nazis to systematically deport and murder its own Jewish population.  Nor even is it France, where it was French police who rounded up Jews for the Germans.

However, the picture isn't quite that simple.  There might be 6,532 righteous gentiles in Poland, but equally this is geographically where the vast bulk of European Jews who needed help were located.  By way of demonstation, Poland had 3,500,000 Jews whereas the Netherlands had just 120,000.  Yet there are 5,413 Dutch righteous gentiles, which means that there is one righteous gentile for every 22 Jews in Holland.  In Poland the ratio is one righteous gentile for every 535 Jews.  These numbers tell the story from a very different angle.

Then there are the clear examples where Poles did join in with Nazi genocide: The 1941 massacre at Jedwabne is the most well-known example, where 340 Jews were herded together, beaten, then locked in a barn and burnt to death by ordinary Polish villagers working on German orders.

In addition it's an obvious and simplistic mistake to assume that non-collaboration with the Nazis of itself precludes the existence of widespread antisemitic attitudes.  Just because Poles hated and feared the Germans, it does not mean that they didn't also harbour deep feelings of animosity towards the Jews.  And that same utter hatred can go a long way to explaining a lack of desire in working alongside them, whatever their endeavours and targets.

Christian Roots

The Kielce Pogrom did not come from nowhere.  The number of people involved, the level of the violence and the nature of the prejudices (primarily the blood libel one) clearly had deep roots somewhere.

The blood libel charge, if you're not familiar with it, is that Jews murdered Christian children for their religious ceremonies.  It dates back to Easter 1144 when the Jews of my local city, Norwich, were accused by Christians of crucifying a local boy, William, and using his blood for their passover celebrations.  The charge was spread repeatedly around England and later Europe, and used to justify Christian attacks on and murders of Jews.  Apparently Christian blood was necessary for making matzo bread.  This clearly unhinged allegation was still so powerful in Catholic Kielce in 1946 that it led to these events.

Salve Maria etc.

No serious holocaust historian in fact disputes the Christian Church as the historical driving force behind hatred of, persecution of, and attacks on Jews.  It is the starting point of every discussion on the subject.  Recently deceased Professor Robert Wistrich was one of the all time leading scholars on the history of antisemitism.  His seminal work "Antisemitism: the Longest Hatred" carried the strap line "From the Cross to the Swastika". 
Without centuries of Christian antisemitism, Hitler's passionate hatred would never have been so fervently echoed...because for centuries Christians have held Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.  On Good Friday Jews, have in times past, cowered behind locked doors with fear of a Christian mob seeking 'revenge' for deicide.  Without the poisoning of Christian minds through the centuries, the Holocaust is unthinkable.
You might think the above are the words of someone who is biased towards the Church.  In fact they belong to Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  The narrative was repeated again and again from pulpits across Christian Europe over the space of centuries.  Professor Hans Küng of Tübingen University reinforces the sentiment.  Father Küng is a Catholic priest:
"Nazi anti-Judaism was the work of godless, anti-Christian criminals. But it would not have been possible without the almost two thousand years' pre-history of 'Christian' anti-Judaism"
It therefore would actually be somewhat surprising if the heavily Catholic Polish nation (still one of the most observant Christian nations in Europe today) were not antisemitic given the involvement of the Church in the history of the persecution of the Jews.  It was only in 1964, in fact, almost twenty years after the holocaust and after heavy lobbying by a French Jewish holocaust survivor, that Rome dropped the collective charge against the Jewish people that they had been the "murders of God".  A more serious crime in the minds of their believers cannot exist.

Reaction of the Church to Kielce

We now come to what is for me the most staggering part of the story.  The fact that violent, uneducated and indoctrinated Christians, motivated by economic concerns and superstitious tripe fed to them by their spiritual mentors, did such an act is depressing enough.   Poland in 1946, although behind the nascent "Iron Curtain", was still far from entirely cut off from the rest of Europe and the world.  News of the horrors of Kielce caused a sensation in the United States in particular, where full details of the holocaust were still coming out.  The reaction of the Catholic Church in Poland caused as much of a stir as the events.

The tiny surviving Kielce Jewish community had been attacked by hand grenade just before Christmas 1945 whilst celebrating the holiday of Hannukah: the first such celebration since the holocaust.  The community approached the Bishop of Kielce to ask him to tell his flock not to attack Jews.  He refused and said it was "no surprise that they had been attacked" because they [the rag tag group of holocaust survivors] were trying to control public life in the country.  This came straight from the widespread belief that Jews were all communists and a dislike of the new political direction of the country under Soviet control.   Just as with the Nazis, Jews were accused both of being world capitalists and communists: total opposites, but logic did not come into it.

Meanwhile the Bishop of Lublin added that the question of Jews' use of Christian blood in their religious ceremonies had "never been completely clarified".  This is a Catholic bishop, a highly educated senior Catholic cleric, repeating in 1946 the early medieval blood libel charge, post holocaust.

Because of these somewhat disturbing utterances, the US ambassador to Poland demanded that the Archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal August Hlond, hold a press conference to set out the position of the Catholic Church on the massacre.  He did condemn the violence, a week after it had taken place, but tried to explain it away with reference to rumours about the killing of Polish children by Jews.  He omitted to explain these had historically been put out by the Church itself, and went on to blame the deterioration in relations with Jews on their "occupying leading positions in Poland in state life."

Wawel Cathedral, Cracow

The Archbishop of Cracow, Prince Adam Cardinal Sapieha, who is buried in the resting place of kings and national heros, Wawel Cathedral, and is worshipped as a saint by the population there, voiced similar sentiments.  He suggested that the Jews had brought the murderous pogrom on themselves.  He ordained the young Karol Wojtyła as a priest a few months afterwards.

Finally the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII was pressed to end his silence some three months later, and to condemn the killings by Rabbi Bernstein, the US advisor on Jewish affairs to Europe.  The Pope declined to do so, claiming that it was difficult to communicate with the Church in Poland because of its position behind the Iron Curtain.  Communication clearly improved at some point because Karol Wojtyła went on to become Pope John Paul II.  Strangely enough that was in 1978 when the Cold War was far more intensively underway than in 1946.  Hey ho.

Cardinal Hlond and Pope Pius XII have both been declared "Servants of God" by Rome decades later and are being canonised.  Saintly men. 

Persistent Attitudes

The Polish president described the events in 2006 as a "crime and a great shame for the Poles and tragedy for the Polish Jews" but tried to tried to brush off characterisations about Poland being an antisemitic nation as a stereotype.

I remember being puzzled during visits to Cracow, a city I absolutely love, by paintings of orthodox Jews counting their bags of money.  They were openly on sale in the Old Town, and were displayed in tourist restaurants.  I asked a Polish friend what they were about: she replied they were hung up because Jews are thought to have lots of money.  Therefore people believe that having a painting of a Jew counting his bags of gold in their home would bring good fortune to the property.  A cruder and more basic antisemitic stereotype is hard to imagine. 

A Jew counting his money bags. Poland, 2015.

A young, educated and otherwise perfectly lovely Cracow city guide, who showed me the Helena Rubinstein birth house in the former Jewish district of town, then said to me "You might wonder why it is in such a state.  I mean, show me a Jew who doesn't have money."  One comment like this doesn't make an entire country of antisemites, but it sure took my breath away - and I found the fact she was comfortable expressing it to a relatively complete stranger fascinating.

Beyond this inherently unreliable anecdotes, seventy years on there is however ample academic proof that antisemtic attitudes are widespread in the country.  A report by Professor Bilewicz of Warsaw University put before the Polish parliament in 2013 reported the following:
  • 63% of Poles believe in a Jewish conspiracy to control international banking and the media (classic modern day antisemitic stereotype, expounded by the Nazis)
  • 23% of Poles blame Jews for the murder of Jesus Christ and believe that Christian blood is used in Jewish rituals (traditional Christian based antisemitic views)
  • The 23% statistic represents an increase of 8% over the number who held these views in 2009
Another recent 2014 Polish survey showed that:
  • 44% of Warsaw High School students wouldn't want a Jewish neighbour
  • Over 50% of Polish youth visit antisemitic websites 
  • Prejudice is growing in particular amongst young Poles, who are of course the future of the country
These figures are staggeringly high and quite remarkable for a country where there are virtually no Jews left.  Professor Dariusz Stola, director of the wonderful Polish Jewish Museum above, has little doubt where Polish prejudice comes from: it is classical anti-Semitism rooted in the belief that the Jews killed Jesus Christ.  She believes that roughly a quarter of Poles can be labelled hardcore antisemitic.

God Help Us

So there we have it.  A thoroughly depressing, barbaric event that is probably completely unknown to most of my readers.  Amongst all the stories of barbarity during the holocaust it has a special place because it occurred afterwards, with knowledge of these crimes, by a group of predominantly ordinary people, over a space of five full hours, aimed at survivors of the genocide.  The Catholic Church's reaction is depressing, telling, and of course typically utterly abhorrent.  I didn't think my respect for the institution could sink much further, but it has.

If antisemitic attitudes are indeed increasing in the country, it is not enough for politicians to just dismiss them as a crude stereotype.  They have to be acknowledged and worked against.  It is up to the 75% of the Polish population in this wonderful country that I love so much to challenge the views of the other 25%.  The victims of Kielce deserve to be remembered, which is why I wrote this lengthy blog post. If we cannot learn from it, we really are screwed.

With Smok the Dragon, Cracow Castle

Let's end on a happy note.  This is my wonderful group who accompanied me on the tour.  27 high schoolers from New Jersey who gave up two weeks of their summer to visit Warsaw, Treblinka, Kielce, Cracow, Auschwitz, Olomouc, Prague, Theresienstadt, Lidice, Amsterdam and Westerbork with me.  I'm so glad these type of people exist in the world as well.  One of them, 17 year old Matt (with the camera in the front), created this beautiful 4 minute short film "Perspectives" during the tour.  It really does deserve a watch!