Archive for July, 2020

Urszula Muskus: The Long Bridge

July 20, 2020

51zCItVj88L._AC_UY218_     The generation of Polish exiles from after the Second World War has virtually died off now, the people and their sad stories largely forgotten. I’m only aware of it because of my origins, and there is no way to sensitively phrase the idea that my father had an ‘easier’ time than many of his fellow-countryfolk – only two years in a Stalinist concentration camp, hundreds of miles of trekking, avoiding starvation and disease eventually to reach Britain via Persia and South Africa. Then never going home or seeing his parents again… Some of his comrades did return after the war, lured by homesickness and propaganda. They disappeared.

Too few of the Poles who suffered when their country was wiped from the map in September 1939 after a secret agreement by two international thugs (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) have consigned their stories to print so that the memories of those days and their aftermath may be preserved. I have slowly amassed a small collection of these over the years, and Urszula Muskus’ story is one of the more remarkable of these.

For starters, it’s a woman’s story and there are fewer of these, and in many ways women, with their children, had a harder time than their menfolk who were mostly soldiers and in some vague and notional way treated as POWs by Stalin’s henchmen, or else were intellectuals and so quickly murdered. Most of the ordinary footsoldiers eventually found their way to Britain, then to battle at Monte Cassino, Normandy or Arnhem. Mothers, wives and children seem to have been dispersed much more widely across the vastnesses of the Soviet Union; their journeys to some kind of freedom were so much longer and more difficult; I am still discovering new routes that they took… And being civilians, as well as technically Soviet citizens, made their lives harder.

Urszula Muskus was carted off into imprisonment with her family; although she did not find out until much later, her husband was shot soon after because he had been involved in Poland’s war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Briefly she was involved with the formation of General Anders’ army in 1942 before being spirited away by the secret police and sentenced to ten years hard labour for ‘espionage’. Having served out her sentence she was then sent into internal exile until an eventual amnesty allowed her to leave…sixteen years of her life taken away, her children growing up away from her.

What impresses most is the measured, factual tone of her narrative, and her innate good will: nothing seems to throw her, although of course the account is written with many years of hindsight and reflection. She retains her sensitivity to the beauties of nature – and there are many in the depths of Kazakhstan, where she spent most of her time – despite the privations, clearly seeking and managing to derive spiritual comfort and support from them. Through a litany of personal tragedies – separation from her husband and children being only the beginning – her strength of character comes across very powerfully, as does the utter inhumanity and perversion of Stalin’s gulag system. And there are many kind and like-minded people of all nationalities she encounters, sharing her life with briefly until they are separated again at the whim of the authorities. In her summative comments and reflections on her experiences in the closing chapters there is no bitterness at what she has had to endure; life goes on in a new place, and she is at last reunited with her children who have long been in England.

One of the reasons so many of these stories have vanished into history is the understandable unwillingness of so many to recall and recount what they went through: my father let small details and general facts be known, but little more. What he and his Polish comrades used to talk about among themselves in Polish I never knew, and he wouldn’t say. But I think it’s really important that these stories not be forgotten, and books like this preserve them.

Learnt in lockdown

July 15, 2020

I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year at the start of lockdown (no surprise there!) and thought I’d keep my own journal of this year’s experiences; that resolution lasted a few days, as there was so little to record. All the days were the same, melting into an endless fudge of time, so that frequently I cannot recall what day of the week it is, and end up at the end of a month wondering where the hell it went. However, after several months of nowhere near as much reading as I thought I might be doing, I have found myself taking stock with a longer-term perspective:

I miss: grandchildren very much, all the people I used to meet in my language classes (Zoom is there but no substitute for real interaction and company), my weekly yoga session – I’m getting stiffer – and the spiritual support of my local Quaker meeting (again Zoom to the rescue but see immediately above).

News: early on one of my daughters told me that now was the opportunity to get back in touch with all those people I’d lost contact with over the years. An excellent idea, as when you reach my age you’ve certainly managed to be out of touch with quite a few people, and the initial enthusiasm affected those I got in touch with, so we have made up some lost time. However, things are now quietening down again.

Stuck: initially to within a mile radius of our house, latterly we have been allowed exercise further afield, and this has compelled me to discover the walking possibilities near to where I live, which I have neglected for years in favour of further afield. But – first world problems, I know – I have sorely missed my travels overseas, my spring walking in the lovely Ardennes, and constantly making plans for my next adventure. As a solo traveller and walker it’s even harder: to perhaps fall ill a thousand miles and a couple of days’ drive away from home is not something to risk lightly. This has, for me, been the most frustrating part of the whole COVID experience.

People: I have been much heartened by the kindness of neighbours and their concern for whether we are OK – clearly we count as “elderly” – there are WhatsApp groups I can be in touch with and numerous leaflets have also offered help. I have also seen thoughtlessness, by those who ignore the concept of safe distancing when I’m out and about taking exercise, particularly some joggers and cyclists who are so wrapped up in their own little world that they don’t see others…

Shopping: I have explored new ways of getting those things we need, as well as new ways of doing without: lots of money has been saved as the realisation that I have enough has anchored itself even more firmly. And once I had sourced a home delivery of decent whisky, that was it!

Politics: I have always been pretty cynical here, but it has become even clearer over the last few months that there are some countries that seem to care about the welfare of their citizens and act accordingly, and others that don’t give the proverbial. When we are talking about about risks of life and death for many people, the sense of individual powerlessness grows very strong. Here in England, the wealthy and powerful are once again saying very clearly that they can and will do what they like, and the rest of us can fend for ourselves (polite version there!).

Planet: the news about the dire state of the planet and its future has grown ever worse over the lockdown months: vast mounts more plastic being used and thrown away in the name of being cleaner and safer, greater use of cars because public transport isn’t safe. What on earth are we going to do?

Gratitude: for being healthy and safe thus far, and more than anything for being able to be just that little bit further distanced from the world, and therefore perhaps safer, because we are retired. On the other hand, as we are frequently reminded, being older isn’t such a good thing here…

I wish you safety and sanity, dear reader.

Geraldine Schwarz: Those Who Forget

July 15, 2020

61udheakoXL._AC_UY218_    71n8k53ll6L._AC_UY218_     I read this book in French, having come across it on a French website, and found myself cynically thinking, ‘here’s another really important book that will never make it into English’. But I’m pleased to admit I’m wrong as it’s due to be published here in September, as the illustration shows.

Géraldine Schwarz is of French and German parentage, and she explores and documents the amnesia that overtook entire nations after the Second World War: the French blotted out the shame of their collaboration with the Germans and their eager assistance with the deportation of the Jews, pretending that their Resistance was far greater than it actually had been. Germans, only too glad to have the war finally over, ‘forgot’ how they had almost all aided and abetted the Nazis’ insane and evil plans by remaining silent, becoming what Schwarz calls ‘Mitläufer’ – those who go along with… Her origins allow her to anchor a good deal of her investigations in her own family’s history on both sides, and much of what she explains illuminated for me things I had been vaguely aware of in my younger years.

Nazi leaders were judged and condemned at Nuremberg, but collective guilt and fellow-travelling was swept under the carpet of ignorance: Hitler and his top henchmen could thus be seen as a ‘criminal gang’ who had managed to ‘take over’ Germany, and lesser fry could be exculpated. Of all the Allies, the Americans were the most vigorous in their pursuit of war crimes but ultimately they all allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the scope of the task of de-Nazification and overtaken by the needs of the Cold War. Because their own situation was so dire in the immediate post-War years, it was harder for ordinary Germans to feel any guilt about what they had allowed to happen to Jews. It was shocking to learn of the wholesale whitewashing of everyone’s Nazi past – including the Wehrmacht and many of its military ‘heroes’ – under the Adenauer government, and the acceptance of all this by the Western Allies.

Coming to terms with the evil had to be done if a healthier society was to develop, and the way this happened in Germany was most interesting. Ordinary Germans had to have known and been implicated in what happened to Jews if only because there were many public auctions of Jewish property after the owners had fled abroad or been deported, and the origins of the goods were obvious, auctions often taking place in the recently vacated apartments themselves.

French anti-semitism was cultural rather than racial, the anti-semitism that had resulted in the scandalous Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century; there was also the more silent anti-semitism of the US and Britain who did not use the knowledge they had of the ongoing extermination programme to make any effort to disrupt or halt it. It’s also important to note that there are no recorded instances of Germans being executed for refusing to carry out orders connected with the extermination programme: they may have been demoted, received a military punishment, had promotions blocked, but that was as far as it went.

The breadth and scope of the book impresses as Schwarz shows how German attitudes were shaped and developed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the coming to maturity of a new generation of citizens: it was these generations who had grown up after the war who started asking the necessary questions of and about their forebears. Schwarz is very good on how subsequent generations challenged the willed amnesia, and revealed the truth and reality of Nazi times in the country. According to Schwarz it was the fact that the challenge of facing the past, and changing attitudes came from within German society and not from without, that ultimately made it so powerful and effective. She also addresses the issue of relativism, in comparison with Stalin’s crimes, a favourite trope of apologists for German warcrimes and Holocaust deniers. It took the French even longer to come to terms with their shameful Vichy past but eventually they did. Schwarz’ dual nationality allows both trenchant analysis and also sensitivity to the human factor in people’s actions and denials, without excusing any of this.

I was not aware of the deliberate obfuscation by Austrians of their Nazi past, enthusiasm and collaboration; it took far longer for them even to admit that they had been Nazis, sheltering as they did behind the idea that they had been occupied by, rather than welcomed the Nazis. The situation, although a little more complex, was similar in Italy, where there are even now extreme right-wing and openly fascist groups and parties in power. Schwarz’ concluding analysis is right up-to-date and a serious warning to us all, with the growth in power and influence of the far right across the entire EU. Truly, we are living in dangerous times, and in danger of forgetting the past.

Maryanne Wolf: Proust and the Squid

July 2, 2020

91T9T2C1FjL._AC_UY218_     Something prompted me to return to this fascinating book on what happens to the brain when we learn to read, or indeed, if for various reasons we have difficulties with the process, such as dyslexia. It probably never occurs to us that, although we are born with brains wired for us eventually to develop speech, this is not true of reading or writing, processes that every human needs to learn from scratch. The open architecture of the brain allowed the possibility of humans developing writing and reading…

And then we must take into account the transformative power of these last two achievements on humans and their societies, compared with those which are only oral.

Wolf explains pretty clearly – to this lay and unscientific reader – the astonishing complexity of the processes which take place in the human brain, first in the process of learning to read, and then, when we are readers, in the processing of the texts we read.

Initially, humans developed representative and repeatable signs which could be learned, and eventually derived more sophisticated alphabets where the complete array of sounds could be mapped onto signs or letters. It was fascinating to discover that the human brain functions differently if it has to process ideograms in languages like Chines or letters in languages like ours. Equally, the regularity of an alphabet in the way it maps sounds to writing can lead to earlier fluency in reading: English orthography does not help us here!

There are more interesting historical and philosophical questions for us to reflect on, too: did the alphabet, leading to reading and writing, liberate humans from the hard work involved in sustaining an oral tradition (remembering everything and ensuring it was all passed down accurately through the generations), and thereby allow more complex thought? It may be that writing changed the way we think…

Apparently Socrates was very wary of reading and the written word, feeling that it was dead (thoughts and ideas frozen by being committed to paper), inflexible (once written down it is canonised, in a way) and that it destroys memory (look, for instance, at how little we expect school students to memorise texts such as poems nowadays). And, ironically, Socrates’ thoughts only survive for us now over two millennia later because Plato wrote them down…

Wolf is also very interesting on problems with reading – those often grouped together conveniently under the general heading ‘dyslexia’ – again seeking to explain what happens differently, often much more slowly, in the brains of those faced with such difficulties. It becomes very technical, although to realise that there are differences in how dyslexia affects people according to their language I found very interesting, and I also realised how helpful some of this material would have been early on in my career as a teacher.

There are implications in all of this for our future, which Wolf does not neglect: what changes may be being wrought in the human brain at this very moment with the move from printed to digital text, and the different ways that text can now be used and consumed? She contrasts immediacy with critical effort, and I think that this is an important area for further reflection and consideration; there is a certain kind of ease in the use of digital text which makes me ‘uneasy’. I can recall being unnerved when students used to say to me – of an older generation used to remembering and recalling things at will – “Oh, I don’t need to learn/ know that, because I can look it up…” Where might that lead our species, eventually?

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