Tag Archives: Jewish

Pedaling with Ghosts in the Normandy Rain: Isigny-sur-Mer to Bayeux

Thursday 27 August 2015 (Day 95 of my midlife gap-year)

9:15 am, Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer, France: Rain Rain Go Away

I slept until 9 and it’s raining again.

At 7 the church bells were pretty insistent on waking everyone. I’m surprised I fell back to sleep. If I’d gotten up at 7, I might have packed away a dry tent. Now, and since just as I woke, there is a steady pitter-patter. Riding in this sort of rain is not too terrible but I’m growing weary of it, as a constant companion.

Rainy view from a tent door.
Blech – I don’t wanna go to school today, ma.

I’d like to get to Bayeux today – but that’ll be hard if I just sit here in the rain. Hard in the rain and with two cemetery stops. We’ll see. I don’t want to go out in the rain right now. I really don’t.

10:40 am – The Café at Camping Le Fanal: Still Raining and Feeling Sorry for Myself

Worst morning weather so far.

Who is Cool Kids by? No idea – it’s playing for the yoga class going on in here now.

It’s hard to make quiet my friend when there’s little quiet.

There’s noise and voices and people – but I haven’t the skills to talk to them. Simple … simple conversation doesn’t satisfy. The cuts come both ways – I’m in a cone of a monolinguistic silence or really muteness and the sort of conversation I crave is highly articulate – something erudite and clever.

Between the rain and the silence, I’m feeling sad. On the bicycle it’s fine because I can make quiet my friend. I can have my imagined conversations.

God, it’s miserable – just pissing down.

Maybe I should just pack up the wet tent and go anyway? It’s just rain. Sigh.

This place is making me sad.

Okay, I’m sure the radio announcers aren’t saying “Shitty FM” but that’s what it sounds like. Time to go.

3:50 pm – German War CemeteryMore Dignity Than Deserved?

As expected, this is a place of mixed feelings.

In the display – pictures of Nazi boys, maybe 17 years old, happily surrendering. For their peers lying here I feel sadness – too young to have agency. But the men buried here – maybe they didn’t ‘deserve to die’ – maybe they didn’t personally round up civilians (Jews and otherwise) and send them to their deaths. (Those who did – for them I will reserve “deserved to die”.) But I’m glad they are dead, all of these Nazi soldiers, in so far as they – or some of them – had to die to liberate France and ultimately the camps. And these boys and men – they have graves.

Nazi war graves in Normandy
More dignity than Nazis deserve?

I think of the concentration camp soil at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. The soil on which the greasy human ashes of thousands fell – that’s the best we can do for those victims – here is some soil which may contain a smidge of DNA from whole families.

I don’t know that Nazis deserve the dignity of this cemetery – even if they were someone’s sons, brothers, etc. Jumbled in a nameless pit would be about right.

All that – and while looking at my bicycle noticing all the German bits – Schwalbe tyres, Abus locks, Ortlieb panniers.

I wrote in the book at the German cemetery: “They have the dignity of graves, their victims only ash.”

As I was leaving a tour bus full of retirement-age Germans arrived. So so weird. One fella wandered over to admire my bicycle – we tried to exchange a few words but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to do so. A real pity – we had common ground in my bicycle and I was deeply curious what had brought him here today. Is his father here? An uncle perhaps? How does this place feel for a 65-year-old German?

10:30 pm – Omaha Beach Campground: With Ghosts All Around

It rained more than it didn’t today – no clear spells until the usual one at, like, 8pm. The ride today was map reliant – gone were the good bicycle-centric road signs – but pretty straight forward and easy enough. All the fighting zones feel ghostie and blood soaked.

Pont du Hoc – where the US Army Rangers scaled a crazy cliff to take some German guns, is American run – so everything is in English first. And there are water fountains plus soap & hand driers in the toilets. Sorry, bathroom.

Pont du Hoc cliffs - scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cliffs – scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cows grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops
Pont du Hoc sheep grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops

People look at the bike, at me, with a sort of admiration or envy or wonder but not like I’m nuts.

I was dead keen to find a hotel tonight but this campground appeared first, so here I am, night four under nylon and surrounded by the (mostly) French, which is good. As it should be – though tomorrow night I wouldn’t mind finding myself in a bar with fluent English-speakers.

(There’s a pair of hedgehogs making noises out there – they are snuffling around near my bicycle. There are also goats insecurely penned in what I’m calling an old German defence on the sea side of the campground. We are on the headland of the western end of Omaha Beach.)

I walked down to the beach tonight. And nearly wept. It was high tide – waves lapping into the break wall behind which the landing troops sought a little shelter. There’s a memorial – from the Army Reserve, I think. There’s also a hotel, a place to rent kayaks and paddle boards, people’s summer homes. Life goes on.

Selfie of middle-aged, short-haired woman on a pebbly beach with ocean and jetty
At Omaha Beach at sundown.

The French have gotten on with using these spaces for the living but don’t think for a moment they have forgotten about the dead. In all the rain I’ve taken few photos this week but had I they would show Normandy to be a place of slate-roofed, stone villages adorned with flowers and wind-whipped quartets of flags (those of France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Memorials and remembrances – official and private alike – abound.

It’s been a tough day – in the rain and the places I went, but good too. Always good.

I’m still reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and writing my own poem about reading his poems. I’ve nearly finished the book, the poem … still needs work.

Where:

The Western headland of Omaha Beach

Where a German bunker houses sheep

And the French enjoy their beach hols

Had I been on this spot on 6 June 1944

The sights would have haunted me into oblivion

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96), 8:15 am

Omaha Beach Campground: OMG Sun!

Oh, what is this golden burning ball in the sky which lights the world?

And where is my blanket of cloud?

The tent is damp with condensation and dew which sparkles in this strange morning light. May it last, may it last.

Yesterday I had Midnight Oil’s Blossom & Blood on the mind and Love & Rockets Ball of Confusion – riding through history can do that to you.

1pm – Normandy American Cemetery Visitors Centre: Beauty and Pain

There was a gaggle of French road cyclists hanging about when I arrived. One went to pee in the bush – really? I looked at him – I wish I had the French, but still I said, “There are no toilets? Nice way to show respect.”

I sighed entering.

It was noon and a bell was tolling the hour. Then a carillon played something really tacky – I think it was The Yanks are Coming.

And then in among the graves in the shining sunlight – all grandiose American Americaness.

So much loss. So much gained.
So much loss. So much gained.

The cemetery is profoundly beautiful, and I felt a deep sadness looking at this sea of graves – all these lives sacrificed – all those futures lost. I allowed the scattering of Stars of David to lead me through the graves – taking the time to read the names as I went. There was a quartet of markers which, I thought, said much: on the front right – Adolf Greenburg of California died 24 June 1944, behind him Edmond G. Sokolowski of Connecticut died 9 July 1944, to the left Vito Monticciolo of New Jersey died 2 August 1944 and in front of him “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known But to God”.

These were American boys, yes, and a reflection of the immigrant nation they came from – but, these were also descendants of Europe. Much is made of the idea of that the Americans came thousands of kilometres to help people they didn’t know – and there’s truth in that – but I’d put good money on none of those three Americans being more than two-generations removed from somewhere in the Yiddish homelands, Poland, and Italy. More than likely all three did know people, had relatives, who were suffering under the Fascists.

I will admit to feeling different for the Jewish boys and men here … they died, as Jews, fighting Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds I do hope most of them died with Nazi blood on their bayonets.

The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.
The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.

Looking for somewhere to eat my lunch I, strangely, found no provision for people to sit somewhere away from the graves. The signs even said no eating of food or picnicking anywhere – including the carpark – I ignored it, finding a bit of shaded grass next the parked coaches.

Another bus arrived disgorging a herd of Americans – tethered by earphones to their leader. I thought: I would rather stay home and watch travel docos than travel like that. I thought again of how I may cover less ground but see so much more.

I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.
I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.

I thought about how motorized travel is mediated travel. They ride in their buses – sleeping against the window, emerging to a ‘place to visit’ having not experienced anything of the in-between.

They are barely here at all.

After my lunch (with a side of superiority), I left my sadness and thoughts of war and death at the cemetery gates and rode into the sunny afternoon with a relieved sigh. I thought the best way to honour those brave, crazy, ignorant, terrified boys and men was to enjoy this beautiful day with a light heart and a happy internal dialogue. I whistled and sang my way into Bayeux – greeting the cows as I went.

What a glorious afternoon for living.
What a glorious afternoon for living.
Map showing cycling route described in this post
My route (click to enlarge)
My route in context - see Paris in the lower right.
My route in context – see Paris in the lower right. (Click to enlarge)

Heading North to Stroke City: Wednesday 12 August 2015 (Day 80)

3:50 pm – Train to Derry

Jim asked about my quest – if I had one, which I mostly don’t. That is what leaves me often asking: “What am I doing here?” “Why am I doing this? Is is just the seeing? The doing? The meeting of people?” Maybe. Maybe that’s all there is to it – to all this endless movement.

He spoke of his quest around trad music and Irish culture.

I said that while, likewise, I have an interest in thinking more about the Jewish stuff that, by and large, there’s no where I can go and find the descendants of my antecedents’ neighbours … still going to the same old synagogue, still walking the same streets, etc. They are all, or nearly all, gone. He asked about Israel. I said Israel is more Israeli than Jewish – it’s a different thing, a different place. I suggested it’s like if he had to go to Boston to experience some echo of Irish culture because the Irish no longer lived in any real numbers in Ireland.

I do want to go to Israel, yes, I should do that.

But right now I just want to get to Germany. I’ll have 51 days to get from Cherbourg to my flight from Berlin to Chicago.

I just messaged with Laura a bit – when it works, I do love the WiFi on trains and buses. She’s in Tokyo – has been there 40 minutes and already loves it, as I had presumed she would.

She reminded me it’s about the experiences I’m having. And she’s right of course. It is. And I know that but it was also clarifying – just to have her say that.

10:20 pm – Hostel Connect, Derry

I was last in Derry in 1995 as part of the advance team, the event team, setting up President Bill Clinton’s first visit to Northern Ireland. It was my one foreign trip for the White House and it was a momentous one.

There’s a good short video overview of the trip here – one in which I’m pretty sure I catch the occasional fleeting glimpse of my 26-year old self well in the background.

Part of why I’m in Derry now is to revisit the city and see how much it’s changed, or stayed the same.

Our major event – a gigantic outdoor rally – was in Guildhall Square, we had a smaller event in the Guildhall. So, today, coming from the train station, walking past the Guildhall, through Guildhall Square, was kind of surreal. It felt the same but different. I was then the same and also so very different.

My roommate – there’s only one – is Jennifer from Indiana. She’s here to do the Masters in Peace Studies at Ulster University at Magee. The program with the Tip O’Neill Chair which we endowed 20 years ago in the Guildhall.

One of the strangest experiences I had as an advance person came in relation to Magee College. Our team was recruiting volunteers from the student body and I needed to get to campus for the meeting. None of our embassy supplied cars were available to run me over there from the Guildhall. Nor did our Secret Service colleagues have a free car. But their paired agency, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, did – if I didn’t mind going in a Land Rover. I didn’t realise at the time that meant a militarised SUV with uniformed and armed driver plus one. I needed to get to the meeting and was grateful for the ride so I jumped in and we drove, rather quickly, through the Bogside to the University campus.

It was a peaceful time in Derry but I was well aware of the history I had just sidled into. On a narrow residential street we came to a halt behind a double-parked car. Our driver honked and when nothing happened the other constable jumped out and pushed the car out of the way. Really, that happened.

When I arrived on campus – there were a lot of students milling about, many of whom turned to look at the Land Rover as it arrived and watched me exit with curious and sceptical eyes. I thanked the constables for their time and went to find my meeting.

Back to the present … I invited Jennifer, my hostel roommate, to find a beer. Here’s what I learned: She was in the navy for four years, attended Indiana University, and worked for 11 years for a federal judge, before she quit to come get a master’s degree in Northern Ireland. She’s arrived with a giant suitcase full of domestic tools and personal hygiene products, like soap. She’s both a little embarrassed that she’s brought all this stuff and also like, well, I didn’t know what they’d have and I’m picky.

Coffees and Jews in Dublin: Wednesday 5 August 2015 (Day 73)

11:50 am Wednesday 5 August – Kaph

A lot – Dublin reminds me of Melbourne a lot. Maybe because they are both river cities with dubious weather. But they have Sydney’s pedestrian-crossing system, though, same buttons, same sound – which is strange.

This is the café suggested by Baz – it is not like Melbourne. They call a macchiato and ‘noisette’ (I guess it’s the French name for the same thing) and it’s meh – a little thin and bitter. So, the bitter is like Melbourne but … you know, not so nice. (The music is good, though).

It's a noisette and some kind of gluten-free carrot cake.
It’s a noisette and some kind of gluten-free carrot cake.

Speaking of Melbourne … Laura2 will arrive in Chicago the day after me. TOTALLY STOKED. I’m now looking forward to Chicago. And Dave has asked when I’ll be in New York City. I thought he was off to Istanbul. So some plans for America are falling into place.

3pm – Joe’s Coffee (after the Irish Jewish Museum)

It rains, it stops raining. It’s windy. Or not. The sun shines. Or doesn’t.

The view from Joe's Coffee
The view from Joe’s Coffee

When I arrived at the Irish Jewish Museum the first person who greeted me called me sir then excused his error by noting I was wearing trousers.

He proceeded with his spiel until I was, eventually, rescued by Jason – who was embarrassed for the other fellow and apologised.

He showed me around the old synagogue portion of the museum and we had an interesting and lengthy chat. They don’t get a lot of visitors.

Which is a pity as the museum is actually quite interesting. I learned that Sephardi Jews (those from the Iberian Peninsula) settled in Ireland in 1497 – following expulsion from Portugal. Though there are records of Jews in Ireland even earlier – back to a first reference in 1079. More recently, in the 18th and 19th centuries, whole communities were fleeing Eastern Europe and some settled here in Dublin.

Each group set up their own little prayer room. Eventually a rabbi came from Belfast to bring the community together. That was Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1919-1937 before going on to fill the same role in Israel. (Rabbi Herzog, by the way, was a fluent speaker of Irish.) He was the father of Chaim Herzog, the 6th president of Israel, who was born in Belfast and, Jason asserted, spoke English with an Irish accent (though I’ve listened to some clips and don’t really hear it).

He showed me a mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from a material from a wedding dress and other bits and pieces. A fabric scholar had looked at it and was able to identify different parts of the old Yiddish homelands the various bits came from.

Mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from various donated clothes including a wedding dress.
Mantel, or covering for the Torah, made from various donated material including a wedding dress.

He said the synagogue, which was cobbled together from the upstairs rooms of adjoining houses, had operated until … I think the 1970s or so. “One day the rabbi turned up and there were only 9 men – he locked the door and that was that. Jason imagines him saying: Feck it. If they can’t bother to turn up neither can I.

We had a long chat, Jason and I, about this and that including that six new synagogues have recently opened in Indonesia. He said these are for Christians who have converted. That they had found greater truth in the Old Testament than the New and went to the source. Now some rabbis are going there to teach. I haven’t found a lot about it on line, but there is this one article.

11:20 pm – Abbey Court Hostel

Seagulls – the sound of them, I can hear them here in the hostel.

I visited the Little Museum of Dublin – which is a quirky fun museum full of objects donated by Dubliners. You see it with a guide who tells the story in a loud, theatrical, not-as-funny-as-he- imagines way. He was sort of red in the face and too big for the room.

There was a special exhibition on about U2 and, frankly, it was crap. One small room, only a few artifacts. The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition doing the rounds of Australia shat all over it.

The pretty crappy U2: Made in Dublin exhibition.
The pretty crappy U2: Made in Dublin exhibition.

For dinner, I met up with my friend Tom, last seen in Paris. He’s here working at the Greenpeace International meeting. We went to a place that sounded good on line, and was – I had the corned beef with mashed potatoes and beet root. It was a huge serve and very very tasty, indeed.

Afterwards we walked back into the city centre before going our separate ways. I looked around for someplace to have a drink but nothing makes me feel lonely quite so much as trying to find a bar I want to go into, on my own, at night.

So, I just walked around some for a while instead.

Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin

Paris Kinda Smells of Piss: 4-7 July 2015, Dijon to Paris

Saturday 4 July – 10:20 pm, Paris – Carson’s Place

It’s still light out and hot but a breeze has come on.

I got up early to walk around Dijon before it became an oven. I wandered the quiet cobbled streets winding past shops and churches. I stumbled upon the markets – Les Halles – and bought cherries, a wee round of chevre, and some bread.

Back at the hotel I worked on my schedule and plans for a while. I sent emails and messaged some possible Warm Showers hosts in Le Havre and Southampton. I haven’t received any replies yet, but my fingers are crossed. I checked out of my room and worked some more in the lobby – the hotel staff gave me a coffee, huzzah for small wins!

One of the funny things that happens when you are travelling by bicycle is you see some generally unexposed corners of hotels as they are offered as places to store the bike. Here I got to see the old basement discotheque which, based on the decor, has been closed for twenty-five plus years but it looked like they had just closed the door then began using it as storage. The bar was in place, booths, a starry ceiling, and a dusty dancefloor – I imagined Dijonese Lotharios “Stayin’ Alive” in a cloud of Gitanes smoke.

It was hot as an oven when, in mid-morning, I rolled to the station, bought my ticket, enjoyed the air-conditioned waiting room and, then, joined my train to Paris. I spent my five hours reading, writing, and gazing out the window at the passing countryside. It looked hot out there – rolling fields of wheat reminded me a little of Nebraska.

In Paris – I got a little lost but the riding was fine and I found my way to my friend’s flat. I’m spending a couple of nights with my friend Carson. She’s an academic attached to the University of Sydney business school and for several years’ running she’s had the job of accompanying a group of Sydney students completing summer internships in the French capital. She has taken to her part-time residence in Paris with gusto and has a genuine love of the place especially the neighbourhoods and their small beauties.

We went out to find wine and dessert to go with our homemade dinner. Now my clothes are washing and I’m listen to snatches of French drift in the open windows, the sound of a child crying, and neighbours doing their dishes.

The week’s exhaustion lays heavy on me, I’m ready for some sleep.

 

Sunday 5 July 10:35 am – Eiffel Tower

I’m sitting on a park bench nearly beneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s more brown than I remembered. I think of it as dark grey, but it’s more brown.

I had been warned but, still, I laughed to see it. Emerging from the Bir-Hakeim metro station I was greeted by the giant poster of a kangaroo on a beach which decorates the Australian embassy, and beyond – the Eiffel Tower.

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Bon jour, Skippy!

Carson told me we got the spot after the war. It’s built on land which had housed the railway siding where Paris Jews were rounded up for deportation and (mostly) death. When the French put the space out to tender after the war only Australia and Germany put in bids. No brainer.

The Paris Triathlon is underway.  At the transition zone between the riding and running there’s an all women drum troupe. Black and white, fit and not. They are amazing – powerful with rhythmic energy. I get goose-bumps imagining how wonderful it would be to hear that as you leave your bike and start running. The next time I’m struggling up a hill or through difficult riding conditions I’ll try to remember these women.

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I wish I had an audio file to share,they were great.

9:13 pm – Carson’s

Paris has defeated me today. Twice I went out to try to engage with her, and both times … defeated.

This morning from the Eiffel Tower I had plans to walk here and there but only got as far as the Arc de Triumph. As a Tour de France fan I was keen to examine the surface of the Champs Elysees– I gazed at the Arc and watched tourists wander in traffic to get ‘perfect’ selfies then I retreated to the Metro and back to Carson’s.

Maybe because I’ve been riding quiet cycleways through towns and villages for a couple of weeks now but I’m finding Paris just too crowded. It’s too much of a tourist town without many Parisians – and fair enough – it’s the height of summer and full to the brim. There are immigrant/refugee touts everywhere with Eiffel Tower trinkets and selfie sticks. And while I admire their fortitude and efforts to make a living there’s only so many times you can politely refuse.

On the Metro back to Carson’s I was reading through my Lonely Planet and realised that today being the first Sunday of the month, that some museums would be free. So having regrouped and refreshed a bit – and having gotten a spirit-lifting “yes” from a host in Southampton – I set out in the afternoon for the Musee D’Orcy. Arriving, I found as long a queue as any I’ve ever joined. After about 15 minutes I arrived at a sign which indicated that from here it was a 30-minute wait.

Hmmm … maybe not. I was scheduled back at Carson’s for drinks so I’d maybe only get 20 minutes in the museum. Another day, I’ll just have to pay. So I went walking along the Seine heading for the Memorial for the Deported located on the island with Notre Dame. The queue for the cathedral was at least as long as the one I’d left at the museum. The Memorial was closed. Yup, Paris has defeated me today.

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It defeated me, but, still – Paris.

I offer these observations:

  • The city often smells of piss.
  • I hear English everywhere.
  • On the way home I wandered up Rue Daguerre; it was lovely and charming.

Tuesday 7 July 10:30 am – Le Poutch

This was an Australian café – the Tuckshop – but the Aussie owners have moved on. Now there’s an American woman running it with a changed name but she’s kept the flat white on the menu. It was pretty good but at €4 not habit-forming.

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Flat White – Paris style.

Paris still … meh. Yesterday I worked pretty much all day and got through maybe a third of my list of things to do – administrative stuff, bookkeeping, writing, clearing out emails, planning, processing photos, etc. This morning I’ve ventured out afresh and got an early start to beat the heat, the crowds, the rising smell of piss. I followed the Lonely Planet walking route around Montmarte. The area is a bit cute. The church and the view were nice. Now the heat has come on again, maybe it’s the heat married with a bit of attitude but Paris underwhelms me. It’s dirty and overflowing with tourists; it smells of exhaust and urine.

Let’s see what the Musee d’art et histoire du Judisme has to offer. Then the Memorial de la Shoah.  This won’t be depressing at all.

11:55 am – At the Musee d’art et histoire du Judisme

One, again – a heavy police presence outside. Then through security to get in, stuff through a scanner and two procedure entry: open a door, stand in the middle, then open a second door, all while being observed by security.

Frankly, it really angers me that that is necessary. It is, I understand that, but it angers me that it is. Not enough to have slaughtered six million of us 70 years ago, oh no – still targets. Seriously haters – we’re 0.2% of the world’s population. There are a whopping 14.2 million Jews – and we’re your problem? There are 26 cities with more residents than there are Jews in the world. There are 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, in fact Wikipedia lists 10 religious/spiritual groups as more populous. Including Spiritism – I’ve never even heard of Spiritism, have you? There a million more of them than there are Jews. So, frankly, haters, can you kindly fuck off.

Once over the annoyance caused by the security which is required to try to keep crazy, fucking, murderous assholes at bay I found the Museum was really very good. A collection of art and artefacts from across the history of Jews in Europe, France. Interspersed with the permanent collection were photographic portraits of modern Parisian Jews with short snippets of interviews with them.

It makes me want to assert my Jewishness more strongly, to identify, and sort of plant my flag and say FUCK YOU. We’re here, we’re European. This is the continent from whence my people sprang. Yiddish culture is as much European as French or Polish or whatever.

5:49 pm – Carson’s

Happily, I didn’t have a lot of time for the Shoah Memorial – it was so hard. Made harder by being in the place it actually happened. A place where people were rounded up and deported to their deaths. And recently. And well documented. And there are armed military personnel outside and heavy security to get through to get in.

In the basement there is a crypt with ashes from victims – collected from several concentration camps – mixed with Israeli soil and marked with an eternal flame. Nearby are the French police files of all the Jews.

So, so hard.

Visiting the Missing – The Merano Jewish Museum & Synagogue (Day 25 – 18 June 2015)

Thursday 18 June

My tourist map shows a Jewish Museum. One of my goals for this trip is to explore my Jewishness and look our European history more squarely in the eye than I have been previously keen to. I haven’t done anything about that yet – if there were museums or old synagogues in Milan, Genoa or Florence I missed them. This one I would not.

Centrally located but tucked away on a residential side street it took a bit to find it. Just walking onto the grounds stung a little – even before getting inside. As I suspect all European Synagogues without congregations to be, this is a haunted place, even if the ghosts are just in my mind.

The door is locked but the sign says they are open and to ring the bell, so I do. A bored and suspicious looking Italian-speaking woman in her 60s lets me in but says nothing until I take this photo and she says, “No photos.”

I’ve looked around and think maybe that’s all there is and I might go  – she asks if I wish to see the museum. In the basement there are display cases with mementos of Jewish life in Merano. Happy people in black and white snap shots celebrating birthdays, playing tennis, getting married, having picnics … but I already know how this story ends. But they don’t – that proud young man posed with his parents on his bar mitzvah in the 1920s, that bride in the early 30s. It’s hard. It’s a hard place to be – alone in this basement of a place that should rightly still be the centre of a community’s life.

Then the darkness begins to creep into these lives – newspaper clippings announcing racial laws and describing Kristallnacht, clothes with yellow stars of David affixed, copies of letters seeking visas, photos of people on boats.

Two artifacts: a photograph of bright-eyed, dark-featured 13-yea-old Franco Cesana who was killed fighting as an Italian partisan and an original order to the Auschwitz chemist for Phenol (carbolic acid) signed by Mengele. Signed by Mengele. I bend closer and look at his handwriting, his signature – so normal, so neat, so ordinary. I feel ill.

Emerging into a warm overcast 21st century day I still feel ill. My breath is short and shallow, I am a little nauseated. Franco’s smiling but serious face, all those happy people, that signature of one of the most evil men in the whole of human history. I sit on a stone wall and write. As I do a military patrol stops in front of the synagogue and two soldiers in camo wearing their alpine corps caps with the feathers patrol the ground – they smile, they say ciao – but they are here because people still hate us, because people want to kill Jews for the blood in their veins.

Now I really just have to go.

I walk on the suburban street passing mums with kids in prams and older couples out for a stroll. But all around are the ghosts, the people missing from this community who are, I suspect, not missed at all.

I am glad to get back onto my bicycle and just ride. To just ride away from those shadows – I know I’ve committed to seeing these places and confronting this history but as I pedal toward the Alps, toward Austria and Germany, I don’t know if I can. I don’t know how many of these experiences I’ll be able to stomach.

But the day is lovely, the scenery gorgeous, my fellow cyclists friendly enough – I am soon distracted by a switch-backing climb and stunning mountain vistas. The hard physical work is good – it clears the ugliness from my lungs and pushes little Franco to the corner of my mind.

In early evening, after another short riding day, I make camp in Naturns/Naturno – a soulless resort town surrounded by sheer beauty.

Finding Inspiration at the Art Gallery of NSW

I spent part of New Years Day at the Art Gallery of NSW having a wander through the exhibits.

The text accompanying Tony Albert’s Hey Ya! (Shake it Like a Polaroid Picture) read, in part

Ritsi (the young man in the photographs) and Albert share an experience of re-connection to country and community by following the movements of their ancestors.

One image from Tony Albert's 'Hey Ya! (Shake it like a Polaroid picture)' at the Art Gallery of NSW
One image from Tony Albert’s ‘Hey Ya! (Shake it like a Polaroid picture)’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

 

Part of what I’ll be doing on my Big Ride is, in a way, just this: I’ll be re-connecting with the places my antecedents lived for thousands of years by following their movements across Europe. I will visit reminders and remainders of their culture and, hopefully, connect with my fellow descendants who still, or are again, living there.

The European Jews were, of course, displaced by the awful tides of hate history bore down on them. My families have done well in the diaspora, I’m not complaining. They were fortunate to have been driven out by the pogroms before Hitler’s Final Solution was enacted. But still, they were displaced. They were disconnected from their places and their communities. They had to learn from scratch how to make their way in the world.

As a still new, and happy, immigrant to Australia I suspect I see Australia’s Aboriginal history and people somewhat differently than I would if I had been born and raised here. The relationship between new and old Australians is complicated — as are these relationships anywhere in the world where there are New and Old.

Tony Albert’s work had me thinking about two things. How can I, living my modern peripatetic non-religious assimilated life connect with my not-to-distant Eastern European Yiddish-speaking shtetl-living observant Jewish ancestors? And how can my efforts to do so connect me with these, my fellow Australians, the descendants of the first Australians.

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Tom Carment's 'Flame Tree'
Tom Carment’s ‘Flame Tree’

I was also taken by the exhibition of Tom Carment’s small watercolour sketches of parks and street scenes. These reminded me to put a sketch book and watercolour kit on my shopping list for the trip. I have basically no experience drawing or doing watercolours – not since I was a kid anyway – but am keen to give it a go. It seems like the time one would take to really look at a scene to try to represent it in pen and ink would be good — just taking that time to really look, will be a good exercise.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” with Andrew Denton

Remember when I said I’d take a break from Holocaust stuff? I think you send a vibe of interest into the universe and queue stuff up to come to you – literally, though perhaps without intent.

I just watched the Andrew Denton Who Do You Think You Are? in which he traces his family back to a town in Poland. There he met a man in his 90s who spelt out the whole thing  out to him – no, no one left, rounded up, forced to destroy their synagogue and holy books, forced into a ghetto, then transported to Treblinka. Andrew then travelled there and met the last surviving survivor of the, like, 60/800,000 (60 survivors from 800,000 prisoners brought to the camp). It was a straight-up death camp. You died within hours of arrival; they could and did kill up to 12,000 people a day. The man he met had been selected as slave labour – among the things he did was shave heads. The Nazis, he said, used the hair in the mattresses on submarines because it didn’t absorb moisture. True or apocryphal?

From http://curiosahistoria.blogspot.com.au/2008/07/treblinka.html
From http://curiosahistoria.blogspot.com.au/2008/07/treblinka.html

Also in Poland he met the Chief Rabbi of Poland who showed him a book – a memory book of the town his family were from. There are 1000+ of these books, published in Israel after the war, filled with the memories of places the Nazis removed from maps, as Jewish places anyway – each filled with dozens or hundreds of stories of those who survived or had the good fortune of getting out while they could. Stories of the sorrow, grief, shock and anger but also melancholic remembrance of love and happiness.

How do you deal with the descendants of people who did that? I get, and agree, that the sins of the father should not be visited upon the son. But how will I find Germans, Poles, etc. I can talk to about this stuff. I can’t just travel through remarking on the pretty countryside. That’s part of my fascination with them. What shadow is cast by the knowledge that your parents, grandparents, at minimum bore silent witness and more likely actively participated in some way. Not everyone’s grandfather dropped the canisters of gas but some did.  I have to find some literature on this issue – descendants of Nazis talking about it.