Oleg’s Story

Oleg was watching the news. What he saw on his TV screen disturbed him greatly. Sometimes he was shaking and sometimes a tear or two rolled down his cheeks. He was near the end of his life and the present should not aggravate him that much. But he did care about his former homeland, the Ukraine.

 

What was unfolding there brought back bad memories and opened up old wounds, he thought had healed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. For the first time in a long time, his homeland had become an independent country.

 

And now this, he thought. First the Crimea and now the East of the Ukraine. Where will it all end, brother will fight brother. He was almost ninety-five. But the memories of the bad old days were still fresh. He grew up with his parents in the Western Ukraine but shortly after he was born his homeland was hit by the man-made famine, caused by the Bolshevik government confiscating all agricultural produce. They only survived, because of his father’s ability  to outsmart the food inspectors. But the hatred of all Russian was inculcated in him from then on.

 

When Oleg was eighteen he was drafted into the Red Army. In December 1939, he was on the Karelian front fighting in the terrible Winter War. Perhaps, fighting was too big a word. It was more hiding from the Finnish who adapted to the snow and ice better than their Soviet enemies. Oleg and his comrades didn’t dare going outside unless it was unavoidable, like going to the latrine. Many of his comrades did not come back. Finnish sharpshooters had their rifles trained on the toilet door. It was a short war and he survived.

 

Less than a couple of years later, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Oleg and his unit were near the border and he was taken prisoner during the first week. He was not unhappy about it as he did not need to fight for the hated Soviet Union anymore. He thought, his people would welcome the Germans anyway.

 

The Germans found out quick smart that there were Ukrainians among the prisoners of war. They offered them work in Germany which was much better than starving to death in the prison camps.

 

Oleg wanted to survive and was sent to Hamburg to work as a shunter in the world’s largest shunting yard. He met people from other European countries working there. The yard master wasn’t a bad chap. As long as one did the job properly all was okay. He was a good and fair man.

 

One day, after the terrible air raid on Hamburg in 1943, Oleg was called into the office of the yardmaster. An officer of the German Luftwaffe was waiting in the yardmaster’s office.

“What now, do I have to go back to the POW camp?“ he wondered. The officer smiled at him and asked him how he would feel joining the Luftwaffe as a helper with an anti-aircraft unit. He reminded him that as a Ukrainian he would surely hate the Russians and their allies, the Western powers, who were helping the Russians to win the war. “And that, we don’t want to happen, do we?“ He asked with a sly look.

 

And so it happened. After a short training, he found himself on one of the Flak towers on top of the air raid bunker near the Berlin Zoo.  There was no time to get bored. American bombers attacked during the day and British bombers during the night. They were housed in the confines of the bunker.

 

As Oleg was remembering all this, he was thinking, what a miracle it was that he survived at all. Towards the end of April 1945, the war entered its final stage as the Red Army was storming towards Berlin for the final showdown. Oleg’s unit ran out of ammunition at the flak tower and he was ordered to report to a new command centre in the city. The Red Army had entered the outer suburbs already and was pushing from all sides towards the city centre. How you get, in a chaotic, ruined city, to the place you have been ordered to? Public transport had come to a halt. The dreaded military police patrolled the city looking for soldiers who were AWOL or plain deserters. Corpses were hanging from lamp posts, people were queuing for some groceries and artillery projectiles were crossing the sky looking for a target. The smell of fire hung in the air.

 

For a Ukrainian it was a doubly dangerous place. Germans could take him for an infiltrator working behind the front line. Anyway, where was the front? It could be just around the corner. If the Red Army turned up they would shoot him instantly. Oleg was  a traitor as far as they were concerned.  After a short rest behind a burned out tram,  he continued his odyssey. He made it to his destination. The headquarter was near the Reich Chancellery and when he arrived the non-commissioned officer, after checking his papers asked him, ”You are speaking Russian? General Krebs needs someone who can help him out. Good luck !”

 

Oleg was instructed that his job was to listen and observe what was being said at a meeting with the Russians. It was already dark when a convoy of several cars set off to somewhere unknown to him. They drove along the devastated Wilhelmstrasse towards Hallesches Tor. During a short stop, white flags were attached to the cars. Oleg was in a Kübelwagen at the rear. The big shots travelled in their Mercedes. At the Hallesches Tor Oleg could make out the silhouette of the elevated train he had used often when he travelled across the city to meet his Polish girlfriend, Irenka. Here, heavy fighting took place, Russian soldiers stopped their convoy of cars and after a short conversation, Russian Jeeps led them to their destination in Tempelhof. It was not a romantic setting. It was the final curtain in the destruction of the Third Reich. Explosions could be heard and flares went up, eliminating the dying city in its death throes. T 36 tanks were moving towards the centre. Berlin was a hell hole and Oleg could not believe that he was there. It was truly a surreal situation. He would have preferred to be with Irenka. The Polish woman, he had befriended while stationed in Berlin, worked for a German butcher and had often brought him some small goods.  At they drove through  the night he was wondering whether he would  ever see her again?

 

When they arrived in a small side street, someone pushed a briefcase into his arms so he would look official. The talks went on for hours. Oleg learnt that Hitler had committed suicide the previous afternoon. The Russians acted like they knew. But he could overhear a phone conversation in which this important message was passed on to someone along the line. The Russians wanted the Germans to capitulate unconditionally, but General Krebs said, that  wasn’t why he came. A truce, yes, but not more than that.

 

Next morning, on the first of May, they returned to the smouldering city centre but not before the Russians took photos, for posterity, of the Germans while they were waiting for their transport back.

 

After a quick meal of black bread and jam, he went back to the non-commissioned officer for further instructions. He told him. “Corporal, you are in luck,  that comes from associating with the big guys. Krebs was happy with the information you supplied and as he is aware of your precarious position being Ukrainian, he has ordered to give you a travel pass out of this doomed city. ”He handed him a  piece of paper and said, “Good luck and survive.”

 

The travel document directed him to Potsdam, but unknown to the Sergeant and Oleg Potsdam had fallen to the Red Army days before. He was on his own.  A group of German soldiers, some from the Luftwaffe like him,  were holed up in an once stately hotel. He joined them when they told him they were trying to break out and go to the West. They felt, that becoming prisoners of the Russians would do their health not any good. Oleg agreed. They decided,  they would take a slight detour through the suburbs as on the main roads they would only meet with Russian tanks. Still, as soon as they hit the road they had to fight their way out. All the buildings were damaged and it was convenient to use them for cover.
In one of the doorways, they found a group of SS soldiers, real desperadoes, some of them from the Nordland Division, mostly Norwegian and Flemish. The soldiers of Oleg’s little group had told him they had been fighting the SS too but now that they met those members of the Nordland Division they agreed to combine forces. The chances of breaking out of the encirclement were enhanced with them. After a couple of engagements with the Russians, they were able to get through the front line.

 

Two days later, they reached the American front and they surrendered. That was the end of World War 2 for Oleg. He never found Irenka again and got married in Australia to a Ukrainian woman. Now he was a widower and he had never expected to worry about his homeland again. But there it was, Ukrainians were fighting Russians in the East of the Ukraine. It was painful for Oleg because, despite his animosity towards them, he regarded them as brothers. But then, brothers could be the worst of enemies.

The Principle of the “Principle”

Yackandandah, Victoria, a township existing on the principle of co-operation

Life in the old gold mining  town of Yackandandah, Victoria,  is continuing  on the principle of co-operation

It is good to have principles,

but to insist on one’s principles,

at all times, is akin to fundamentalism

and should be avoided.

To have principles and act upon them is often seen as a positive attitude. We say often about others, “He is a man of principle and he will not violate his principles.”

For sure, this applies especially of good behaviour and is recognised as a good rule of personal conduct to have.

We complain often enough about the conduct of politicians and journalists and accusing them of not having any principles. Oh, they have their principles, but not the ones we expect them to have.

It is possible, that some people have the principle not to have any, bar the one, not to have any.

So, we are actually talking about “good” principles. We live on this earth and try our best to live in harmony with our fellow human beings. Principles will help but what if “our” principles clash with the principles of the others?

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Aleppo, Syria, a city where the principle is, “I’m right and you are wrong”.

If we insist on our principles and the others insist on theirs,  there could  be trouble in the form of a bad argument or even  conflict. Perhaps there should be another principle that encourages us to talk things over. There must be some overarching principles, like human rights.

 Insisting on principles could be a form of fundamentalism. Perhaps the guiding principle should be the principle of approximation.

Approximation” is a term well-known in science and mathematics but could also be applied to human behaviour.

Face-saving” and compromising could fall under the principle of approximation.

Perhaps, next time you have an argument based on one of your  principles you might consider, that you are seen as a fundamentalist or just plain bloody-minded. 

Advent 1948

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The happy “Swinger”

The other day, I was sitting on the swing in the local playground and was swinging into the beautiful, sunny summer morning. Magpies were singing away in a nearby tree and a couple of Galahs, not very musical-minded, chased them away. All normal activities in the park.

Swinging is a relaxing pastime and on this day, during the time of Advent, the memories came flooding back to sixty-seven years ago in December 1948.

It was still a time of shortages and we knew Christmas would be a dull affair again. I was especially sad because my sister Ilse was away in West-Germany because of the blockade the Soviet Union had imposed on West-Berlin. There were shortages everywhere, only of the cold and hunger we had plenty of.

We had a swing hanging from the high ceiling in our hallway. I was mighty proud of it as I knew no other family with a swing. One morning in December, I was alone at home. My mother and my older sister Eva were both at work. I  was  sitting on the swing and was swinging to my heart’s content. Flying through the air, I felt like a bird. As it was the time of Advent I was also singing Christmas songs.

Nostalgia overpowered me and I was wishing for my sister to be back in Berlin for Christmas. I knew there was no way she could be back as all the borders to West-Germany were hermetically sealed off.

The thought of Christmas, without her, made me really sad and I stopped swinging and finally the swing came to a stop. As I was considering my dark mood I heard a knock on the door. I jumped off the swing and rushed to the door and when I opened the door my sister Ilse was standing there with a suitcase by her side. We hugged each other and probably screamed and shouted with sheer delight.

I swamped her with questions about her coming. She had taken a train to the border and joined some other people for a long walk through the forest. Near the border, they were joined by a guide who showed them the way. Today, people would call those helpful men, people smugglers. In those days they were heroes. They made it safely through the night to the nearest railway station in East-Germany and then by train to Berlin. And there she was.

At once we went to the police to report her return and registered her, and applied for the ration cards, with the department which issued the food vouchers. My mother was at work and had no idea what was happening at home. It made her real happy to find Ilse on her return home.

Later, just before Christmas, every person in Berlin received a free block of Sarotti chocolate. It had the familiar picture of the brown milk cows and the inscription that it was a gift from Sarotti for the suffering population of Berlin. It had especially been flown in by the planes of the Allied air forces. What a change that was: Within three years from bombing us they flew in chocolates for us!

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The future looked just that  little bit brighter for us.

Nothingness and Eternity

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“Death” is the state of “not being” after we have been alive.

We have no word describing the time before we were born. But in fact, the condition of our non-being is exactly the same.

Therefore, we can say, we have “experienced” the nothingness  already; without being able “to know “.

“Death” will only be our return to nothingness.

Our angst, or fear, of death, results from us recognising the difference of being and not being.

Therefore, our fear of death is the proof of being alive!

 

What then is life?

It is but a break in eternity!

Time exist only for the living.

Being alive is standing on the crest of a wave, but inevitable the wave will fall back and unite with the ocean of eternity!

 

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The Year 1978

In October, I wrote a blog  about our dear, late friend Ron Bates. He played a  pivotal role at that stage in our life and helped us overcome a family tragedy.

Towards the end of nineteen hundred and seventy-seven, we were looking forward to the arrival of a new member to our family. But fate had other ideas, and my wife Uta lost the baby.

Sure, it was a time of grief and disappointment but we promised ourselves to try again. Just then, Ron came up with the idea of a short vacation with some of his friends up at Numbacca Heads on the Mid-Northcoast of NSW. “That would do you the world of good,” he said.

We went up by train and on arrival were met by Ron at the station. He took us to the home of his friends, Snowy and Eve. What a lovely couple they were. They took good care of us despite not having met us before. The next few days they took us, and Ron, to show us the exceptionally wooded hinterland.

There  is a beautiful spot from where you could  view the mouth of the Numbacca River and  the landscape beyond.

We had a picnic at a nature reserve with a stand of beautiful  tall Sydney Blue Gums.

Uta and Eve among the trees

Uta and Eve among the trees

Snowy prepared a barbeque lunch.

Snowy and Ron

Snowy and Ron

 

Next day we really ‘went bush’, as they say in Australia.  We drove to  the village of  Tailors Arm.  To call this settlement  a village,  is probably a bit over the top. It is a location that has a pub. This pub became famous in the gestation of the  song, “The pub with no beer”.

Uta, Snowy and Ron posing on the veranda.

Uta, Snowy and Ron posing on the veranda.

I can tell you, we enjoyed a beautiful, refreshing beer on that day. Should we have charged the pub with false advertising?

On the next day,  Ron wanted us to meet another friend of his, Mary Boulton. She was a local identity and  had established a Pioneer Cottage at Macksville.

The Pioneer Cottage in 1978. You find other pictures on the webside.

The Pioneer Cottage in 1978. You find other pictures on the website.

Mary Boulton, Snowy and me mascarading as an explorer

Mary Boulton, Snowy and I masquerading as an explorer

Ron and I at the gate of the Pioneer Cottage

Ron and I at the gate to the Pioneer Cottage

We had a great time on that short vacation. It was also memorable because only days before I took up running and ran along the  roads at Nambucca Heads. I wanted to lose weight as I was weighing 88 kg at the time. I’m still running now about three times a week.

Nine months later we had a baby girl. Our daughter, Caroline, just had her birthday a few days ago.

Caroline and her partner Matthew.

Caroline and her partner Matthew. What a great couple they are.

That year, 1978, had a sad beginning, but it ended well.  Life was kind to us and with the help of  friends and family we found our way back into a full life. Actually, we still live in the afterglow of that year.

Everything that is happening now is the result of what has happened in the past. Be mindful of what you are doing today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A unwelcome Guest

We have a pet fly. Perhaps I did not express myself properly. 

What I meant was, we have a fly living with us and who, for unknown reasons, has adopted us as her pets.

She follows us everywhere. But I have the feeling she is more attached to me than to my wife.

At first she appeared at our dinner table.  Every time food was put on the table there was a buzz in the air. This, no doubt, comes naturally to a fly. I tried to catch her many times and I thought I did so. I felt her in my closed hand. On opening my hand to release her outside, I could not see her. On walking inside, I saw her flying directly into my face to welcome me back.

After the meals and doing the dishes, she would be flying happily around my head assured I could not harm her with my hands in the water. Honestly, I do not want any of her caresses. She is a nuisance.

When I carry out the rubbish she follows me too. She flies around my head and shows off her acrobatic tricks. She never flies too far away afraid I could sneak inside without her. I can tell you, she is a smart cookie. As soon as I turn to walk back in, she settles down on my back.

Once inside she flies ahead, makes somersaults in the air and would laugh her multi-eyed head off if she could. 

After the evening meal and doing the dishes we usually settle down in front of the TV to watch the unfolding horror of the daily news. At first I can hear her buzzing around my head. Then she flies in front of the TV set as if to shout,  “Here I am. I’m here!”

When the Minister for Immigration comes on to announce, to my displeasure, that his Borderforce has stopped another boat loaded with desperate asylum seekers, our fly delights me by trying to crawl into the minister’s nose. Of course, she gets frustrated and instead attacks my ear.

Today we did go  by train to Sydney. We were hoping to get some relief from our fly. You won’t believe this  when we entered the train carriage she was already sitting on the windowsill looking at us expectantly with her beady  eyes.

I was  hoping to  take a picture of her. But she did not settle down long enough for me to do this. By refusing to be photographed,  she wanted to show the whole world how paranoid I am. I have no proof!

Once in Sydney I expected her to get lost. The smells of so many people would surely confuse her as she is just an innocent little house fly from the country.

It seemed to work and we were not bothered by her while in the city.

But as soon as we stepped onto the train for the return journey there she was again.  She was flying happily around our heads indicating that she was pleased to have found us again.

“Alright,” I said, “let’s go home together.”

“Bridge of Spies” – Glienicke Bridge

Today, 26 years ago ( on the morning of the 10 November, Australian time) the Berlin Wall was opened. Next day, Berlin Time, the old border between West-Berlin and the GDR (East-Germany) was opened at the border to between Berlin and Potsdam.

Sign on Glienike Bridge, today

Sign on Glienike Bridge, today

The sign reads, “Here was Germany and Europe until the 10th of November 1989 at 1800 hour divided”.

So it was astonishingly appropriate that we, my wife Uta and I, saw a film today that had that bridge as a dramatic backdrop. It was another story, from the time of the Cold War, that was told in the film “Bridge of Spies“.  Here is a trailer of the film.

As a former resident of Berlin, I’m not unfamiliar with the bridge. I visited her many times and the bridge was once before the background for a movie. “Under the Bridges” was the last German film made before the end of the war but only shown after the end of the war.

This particular construction of the Glienicke Bridge was only completed in 1907.

In 1986, three years before it re-opening we were visiting her.

View across the River Havel towards Potsdam

View across the River Havel towards Potsdam (1986)

The bridger with boadersign and guard's hut 1986

The bridge with border sign and guard’s hut (1986)

This really was the border of the Western world. Whereever you were in West-Berlin, you always faced the East.

This really was the border of the Western world. Wherever you were in West-Berlin, you always faced the East. (1986)

Today, you should take a walk across the bridge and let the full impact grab you.  In the middle is a line marking the former border.

This masrks the old East / West borderline.

This marks the old East / West borderline.

This the approach to bridge from the Potsdam end of the border. Today the bridge is the border beweteen the City of Berlin and the Federal State of Brandenburg.

This is the approach to the bridge from the Potsdam end of the border. Today the bridge is the border between the City of Berlin and the Federal State of Brandenburg.

And if you have made it to this spot, you are right in front of the beautiful cafe “Garage Du Pont”.

You can sit and ponder the history of the bridge while you indulge yourself.

 Garage Du Pont

Garage Du Pont

Here you can enjoy a coffee, an apple tart or a brandy  or all three of them.

Bon appetite!

Bon appetite!

The film is not only based on a true event, but it is also a stark portrayal of the American justice system. Justice is not always been done but depends often on people  like James B. Donovan  100 out of 100 for Tom Hanks too. The scenes at the border, in August 1961 when the wall went up, were just frightening to watch.

A few times I had to fight back tears as I saw how Berlin suffered.