Memories of the Past and towards 2017

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.

These are the words of the refrain from the beautiful song “Bookends” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. A song about two old friends sitting on a park bench – reminiscing.

 

 

If you have more time on your hand you can be listening to the full version here.

Last month,  Uta and I had our 60th Wedding anniversary. It was a moment to reflect on our past together.

Just before we got married this photo was taken of us two on the balcony of my mother’s apartment in Berlin. In the meantime, this building has been torn down and a more modern one has taken its place.

img_20170106_0001 In the picture, my future wife looks rather sceptical at me.  Or is it whimsical? We were innocent at the time. We believed in a better world and eleven years after WW 2 we had all reasons to believe in a bright future. Out of that belief grew our confidence to start a family.

In case you are wondering about the plate on the wall, it has been painted by Anselm  Feuerbach and is of his favourite model, Nanna, in a classical pose. This plate is still in the family and belongs to my son now.

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From then to now it was a time of great changes in all our lives. We moved to Australia and raised a family. Of our four children, our eldest daughter passed away nearly five years ago.

2016 was an especially bad year all round. The election of Donald Trump to be the new President of the US makes for interesting times. Interesting, because he seems to be unpredictable. He loves conflict and will have a fight on his hand, among others, with the American secret services. The establishment believes the advice of the services are sacrosanct without considering that they might have their own agenda.

Terrorism is an old game but since 9/11 it has become global, as so many things have since the end of the Cold War. We shake in our shoes as our governments think of more useless schemes to stop this menace. But all those measurements make the would-be terrorists more cranky.

On a personal level, my health is precarious. At least this is what my doctors tell me. Next week I will know more. At my age, anything can crop up in my body. When I was born my life expectancy was just sixty-four years. Fifteen years later I am still here to tell my stories.

A few years ago, I talked about this with one of my neighbours. We called it bonus time and laughed about it. This was on a Friday and the very next Monday his bonus time came to a sudden end. So, you never know.

In case you wonder what happened to the couple in the first photo. We changed into an old couple day by day without noticing it. And now, sixty years later, we look like this.

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We have come a long way and I’m happy that last year we were able to visit Berlin, our hometown, once more. If we are lucky, we will be able to see Berlin again in two years time. Our health allowing, of course.

I nearly forgot. For the fifth time, we became great-grandparents. So the family is growing and we hope the politicians are not mucking up the great-grandchildren’s future.

For 2017 I wish all my followers all the best. Most of all stay healthy because without good health life can be a drag.

Sculptures by the Sea Pt.2

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Another sweeping view of Bondi Beach. On the left of the picture, one can see people walking, ant-like, by the rocky shore.

There was more to see than the results of the various artists: plants that are clinging to the meagre rocks, the changes that Bondi went through since the European people arrived, and the present day activities.

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Bondi Beach has changed over the years since the new settlers arrived.

In the beginning, Bondi Beach was just that, a sandy, long beach with sand dunes in the background. Then people discovered the beach and the surf and used it first without any amenities. During the twenties and thirties, it slowly  changed into what it is today.

While walking along the crowded path we saw a sign that amused us.

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What are they up to. we were wondering. Working below the waves. Later we found more signs that gave us an answer.

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There was even an artist in residence. She was busy creating a mosaic on the rocks that lay there for aeons.

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There weren’t only bare rocks but there were also  signs that life was hanging on on those bare rocks.

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A flowering plant found a home at the base of an old, rusty pipe.

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A little corner full of flowers

 

 

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A plant with giant leaves had found a new home

 

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A single flower starting out a new existence

 

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This bush was once alive and looked more like some of  the sculptures nearby: a symbol of the passing of time 

We had seen enough that day.  We were tired  and were heading home on a nearly empty train.

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Sculptures by the Sea Pt. 1

Last Tuesday we went to Sydney to see the free open air Exhibition “Sculptures by the Sea”

We had planned this visit, for that day, because the weather forecasts promised us sunshine and summer-like temperatures.

A few das earlier a mighty surf had damaged some of the exhibits.

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The famous, iconic Bondi Beach, Sydney

We started off at the Bondi Beach. And soon enough we saw the first of many sculptures.

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Ha someone left his bag on the rocks? In the background, you can spot the Bondi Beach pavilion.

It is an arduous walk along the rocks from Bondi Beach to Tamarama Beach. Young people use it for their fitness workout. Old people like us,  hope to survive.

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Almost like the “Great Wall of China”. My wife could not help photographing me.

This exhibition is a yearly event and this year it was held for the 20th time. The artist come from all over the world.

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The faces of people who wonder in awe.

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Whatever it is, I liked it! Perhaps aliens left it there to spy on us Earthlings.

While this exhibition was going on for the last twenty years mother nature was busy for aeons and formed its own spectacular creations.

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The elements have shaped massive rock face.

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How many millions of years did nature work on this piece of rock?

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Cloud formations on Jupiter? No, rocks near Bondi Beach.

Back to the human artists. There was so much to see. Every few minutes we had to pause as our legs are more than four times the age this exhibition is going.

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This is very spectacular too.  Another of those communication devices with another galaxy?

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What is the meaning of this one? I have no idea, but it is made of wood.

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This ball is made from bamboo sticks.

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This must be the most beautiful exhibit of them all. There is, without doubt, a spiritual dimension to it. 

Many people walked in either direction. They spoke in many languages. It was Babel all over again. But people were not confused in dealing with each other.

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This cone must have a meaning, but it escapes me.

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This picture gives you an idea of its dimension.

 

 

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This one was called “Chaos Theory”. Why?  It is not more chaotic than the rest of the man-made world.

 

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“In Awe”, indeed, it survived the onslaught of the wild surf a few days earlier. 

We had arrived dead tired at Tamarama Beach and felt like the rhinoceros in the last picture, flat on our backs.

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Back from the Future

In my last blog, Back to the Future, I expressed my wish to catch up with the future  in the city of my birth, Berlin.

 

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The borough of Spandau where the past and the present co-exist without the fear of the future

 

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My four-year-old great-grandson Lucas standing at the same spot I would have been at the same age

 

I’m back and what I saw was a glimmer, not of hope but the fear  of the future. The people of Europe are afraid. Never did they have it so good. But the fear is spreading  slowly.  In the middle of it all came the shock result of the Brexit plebiscite in the United Kingdom. Now it turns out not to be so united after all. The people of the UK are tearing themselves apart.

Everywhere in Europe are noisy groups clamouring for the re-establishing of old, national borders. The lessons of the past have been forgotten. Borders are, mostly, artificial lines in the landscape. And we know if someone puts a line in the sand then someone else is going to cross it.

In a blog, two years ago, I wrote about the fear that runs our lives. Now we discover the fear has been becoming a groundswell that  has produced  political parties in some countries and a presidential candidate in the USA.

 

We have reached a point where we can’t dissipate the fear anymore. We will have to deal with it. Building borders and the old “laager” mentality won’t help. But what will help, you are asking? Whole populations are divided in offensive defiance  or helpful humanity.

I think, that we, in the West, are so fearful has its reasons in our behaviour over centuries of exploitation of the resources of other countries, being human or otherwise.

Now the chickens come home to roost. History is catching up with us and the future is not looking so bright anymore. Instinctively, we know we have done wrong in the past and now history is trying to balance things out.

The more politicians paint us a grim picture of the future the more it will come about because it will enrage the people who are named in the predictions.

On the surface, Berlin seems calm as they are still dealing with the aftermath of the second World War. How come, you ask? They are still finding unexploded bombs which have to be dealt with. Sometimes, thousands of people have to be evacuated as those brave men from the bomb-disposal squad have to do their dangerous work. Berliners take it in their stride. What some of them  are not  taking in their stride is their  perception of a dark future.

I hope that my short life expectancy does not preclude me from further travel to Europe, or indeed Australia, as I still have so much catching=up to do with the past.

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The world-time clock at Berlin Alexanderplatz which shows the present, 1045hours in Berlin, and the future, 1845hours already in Sydney, Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Friday, 27. April 1945

Finally, the war came to our street in earnest. Meaning,  units of the Red Army occupied our street and the surrounding area. Around the corner the 8th Guards Army under General Chuikov. established its headquarters. This is how my mother saw what happened that fateful day:

“Day 7 Friday 27. April 1945

Naturally, it was another restless night. One knew, we have reached the end of the line – it was all about our  freedom now! Obviously, not many people from the building had actually come to sleep in the cellar.  We can not really sleep, our nerves are too much on edge. Sometimes we shut our eyes. But each crackling of small arm’s fire, or any other noise,  and  our heads are up. Then again, there is a deadly, frightening silence. Outside now, there is no sound or step.

But this silence is for our ears and hearts doubly alarming !!!

Suddenly, a rumbling noise comes closer and closer. Between 3 o’clock and 4.30am Russian tanks roll through Immelmannstrasse.  Always in the same, heavy dull, but rattling way. Then we hear horse drawn carts moving. Then the first steps. One can hear strange voices and sounds coming through the open cellar windows.

Oh! How frightening to hear, these strange Russian sounds! Our thoughts: “What do they want from us strangers, our poor little tribe of people? Are they bringing peace and quiet? Or Violence – Rape – Death ???”

Our nerves are nearly bursting. Suddenly, all the tenants of the building are together in the air-raid-shelter, everywhere, where one’s eyes are gliding, one can see pallid faces.

Then fast and heavy steps come storming down the stairs. The door flies open – our hearts stop for a moment – three Russians are standing in the cellar – they smile. As if on  command, we all get up from our seats and raise  our arms in a gesture of  surrender.

They kept shouting – “Russki good! Russki good!” Our strongly beating hearts slowed down a little bit. The Russians came to every person and demanded all jewels, rings and watches.

“Uri, Uri, Uri” they called out again and again. Within five minutes, they had taken all jewellery from us. My wedding ring I had hidden in my mouth and could, therefore, save it.”

From here on, there is no more original diary kept on a daily basis. What comes next is what my mother had added to a hand written copy of her short diary. It is, in fact,  a synopsis of what happened after the liberation by the Russians. I will write about it  in  a separate blog.

For me, and I suppose for everybody else, this moment, when the three soldiers entered our cellar, became a defining moment in my life. We had no idea what would happen next. They could have thrown in a couple of hand grenades or killed us with their machine pistols they had slung around their bodies. But nothing like that at all. Like Mum said, they smiled.

We had heard so many horror stories about the Russians, they were Untermenschen, so barbaric were they, that we had to make war on them. We were not encouraged to expect any mercy from them. And now they were here. I’m not sure whether anybody in that cellar was thinking how the Russian people must have  felt when the German Army invaded their country.

This was here and now. I concentrated on the first one. You could see he was dressed differently from the other two  soldiers, and in charge of them. He was dressed in a black leather jacket and cap, clearly one of those dreaded Commissars, the worst of the lot we were always told.

His gaze went round the room, maybe looking for German soldiers that were hiding among the women of Berlin. Then he spotted me! In two, three steps he reached me and put his hand on my shoulder and pushed my raised arms down and said: “You don’t need to surrender. Russians don’t make war on children!”

Don’t ask me what language he was speaking, it was angels music in my ears. So, for me the war was over.  I loved Russians ever since. What if he had shot my mother in front of me? Would I hate Russians now? A personal experience  can determine our behaviour for the rest of our lives.

A new reality opened up in that dark, badly lit cellar. To the  word “Uri,Uri” which meant watch, we learnt fast the next command, “Frau, komm”. This was something the women dreaded most of all. Even as a nine-year-old I had an idea what it meant. When our leaders start a war they don’t consider all the consequences. We were told we had to fight the Bolsheviks, now they were in Berlin and were taking our women as a reward or trophy. The Commissar, or political officer, did not steal anything from the people in our cellar.

The war was not over. We still could not go into our flats which were open to all comers as the windows were blown out and the doors were off the hinges. Like the penguins, we huddled together. There still was safety in numbers. Alone in our apartments, we would be on our own.

It was only the beginning of a new time and we looked forward to those new times with trepidation.