Living in the Future

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When I was a teenager or even younger, I thought the year 1960 was the future. “1984” was the distant future and the year 2000 was the unimaginable, far away, further away future. All those dates are gone now and are part of the history of mankind.

Now, we have the year 2017! I live in a present which was once a future, I was not able to contemplate at all. The last two numbers of years remind us of what happens one hundred years ago. That was a time just before I was born. When I grew up the First World War was still talked about without a quantifying number. It was the World War! That war and its aftermath were so bad that people did not want a repeat nor did they want any world war that had a number attached higher than one. They got one anyway.

My parents were both born in the year 1900 and were true citizens of the 20th century.  While they were growing up new inventions changed their lives. The telephone, movie films, electric trains, aeroplanes and automobiles, the wireless radio,  all those inventions changed the lives of millions. They lived in the most modern city in the world: Berlin.

When I was born, in an almost new hospital, I could not yet know that a madman was already in the process to destroy this modern civilisation. Only smart people could foresee what was coming and if they were able to, they left the country. So much of modernity was transferred to the USA.

All this is, of course, nothing new. There are constant changes and people who bring those changes about have themselves no idea what consequences their ideas ultimately will have. When Gottlieb Daimler fitted an internal combustion engine to a coach he could not imagine that one day it would lead to an environmental disaster.

In 1941 to 1943,  I walked past a tenant building on my way to school in which a young man, Konrad Zuse was inventing the machine that was to became the dominating appliance of human existence in the 21st century, the computer.

The present is always the precursor of the future. We always live in the present but in comparison to what went on before we would have called today’s present the future at any other time.

In today’s world, there are different struggles going on at the same time. There seems to be a religious struggle going on.  I say, “seems to be”, because actually it is not.  It is a rebellion by people who have enough after beeing controlled and exploited by others for centuries, if not millenniums.  Of course. they are guided by their culture, which includes their religion and tribal traditions.

In our European-centric or Western world, we find four main cultural ingredients combined: Roman, Celtic, Germanic and Slavic. All this with a mighty proportion of Jewish tradition to spice things up. Overlaying all this mixture is the Judaic-Christian religion. This is our framework for our  thoughts and actions.

Even if we are not religious we believe in the enlightenment and a basic morality. Apparently, the majority of our politicians don’t believe in any morality. They have been democratically elected to work for the benefit of the population as a whole. But once elected and when they know the ins and outs of the expense entitlement system they go for it like a pack of hungry wolves. They have no shame at all.

The question arises how good is Democracy if it throws up such a mob of parasites? Last century, especially after WW2, Democracy seemed to be spreading. The two shining examples are Germany and Japan. After they lost the war they took to Democracy like ducks to water.

After 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union true Democracy seems to be on the retreat. New governments are still being elected but after the votes have been counted some of the new governments think they have a licence to curtail the rules of Democracy.

On top of all this, globalisation has led to an increase in the influence of big business over the governments. The voters are reacting now by throwing out the governments that appear corrupt and they elect populist new governments which further erode the democratic way of life. That doesn’t mean the new governments are less corrupt.

The USA have voted themselves an unpredictable president who will probably govern by Twitter. Well, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, said the other day, the future will begin in a few days. We will see what is new about it.

I say, we have arrived already. We live in a future we did not imagine when we were younger. The climate is changing our planet Earth into an uninhabitable rock. What have we done to our children and all the generation who will follow us?

People all over the world don’t want things to continue as they did up to now and they say so in a recent poll.

They want a strong leader who takes the power back from the big companies and their greedy CEOs.

We are living in a present in which the dark clouds of the future don’t show any silver lining at all.

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Back to the Future

“Back to the Future”, everyone knows that title from the film trilogy  by Robert Zemeckis with Micheal J. Fox in the starring role. It is with a rather quiet satisfaction that I can say, I thought of the title already in 1977  before anybody thought of the film.

 

The title came to my mind for a diary I was going to write about my first trip back  from Australia to West-Berlin.

Germany, and with it West-Berlin, had experienced an economic miracle (Wirtschaftswunder) and I wanted to see those changes.

 

 

I bought a big, fat copy book. Its title is still  the only written evidence  of that trip. Actually, it is no evidence at all, just a thought bubble.

 

Now, thirty-eight years later, it came to my mind again, as my wife and I, plus a large number of my family are preparing for another trip to that beloved city of my personal history.

 

Berlin has undergone another tremendous change from the time the Wall came down. That event changed the whole world by accelerating globalisation.

 

In the meantime, the youth of the world has discovered Berlin and they are  moving in great numbers  to the city at the river Spree. Berlin is a modern city but not a mega-city per se. It has still a human scale  to it.  It is a far cry from “Metropolis” the famous film by Fritz Lang. It is a much more laid-back, creative city now than was envisaged during the Twenties.

 

For me, the journey back will be my tenth one. I always have to catch up  with what has happened. Only in this way can I keep up with its latest development. So, it is  really a trip to the future as I have not experienced the developing city. I’m playing catch-up with the immediate past. Every time I go there a new future is awaiting me.

 

Last time, four years ago, were there,  we had a good time. This time, we go there with our three surviving children and some grand- and great-grandchildren.

 

Will they notice the unique Berlin sidewalks? Will they see the bullet holes in the masonry of many buildings? Will they fall over the “Stolpersteine (stepping stones)” let into footpaths to remember the Jewish citizens who have been taken to the extermination camps during the black days of Nazi regime?

 

Berlin, like no other city, has shaped the 20th century and we are still living in the aftermath of it. I’m a child of the 20th century and all that happened to that city is ingrained into me.  What I know now  made we wary of politicians. When I see or hear  one,  I smell a rat. The next disaster is just around the corner because of them.

 

When I’m there, I’m fully there and Australia  seems to be a memory only.  This time, it will be summer in all its glory when we get there. Berlin is a green city and most of the streets are tree-lined and the city is surrounded by forests, rivers, and lakes in a landscape shaped by the receding Ice Age twelve thousand years ago.  There will be plenty of opportunities for long walks, outings, river cruises, and to refresh memories.

 

Some of those memories are three-quarters of a century old. Like we, as children, being banned from the main air raid shelter for being too noisy. Grown-ups, who were afraid of the falling bombs,  could not stand the singing and playing of innocent children. Who would have thought then of the year 2016? That would have been the  far-off future, yet  I’m living in that future now.

 

People are being made to feel afraid again; this time by politicians who would like to stay in power. If I could speak to the people of the nineteen-forties, I would tell them of the future and how good everything would be. But for us, the people living now, we have new fears. Fears of others and fears of a future of unimaginable heat and rising sea levels. Our present fears  were not even dreamt of  then.

 

Then we were told, by the politicians of the day, to be afraid of the Bolsheviks and the hordes from the East. Now we are being told to be afraid of asylum seekers, and refugee who come by boats. We are being told that they are illiterate, take our jobs, and they live on welfare. We are being told that the ravages of climate change  are just a load of crap. Climate change does not fit into the electoral cycle.

 

What would  the people, living then,  have thought of a description of the second decade of the 21st century?  Then we lived at the edge of death from the bombs and starvation. Death was a constant companion. Today we ignore the real problems and indulge in imaginary ones.

 

What does the future hold for me? The short-term future looks good, as I’m preparing for my trip to Berlin.  The long-term future is promising me a cool grave and a peaceful eternity. For mankind, as a whole, I can’t predict anything. But, I would like to hear from a time traveller how the future is panning out in seventy-five years from now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Russians are here!

The Red Army was in our street, but the war was not over yet. We often refer to members of the Red Army as “Russians”, but in fact they could be members of many different races and nations that were part of the Soviet Union. The fighting went on in the city and Hitler was not dead yet.

Only one side of our street was built upon.  On the other side was a colony of garden allotments, so popular in Berlin.

This was  the Tempelhof site of our street in 1942

This was the Tempelhof side of our street in 1942

Part of our street on the Kreuzberg site in 1938

Part of our street on the Kreuzberg side in 1938

There, among the allotments they installed a battery of Katyusha rocket launchers  (called by the Germans Stalin’s Organ).  They made a terrible howling noise as one after the other rocket left for its target. It is a sound nobody, who ever heard it, will forget. They were fire spraying monsters.

"Katyusha" rocketluncher somewhere in Berlin during the final battle

“Katyusha” rocket launcher somewhere in Berlin during the final battle

During the first days of having arrived the soldiers were for the women a cause for alarm. They were looking for women.  Rape stories abound. Here is what my mother had to say:

Because of a German-Polish woman, Frau R., who lived in our apartment building and could converse in Russian, our apartment building was spared any rapes. Often Frau R. had to appear at the Kommantura to interpret when a dispute arose.

When people became aware of an attempted rape, they called Frau R., who either was able to talk the offending soldier out of it or alerted some officers or other soldiers. That’s where her help was invaluable.

Offending soldiers were often beaten by their comrades or had their identification confiscated. This was especially harsh, as they could be picked up by the Military Police and accused of being deserters.

As soon as the Russians occupied our street, it was made clear to us, that if a shot should be fired from the building the whole building would be demolished.  We were always afraid that some idiot would still be trying to fight for the “Final Victory”.

So one morning we were told by a Russian soldier, that, in fact, that had happened.

Nobody had heard a shot, but the fighting was not over yet and shells flew in both directions over our house. A German shell hit the building in our courtyard and for the second time the whole courtyard filled with dust and debris. A gentleman who lived on the 5th floor was killed outright by a shrapnel. The Russians built a coffin for him and buried him and two of their comrades in front of our balcony.

Our balcony (the second from the right)

Our balcony (the second from the right)

With all the noise of the ongoing battle, it was not surprising, that we had not heard the shot. We were informed that the building would be destroyed,  and we were not allowed to leave the shelter. People that came down to the cellar informed us that the Russians were laying cables for fuses. The house was going to be packed with explosives and blown up; and that was it. Then we heard a big rumbling noise and a crashing of wood and then stillness. But no explosion. After a while someone dared to go up the stairs and investigate. No one stopped him. He came back with some amazing news: The Russians had put up a ‘Gulaschkanone”(a field-kitchen) !

The Russians put it up to cook for their soldiers and for us, the hungry people who had no means of buying any food at the time. Even then, some of the Germans complained that the Russians would not give us anything that was not stolen from us Germans in the first place. They cooked for us, and we loved the tucker they provided for us. We had at least one hot meal a day.

The courtyard, then there was no greenery and the wall all looked from the grime

The courtyard as it looks now. In 1945 there was no greenery and the walls were full of grime.

The “Gulaschkanone” was put up in the middle of our courtyard. We could observe, from our kitchen window, when the soup was ready and it was time to queue up for the dishing out. The “enemy” looked rather good from our glassless kitchen window. Here is my mother again:

The Russians collected a small table from me. On it, they cut the meat into smaller pieces. I received about 2 kg of veal. Often Peter too, received from the Russians lard, cake and pasta. They liked children a lot.

This way we were able to improvise and supplement our food and we did not starve for very long.

to be continued…

Monday, 23. April 1945

My mother wrote:

Day 3: Monday 23. April 1945

“Today the ‘queuing fun’ continues. From 10 am to 4 pm, once again we queued in vain. Later there is butter for free. 1/2 kilo per head, but no luck here either. Just when we were about to enter the shop the supply runs out.

So, slowly we are becoming weaker from hunger – the cold – and tiredness. Let us hope that we get through all this. The shelling is getting louder, but people are getting dulled. We will see what the day brings tomorrow.”

As usual, my mother and I  exchanged places in the queue. Often the  queueing  went on for hours.

My mother’s diary is not really comprehensive and I must say so much is missing and I saw the world around me differently from the way she saw it. Different impressions are often the result.

On that particular day, we were hoping to get “our” butter ration as long as we waited long enough.  For me, all this waiting among the old people was an experience in itself. “Old people” because younger persons were either working or helping out at the front. Not to speak about the men that were in the army and were just now defending Berlin against the onslaught of the Red Army. And for a nine-year-old boy all people are “old”. For me, it was interesting to listen what they had to talk about. Some were fearful and others were stoic. Whatever will be, will be!

In those days, the  butter did not come conveniently prepacked in 1/2 kilo portions. It came in  drums and the grocer had to weigh every portion himself.  This was a very slow process done with a wooden spatula.  The People  owning  the shops were usually very old people who should have been retired a long time ago.

On this particular day, we inched our way towards the shop door. Just at the moment when I reached the door and the butter seemed to be in reach a motor lorry of the Waffen-SS stopped at the kerb.  Heavily armed soldiers jumped off and entered the shop. I could not hear all the conversation that took place, but one word I could understand, “Requisition”. That was the end of our  dream to have some butter. It wouldn’t have been much anyway,  but  every scrap of food was important. as regular supplies were not available anymore.  The soldiers carried out a few drums of butter, threw them into the lorry and disappeared. The people in the queue grumbled and went home. They were probably  thinking if  their own  soldiers  were stealing from  them,  what could they expect from  the Russian soldiers who would be, most likely, out for revenge?

 In those days people, when they departed, did not say, “Goodbye” or “See you later” but said. “Bleib’ übrig!”. This is very difficult to translate and the meaning is obviously to stay alive and survive, but actually   wishing you to be at least one of the few who was still alive, after  the battle was over. The feeling of this being the “endgame” was in the air.

Thoughts to the 1st of September 1939

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

One would have to be pretty old to remember that day in the summer of 1939.

I’m this old and remember this particular day and what made it important. My dad told us, that there was a war on and the government ordered all windows to be blacked out so an incoming enemy air plane was not able to see and recognise anything.

Dad wanted to put some old wall paper over the glass of the windows and used some drawing pins to stick the paper to the window frames. He soon ran out of them. He sent me, his four year old son, to the shop to buy some more drawing pins, I was not surprised for I had done some errands before. I sort of remember buying ice creams and toffee lollies on my own.

On the way back the air raid siren started howling. Dad told the family there was nothing to worry about, it was only a  drill. Long after the war I learnt that the air defence made a mistake and mistook a German plane for a Polish one.

On the day we children did not take the news of war in any way seriously. I have no idea how my parents felt. Much later I learnt that dad was a communist who hated Hitler intensely.  Still, in January 1940, he joined the Army. He returned after the war in May 1946 after having been a POW.

For me exciting times were ahead. But as a little child I would not have known anything about the reasons for that war. During the next five and a half years, slowly the excitement turned into horror and it all ended in May 1945 with the unconditional surrender of the military forces of the German Reich.

Where are we now seventy five years later? The world is in turmoil. Historians tell us, it is the most peaceful time in all of history. What we are doing is concentrating on one or two events and we think it is the big one.  Well, I know history too and I can see what the Western powers are up to.  We, the public, see only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We know nothing of what the big powers are really  playing at. What we hear and read is only propaganda. Lies upon lies are heaped onto a mountain of misinformation and before we know it, we have a big war in which young men are being  sacrificed and the women of the world are crying.

In Eastern Europe, at the  border between the Ukraine and Russia, storm clouds are forming. The enlargement of the EU and the encroachment of NATO towards the Russian borders is seen by the Russians as an attack on their national and cultural identity. The interest of the Russians in the affairs of Ukraine is not territorial but cultural and deeply emotional. Their feelings about “Mother Russia” is bordering on the religious. In Czarist times they called it “Holy Mother Russia”. I dare say, no other people on Earth feel so deeply about their country.

“The modern peoples of Belarus,Ukraine, and Russia all claim Kievan Rus’ as their cultural inheritance.” this is a quote from the Wikipedia about the country, Kievan Rus’. Now Russia, feeling stronger than at any time since 1990, feels it has to resist the encroachment by the West. The proposed association of the Ukraine with the European Union was the last straw.  If the West does not grasp this fact it is sliding into a confrontation of unimaginable consequences.

Today, at this important anniversary, we are closer to WW III than at any time since the end of the Cold War and we should be mindful of what Albert Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

 

Let that be a warning to us all.

 

 

What is happening in the Ukraine ?

Lately the media was  full of news from the Ukraine. People in the 1532 years old city of Kiev demonstrated on Kiev’s Independence Square,  only to be shot at by security forces. On Saturday, the 22nd of February former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko was released from the prison hospital and appeared in front of the demonstrators at Independence Square.

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When I saw her there, with her traditional hairdo, I was reminded of the occasion I saw Ukrainian women for the first time in my life.

This happened at the beginning of April 1945. A beautiful sunny spring  Sunday invited my Mum and me for a walk in the nearby “Viktoria Park”. And lo and behold, when we turned  the first street corner  on the way to the park an amazing sight awaited us. Like a swarm of  the most beautiful butterflies we saw dozens and dozens of young woman in traditional Ukrainian dresses wearing their hair in a braid around their heads like a crown, indeed this style  is called “Crown of the Peasants”. The very style of hairdo Timoshenko wore when she addressed the people on Independence Square.

This fresh sight jarred my memory. The clothes these women wore on that day were all embroidered  with beautiful flowers. When they were talking to each other it sounded to me like birds chirping. I was astounded and asked my mother, “Mum, are they angels?”

“No, Peter, these women are Ukrainians!”

When I heard this I decided that Ukrainian women must be some kind of angels. These young females worked in Berlin at the time. Coerced or voluntarily, it does not matter now. They had their day off and they all went to the park to enjoy  the first sign of the coming spring.  What they were not doing, as I know now, was looking forward to the Red Army coming to Berlin. People of the Soviet Union who were found in Germany after the war,  be it as prisoners or workers, were not liberated but treated as traitors. Women suffered the indignity of being raped and then sent off to a labour camp in Siberia.

Ukrainians had a special relationship with Germans at this time of the war, as they saw Russians as their common enemy. And in the present struggle they look  to Germany for help in achieving their goal of joining the European Union.

We live in Australia now and we have met many former Ukrainians here at work and in a family way. Two of my grandsons had Ukrainian grandparents on their father’s side.  Later this year they will travel to the Ukraine. Little did they know, when they made their travel arrangements, that they were heading towards a country in the midst of a revolution.

The Ukrainian women I saw in the Spring of 1945 must be, if they are still alive, in their late eighties now. I wonder what they would still remember of what happened to them then. Perhaps they don’t want to remember.

None the less they are being remembered for having brightened a nine year old  boy´s day in early April of 1945.

October 27th

Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s birthday. He was born in the year 1900 and he would have been 113 years.

Fifteen of his descendents live in Australia and nine  in Germany . Two of his grandchildren have passed away. 

I loved him very much but this feeling was not reciprocated.

This is how he looked when I become aware of him during the first years of my life.

My father as a taxi driver in pre-war Berlin

My father as a taxi driver in pre-war Berlin

Oddly enough this photo was taken in the street where the  hospital is in which  I was born in. Perhaps he was there to visit  my mother. Who knows? No date was given for this picture. He looks a bit cheeky there. This is what he was like.

I loved the taxis of that time. They were spacious, had a fold back roof and two  fold  up seats for us kids. I still think he was the best driver ever. Normally he was a   nervous type,  but behind the wheel he was Mr. Calmness himself. He made the car seemingly float through the traffic.

The oldest picture of him, I have is this one. Here he is with his mother and his two sisters as a six year old.

Sunday outing

Sunday outing

On the next picture he looks bit  like young  Master Richard (his name).

possibly 10 or 11 years old

possibly 10 or 11 years old

He was born outside Berlin but his family soon moved to the big city where the work was.  In school he received not very high marks, but we know he was good at German and mathematics. I think he caused  lots of trouble and his reports were accordingly. My sisters and I, we discovered his school reports one day and found that he was not the ideal pupil he always made out he was.

In the next picture he looks even more like a young gentleman.

Young Richard

Young Richard

But his youth was rudely interrupted when WW I started. He volunteered for the army after his father fell on the front in Flanders in 1916.  Because of his age he was only an auxiliary soldier in the occupied Polish – Ukraine.

Auxiliary soldier at Dubieczno

Auxiliary soldier at Dubieczno

Here he was put in charge of the local church. The post card is ninety-six years old. Still, life must not have been easy as he lost one toe due to frostbite.

Church at Dubieczno

Church at Dubieczno

After the war he went to learn  the bank business. He worked in the bank till the great crash of 1929. He was retrained as a car driver and worked then as a pool driver with the Berlin radio station. Later he became a taxi driver. That is what he was when I joined the family in 1935.

Three stages of his life in his own handriting

Three stages of his life in his own handwriting

He hated the Nazis and he forbade us children to ever exhibit the Swastika flag. The world financial crisis  probably made him a communist. He was twice arrested by the Gestapo for saying he would like to kill Hitler. They left it up to my mother whether she ever wanted to see him again. Later she  joked she was stupid for pleading for his release.

When WW II started he volunteered again. He never told us why he did this. Did he like adventure, did anybody ask him to do it in order to spy on the Wehrmacht.? I wonder. His regiment was part of the occupation force in occupied Poland. He was either in Poznań or Lodz. Once on furlough he complained bitterly about the treatment that was dished out to the Russian POWs. He told us they were starving and giving them some bread was very difficult and strictly forbidden. While stationed in Poland he was mostly a car driver.

As a soldier in Poznań 1940

As a soldier (second from the right) in Poznań 1940

In Lodz he was billeted with a German family. The woman there and he became lovers. This, and other matters,  later lead to frictions with my mother and divorce.

After the landing of Western Allied forces on Sicily in August 1943 he was transferred to Italy. His regiment in Poland was later totally decimated (germ.  aufgerieben) at the Eastern Front. In Italy he drove mainly motor lorries with supplies to the front from the north to the south. Every trip became shorter as the Allies pushed up the Italian Peninsula.  It was often very dangerous and a real carnage as the convoys came under attack from  the US Army Air Force. 

Dad (with cap) relaxing with comrade in Italy - Brixen 1943

Dad (with cap) relaxing with a comrade in Italy – Brixen 1943

It must have been terrific and must have had an effect on his mind. Nobody was talking about trauma counselling.  In April 1945 he was taken prisoner by the Italian partisans. The prisoners were handed over to the Americans and taken to Southern German to a prison camp. During the handover the German soldiers were relieved of all personal items like watches, wedding  rings etc.

My Dad always knew how to adjust to a new situation.  He was able to trade his cigarette ration into American Field rations (Type C).  He had an arrangement with a woman outside the camp who helped him sending them by post  to my mother in Berlin. I think, he must have been the only person in history sending  parcels from a prisoner of war camp. The rations contained  tobacco and cigarettes too and they became valuable items for trading for other goods in short supply. It was a great help for my mother.

In May 1946 he was released from the prison camp and returned to Berlin with my two sisters he had picked up on the way from where they had been evacuated to at the end of the war. It should have been a great occasion for me, but it was not.  I think one day I will write a fictional account of that day. The day after he came back he went to join the Communist Party.

From the day  of his return on the  relationship of my parents went downhill. In January 1949 my mother left my dad with us children, and they divorced later that year. Women of her generation had learnt to live and manage their own lives without their husbands. Shortages became the cause for many arguments.

I never lost contact and I saw him often on the streets of Berlin driving his own taxi. When we migrated to Australia we wrote to each other and he even had the idea of coming out here for a visit.

But he became ill with lung cancer and died 5 March 1973 after a long hard battle. The last time I had seen him was in August 1958 on a visit to Berlin. We lived with our daughter Gaby in Düsseldorf at the time.

After the war my father was with us for only two and a half years. There is not much to remember about the time before the war. The time after the war was filled with disputes between my parents. Sometimes he told us stories from the war in Italy. He did not trust politicians very much. Hitler was a criminal for him.   All in all there was not much time for a proper father / son relationship.

He always dressed well. He never had dirty hands. He could cut tomatoes in thin slices with a blunt knife holding the tomato in one hand. He loved to drink beer and bet on the horses (both vices my mother objected to). He never went to a theatre, but liked movies. I think he was just an ordinary guy who would have fitted very well into Australia.

I nearly  forgot. He remarried my mother in the year before he died. It wasn’t meant to be the happy end, but he  wanted to make sure that someone received the widow pension after his death. He moved in with her and she looked after him for many months. They are reunited in the cemetery as their ashes share the same plot.

I miss him and often dream about him.  In those dreams I want to talk to him. Here in the last picture he looks like I always remember him.

My Dad, Grandfather of my children.

My Dad, Grandfather of my children.