Beauty and the Labour Camp

I have had this picture waiting on my laptop for 2 years. I just didn’t know what to say. The picture is from the Military History Archives of Slovakia entitled the ‘Enrolled camp worker Dalma. Apparently, Nazi propaganda took many pictures of women projecting an image of a well looked after, progressive and beautiful woman in services to the Labour camps. I still don’t know what to say about it. The curly hair, the warm V-neck and the barbed wire with the eyes swimming into the unknown.

Tumbalalajka

After posting the “Eating Blue Damson’s with Harry” a few of you asked me about the song I included in the link. The song Tumbalalajka (obviously referring to the instrument of balalajka) is a riddle song seeped in ancient Eastern European tradition, often ascribed to the Jewish community for their love of riddles, although its’ origin is not fully traceable. As part of the process of courting the boy picks a girl to answer his riddle:

“What can grow without the root?

What can burn and never stop burning without a flame?

What can play a song without a fiddle?

What can weep and never shed a tear?” – the boy asks the girl.

If she answers the riddle, they can get married straightaway….the song starts off…

There’s another way to look at “Tumbalalajka” – as a means for young people to explore the mysteries of life and slowly get to know each other…(what a wonderful thought!).

In this particular version sang by the Pressburg Klezmer Band the girl answers  the riddle as follows:

“a stone can grow without the root,

 love can burn without a flame,

wind can play a song without a fiddle, and,

a heart can weep without shedding a tear”.

Good listening…

Eating blue damsons with Harry

How much can you pack into 17 years of your life? Is the first 17 years of your life more important than your last 17 years….if you are…for example…96?

This September I met Harry, whose who also calls himself Zvi. In my native Slovak tongue, the word ‘zvi’ relates to ‘invite’, but in Hebrew, it means ‘gazelle’ (according to Google).

Harry and I were born 52 years apart in the same Slovak town called Svaty Jur. I am 44 and he is 96. I live Birmingham UK, he lives in Tel Aviv. We have never met before, however, the chances are that every year in September, both of our minds wonder to the leafy vineyards of Svaty Jur, her gentle slopes riddled with bunches of golden grapes.  Lingering scents of  honey and damsons are carried through our brains by imaginary breeze and we see fruit insects hovering above every barrel of ripe harvest….I could go on and on but will spare you the detail!

There are other things we have in common with Zvi. All my childhood, I lived beside a disused synagogue my grandfather used to refer to as the Jewish Temple in the town where, as far as I was aware, there had been no Jews. I wrote about this place on my site previously.  Zvi, too, lived not far from this site as a child but in his days – mid 1920s – the building was used as a place of worship, one of many – catholic, protestant evangelic and so on within the same quarter of a mile.

But today, this place that once filled us both with piety is crumbling in front of our eyes – ITS ROOF IS FALLING and a group of local enthusiasts, led by my lovely sister Anna is desperately seeking to mobilise support for its conservation. It’s a complicated process involving a private land owner, the state national heritage regulator, several donors and international charities – with no tangible result at present – but ‘hope is the last thing that dies in men (and women) ‘ as they say!

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It is true to say that Harry is the only known living survivor of the worshipers of this late synagogue, he is also the only survivor of the Svaty Jur Jewish community as far as we can tell.  As an honorary citizen of the town, he visits every year to mark the beginning of the Hebrew New Year Rosh Hashana and commemorate lives of those from Jewish community who died in concentration camps or were otherwise never found again after the Second World War. Harry has been a driving force behind this important Holocaust Memorial event for 27 years – ever since the borders between the European East and West relaxed, following ‘the fall of Communism’ as it’s known in modern history.

 

But this year felt somehow different – or at least that’s what his lovely grandson Eyal and Harry’s full time carer Sonia, who both accompanied him, tell me.

After his flight to Budapest, followed by a ride to Svaty Jur via Bratislava, he was greeted by the Pressburg Klezmer band, performing a concert in his honour at the medieval catholic church he would have seen up on the hill as a child.

Harry said he could never imagine hearing the well known Jewish tunes, including the songs of Hebrew worship, inside a Christian establishment. He has been able to talk to younger generation, some of them descendants of his former classmates, who were genuinely interested to hear his life story. Meetings were set up for him to discuss synagogue’s future with local representatives, plans were made for a civic association to be set up in his name to continue promoting education about the Holocaust.

But most importantly, Harry was able to reminisce about running up and down the middle street near the synagogue (and it is still called that – the Middle Street), picking up odd jobs for wealthier familes, nicking fruits and eggs from the backyards (as did most kids those days), remember pretty girls with raven curly hair and eat lots of blue damsons, from those old damson trees that you can only find in the backyards  (just like my kids do today)!IMG_0919

And so this is my little way to say thank Harry for finding the time to visit our little town again, for giving us a chance to connect the dots, make up for the past and perhaps continue the family connections for many years to come!

 

What happened on nights of Sabbath.

Some might say that Sabbath started on Thursdays. This is when women took ritual baths. Those who have just given birth went in first, others have hurried across the path towards the mikveh in the evening.  Water carriers were busy fetching buckets from the nearby creek because it is written in the Jewish Orthodoxy that water has to come from a clean nature’s spring, The hills surrounding the town called Yeregin (or otherwise known as Szentgyorgy, Sankt Georgen or Svaty Jur) provided just that.

mikveh

Now that the women are half immersed in the water, their children are playing by the creek chanting Jeshiva prayers. Christian children catching fish further down are spying on them and disappear only after a fierce looking elder starts to make his way up the hill. A butcher is having a good day, even cheaper cuts of meat are shifting quickly, he can’t wipe that smirk off his moustached face. Just before bed, poorer households up the road check their cupboards for dry beans, ready to be soaked overnight.

On Friday, it is time for men to take to ritual cleansing. Cholent pots come out and Hungarian and Slovak kitchen maids are busier than usual. It’s a common knowledge that Jewish families are not allowed to work from the sun down on Friday and well into the Saturday. Not as much as taking out meals from the ovens or lighting the candles. This is when Christian staff comes in handy, without them Sabbath would not happen.

 

German, Hungarian or Slovak casual staff played essential role in preparing Sabbath meals, setting the tables, tending candles, fires and clearing off, in a way that families were used to. Those who had done it long enough could no doubt speak a bit of Jiddish or even recite Sabbath prayers when their minds were not occupied by menial tasks. And following strict Orthodox Jewish tradition as opposed to the Reform was a hotly debated topic far and wide across the Austro-Hungarian empire .

On one particular Sabbath night, perhaps 190 years ago (or maybe a bit earlier or a bit later), renowned Rabbi Chatam Sofer visited the Yeregin Jewish community and gave a fierce speech against the Jewish Reform (Neologs). He knew that Yeregin’s community, sheltered by Small Carpathians’, would have little to object. He found keen listeners in the little Jewish Temple behind the river where men sat on one side and women on the other.

Chatam Sofer made sure his words reverberate as he planted his most trusted student, Moshe Schick as the town’s Rabbi. Moshe has stayed for over 30 years, building a  strong Jeshiva (Jewish teachings school). Moshe became the most outspoken defender of the Jewish Orthodoxy and have even been approached to form political movement against the Reform. Some say that he raised 80 plus students in the local Jeshiva whom he then managed to relocate with him to Western Ukraine where he found a fertile ground for his ideas in the town Khust.

 

Reformist Jews were moving towards the idea of more integration with other cultures, introducing more secular education and sciences into teaching and were quite open to ideas of mixed sexes and gender equality in religious worship, choirs and occupations in general. The tension between the two schools of thought continues to this day and some of the Orthodox teachings promoted by Chatam Sofer and Moshe Schick continue to flourish in Jerusalem Pressburg (Bratislava) Jeshiva.

pressburg jeshiva

After the Second World War, not one Jewish family had permanently returned to the area of Yeregin and as I have written in my previous posts, the Temple remains a derelict building which happens to stand right behind my parents’ house. Access to the site is prohibited and very few pictures of the interior are available – as seen below.

I found the Torah curtain (parochet) that used to hang in the Temple on the site of Jewish Museum in Bratislava. The Hebrew inscription reads: “This is a donation by the esteemed Mr. Joel Neumann, may his light shine, together with his wife Madam Rikla, may she live, the esteemed Mr. Jeshayahu Markstein, may his light shine, together with his wife Mrs. Rivka, may she live, for the holy community Yergen in the year 666 of the minor reckoning”.

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Parochets are used to cover the ark in remembrance of the curtain which covered the Ark of the Covenant, according to Exodus 40:21: “He brought the Ark inside the Tabernacle. Then he put up the curtain for screening, and screened off the Ark of the Covenant…” [FHJ].

My thoughts are going back to the little creek, the man with two buckets and another one with a long beard, his long black coat floating around his muddy shoes, perhaps it’s misty and cold and the thought of a bath is enticing. There’s a pretty woman busying in the larder across the fence and another searching for a clean table cover. They all speak a mish-mash of languages in which mundane words of everyday life are understandable to all, yet deeper thoughts and beliefs come from vastly different places. Still,, they probably all agree that there is only one God, therefore his worship is sacred to everyone on the night of Sabbath.

A lot of you might rush in to say that this kind of religious cooperation exist today. Look at America and UK, Visit multicultural streets of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall Caldmore or Palfrey. But I am yet to see any examples when people of different cultures allowed each other into sacred intimate spaces, into the core of worship. Everyone talks about dangers of parallel lives. Well, 19th century provides its own examples of mutual respect and cultural inter-change. Shame that this model ended in the most tragic way everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe and there’s now a huge fear of religious diversity should it ever reappear again.

 

 

Raisa – Forever in Pussy Bow Blouse

I have always wanted to know what Raisa thought when she was arranging her pussy bows around her neck. We picture men’s moments of meditation when they do their ties, yet at the end of 1980s, women took into blouses with fancy collars, bows and semi-ties, just like Raisa in these images. I have just watched a documentary about her life – one of those that you find on youtube by accident and without paying too much attention to politics, all that’s stuck in my head are her soft, elegant, elaborate blouses.

The woman did not like her neck exposed, or did not think it appropriate…I have an image of her entering a lift and adjusting her bow or even better, seeing another woman in the lift, whose bow has collapsed unaware and Raisa itching to do it up for her…Always interested in fashion and appearance, reframing the image of a Russian working women in media home and abroad.

Yes, there’s other stuff about Raisa you’ll probably read, that she has set up a Cultural Heritage Fund and that she has retrieved and secretly adored Christian Orthodox icons in times when religion was not openly promoted in Soviet Union. Or that she was once filmed shocked that a little girl from one of the Baltic states could not speak very good Russian. There always comes that moment when leaders question their own understanding of the reality – it’s unfortunate when this happens on a national TV.

Margaret-Thatcher-and-Raisa-Gorbacheva

She was an exemplary student and a First Wife who allegedly studied history and every country she was about to visit alongside her husband also to impress the other First Wives with multitude of nuanced questions. Today, all that remains is the Raisa Gorbachev Fund, occasionally brought to attention by her former husband taking an odd photo opportunity with Mila Jovovich or Eva Herzigova at some or other posh gala dinner.

Still, I love her style, I love her soft timid eyes and have to conclude that she’s retained her grace all the way to her final journey – according to the Russian Orthodox tradition her loving husband gave her a farewell in an open coffin and although these images are freely available on internet, I will not be providing them here out of respect.

Arab coin breaking in half for thousands of years

 

When you’re young you don’ give a toss if they found evidence of some major thousand years old fortification somewhere in the woods on the top of your home town. You don’t see the old guys with detectors searching the ground to the songs of birds early in the morning. Not if you live through 1990s velvet revolutions and all you want is to push the boundaries to the West.

It makes me sound like an old person but I wish I was one of those who have enough time to carry their detector to the top of the hill and fiddle with above the ground to the tune of the autumn sun.

But I can’t. It is prohibited – or so the sign nailed to the tree says. Many people ignore it, my Dad knows because he sees them on his walkabouts. Slovakia does not have enough money to police such endevours and most of its heritage has been traded away by amateur collectors.

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I visited this place after twenty years years (that makes me feel old even more). The last time I have seen it was getting ready for my first time camping without my parents and we did not say ‘lol’ in those days. One of my friends experienced some real kissing during that ‘pioneer camping experience’ to my horror but I will spear you the detail.

 

And today I learnt that more research has taken place in this largely unexplored fortification, probably belonging to the Great Moravia rulers now simple called a Slavic Fortification. They even found coins from Al Mu’tazz period, the ruler of Baghdad who was helped to power by Turks but his rule lasted only three years. He died in the midst of chaos which probably explains how the coins have scattered around the world (according to my simplified version of history). I wonder now, how he managed, during such a short rule, to have his image imprinted on the coins but I will leave it to historians to prove.

arabska minca

By the way, the forest ranger stumbled on the fort by accident when he kicked his boot into ancient clay pipes. Since then, archeologists have found Roman and Celtic coins and multitude of tools. And all this with a fraction of funding they spend on projects abroad. The place is worth a visit. I hope you enjoy my amateur photos and the article below. There’s a few stories waiting to be written from those forest grounds, I bet.

https://spectator.sme.sk/c/20542813/archaeologist-pieces-together-early-history-of-what-is-now-western-slovakia.html

 

The Squirrel coat and a tank

It is hard to tune into any media these days and not hear yet another example of how  Russia has tried to undermine ‘the mechanics of the well functioning’ Western democracy with her sly, base tactics. But as I discovered during my camping trip to Bewdley a few days ago, this was not always the case. In the late 1940s, Russia was viewed as Britain’s ally, entertaining her officials with luxurious gifts, showing off ballet dancers and parading tanks.

It must have been a cold January in 1947 when Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery inspected a Stalin tank during his visit to Moscow. Clad in a squirrel-lined great coat received as a gift by the Soviet Army, he exchanged his views on war technology with Marshal of Tank Troops Rybalko and the two agreed that Russians would be taught at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

And if you find this bizarre today, rest assured that I have not stumbled on these facts in Wikipedia but in the Volume 10 of The War Illustrated No 253, published on 14 March 1947.

I love the Georgian town of Bewdley but I have never stayed camping in the rain before and, hopefully, I never will, again! When I found out that I could abandon my guys to fishing and visit the local Cherry Fair instead, my mood was slightly elevated. It took me and my daughter about 20 minutes to walk from the Hopley Camping and Caravan Site to Bewdley Town Museum. And here we were, walking in and out of exhibition galleries, where they had not only cherries sale, but a complete 1940s show, manned by staff in authentic costumes, air raid shelter demonstration, singing assemble and plenty of war time newspapers and books to choose from.

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I spotted the Marshal in the impressive coat made of Russian squirrels (animal rights activists, close your eyes now) embracing a giant warhead and thought I must have it. Luckily they were selling the issues of War Illustrated for a mere £1 per item – and these were not copies, but the real yellowing papers of the day.

But that wasn’t all, of course, as we were reaching to the bottom of the cones of chips and Regatta was in a full swing on the river Severn in front of us, I leafed through the paper and was stunned by the middle spread of the Roll of Honour. Here, hundreds of photos of men of all ages were looking bravely into the camera all those years ago and back at us.

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Have they considered, in that fleeting moment, the pose that could potentially define their death? Has the photographer cheered them on? Some of them looked so young (look at the bottom left corner), we wondered whether they had lied about their age. And how interesting that it took two years for the newspapers to publish the identities of the dead.

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At the back of the paper, a Pte. F.Kendrick of Walsall was guarding the Soviet-British border in the Helmstedt village some hundred miles from Berlin, apparently the busiest crossing point on the Russian line.  On another page a group of young Germans ‘made a foray into the Russian zone in search of food’, the newspaper said. Pte. F. Kendrick,  in his gloves and boots, looked positively determined despite the cold. I bet he preferred it nice and crisp in the morning, not like the damp and mild cold we get here in the Black Country!

The red and white pole, dividing Germany into Russian and British zone is gone. The Berlin wall, dividing Europe into East and West adversaries is gone too. Only Britain is trying to build another divider between itself and the Continent.

70 years on, I wonder, how the world has changed and what we might expect next…

 

The Squirrel coat and a tank

It is hard to tune into any media these days and not hear yet another example of how  Russia has tried to undermine ‘the mechanics of the well functioning’ Western democracy with her sly, base tactics. But as I discovered during my camping trip to Bewdley a few days ago, this was not always the case. In the late 1940s, Russia was viewed as Britain’s ally, entertaining her officials with luxurious gifts, showing off ballet dancers and parading tanks.

It must have been a cold January in 1947 when Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery inspected a Stalin tank during his visit to Moscow. Clad in a squirrel-lined great coat received as a gift by the Soviet Army, he exchanged his views on war technology with Marshal of Tank Troops Rybalko and the two agreed that Russians would be taught at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

And if you find this bizarre today, rest assured that I have not stumbled on these facts in Wikipedia but in the Volume 10 of The War Illustrated No 253, published on 14 March 1947.

I love the Georgian town of Bewdley but I have never stayed camping in the rain before and, hopefully, I never will, again! When I found out that I could abandon my guys to fishing and visit the local Cherry Fair instead, my mood was slightly elevated. It took me and my daughter about 20 minutes to walk from the Hopley Camping and Caravan Site to Bewdley Town Museum. And here we were, walking in and out of exhibition galleries, where they had not only cherries sale, but a complete 1940s show, manned by staff in authentic costumes, air raid shelter demonstration, singing assemble and plenty of war time newspapers and books to choose from.

20170726_214309-1

I spotted the Marshal in the impressive coat made of Russian squirrels (animal rights activists, close your eyes now) embracing a giant warhead and thought I must have it. Luckily they were selling the issues of War Illustrated for a mere £1 per item – and these were not copies, but the real yellowing papers of the day.

But that wasn’t all, of course, as we were reaching to the bottom of the cones of chips and Regatta was in a full swing on the river Severn in front of us, I leafed through the paper and was stunned by the middle spread of the Roll of Honour. Here, hundreds of photos of men of all ages were looking bravely into the camera all those years ago and back at us.

20170726_214937

Have they considered, in that fleeting moment, the pose that could potentially define their death? Has the photographer cheered them on? Some of them looked so young (look at the bottom left corner), we wondered whether they had lied about their age. And how interesting that it took two years for the newspapers to publish the identities of the dead.

20170726_214609-1

At the back of the paper, a Pte. F.Kendrick of Walsall was guarding the Soviet-British border in the Helmstedt village some hundred miles from Berlin, apparently the busiest crossing point on the Russian line.  On another page a group of young Germans ‘made a foray into the Russian zone in search of food’, the newspaper said. Pte. F. Kendrick,  in his gloves and boots, looked positively determined despite the cold. I bet he preferred it nice and crisp in the morning, not like the damp and mild cold we get here in the Black Country!

The red and white pole, dividing Germany into Russian and British zone is gone. The Berlin wall, dividing Europe into East and West adversaries is gone too. Only Britain is trying to build another divider between itself and the Continent.

70 years on, I wonder, how the world has changed and what we might expect next…

 

Tainted wine

I bet you wouldn’t think twice if anyone offered you a wine tasting tour of Western Slovakia. But if I told you that the geographical footprint of the place you’ll be visiting was once given a makeover by Hitler, you would be surprised to say the least. There may be a reason why your usual tourist guides do not mention it, on the other hand, you probably never thought Slovakia was a strong wine producer.

Silvan from Limbach is light to drink and tastes after lime trees, Rizling Rýnsky (Rhine Riesling) is slightly more complex and flowery, carrying rose and violet tones. If you are uncomplicated and can hold your glass for a while (debating Brexit with Slovaks, for example) Rizling Vlašský (Wallachian Riesling) is recommended. There are many more possibilities, with art festivals, medieval fairs and old castles in towns like Svaty Jur, Pezinok and Modra or the picturesque village of Limbach offering your taste buds white, red and rose experiences. You can check them all out on the pages of the Small Carpathian Wine Trail pages http://www.mvc.sk/sk/home.

 

 

Back to history then…I have recently come across a book by Christoph Fischer called the Luck of the Weissensteiners. I was searching blog posts tagging Central and Eastern Europe on the WordPress and I think it was the word ‘Bratislava’ that brought Christoph’s page up.

http://www.christophfischerbooks.com/the-luck-of-the-weissensteiners/

I started to read and my heart sunk, I was surprised anyone was brave enough to tackle the topic that Slovakia would rather forget but also excited that there may be room to explore the subject from different angles.

The Luck of the Weissensteiners follows the lives of the main characters set in the period from 1933 to 1945. Greta, Wilhelm, Countess, Johanna and others in 1933 Czechoslovakia had woven their identities from places as far as Russian and Ukrainian Jewry, Hungarian aristocracy, Germany and Poland (old settlers or new) trying to make their life on the outskirts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It does not feel like nowadays Bratislava at all and yet it does when I look at it through my grandparents eyes.

I haven’t read huge amount of books on second world war but this is certainly the one that has my grandfathers’ life story speaking to me through the pages. He was a relatively wealthy 16 year orphan of Croatian, Slovak and German ancestry whose legal guardian advised him to obtain a German citizenship in the 1930s. As a result of Hitler’s geopolitical games in the region, Slovakia soon enjoyed its ‘independence’ as a Hitler’s ally and so as every healthy male my grandfather too was drafted to the war.  It was only because of the Slovak Partisan Upraising in 1944 and Czechoslovak exile government in London that history does not judge this part of Europe harshly.

Surviving the front-line trenches, raids and marches through Hungary, Ukraine and nowadays Moldova, my grandfather was later captured as a ‘Slav’ prisoner of war in the seaside town of Nikolaev. When he returned home, his father’s estate was changed into dwellings for displaced families and he had to sleep in the barn. Like some Fischer’s characters , he managed to avoid the forced expulsion of Germans from Slovakia through a relationship with a Slovak girl but remained on the list of the ‘enemies of the state’ compiled by the secret service (STB) for over a decade. The story has it that during one particular visit my down-to-earth grandmother gave the officers so much bollocking that they never dared to return again.

The Luck of the Weissensteiners has many ‘place resonances’ too. It made me think of the towns like Svaty Jur, with its Hungarian manor estate as a dwelling for the Countess perhaps, now hosting the educational institution Academia Istropolitana Nova. And of the village of Limbach in Western Slovakia, that had been populated by Germans, referred to as the ‘people of the forest – Huncokari for centuries.

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These Germans had brought with them forestry skills and set up a farming industry that later gave way to successful winemaking on those stony and sandy slopes, perfect for light coloured refreshing wine varieties.

Undeniably, the wine industry was at its peak during the second world war. The Hitler government, keen to support the German minorities, injected 2.5 million into the winery in Limbach, complete with restaurant, dance hall and upstairs hotel. 10 thousand hectolitres of wine were exported to Germany every year during the war. But after the Soviet and Allied Forces victory in 1945, most of the German families (93% of the village population)  were expelled, giving way to partisan families from different parts of deprived Slovakia who were thus rewarded for their bravery.

 

 

Oral histories tell us that the German women were pleading with the newcomers to look after their cows and animals well just as they were leaving with only a handful of belongings. Their cooking stoves were still warm, one wonders what crumbs of the meals must have been left behind. Many of those would have gone to the refugee camps described in Christoph Fischer’s book – uprooted, tired, disillusioned and waiting for another bureaucratic process of identification.

But a handful of people remained and as the local government website of the village tell us today,  those were the ones passing on the tradition of decent wine making. There are a number of wine producers, small or large in Limbach today and the winery has remained a popular spot first for the socialist ‘leaders’, then for Vaclav Havel and various international delegations, local weddings and meetings to this day. In the 1990s, many original German families came to visit with their children and grandchildren curious to see where it had all started.

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So if you ever travel to these parts, do not forget to raise a glass or two to mark the ability of humans to overcome even the biggest of upheavals, to reflect, to forgive and to move on. I can only say that there are no doubt many stories yet to be told and perhaps we will soon hear them from local authors themselves, not afraid to explore their rather rich multiethnic past.

 

Polin, Polin…you sound like a nice place to live.

There’s no such song yet the tune about Polin has been circling in my head since February. What do you do with the kids on a 5th day of your trip to wintery Warsaw? Visit a Museum of course! It is impossible to be in the capital and avoid a talk of Second World War, it is equally hard to talk about history of Poland without a mention of Jews.

Before the war, it is said, 80 per cent of the world Jews lived here. The coexistence, as legend has it, started in a forest where those fleeing the West due to persecutions (yes, this is not a typo) heard a voice saying ‘Po’ – (Hebrew for rest) and ‘lin’ (here). And thus the millennium long settlement began, or at least that’s what the Polin – Museum of the History of Polish Jews will tell you on their welcome page.

Generally, my kids only endure visits to museums to make me happy and I don’t know how long that will last as they progress into teenagehood. But Polin was far from an ‘enforced education’. Despite the utterly thorough security searches of bags and bodies for any weapons on the entrance, everything kind of changed by stepping into the ‘Dark Ages’. It was really this first interactive themed tour that enabled them to understand that European travelogues in those days were written by Arab scholars and realise that trade was made of spice jars and pelts of fur travelling thousands of miles on foot.

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On the giant screens and displays they saw Central European lands and cities changing names, kings, borders and people mingling from every direction. We saw cunning bishops using Jewish merchants as go-betweens, striking deals that were prohibited to Christian clergy, yet they benefited from them greatly. All kinds of myths have been exposed, most importantly, the fact that Jews hadn’t developed a ghettoed existence through choice but were forced to do so by rulers passing edicts about where they should live and what they should wear.

The moving screens and interactive quizzes showed my children more history than perhaps all the other museums we have visited in the past. The vividly painted Jewish altar salvaged from a Ukrainian synagogue will be well remembered for years to come.

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We were a larger group and those with smaller children took rest in a cafe after a couple of hours whilst my teenage daughter bravely continued into the 20th century. Listening to the audio guide, she cut me short when I approached her with no doubt a serious look on my face signalling ‘HOLOCAUST’. ‘Don’t worry Mum, I know what this is about’.

The Holocaust exhibition (if such a term can even be used) is the only part of the Museum which I still haven’t processed. And this is despite the fact that I was growing up with the father an amateur historian who befriended Alfred Wetzler, the man who escaped from Auswitz by digging an underground tunnel. There was a local connection, of course, we lived in Svaty Jur (Saint Georgen) and it was here, in the catholic church, where Alfred Wetzler reported the attrocities taking place in Auswitz to the Pope’s envoy.

And yes, Alfred Wetzler’s story was amongst the exhibits, albeit reduced to a single photo and an A4 sheet. Stories of others who had waited for their deaths in queues and cattle trucks were also reduced to a series of moving quotes, quirky facts and memorabilia capturing the inner thoughts of those approaching the Final Solution. It was at this point where making photos with your mobile just seemed perverse.

The most haunting moment though for me was a walk through the Ghetto bridge leading onto the simulated tramway journey where one could sit and observe, from its windows, a Police round up of up Jewish families. Elderly, vulnerable and children being questioned, herded and lined up with a pitiful amount of baggage whilst the passers-by were sitting inside. Would you look away? Would you get off and challenge in the occupied city where one could be shot for smuggling a loaf of bread?

It is not difficult to understand why the Ghetto Judenrat leader Adam Czerniakow committed suicide shortly after he realised that he was instrumental in supplying the Nazis with ‘healthy workforce’ heading to death camps. Perhaps he had hoped, in those first months of the Ghetto self-government, that being a good leader meant appeasement and cooperation with Nazis for the good of all. I am yet to read his diaries.

Zygmund Baumann, himself a Holocaust survivor, said ‘madness is no longer madness when shared’. And it must have been a mad bureaucratic system that created jobs for many people who thought it normal to play their role in identification, categorisation and annihilation of whole groups of human beings. Something to be always cautious about when working for any kind of large bureaucracy or corporation!

But do not be put off by my serious description of the Holocaust exhibition. If you are not in a mood for serious contemplation or choose to take your family and children through a particular tour, there’s plenty more to see and do with the kids, including fantastic examples of arts, prints and souvenirs or just having a great meal at the kosher bar.

Escape From Hell: The True Story Of The Auschwitz Protocol

http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/11187/Auschwitz-prisoner-who-escaped-to-help-save-120-000-Jews

http://www.polin.pl/pl