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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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




Mustard and berry red,

washed out,
with a hole.

Wrapped around his torso,
to the world.

A beautiful face,
lethargic and

His foot stirs,
the eyes are still,
his mouth makes no words.

The blanket’s on camera,
The subtitle’s CHOLERA.

Meanwhile, a tiger print in Aleppo. ..
Fluffier than the other one
its corners’ are lifted
with a bundle inside.
The tiger’s head scream –
two feet appear.

Somewhere else, a blanket like mine –
Chinese and acrylic.
There’s a woman inside.
Is she still alive?

The blankets call to each other
from house to house.
Rasp into rubbled streets,
out to chicken yards.

A symphony of blankets
green, brown and blue,
disguising the bones,
blood, vomit and dirt.

From TV to TV.
Hear them, see them,
Build a wigwam from them.

At 7.40am, here in Erdington,
when the kettle cooled and breakfast is done,
the TV is switched off and the blankets are gone.

Dancing passports

Two passports are bouncing off the sea bed,

touching each other.
In silent tango with lifted arms
the two are whirling, then stalling.
Border stamps fade in salty water,
pages saturated with hope and grief
forever opening and closing.

Meanwhile, 5 kilometres away
a woman is feeling her side pocket
looking at a man from the Sea Rescue.
He phones his wife:
“stuffed cabbage leaves gone cold”
but never mind.

Seagulls, wooden puppets
on invisible strings
circle the coast counting inflated arm bands.

Still, down below, bunches of sea weed
are resurrected.
Like spoilt teenagers,
their tentacles shimmer,
even in time of death they seek entertainment.

The storm is gone and Sun
casts a life line to the Sea…
but it’s too late.

Warsaw – from the ashes and bones to a beautiful skyline

Capital Art Apartments sounds like one of those companies that could be building luxurious flats in any metropolis. Not every metropolis had, however, managed to rise from the ashes quite like Warsaw after the Second World War.


At the end of February 2017, I was about to become God-Mother for the second time, marvelling at tiny hands and feet of my sister’s second child. High up on the 17th floor of the spacious flat beautifully crafted by the Capital Art Apartments it is easy to forget that its kitchen, overseeing the neon-lit skyline, was once a ‘ window’ to one of the biggest massacres in modern history.

It was here in the district of Wola where the clouds overcast the intensive killing of about 50 thousand civilians by German forces. Wola was the epicentre of the Warsaw Uprising and every civilian was seen as a collaborator. In the end, only the St Augustine Church survived  – after all, it was an important logistical building for the German Army that happened to also store many Jewish valuables confiscated from the nearby ghetto.


On the shelf stood a thick hardback book showing photos of Warsaw through the decades. When the kids went to sleep, I flicked through these, back and forth with no particular purpose other than feeling emotional and intrigued. My sister, who is not originally from Poland, admits that she knew very little about the district’s history until they moved into the area. When I probed a bit deeper she was reluctant to elaborate on the disturbing visions and dreams she experienced initially. Acutely aware of the local practice of house blessing, they too used their local Catholic priest to perform the ritual in the flat. Apparently for decades after the war, Wola was seen as a ghost town, not suitable for raising families.


But times move on, people’s memories fade and sadly, not everyone really stops and reads all the war memorials that are dotted around Warsaw. The church where we Christened our little cousin was spacious and newly built not far from a wall where dozens of people were shot and died all those years ago. I remember the number of times I was reminded to put on an extra layer before going to church as a child but I still did not learn, surrounded by cold marble I was shivering my way towards the end of the baptism rite.

Quick February snow shower and then some brief rays of sunshine accompanied us back into the Capital Art complex, past a sushi bar, wine shop and a take-away where wide-shouldered women kneaded pierogi dough. A young woman speaking half-Polish and half-Ukrainian lost the keys to the apartment she was meant to clean and was now pleading the Security guard for help. Life in the modern city went on, in its own way, with hopes and dreams creating its own human fabric above the ashes and bones of the past.

Only our children were jumping carelessly about the baby pram, wanting to purposely wake up the 4 months’ old before the snow thawed. “Look, look it was snowing”, they chanted. “Just a well”, I thought, “they do not yet need to be reminded of the lessons from the history”.

Photos: courtesy of Gerald Nowak on bowshrine.com


At fog’s feet

Like snow that won’t thaw is your love

An iceberg I climb with my eyes
A distant land on TV
Just silence, silence, no subtitles.

A berry that carry blood is your kiss
Seeping into my lips and collar undone
Stopping at neck choking words
Kind, unkind, desperate words.

Future abandoned is our flat
A bare foundation on the fifth floor
With no windows or doors
But matts, plenty of dirty matts.

At fogs’ feet…
Heavy fog water clogs cemetery ground,
The tomb stones are forward facing
and she drives past asking her son to say timetable of six.

The author of ‘Liquid love’ Z. Bauman died aged 91

Feona Attwood, Professor in Cultural Studies, Communication and Media in the School of Media and Performing Arts, shares her interview with influential sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman. Zygmunt Bauman, who has died, aged 91, is best known for his analyses of globalization, power and inequality and for his notion of ‘liquid modernity’: the contemporary state […]

via An interview with influential sociologist Zygmunt Bauman — Middlesex Minds

The lightness of being is truly unbearable

On 31 of January a man was nearly run over in a car park. He could not speak English, but lucky for him, a senior manager of a certain Black Country town cared enough to make sure he was ok. The manager fetched me quickly – the Russian speaking member of his team  -and pleaded anxiously- “tell him I am sorry and ask him if he needs anything”

From that moment onwards, Vladimir’s and my lives intertwined. He spoke to me about his political activity in Russia, how he used to be a good friend with late Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian anti-establishment journalist whose murder remains unsolved to this day. He spoke to me of the 1990s, the years full of hope, when he set up an independent newspaper in St. Petersburg, of his acquaintance with Vaclav Havel and Milos Zeman and many other dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe.

He drunk black tea and ate some toasts (he had to stay off cakes being recently diagnosed with diabetes). I helped him to polish his asylum case – which he found so difficult to put together as his English was very weak. I heard all about his substandard accommodation provided by G4S and of his unpleasant flatmates and of the humble £37 he gets very week to support himself of which he attempts to make some ‘savings’.

He told me of his time in exile in Germany, halted by Angela Merkel’s deal with Putin which meant repatriation of all political asylum-seekers back to Russia only recently. And of his difficult return to his homeland which brought nothing else but suspicion and stigma, followed by systematic persecution and bullying by local authorities, Police and courts, denying him pension and citizenship rights. I wondered, what it must take for someone to immigrate again, so late in life – in their 70s. How desperate one has to feel to fight for dignity and freedom after having failed so many times before.

It was another cold snap in Black Country, the Northerly wind was blowing, as they say on the news, with the dandruff type of snow falling all Friday. Vladimir spent the whole morning in a library and then came to see me. He asked if I could call his solicitor . It’s not my job – I could say, but he insisted. He had another appointment at Immigration Office, Leeds and wanted to make sure his paperwork was in order. He wanted his solicitor to accompany him.

I looked at him and he was not his usual self, I could tell, although I only knew him for a while. “You look a bit different”, I said, “your eyes are yellow and so is your face”. He complained of his stomach pain and lack of sleep, profuse sweating and many other ailments. But after a while, we brushed all this under the carpet, being concerned only with his case…we threw ourselves in further paperwork, considering his options.

Until about 4 o’clock when his state has deteriorated and I suggested to take him into an A&E. He resisted it and now I know it was because deep down he must have known. We reported at the reception and luckily the waiting room was relatively empty. The receptionist agreed with me that he was  “very jaundiced” and they took us in shortly. There were some women outside laughing – maybe because their suspected diagnoses turned out not to be so detrimental or they simply felt good about the Friday afternoon. We will never know….

The truth is…I had to leave Vladimir there on that Friday evening, barely managing to explain to the medics that he was suffering from a long list of digestive complaints, constipation including. After all, I had to go to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see the highly acclaimed 7 Acts of Mercy, never mind I could barely perform only one of them…???

As my weekend progressed and I visited the Swan Theatre in Stratford, my first visit to a theatre in 10 years – my mind was wandering to Vladimir and that little corner in Manor Hospital where they took his bloods ( missing his vein entirely and making a proper mess of it).

Later on in the weekend, after the Sunday roast was cleaned up, the ironing was done and we even managed to talk to our relatives on Skype I had a phone call: “It’s pancreatic cancer”, Vladimir said with repeated hiccups. They said there was nothing they could do. I am kaput”, he concluded. “Could you just bring me the slippers and a laptop from my flat so I can at least watch some Russian movies”.

Silence…followed by silence and then some words of encouragement, instructing him to ask as many questions as possible, not to give up, query the diagnosis, consider the chemo or any other experimental treatment, further investigation, invite an Orthodox priest, contact his family and all the other things we hold on to when someone is faced with a terminal diagnosis.

The clock is ticking and I am wondering whether there are any Russian books in the Walsall Central library. If I should bring him some of mine – Dr. Zhivago may be a bit cliche but what about the Tolstoi’s autobiography I have? Would that be too boring? Or the Quite flows the Don – he may be fed up with all these classics. What movies does he want to see before he dies? Is there anything we can do for him not to die?

There’s some time left – one wonders what to make of it, how to wrap up an unfinished story that seeks justification. How to make sense of this ‘stranger, ‘a wondering soul’ that I have known for so short yet have known so deeply.








A veiled woman

My veil with silver threads is lighting up my way

Not a migrant

If I was a veiled woman

I’d wrap a purple scarf around me with silver threads.

I’d feel cosy like a child carried around in a blanket.
My weaves lighting up the road before me
like a treacle of chandeliers on a Halloween night.
I would not worry about my hair or make-up.
I’d take my kitchen and attic with me everywhere
and whisper to them as trusted friends, my close relatives…

…about fresh kohlrabi dipped in salt,
about gooseberries, Bulgarian grapes,
about the dark-eyed boy from the fairground
and all the things I knew twenty-five years ago.

If I was a veiled woman I would sing into my ear
about the sky, the warm skin, kind people
and the dome of air that carries me to you –
from Chuckery all the way to Carpathians.

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A veiled woman

If I was a veiled woman

I’d wrap a purple scarf around me with silver threads.

I’d feel cosy like a child carried around in a blanket.
My weaves lighting up the road before me
like a treacle of chandeliers on a Halloween night.
I would not worry about my hair or make-up.
I’d take my kitchen and attic with me everywhere
and whisper to them as trusted friends, my close relatives…

…about fresh kohlrabi dipped in salt,
about gooseberries, Bulgarian grapes,
about the dark-eyed boy from the fairground
and all the things I knew twenty-five years ago.

If I was a veiled woman I would sing into my ear
about the sky, the warm skin, kind people
and the dome of air that carries me to you –
from Chuckery all the way to Carpathians.