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!

 

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.