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.

Souls at dawn

You must have been a beautiful woman entered his mind.

Families were gathering on the hill that mounted tender bodies of their relatives. She always loved elevated graveyards, their stones silencing the world that moved – children, cars and occasional tourists.  The barman handed two cups of Turkish coffee the way they drink it in Slovakia. They both watched the ‘mud’ gather at the top but he slurped it without stirring, catching the grains on his moustache.

Anya never cared for men with blue eyes, yet there he was, studying her profile in the poorly lit saloon. ‘What brings you here?’, she asked.

‘All Souls’.

The door curtain moved, bringing a whiff of rotten leaves inside for a moment but no one came in apart from a cat they didn’t see. ‘It’s been closed for years’, a woman was overheard outside. ‘Have you more burners?’, another one shouted. Several feet shuffled under the barred window, then stopped and turned. Muffled voices of children too disappeared.

‘Why are they not coming in?’

‘The place is closed’.

‘But how….?’.  Anya slid off the chair that was too high for her and walked towards the window. The cemetery was shimmering in the distance, dozens of votives were huddled around the Central Cross. A child was climbing the pillar of the chapel. It started to drizzle into the fog.

‘The candles will survive the rain of tonight. They will still be warm in the morning. Last insects of the year will burn their wings on the aluminium lids’.

It was how he said the word aluminium that made Anya’s heart drop. The soft Slavic ‘n’ in it, like a child’s speech coming from an old man. She made for the curtain. It felt damp and mouldy, so different only from a moment ago. But his arms encased her within it and, on his neck, a tiny incision she’s known for years.

‘You are more beautiful than I remember you’, Franz whispered to her hair. He lead her by the hips, like a young man would, to an umbrella stand that was full of wet parasols.

‘Where is everybody?’, she wondered. Dim light revealed their faces in the mirror. ‘Your eyes are changed’, she studied Franz’s face knowingly now, her breath meeting his in the air that was stone cold. She appeared to have more wrinkles…’I have never seen myself old. I think I was 37 when …’

‘I have done  many bad things to you Anya. I have cursed you to the Devil that night. I did not mean it. I didn’t know you couldn’t breathe. All those bottles. All those drinks you had drunk! I wanted you to stop. I should have been the first one to go! It should have been me. I want to hold you once more!

‘You never held me the way you hold me tonight’, she rested her head on his shoulder. I was so tired. So tired for many years. I just wanted to sleep.’

The barman entered to bring in a tray of poppy seed rolls. The door had swung back and forth after him, showing no signs of cooking.

Franz took a coat from the rack and covered Anya’s shoulders with it. Then he pulled out one of the umbrellas and pointed to the distance.   ‘There they are’, he said. ‘They are looking at our graves. Come with me. We are going to join them.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Let the scents carry you before the head is tipsy

Cherry, lime, peach, honey, cinnamon, blackberries are only a few from a long list of notes a wine label would mention. To be honest, I’ve never paid much attention. Raised on gallons of Rhine Riesling, some Miller or mixture of the two, then a bit of Wallachian…I could just about tell which which wine had sugar added, which is too diluted and which one is simply crap.

But not after my tour of the Small Carpathian Museum in Pezinok (20 km from Bratislava) that not only gives you an overview of the region’s history, from its terroir to its multiethnic people and their instruments, but takes you down into its bellows where you can roam through the deep cellars and admire very old wine barrels with a good glass of chilled wine.

There – little sniffing pots are lined up, giving you a hint of what scents you could be detecting in your wines. It all depends on process of fermentation and honey bees pollination could be playing its part too, but don’t ask me about science behind it.  All I know is that since I have visited, I have never drunk wine the same way again.

I have had these photos stored since late spring, but as it’s now a season of grape picking, when hot days coexist with spots of sharp rains and very high winds (at least in Western Slovakia). I thought you’d like to have a glimpse into this small tour too.  I highly recommend it. http://www.muzeumpezinok.sk/en

 

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.

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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

 

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.

 

Quince inspiration between two Christmases

It is not October (I know) and I should not be writing about the humble, mis-shaped, freckled, warted and forgotten fruit of quince. I should be summing up the Christmas, show pictures of ethnic food and share quirky details of immigrants celebrating the birth of Jesus far away  from home.

But today was the day I had finally cleared my fridge of leftovers and mustered enough courage to start cooking simple food again before we start another feast, and I am not joking, because half of our family is Christian Orthodox and their (our?) Christmas Eve starts tomorrow evening.

Anyway, back to the quinces…This past autumn trip to Romania has brought it all back – my father talking to me about the quince trees that used to grow in every vineyard. He run around those trees with his brothers, take shade under them and enjoy the sweets he had saved in his pocket whilst waiting for his parents tending the grape vines. Not ready to eat when picked directly from the trees they enriched the October landscape with their distinct yellow shapes. Their scent gave off as they caught the autumn sun and, of course, they were the last fruit of the season – picked when birds feasted on the cold berries that did not make it into the wine.

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Bucharest maybe call itself a metropolis but its suburbs are intertwined with rural dwellings sitting comfortably next to modern homes. On our way to metro station, quince trees were everywhere and I regretted not having my camera to capture this odd flashback where urban and rural lifestyles feel so close.

Of course I have since discovered that Romania is one of the few countries that still massively uses the quince in both sweet and savoury cooking and that many artists around the world, including filmmakers have long been fascinated by this seemingly ‘mundane’ and not very ‘perfect’ looking fruit. Some people still use it to refresh their shelves and windows to wane off smells and insects. And many like it for its jelly making properties, used in conserves and chutneys.

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And so on this perfectly bright but chilly day between the two Christmases I too made a good use of the quince conserve brought from Romania spooned over oat and apple pancakes born out of desire to eat a desert that sounds a bit more healthy before the feasting starts again!

 

 

No one likes St Nicholas more than Eastern Europeans living abroad!

On 5 December in 1984, late at night, I was polishing my snow boots, placing them on the widow sill, considering whether I should draw the curtain or not, in case St Nicholas should peep into our living room. The air outside was crisp though it was not snowing yet. “Any time soon”, I hoped.

My sister’s boots were tiny compared to mine, she was 7 years my junior and that made me smirk because I knew that Mikuláš (as we called him in Slovak) could potentially fit more. More clementines, monkey nuts, chocolate coins or even an odd banana (if the good old trade infrastructure allowed for such exotic pleasures!)

There were other perks of the Mikuláš season too. My parents’ employers organised annual discos for children. But we were not allowed to dance until Mikuláš, accompanied by the Angel and Devil, gave out identical presents of sweets and fruit to all the children waiting in a long queue. Don’t ask me why the Devil was needed, I have never really thought about it. I remember angels always looking stunning, with their fur trimmed white dresses  getting shorter and shorter every year. Parents loved 6 December too, it was a great excuse to get tipsy after work (or even during) and launch thus slowly but surely the Christmas season.

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The truth is, this gift-giving tradition rooted in early Christianity and inspired by a philanthropist born in South Turkey, was a strange mixture of religious and secular symbolism even during the ‘atheistic’ socialism. The Mikuláš I remember from the childhood was a serious guy with a tall hat reminiscent of Christian Orthodox Priest. Sometimes he was drawn on a cart or troika sledge through the snow. Nowadays, these guys look more like under-nourished Santas.

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If anyone asks my children about their Slovak heritage, they often bring up St Nicholas as the special day whey they get their boots filled with little presents  – long before Santa has even considered to dust off his boots and started planning his round around West Midlands. Let’s be honest, it does sound a bit more appealing to the British audience than a traditional Christmas soup of pork and sauerkraut or endless permutations of savoury dumplings. Many Central or Eastern European communities living in UK share similar nostalgia and continue to organise popular St Nicholas events for parents and children. Only the beautiful tall hats are somehow missing and the Angels could do with a bit more white fur…

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http://www.ncregister.com/blog/joseph-pronechen/19-little-remembered-or-forgotten-things-about-st.-nicholas

Happy St Nicholas Day 2016! What is the history of Saint Nick and Santa Claus?