Venetian Memories

The island of Burano

A favourite book on Venice. It is VENEZIA IN CUCINA – Edited by Cinzia Armanini and Alberta Magris.

Illustrated throughout by a tremendous range of photos by Laurent Grrandadam, it would already be worth a look, but there is much more.

Just the constant flow of ideas, including those by popular Burano restaurants Da Romano and Gatto Nero who also submit original as well as useful recepies.

Da Romano inspired the late Anthony Bourdain – Celebrity-Chef / food critic/broadcaster – who considered their rice preparations to be simply the “ finest in existence “. They also keep a collection of works by local artists , as well as an appreciative note from steady visitor Ernest Hemingway in the late 1950’s.

Gatto Nero offer an even wider range of flavours by the irrepressible Ruggero, among them the recepie for “Sea Bass in tomatoes and white wine”.

But of course there is much more…

It is a book for everyone, but “ insiders “ , familiar with the food preparation ideas in Venice will enjoy it even more , both for the elegant publication as well as the intriguing presentation


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An audience, trusted and gathered by word of mouth, had assembled in a large meeting room with blocked windows on a street in the heart of Warsaw. They had come to hear poetry. If discovered by the Gestapo police, they knew they would be killed on the spot! Lookouts were posted at strategic points.

The poet, an underground member of the Home Army (or A.K.) began. His careful reading of the vital and historic memory of the recent past.

Introduced by his code name, Mierzwa, Józef Pluskowski spoke of the shut down schools, closed universities and newspapers, and all meetings not in German. Hitler had come to Warsaw on October 5th having announced that his army should “kill without mercy, men, women, and children of the Polish race and culture” .

Shouts Stefan Starzynski Send help Europe
To fighting Poland”

Poetry therefore was an act of defiance, to preserve a living language during a reign of terror.. Józef continued his observations reporting that

“each day the tormentor lurked,

Each day people were shot to fill hearts with fear”

His young wife Irena had already lost her brother Henryk in the daily roundup of people, taken randomly from the street as “hostages”, then executed. She had also terminated her first pregnancy by jumping off a tree – it was not a time to bear children.

Instead came the effort to preserve lives. Hidden in Józef and Irena’s extensive apartment, at 5 Elektoralna, was a Jewish family of four, the Millers, and a space where Józef/Mierzwa could write, in some safety, notes, reports, and poems in the newly forbidden language.

There was also his contact with the Ghetto. An official entrance existed near his home in the wall separating the Ghetto from the “Aryan” side. Irena, mourning her brother, had volunteered to carry arms to the desperate Ghetto fighters preparing for revolt. On one recorded occasion, she had carried some 98 hand grenades past the guards at the entrance, having practised how to walk casually with a heavy weight under her fur coat. Her younger blonde sister, Lucyna, came along as a distraction for the guards.

When the uprising of 1943 took place, Józef recorded the ultimate fate with another clandestine meeting in which his words contrasted the exceptional sunny autumn days with the protest of those fighting the tanks.

“Each step is in blood. The traces of blood of the fighting
The Ghetto! A graveyard! Grave next to grave
The ashes of the burnt! Blood in the rubble and smoke”

After every organized reading he never went home, sleeping in pre-arranged hiding places so as to ensure he wouldn’t be followed and denounced. Even then, he still had to pay off blackmailers and,, according to witnesses, he was questioned extensively and even tortured, surviving only because of his fluent knowledge of German and ambiguous answers.

His verses at this time were collected and mimeographed. Just before the uprising of 1944 they were issued under the title “From the struggle and Labour”. As important as carrying arms, Poetry was an efficient way of doing this. In five lines, as much information and feeling could be conveyed as in five paragraphs of prose, providing topics for internal debate. Resist, witness, educate were the recurrent themes. Always the threat of instant death was there to focus the mind.

He wrote that
“The enemy foams, and gasps in revenge Warsaw is a burnt desert,
Blood mixed with sand,
Glory to the soldiers”

Fighting as an officer in the great uprising of 1944, he was given the highest military awards for bravery. He was wounded three times before being captured. Concentration camp for seven weeks was followed by being classified as an official POW and deported to Germany.

His verses from the “Officers Transit Camp” in his “Saga of the Warsaw uprising” asserted that “the world will never forget, even if a century were to pass”.

In the camp at Gerolstein, writing letters was permitted as long as they could pass scrutiny. Here, writing in Polish, in verse, enabled him to confuse the censors and send vital information home:

“German town, near the Belgian border

from a distant and to us
such a hostile land
write those in captivity
Once from Warsaw, the uprising, now

In the camp” – 11/11/1944

Until the liberation that followed the Battle of the Bulge, he barely understood that his wife, Irena, had given birth to a son in the middle of the German bombardments, in the cellars of 5 Elektoralna. Only after the German surrender was he able to meet him, a year later.

He died in exile in Paris, away from a Stalin controlled Poland. He was aged 54.
The last verses in the selected “96 poems” were those in the “Words of Freedom” section where he wrote that
“we are citizens of the world
No citizenship do we have
After prison, detention, confinement and gulag…
How our desire to soar free grows”.

The poems are in the original Polish with an outline introduction, in English,
 to his life and work and available under : Józef Pluskowski, Poesie

He is also acknowledged in the Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

In 2016 Józef and Irena Pluskowski were honoured by the Yad Vashem Holocaust

Memorial in Jerusalem with the title Righteous Among the Nations.

Poland awarded him the highest order for valour, the Virtuti Military, during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

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“Pouvez-vous m’aider?”

A few years ago, on tour in Paris, I was returning from a visit to the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. A passing young man approached me asking “Pouvez-vous m’aider?”. He had finished his studies he explained and was returning home to Congo the following week. Could I help by buying one of his textbooks? It was “Le Déclin des Idoles”. I would have little use for it. He was pleasant however, so I offered him slightly more than face value. He casually asked where I came from, but when I answered “D’origine, je suis Polonais” he immediately tried to return the money, saying “There was that General…”, “Kościuszko?”, I suggested. “Exactly!” he replied, “please at least come and meet my friends”.

“That General”, Tadeusz Kościuszko (kosh-tshoo-shko), was indeed a unique European figure. Once described by his friend, Thomas Jefferson, as the purest son of liberty, he believed that “we are all equals, riches and education constitute the only difference”. It was that person who was known about and admired by the mixed group of African students I met that evening in Paris.

Kościuszko, heavily involved in the struggle for Poland’s liberty, was doomed to a life of exile while the surrounding powers partitioned his country. His 1776 arrival in the American colonies led to his involvement in the American revolutionary war with outstanding results. After serving 7 years of military service he was rewarded with land and had accumulated considerable back pay. These he left in his will, entrusted to Thomas Jefferson, before returning to Europe. He specified the funds should be used to buy Jefferson’s slaves’ freedom and more particularly to educate them. Back in Poland, during a chaotic period of revolutionary upheaval, a black man from Haiti, Jean Lapierre, offered him his services as aide-de-camp and became a trusted assistant to the general during the revolt against invading Czarist-Russian armies. In many matters, particularly social, historians consider Kościuszko to be a man well ahead of his time.

Kościuszko died in exile in Switzerland. He was living there in relative poverty, having freed his peasant farmers from their obligations. He was, however, seen as an essential and inspiring figure and a memorial was established near Kraków.

People came from all over Poland bringing large and small amounts of soil to create a mound well over 100 feet in height. When it was completed (1823) urns, with earth from the many American battlefields he had fought in, were buried in it. A circular pathway leads to the top. It is an unmistakable presence on the edge of Kraków.

This landmark is even echoed in distant Australia. Sir Paweł (Paul) Strzelecki, known for his expeditions in North and South America, travelled through the Snowy Mountains in the Australian Alps. There, he saw a peak that reminded him, in shape, of the mound at Kraków. Having climbed to the 7000ft summit in a day, he named it after Kóciuszko, the hero of democracy.

In Poland Kóciuszko is also celebrated in the Racławice Panorama, one of the largest oil paintings in the world (114x15m) commemorating the victory at the 1794 Battle of Racławice, where peasant soldiers, armed with scythes, attacked the Czarist-Russian troops. The canvas, rolled up, was hidden from the Nazi searches and only emerged years after WWII. It now attracts 400,000 visitors annually to Wrocław. For those with extra reading time, it is worth exploring the outlines of Polish history by historian Norman Davies in his appropriately titled “God’s Playground”. Or, more intimately, in James Michener’s 1983 bestseller “Poland. A Novel”.


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The Third Man Museum in Vienna

1949 Vienna, a city described by painter R.B.Kitaj as ‘a town with a seedy underbelly’ and now divided between the victorious WW2 allied powers. In the British zone, two men carry a coffin out of an apartment building…. BUT who was the 3rd man?….

The movie, ‘The Third Man’ continues to fascinate me, not only for its cinematography (Director Carol Reed) and its superlative acting, but also for its portrayal of a unique city at a unique point in its history . The film stars Orson Wells, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, and the whole thing is based on a story by Graham Greene.

It features the unforgettable music of Anton Karas on his zither that accurately evokes the old saying that “when a zither starts to play, you’ll remember yesterday…”.

Much quoted are the lines of the film spoken by Orson Wells as the villain Harry Lime, while taking a tense trip on the famous Riesenrad. ‘In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!’.

It all ends with the haunting theme by Karas resurging to emphasize the feeling of Europe as “the perpetual continent of yesterday”.

Considered one of the best films ever made, The Third Man has reached iconic cult status with many people, including by enthusiasts Gerhard and Karin Strassgschwandtner who created an entire museum in Vienna devoted to the movie and to the city that the movie itself is effectively dedicated to.

The museum opened in 2005 and consists of some 16 rooms. They present a portrayal of post WW2 Vienna, with over 2000 documents, photographs, scripts, and memorabilia, including the personal collection of Anton Karas himself.

The Museum even dramatically echoes the film setting by having the exit set through the replica of a sewer identical to that used in the final scenes of the movie.

Reached by the Vienna Metro/U-Bahn system near the Naschmarkt, it is well worth the effort to visit!

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“Taking you Places Like no one Else Can”

October 1989. It was startling, having just arrived at the Soaltee Oberoi Hotel in Kathmandu, to receive a fax from David Dukesherer, Chief Executive of Hemphill-Harris Travel Corporation, the  company that I worked with. Addressed to “All of the group members on tour”, it stated that, as a result of its financial situation, “we have decided to terminate your tour as of today…if you continue independently, you do so at your own risk and expense”.

We were in the early stages of a deluxe 30 day tour of India and Nepal. There were 24 participants. Everyone booked with Hemphill-Harris of Encino, California, because of the company’s solid reputation in the travel world in providing excellent services.Our document wallets were embossed with its motto:”Taking you places no one else can”

The greater part of the group had started from San Francisco, others joined in Hong Kong before continuing to Nepal. Kathmandu was the starting point for a much anticipated Everest flight by private plane. This was a great success with unusually clear and dramatic views of the world’s highest mountains.A late afternoon flight then took us to the unique Tiger Tops Lodge,by the Chitwan National Park . It was an unforgetable experience of two days, taking river safaris to see crocodiles and the one horned rhino, jungle walks and, riding specially trained asiatic elephants to spot the Bengal tiger in the long grasses and even a leopard in the trees. a different highlight every day.So, the announcement by Mr. Dukesherer came as a shock. We arranged a meeting to discuss how to proceed and exchange ideas. 

I met that evening with all participants  after  checking the situation with airlines, agents and hotels. The only thing that became quite clear was the failure of Hemphill.The company was not contactable.

Among the issues raised were the problems of changing airline arrangements and the loss of a much anticipated experience.But I could report that hotels initial deposits had been paid and offered to investigate further. After much discussion,  several members suggested that they would be prepared to go on if I agreed to continue leading the tour. I agreed and offered to contribute to the cost of the land arrangements with my emergency funds issued in travelers cheques by Hemphill. By the end of the evening only 2, out of the original 24, had decided to leave and return home from Hong Kong.

Having contacted the various hotels originally reserved by Hemphill, nearly all agreed to rebook the group, crediting the original deposit if everyone paid the difference, individually, upon arrival. The exception was the legendary Lake Palace Hotel which was always fully booked and with a waiting list.However, as a goodwill gesture, I was able to negotiate a visit and lunch in the hotel when arriving in Udaipur.

Next day, Oct 19th, we set out for Varanasi, the city on the Ganges, the holy river to Hindus.In the following days we saw Khajuraho, Agra and had a perfect day at the Taj Mahal. Then on to Fathepur Sikri followed by Delhi with the Houses of Parliament, India Gate and a Sound and Light Show at the historic Red Fort.

A great highlight of the tour was the visit to Kashmir and Lake Dal with its floating gardens.We saw Shalimarand stayed on the Deluxe Houseboats which we reached by slim “shikara” lake boats.More elephants in Jaipur for the trip up to the Amber fortress-palace and, when reaching Udaipur the lunch promised by the Lake Palace Hotel.The final stages of our memorable journey included Aurengabad, for the famous rock-cut monasteries and temples of Ellora as well as the great caves at Ajanta before our flight to Bombay.In the course of an informal farewell evening we discussed how much we had rescued from a disastrous situation.With good humor we awarded ourselves with an Extraordinary Certificate of Completion, witnessed by the Oberoi Hotel Front Office cashier.

Our last overnight was in HongKong before everyone dispersed on home journeys to the USA and Canada, promising to keep in touch.I flew to New York, returned to our apartment at East 55th in Manhattan and deposited my Hemphill salary cheque with Citibank. Needless to say it was returned unpaid because of “insufficient funds”.


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Heidelberg’s “Holy Mountain”


There are numerous reasons to visit the Heidelberg area – few, however, are more remarkable than the layers of time and memory still visible on the Heiligenberg or “Holy Mountain”, rising some 439 meters above the river Neckar across from the Old Town itself.

There, archaeologists have found  remains dating back to Neolithic times, as well as a Celtic fort and burial grounds. Nearby, the ancient ruins of St.Michael’s Abbey contain the foundations of a Roman temple to Mercury, a god identified with the Norse/Germanic Odin or Wotan.There was also a second monastery here, St Stephen’s, given to the University after the Reformation, which then razed it to sell the stones. Many of the remaining stones were reused in the 19th century to build a lookout tower on the same spot as the original monastery and in 1905 a beacon dedicated to Prince Bismarck was also erected nearby.

Today, however, the most complete of the structures on the mountain is the Freilichtbühne-Thingstätte, a dramatic amphitheatre/stadium designed by Nazi master-builder Albert Speer and realized by architect Hermann Akker in 1935, built following  a period when rightwing student groups organized the notorious burning of “prohibited” books on the Universitätsplatz in 1933.

Some 40 such open-air theaters were constructed in significant locations across Germany, to be used for Third Reich propaganda purposes. They included one built next to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games stadium and the amphitheater built on top of the Lorelei Rock,on the River Rhine, positioned to face the sunrise.

The Nazis were thus reviving what they imagined to be a truly Germanic way of  living and celebrating, based on sun worship with several of the structures aligned to the rising or setting sun.

hbergthingluftfoto1936 - Version 2

“My father, then aged 8, stood outside our building as one of a long chain of young torch bearers”, reminisced an affable hotelier I once met there. “It was June 22nd. Dr. Goebbels himself arrived to give the opening speech, timed for the summer solstice. The line of torches stretched from the old city, over the Karl-Theodore  bridge and all the way up the Philosophenweg to the top of Heiligenberg. There, the torches surrounded the newly built amphitheatre”. A French writer of the time had stated bluntly that “Fascism is Theatre!” and this certainly illustrated how important that concept was to the Nazis.

Said to originate from early Viking democratic assemblies, The Thingstätte at Heidelberg was an idea of Joseph Goebbels to counter the influence of Christian Churches. Hitler saw Christianity as a threat to the national-socialist regime, so new ceremonies needed to be invented. This was endorsed by Himmler who considered the main task of his elite SS was to be prepared for an ultimate clash between “humans against subhumans”.

A crowd of some 20,000 people gathered on the 56 rows of seats and around the theatre slopes to hear Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, speak to the crowd.  He compared the Thingstätte amphitheater to being “like the Autobahn, National Socialism in stone!”. It then opened with a Summer Solstice celebration that included a musical cantata by Franz Philipp called “Heiliges Vaterland”(Holy Fatherland). The acoustics were excellent and still are today.

Various staged events took place there over many months, before the Ministry of Propaganda dropped the “Thing” Movement by 1937, to concentrate on the Albert Speer-staged and rather Wagnerian Nuremberg Rallies.These were filmed and movies like Leni Riefenstahl’s much acclaimed “Triumph of the Will” disseminated their triumphant message in cinemas instead. The Nazi ideas were then efficiently reinforced through the radio broadcasts that were such a daily feature of the Third Reich.

55F5B41E-9A22-422F-B757-7B5B89EFDC47After the war, and 20 years spent in Spandau prison, Speer moved back to Heidelberg and lived in a villa above Heidelberg Castle. His son was also an architect but the two were estranged until his death in 1981 in London. He was on his way to a BBC interview on his bestselling autobiography. To his death, Speer always denied knowledge of the Holocaust and is said to have donated a good part of his publishing income to charitable Jewish institutions.

The stadium-theatre he designed in Heidelberg remained in use for many more years – hosting events which included several organised by the US Army, an unofficial “witches” night every April and for high profile concerts – the most successful of which was possibly the electronic group Tangerine Dream, leading exponents of the so-called Krautrock movement.Heidelberg_Germany

The tranquil views over the beautiful Neckar valley would alone make a journey up the Heiligenberg worthwhile, but the unforgettable forest setting and the meaningful ruins and monuments make a visit particularly rewarding.


Filed under Architecture, Europe, Germany, History, Nazis, Uncategorized, World War II

The Most Wanted Painting in the World po

7457666532_5a99f53464_oIf our culture is the shared memory of all historical experiences or, as renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuścinski claims, “we are human because we recount stories and myths”, then the huge painting (twice the size of Rembrandt’s Night Watch) covering a whole wall of the National Museum in Warsaw provides a major opening into the history of Central Europe.

Created to provide inspiration and resistance during the period of Empires and partitions, Jan Matejko’s “The Battle of Grunwald” became the focus of search, torture, bribery  and a huge  “wanted” reward following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

The painting, depicting the famous struggle in 1410, essentially highlights the death in battle of Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen against King Jagello’s Polish-Lithuanian forces and the charge by the hero Vytutas. This portrayal was seen by the Nazis as an unwelcome reminder of the greatest confrontation in medieval times and earmarked Matejko’s masterpiece for destruction.

The Teutonic Knights, a heavily armed German military order, were originally invited from Jerusalem by a Polish prince in 1230 to help spread Christianity. Instead, the Knights established an expanding monastic state along the Baltic coast based around their impregnable castle at Malbork/Marienburg. They extracted feudal levies, seized control of the lucrative amber trade and made themselves a naval power as well.
Over time their rule was transformed into, first the Duchy, and then later, the Kingdom of Prussia, but not before the Knights suffered a major defeat at Grunwald in 1410, thus halting major Germanic expansion.

It also obliged the Grand Masters/Dukes to pay homage to Polish kings (the subject of another major Matejko work). Although the Knights may have been defeated, their state eventually became the expanding Prussia of Prince Bismarck and his Germanization policies or “KulturKampf”, when all non-German schools and universities were closed down and printing in other languages forbidden.

The Nazis, in turn, saw themselves as a kind of continuation of the knights mission, on their way towards a world empire. When attacking Russia Hitler affirmed “We will give this country a past. We will take away its character of an Asian steppe. We will Europanize it”.

Hitler stated clearly that he wanted to erase the identity of neighbouring nations. Himmler, leader of the Gestapo security forces, had emphasized that “Polish lands are to be converted into an intellectual desert”, while Propaganda minister Joseph Goebels was anxious to establish German superiority by proving that all other cultures had German origins. With this in mind, a spectacular portrayal of past defeat could not be tolerated, so experts were specifically sent from the Reich to destroy all monuments  of national identity.

Among the first to be blown up was the granite and bronze “Grunwald” monument in Cracow, a pre-WWI symbol erected for the 500th anniversary of the battle, due to efforts by world famous musician Ignacy Paderewski. This was followed by destruction of the statues to poet Adam Mickiewicz, revolutionary independence hero Kościuszko and even the prominent monument to Frederyk Chopin in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park was cut up and sent for smelting. A new museum claiming Chopin’s (non existent) German roots was established by 1943. The search for these symbolic art works was relentless.

By 1942 Nazi administrators estimated that 90% of art in Poland was in their possession, including hidden masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s ermine“Lady with an Ermine”, which was betrayed to the Gestapo within days of the Occupation. Seized by governor Hans Frank, it was hung in his family living quarters and is still remembered as a picturesque backdrop by his son Niklas. Even the largest Gothic altarpiece by Veit Stoss was dismantled and transported to Bavaria on Frank’s orders. Looted and confiscated art was to form the core of the proposed Führermuseum in Linz or the Herman Göring collection. Today, it is estimated that at least 100,000 items have still not been returned to their rightful owners.

During this time, Himmler and his SS infiltrated the army and, similarly to the Knights, created a state within a state. He actively encouraged the SS to seek out the Church of the Teutonic Order in Vienna as a symbolic source for his military elite (the actual religious order had been abolished by 1938). The highest award of the Third Reich became a badge/insignia modeled on a crest of the historic Order and given first to SS General Reinhard Heydrich and then the top ten Nazis. They created a bureaucracy of terror at the centre of which was a network of concentration camps.

Somehow the huge Matejko canvas survived the first World War period. It had been taken to Czarist Russia and returned by the post-revolution Soviet State only in 1922. The theme of the struggle against the Teutonic invaders was also taken up by Nobel prize writer Henryk Sienkiewicz in the same spirit of “Romantic Nationalism” as Matejko’s. The conflict was portrayed in his 1910 novel “The Knights of the Cross”, later turned into a a 1960 film by director Aleksander Ford.nevsky-charge-lg In Soviet Russia, cinema great Sergei Eisenstein directed his 1938 classic “Alexander Nevsky” (complete with a music score by Prokofiev). It portrayed an attack over frozen Lake Peipus against the Russians, by the Livonian branch of the Knights. The film ending, with the heavily armoured Teutonic horsemen drowning as the ice collapsed under their weight, was presented as symbolic retribution for spreading Christianity by the sword.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, what made the survival of “Grunwald” more remarkable was the intensity of the search for the removed painting and the astronomical reward offered. Initially, on Goebels orders, the museum curator was to be bribed with two million Reichmarks (about $16M USD in today’s money)  to reveal where the picture was hidden. When this was refused a public broadcast increased the sum to ten million Reichmarks (approximately $80M USD in today’s money).
Captured underground resistance fighters were tortured to death by the Gestapo seeking its hiding place. All to no avail. In fact, the  canvas had been rolled, placed in a specially made wooden box and secretly buried in a protective stone sarcophagus close to a village near Lublin.

The search by the Nazis was only abandoned when, in a clever ruse, the Polish government-in-exile based in London, announced the arrival of the painting in Britain. It actually only emerged from hiding in Poland after the war to be exhibited by 1949.
After years of meticulous restoration, finally finished in 2012, “The Battle of Grunwald” has once more taken pride of place in Warsaw’s National Museum, where it provides a visual insight to the struggles in “God’s Playground” (Norman Davies), still studied by modern historians and visitors.

In the rebuilt Old Town of Warsaw, on the façade of the cathedral, restored after Nazi destruction, the importance of national memory is emphasized with a plaque quoting Cardinal Wyszyński :

“A nation without a record, without a past,
becomes a nation homeless, without a future”

Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald is a vital, imaginative link to that past.

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Filed under Art, Europe, Germany, History, Military Orders, Nazis, Poland, Religious Orders, World War II

Heine, Hitler and the Lorelei

Lonely Giraffe


The Lorelei Rock, located at the sharpest, most dangerous bend in the Rhine River, has for ages captured the imagination of those who have gazed upon it – albeit usually out of fear – blaming the alluring song of the “Rhine Maiden” for disasters which include a series of boats pushed by currents onto the rocks lining the river.

San Francisco’s emblematic counter-culture group, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, were to perform there once in the summer of 1978 at the open amphitheater behind the Lorelei. Then, disaster struck. Lead singer Grace Slick (Somebody to Love, White Rabbit ) refused to appear, maybe too sick, probably too drunk. The concert was cancelled and the gathered audience erupted in fury, throwing bottles, setting fire to the stage, and destroying all instruments and equipment. The curse of the Rhine Maiden had struck again and the group never recovered.

Certainly the huge rock, rising over 180m above the…

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Living History at the Middle Rhine


From the panoramic windows of the Rheinhotel Dreesen at Bad Godesberg, the immediate view is across the steady flow of the Rhine, towards Konigswinter. Rising just behind the town is the Petersberg, a hill formed by the remnants of a volcano, the first of the hills in the legendary Siebengebirgen uplands. These “seven hills” (an ancient magic number, though actually there are more like 40 hills) have brought many visitors to the area and to the elegant comfort of the Hotel Dreesen. Among them were celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin. The middle-Rhine location also attracted devoted followers of the many works of Wagner, foremost among them Adolf Hitler. In March 1945, it became the headquarters of Dwight Eisenhower during the Allied advance into Nazi Germany.

Downstream, to the north, the river eventually becomes the Rhine delta of the Netherlands and brings wartime memories of the ill-fated attempt by allied paratroopers, dropped to capture and secure the bridges at Nijmegen and Arnhem. If successful, “Operation Market Garden” (September 17-26) would have meant the end of the war in Europe by Christmas of 1944.
Upstream, a short drive from Bad Godesberg is Remagen where the Ludendorffbrucke became the only bridge to be captured intact on March 7th 1945, by the U.S. 9th Armored Division. To Eisenhower this bridge was “worth its weight in gold”,  it then endured ten days of heavy military use and constant air attacks before collapsing.
A frantic Goering in Berlin, having now diverted vital reserves to destroy the bridge, shouted that its capture was amongst the greatest German disasters of the war. A furious Hitler, in turn, ordered the officers responsible for defending the bridge shot for what he termed sabotage, as all bridges were to be blown up in the German retreat. As in history since the Romans, the Rhine was to be the “final barrier” to any enemy advance. These landmark battles were portrayed in the Holywood action films “The Bridge at Remagen”(1969), and Arnhem in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977).

For Hitler, who first stayed at the hotel Dreesen in 1926 (but returned more than 70 times!), it was the Wagnerian location that was particularly significant. The nearby Drachenfels (Dragon’s Rock) was where the hero of German Epic poems, Siegfried, the man who knew no fear, came on his initial journey up the Rhine (from his birthplace at Xanten) to fight and kill the dragon who lived in a cave on the hill. He then bathed in its blood to become( almost) invulnerable.
Still today, the vineyards above Konigswinter reflect this story in the name of the wine produced as Drachensblut, Rotwein von Drachenfels in Petersberg ( Siebengebirge). Though Hitler himself was a vegetarian teetotaler, so unlikely to drink even “Dragons Blood Wine”, he was deeply steeped in Wagnerian lore and once stood by Wagner’s grave dedicating himself as the reincarnated Siegfried.
The views from the Dreesen were thus of significance to him and soon a permanent Fuhrersuite, number 106, was established. It included several rooms as well as a bulletproof window overlooking the steady flow of the river.

With the threat of war looming once more in 1938, vital events were to take place at Bad Godesberg. Neville Chamberlain decided to face the dictator. Though Prime Minister, he was relatively inexperienced in diplomacy but he overruled his ministers, anxious to “save Europe from war”, 1914-1918 having been such a disaster. With this in mind, he made his first ever flight on September 15th to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden, only to hear demands for Nazi control of the Czech (mostly German speaking) Sudetenland. Returning briefly to London to confer with the French, as well as seeking approval from his own government, Chamberlain flew out again, this time to Cologne, continuing by road to the Bad Godesberg/Konigswinter area. There he was given luxurious accommodation at the Petersberg Hotel, already a famous spa, with a spectacular location at the summit of the hill. He was the first ever foreign dignitary to stay there, many more were to follow.Image-1-2
The Prime Minister could see down to the hotel Dreesen and beyond, as far as the Eiffel mountains on the horizon. He was there from the 21st-23rd September. Meetings with Hitler took place in the quieter, but elegantly furnished inner salon of the Dreesen, where a map of Czechoslovakia was spread out over a huge table. On the map, Hitler marked out the area of contention, cut it out and presented it to Chamberlain with five pages of demands in German. Unbeknown to Hitler, the Army High Command, long alarmed by Corporal Hitler and his Nazi party, had planned to arrest him the moment war was declared and put hiIMG_0502m on trial for endangering the country. General Ludwig Beck, a Rhinelander himself, had resigned as Chief of the General Staff and was prepared to head any provisional government. Agents had even been sent to London to warn Chamberlain. They were not believed. Instead the German generals were surprised by the Prime Minister’s offer to visit Hitler in Bavaria, then completely frustrated by events at the Hotel Dreesen which gave Hitler credibility as Chamberlain, with his own peace agenda, informed Hitler that he could have the Sudetenland. In a nationwide evening radio broadcast on Sept 27th, Chamberlain gave a speech about “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. On the 29th he flew to Munich where, with Mussolini, Daladier and Hitler, he signed the pact allowing the German army to occupy the Sudetenland.The Czechs were informed but not consulted. The generals were forced to set aside their conspiracy as Hitler was suddenly seen as a master statesman.The rest as they say, is history…

After 1945, the Petersberg Hotel gradually became the official guest house of the Bonn government nearby. Queen Elizabeth II stayed in 1965 and 1992. Brezhnev in 1973 (when he wrecked a gifted Mercedes on his first drive down the mountain). Gorbachev came in 1990, Yeltsin in 1991.The Clintons visited in 1994…
Since 1956, the Siebengebirge area has become a nature preserve and national park and while the government has moved to Berlin, state visitors are still accommodated at the Grand Hotel Petersberg. It is frequently referred to as the “German CIMG_0492amp David”, while the Dreesen hotel has hosted every Chancellor of the German Federal Republic.

In this area of great beauty, ancient lore and meaning, the two fabled hotels stand witness, and a reminder of events that once shook the world.IMG_0494


Filed under Europe, Germany, World War II

On the Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part XI) – To Vladivostok, and so the end of the line…


With Ulaan Baataar and Mongolia a pleasant memory behind us, the Golden Eagle continued towards Khilok, Chita, Mogocha, out of the taiga and eventually overnight at Khabarovsk.This gives us time to reflect on all that we have seen, discuss the lectures by Dan Healey and comment on the news headlines before reaching the Amur/Ussuri river junction towards the end of the line at Vladivostok.

The subject of Siberian exile and the Gulag inevitably comes up, in lectures and in conversation. Both Joseph Stalin and Feliks Dzierzhinsky (founder of the secret police) escaped from Siberia twice. On that overnight at Khabarovsk, we hear that a large statue of Stalin is still standing there and that there is nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which had seemed to offer stability after the more recent economic chaos from a rushed privatisation. Engineering delays on the tracks allowed us to study the subject further, with an additional lecture by Prof.Dan on the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and national memory, the central event in Soviet history.

Fear of chaos in this huge land has always been central to Russia’s history.The rise of Vladimir Putin is attributed to his skill in balancing the various competing clans. Ultimately his concern has been more with internal matters than external economics. Much is made of his choosing Siberia to celebrate his 2014 (62nd) birthday, far from the Kremlin and its factions, though local observers are heard to remark ” Why does Putin need friends when 85% of Russians support him ?”. American strategist Robert Kaplan has pointed out that if Putin were toppled, it would be quite possible that a more brutal dictator would emerge to forestall any possible chaos. He sees the breakup of Russia more likely than any emergence of Western-style democracy. It is interesting to realise that, if that were to occur, Siberia would still be the largest country on earth.

Dissenting opinions on the past are still expressed. Recently, award-winning Russian film director Andrei Konchalkovsky, celebrated for his epic film “Siberiade” (and whose father wrote the words to the stirring 1943 national anthem), explains during an interview at the Venice Film Festival, that “Marxism is a wonderful thought if you are sitting with a pipe by the fire, but Marxist ideals in Cambodia give you ten million chopped heads”. Statistics from 2013 estimate that the median household wealth in Russia is US$ 871  while, surprisingly, it reaches US$ 1040 in India. Someone appropriately quotes 19th century historian Vasily Kluchevsky who said “The state grew fat while the people grew thin”.

We already are in Eastern Siberia8230218781_c1274db7af_b, land of the endangered Amur Tiger. There are less than 30 left in China and 400 in Siberia, some of which prey on bears. There is also an Amur leopard, though only about 45 adults remain in the wild. Earlier in 2014, Vladimir Putin released three tagged Amur tigers into the wild in this region. One, a male called Kuzya, made headlines by quickly choosing to cross the river into China, where local officials welcomed the event, promising that “if necessary, we can release cattle into the region to feed it” .Siberia remains in the news…

A final on-board Farewell Dinner, then it is time to prepare for the last stop on the world’s longest railway line, the once closed city of Vladivostok. The journey has been a tremendous survey of Siberia and Russia itself, an experience to savour for long, maybe even contemplate a return journey for a magical winter view. Certainly the words of poet John Keats ring true:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…


In London for the January 2014 Stanford Travel Writers Festival, I spoke with writer and traveller Nick Hunt about Siberia. He had recently walked from London to Istanbul, describing the experience in his latest book Walking In The Woods. He told me about French author Sylvain Tesson who had gone to spend six months isolated in a log cabin at Lake Baikal, equipped mostly with vodka, pasta and books. He outlined his thoughts in a memoir, “Consolations of the Forest”. Ah! Thoreau and his famous retreat at Walden, but on Stolichnaya !! Unbeatable !!tumblr_lqu6l1R2a31qb96yeo1_1280

Tesson’s book is at the top of my reading list for 2015 !


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