Thursday, 5 May 2011

Liberation Day: Random Thoughts on a Busy Few Days...

I'm not going to apologize for the gap between posts, because I'm not really sorry. I'm perhaps slightly miffed with myself, maybe even mildly annoyed, but I don't feel so remorseful that I need to apologize here. Also, I was too busy experiencing what had been going on over the last few days in Dachau.

Firstly, we have a group of Dachau survivors currently staying at the Jugendgaestehaus. They come from the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, all countries once in the former Soviet Union, and are able to come here thanks to the tireless work of the Foerderverein (Supporters Union) in Dachau, in particular Nicole Schneider and Irina Grinkevich. They spent the last few months arranging Visas, contacting as many people as possible to give them the opportunity to come and arranging a series of events to make them feel as welcome as possible. They also have the opportunity during their stay to receive a medical checkup and get some new clothes.

As with so many things during this year, I felt a distance between this group of visitors and myself, partly because of the language barrier and also because of their shared history. Many of them spent two, even three years in Nazi captivity and in a number of different camps. What's more, they were almost all in their mid to late teens when they were taken into custody. After the war they simply had to get on with their adult lives. Often they were also ignored by others as, for many, they had failed by being captured. Returning Soviet POWs were treated with suspicion by the authorities.

On Friday 29th April, the 66th Anniversary of KZ Dachau's liberation, Prince William of Wales and Ms. Catherine Middleton were married at Westminster Abbey. As the family assembled on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, the couple kissing for the first time in public, a Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane flew over. The Battle of Britain Flypast was a crucial part of the day's events, and an extremely telling one. Perhaps I am being cynical, but it seemed to me that the organisers sought something that was uniquely British, and Nationalism in the UK was never stronger than during World War II.

I was excited to see it all. I admit it. My family were gathered round the TV at home and I felt rather left out of the national celebrations. I hung a commemorative Union Flag my parents sent me out the window of my flat. Later on I began to think. My flatmate had not taken this well. She felt that it was an insult to fly a flag of celebration on a day of such importance for the eight men she was currently looking after in Dachau. In many ways she was right. I had put my own interests ahead of the victims, whose memory I am here to keep alive and whose warning I am supposed to spread.

Even worse, it was pure nationalism that seduced me. However benign a form of nationalism it may have been, it is still worrying to know how weak you are to it.


On the Saturday evening I delivered a speech to those gathered at the Death March memorial in Dachau. It was not difficult to decide what to talk about, and I was reminded of this when I saw the ex-Soviet survivors in the front row, their translator packs in their ears, sitting with a quiet but understated dignity. I spoke about the distance I felt, how foreign Eastern Europe remained the 'Other' to us and how, step by step, I was becoming aware of issues that affected them. I think a lot of people felt the same way, and I am grateful for the positive feedback I received, particularly from those from the former East. One of the survivors came up to me in the Landtag a few days later and said, in broken German, "You did a nice speech." That meant far more than any of the other comments previously, and I thought back to that moment on the 29th April when I rushed home to see the Royal Wedding. I felt quite ashamed, and grateful for second chances.

On the Sunday there were thousands of people present at the site for the many services of remembrance going ahead, as well as a Russian Orthodox service in the Chapel of the Resurrection. The liturgy was alien to many people watching, and seemed to be operating in its own vaccuum as the main memorial service led by the Comite International Dachau (CID) went ahead. Here were small, Russian women in headscarves and cheap coats genuflecting every so often, bowing and hushing their children. It was a completely different attitude towards Church. I had helped distribute the order of service for the ecumenical service at 9.30am, in which much was explained, there were lots of read out prayers and the entire liturgy hung on the Word. For the Russian Orthodox service the Liturgy was something else and women chatted in hushed tones among each other as the Priest incensed the Scripture. I had seen something similar in Jewish Sabbath services. Here Liturgy was not only something in which people could participate in, but something the people seemed to be breathing.

I wandered to the other end of the site for the main commemoration. We stood and listened to the main speeches being delivered in German and French before embassies, consulates and other organisations laid wreaths at the International Memorial. Survivors peppered the audience. Later, when we were at a commemoration at the SS Shooting Range in Hebertshausen, a few miles away from Dachau, they were in the front row, listening in silence and through a translator. One or two dabbed their eyes every so often with a handkerchief. None wept strongly. Here Irina delivered her speech to those present, focussing on the fact that for decades these survivors were forgotten, their courage and suffering not recognised in Soviet times. Hers was the most moving speech, perhaps also because of her contact with the survivors staying in Dachau. There were members of the Communist Party of Germany present, who laid their red roses by the memorial before making a salute, their fists clenched and their eyes closed.


It was a moving few days, and very disorientating as well. It was wonderful to meet so many survivors, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, but at the same time the cultural difference was painfully apparent. In Dachau there were people speaking in Russian, translated into German, then I had to translate that into English (I have not yet learned to think in German). In the process something gets lost, and I found myself often wondering what I sould say. How should I say it? I wanted to make small talk, but that's something that doesn't really exist in former Eastern-bloc countries. I also didn't exactly want to interject with 'So tell me about your time in Buchenwald!" or something similar. As a result, I often shied away from them, unsure of my place in their presence.

This is not to say I didn't have good moments. One of them came up to me outside the Landtag and got my attention. Through an interpreter he said, "What was your aim from meeting us?" I replied I didn't have one. Perhaps I should have had one, the chance to meet this generation so rare. "Did we meet your expectations?" I replied it was wonderful to meet them. He then extended his arm and gripped my hand in appreciation.

It is hard to write about these experiences here, and as I shook ther hands and said goodbye to them on the last night, I wondered if I would ever have the chance to meet anyone from the East from that generation again. They had lived hard lives within a system that had not treated them well and yet we communicated as human beings. They had the scars of the century, and they were willing to share them with someone like me, young and with no clue whatsoever what it means to suffer.

I'm very conscious of the number of times I've used the word 'grateful' in this post. 'Gratitude' sums up the last few days for me really. For the chance to share this history; for the patience of those who bear the modern scars of the camps in their societies, for the opportunity simply to be present and watch them as they spoke with each other; for the second chances we receive and the ability to learn from mistakes. For all this, I will always be grateful.

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