The Last Survivors – BBC 2

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I’d have said that there was quite a lot of attention paid to the Holocaust; but recent surveys have shown that over 50% of German schoolchildren have never heard of Auschwitz, 20% of French people aged between 18 and 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, 41% of American adults aren’t sure what Auschwitz was, and 5% of British adults don’t believe that the Holocaust took place.  Hopefully this is ignorance, rather than some sinister political forces manipulating history for their own ends, but it’s very worrying.  Ignorance can easily facilitate manipulation, and is best answered by education – and it was a shame that the BBC, put this programme, showing the testimony of some of the few remaining survivors living in Britain, over on BBC 2 and head-to-head with The Voice and Les Miserables.  But at least the programme was made, and shown – on Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the same day, a Polish far-right group held a demonstration at Auschwitz, at the same time as the official commemorations were taking place.  And all forms of hate crime seem to be on the rise.

We’re supposed to learn from history, but something’s going badly wrong somewhere.

The people interviewed, now mostly in their late 80s, had been children at the time of the Holocaust.  Some had survived Auschwitz, others has survived other concentration camps.  Some had been old enough, or convinced the Nazis that they were old enough, to be used for forced labour, rather than being sent to the gas chambers.  Others had been at camps which weren’t actually extermination camps.  One of them, the well-known cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, had been saved from the gas chambers at Auschwitz at the last minute, when a chance remark about her musical studies had led to her being given a place in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, which had saved her life.  One way or another, they’d all somehow survived, and come to Britain.  You’d think that living through such horrific conditions would weaken your constitution, for lack of a less Victorian way of putting it, but these incredible people were all hale and hearty, and extremely eloquent.

It was very personal, and that worked really well.  Statistics and pictures and film reels are effective and hard-hitting, but listening to someone’s personal story gets a message across in a way that nothing else does.  The stories of loss – even more than their own horrific experiences, they were telling their stories of loss – of the ordinary families, ordinary communities, which had been destroyed, of the relatives and friends who’d been murdered.

One man had never been able to find out what had happened to his little brother.  He himself had been out as part of a forced labour gang, and, one day, when he returned to his barracks, his brother and three other little boys had disappeared.  He said that he knew they must have been murdered, but part of him had never quite stopped hoping that his brother was alive somewhere: you hear these occasional stories of miraculous reunions.  And there was the man with the school photo of his class in Prague, taken in 1942.  He’d made it his mission to find out what happened to all his classmates, and had labelled the photo with stickers – red for those killed in the Holocaust, blue for those who’d survived.  There were a lot more red stickers than blue stickers.

Another man had kept trying to draw his murdered mother and sister: he had no photos of them.  He’d managed to produce a likeness of his mother, but said that he couldn’t get his sister’s face down on paper, so he’d drawn an abstract picture as a representation of him.  A well-known sculptor said that most of his sculptures had the face of his murdered father.  His younger sister had died in a concentration camp, and their elder sister had had to take her body outside and leave it on a pile of other bodies: there was nothing else to be done.  And no justice to be sought.  A man remembered seeing the flames from the chimneys at Auschwitz and, having seen his mother being taken away to the gas chambers, wondering which flame was her.

Why would anyone think that people would make this up?  And what is thing in Poland about trying to make it into some sort of competition?  Yes, there is an issue in that not much has been written about some of the groups affected by the Holocaust – the Roma and Sinti communities, gay men, people with physical and mental disabilities, for example.  More research and greater awareness is badly needed.  And no-one is denying the fact that the Nazis murdered many Poles who were not Jewish.  But what’s going on in Poland has a lot to do with the manipulation and misrepresentation of history, and it just shows how frighteningly easy it is for things to reach that stage.  This demonstration only numbered around two hundred people, but … that’s still two hundred people.

Many of those interviewed, although not all, were the only survivors of their families, and had presumably also been separated from friends, neighbours, and anyone else from their childhoods.  Most of them had married British partners, and had children and grandchildren.  How does that work, when someone close to you has been through such horrific experiences, and you’ve lived an ordinary life?

The partners seemed to cope quite well.  Or maybe they just didn’t want to say much, being of the stiff upper lip generation.  But the children were obviously struggling.  One woman said that she’d felt resentful as a child, because her mother had been too focused on trying to rebuild her life.  Another woman got frustrated with her father, whilst they were actually visiting Auschwitz, because he wasn’t expressing his emotions and he kept saying that part of the reason he was anxious was just that he was bothered about missing the coach.  She obviously adored him, and she then got tearful and hugged him; but she was obviously finding it frustrating.

The children and grandchildren seemed keener on expressing emotions about what had happened.  The survivors themselves said that that was something they couldn’t do.

It was interesting that several of them were involved in the arts, either as professionals or as amateurs – could that be a way of letting emotion out?  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was defiant, saying that she wasn’t going to let people see her spilling her emotions all over the place.  Another woman said that she didn’t dare to cry, because, once she started crying, she’d never be able to stop.  The man who went back to Auschwitz said that he was crying inside, all the time.

There certainly seemed to be a consensus that, afterwards, they’d focused on rebuilding their lives and moving forward.

And also that they hadn’t wanted to revisit the places of the past – until now.  There were three return journeys.  One was the visit to Auschwitz, with the man whose daughter wanted him to express his emotions more.  His young granddaughter also accompanied them.  One of the women said that she found it difficult to see adverts for sightseeing trips to Auschwitz – on the hotel noticeboard, along with adverts for sightseeing trips to the Wieliczka salt mines.  It’s a difficult one.  I suppose it has sort of become a tourist attraction, and I remember being quite shocked to see people taking photos of themselves and their travel companions there.  I did take some photos of the site, but I certainly didn’t want any photos there with myself in them, and the fact that anyone did made me quite uncomfortable.  But I think it’s a very educational experience, and I do think it has to be open for people to visit.  There was nothing there that I found disrespectful or sensationalised.  I wish I could say the same of the Warsaw Ghetto: there was a souvenir stall there which was selling things that were in extremely poor taste.  Hopefully that stall’s not there any more.

Another was the visit by the man whose brother had disappeared, to consecrate memorial stones in his home town of Kassel.  It was the first time that he’d actually said memorial prayers for his brother, acknowledging that his brother was gone and saying that he was at least thankful that his brother had had a few years of a happy and loving childhood.  He also said that he hoped that people would stop to look at the memorial stones, but accepted that they wouldn’t.  You don’t, do you?  Names on park benches.  Blue plaques on buildings.  War memorials.  Statues in city centres.  But they’re there.  And Kassel was acknowledging what had happening.

There are a lot of Holocaust memorials in Germany.  The main one’s in Berlin.  This is the main German memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, I should say: there are also memorials to other groups.  They shouldn’t be separate: there should be one memorial to all the victims.  But there isn’t.  Anyway.  It’s an odd-looking memorial – a lot of concrete blocks.  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, visiting it on the third of the return trips, her visit to Germany to address the German parliament, said that she’d rather have had a garden as a memorial.  But it’s there.

There was a lot of talk about “Germans”.  I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but … is that a hallmark of the wartime generation?   Things said or written now tend to refer to “Nazis” rather than “Germans”.  Neither term is entirely accurate, when talking about the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  In the immediate post-war era, every country other than Germany was presented entirely a victim, which was certainly not entirely the case.  And this is part of the Polish right-wing issue again.  And, conversely, all Germans were stigmatised – look at the carry-on when Bert Trautmann signed for City.  I don’t know what the right term is.  We haven’t really got one.

She spoke so well, saying that it’s understandable that today’s Germans do not want to identify with what happened.  Why should they: it wasn’t their fault.  But that it must never be forgotten.  There’s a lot of talk about “never again”, but look what happened in Cambodia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur …

At the end, we saw one of the women dancing round her house.  She said that she’d been denied her youth, her teenage years, so she was having them now.  That was lovely.  The whole programme was very watchable.  Moving rather than harrowing.  I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I hope they were good.  It’s just very unfortunate that the people who most needed to hear what was being said won’t have been watching.

 

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Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 4)

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Maybe I’m just getting very old and out of touch, but is it not a bit odd for a teacher never to have heard “Jerusalem”?  You’d think most people would have heard “Jerusalem” sung whilst watching, say, the Commonwealth Games, the Last Night of the Proms, cricket Test matches or rugby union internationals, surely?  Hmm. Other than that, we got farm animals running around the school grounds, slide rules, stink bombs (these were still going in the ’80s, not sure if they are now), and the replacement of history lessons by “social studies”.  No history lessons?  I’m traumatised at the very thought of that!  And, for the first time, we got the views of some of the children’s parents.

This fourth episode was about secondary modern schools in the 1960s.  I wasn’t keen on the mouthy new teacher, who, apart from claiming that she’d never heard of “Jerusalem”, only seemed to want to criticise – I’m not keen on the idea of religion in school assemblies myself, but, if you’re looking into life at a different time, or in a different place, you need to accept that it’ll be, well, different!  -whereas the kids and the other teachers seemed genuinely interested in learning about changes in schooling over the years.  However, fortunately, she didn’t feature very much.

Gender divisions have been a big feature of this series, and that continued in this episode, with boys being taught bricklaying whilst girls were taught secretarial skills.  Leaving aside the gender divisions, the whole point of this was obviously to train them for the workplace.  We are constantly hearing about employers moaning that schools today do not train pupils for the workplace. It’s an ongoing debate – what is the purpose of education?  So much of what you learn in school is of very little use to you in later life, and you end up forgetting a lot of it.  But is it important to learn it in the first place, to learn those studying skills, to have that broad base of knowledge?   And what about choice?  But how much choice was there anyway, before the economy became so much more service-based?  No rights or wrongs, but a lot of questions.

The food was horrible.  Yep.  School dinners.  Horrible!

We then got rural studies.  School farms.  Obviously this would have been more relevant in some parts of the country than others, but, again, it was all about training people for the workplace.  And, again, it was all about gender division.  The girls didn’t get near the farm.  I quite liked the idea of animals roaming about on school premises.  I’d have hated it in practice – I’m not good with animals – but it would certainly have been different!  The boys also got to play about with cars – although the BBC had to politicise this by harping on about how boys who went to grammar schools would have had far more chance of affording fancy cars than boys who went to secondary moderns.

The girls, meanwhile, were learning domestic science.  This was not to train them for the workplace, the days of large numbers of girls going into domestic service being long over, but to train them for marriage.  It was pointed out that around 25% of girls in Britain in the early 1960s married in their teens.  I have to say that I’d have been a disaster at this school!  No history lessons.  Animals wandering around.  And people expecting you to get married in your teens – which would have been quite upsetting if you felt that you were the fat girl whom no-one was going to look at twice!  Not to mention my dire culinary skills: I nearly set fire to our school home economics room on two separate occasions.  Honestly!  And, later, technical drawing, something else I can’t do.  Anyway.  The girls were not impressed at being told that the point of the cookery lesson was to impress a male teacher.  There’d been more gender equality in the episode on Victorian times.

We also got careers evenings, for the first time, and this meant that parents were brought in.  It was very interesting to hear one boy’s mother say that she liked the idea of him being taught a trade.  Most of the careers advice seemed to be about telling kids what sort of work was likely to be available than trying to encourage them to do what they wanted.  Then again, the careers advice at my school in the late ’80s/early ’90s wasn’t that great, either.  It was a bit of a joke that, whatever you said, the careers advisor would tell you to think about either law or personnel management!   But at least advice was being given.

We seem to be seeing a lot more of the boys’ PE lessons than the girls’.  The boys got to play football in this episode.  Lucky boys!  There was a lot of talk about the 1966 World Cup, which was considerably more cheerful than the talk earlier in the episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The boys also got to talk about hovercraft.  Meanwhile, the girls got to learn technical drawing – the idea being that this could lead to careers in different fields, as the Sixties moved on.

Then, finally, we got on to academic work, with maths lessons involving the use of slide rules.  And then “social studies”.  Apparently, the idea was to replace lessons in the humanities subjects with what I’d always thought of as being an American idea.  Ugh.  No proper history lessons?  What a horrible thought!

Something different!  It hadn’t occurred to me, but there’d been nothing about pranks and practical jokes so far.  Kids in books were always playing practical jokes on friends and teachers, whether it was all the “tricks”, bought from a “trick shop” played by Alicia on the French teacher at Malory Towers, or the apple-pie beds and similar pranks played by Chalet School girls on their friends.  At secondary school, we used to do “jumper chases”.  Best done on a warm day!  Each kid in turn would remove their jumper.  Most teachers just let it go, but the maths used to get very stroppy about it!  At primary school, we used to make itching powder – which usually didn’t actually cause itching, but was still annoying when someone dropped it down your back.  A couple of us did try sticking signs on people’s backs, like in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl books, but the signs always fell off!

And we also had stink bombs, which the boys – the boys seemed to be getting all the fun in this programme – got to use.  One boy I knew – he was a right horrible kid! – decided to try using stink bombs at a religious studies lesson.  This wasn’t at school, but actually at a place of worship.  Everyone present at the time got a long lecture on the evils of desecrating the House of God.  OK, it wasn’t funny … but it kind of was!   Do kids still play with stink bombs, or have they got more sophisticated tastes these days?

Finally, at the end of the Sixties, the kids got to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing, on TV.  Fifty years ago this year.  How’s that happened?  It only seems like two seconds since the fortieth  anniversary of it was being marked!  How can it be fifty years since 1969?  And the next episode – the week after next, with no episode this week for some reason – moves us on into the 1970s, which is getting frighteningly close to my time!  I started primary school at the end of the ’70s.  How is it all so long ago?!

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4

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It’s extremely annoying when people claim that the American Civil War was about Abraham Lincoln leading an anti-slavery crusade.  It wasn’t. So I was really looking forward to seeing some of those myths debunked, but this second episode of Lucy Worsley’s series just didn’t work as well as the first one did, because most of the  “fibs” being addressed just weren’t things that most people actually believe.  Does anyone genuinely believe that true racial equality in the United States exists even now, never mind that it was brought about in the 1860s?  And, much as I love Gone With The Wind, surely nobody today actually buys that frighteningly romanticised view of slavery?  Those “fibs” just can’t be compared with Paul Revere’s Ride and the ringing of the Liberty Bell, stories that actually do form part of American culture.  However, that’s not to say that the programme wasn’t interesting.  It was.  In particular, it showed just how dangerous the distortion of Civil War history has become in our own time.

As with the first episode, it had several barely-concealed digs at Donald Trump.  It began with a crack about “alternative facts”, and ended with a discussion of racism being immediately followed by a shot of a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.  I don’t disagree, but the BBC is supposed to be neutral.  I’m so sick of all the bias in the media!  It’s getting worse and worse: it’s becoming almost impossible to find anything that just tells you what’s going on and leaves you to make up your own mind about it, rather than trying to force one viewpoint or another down your throat.  OK, rant over!

The programme started off with the Union myth of the Civil War, which, history being written by the victors and all that, is the official version.  Slavery and reunification.  Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  Incidentally, the programme utterly failed to point out that the biggest fib about the Civil War is that it was … er, a civil war.  It wasn’t.  USA versus CSA, not Northern USA versus Southern USA.  Having said which, the same happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  It also reminded us that the war killed 600,000 people, more Americans than were killed in the First and Second World Wars combined.

There’s only so much you can fit into an hour, and, OK, there really wasn’t time to go into the Wilmot Proviso, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, Dred Scott, John Brown and so on and so forth, and so we just got a brief mention of the fact that there’d been disputes over whether or not slavery should be extended into the new states being organised in the West.  Then a historian saying that slavery in the southern states would have been worth trillions of dollars in today’s money.

The point being made was that concerns about slavery were economic rather than ideological.  I’m not sure how well that actually worked.  The northern and southern economies were developing along different lines, so it wasn’t really a question of competition; and a lot of the opposition to extending slavery west actually was ideological.  A lot of it was also due to the belief that slavery was actually bad for the economy, which didn’t tie in with what the programme was saying.  Slavery was, obviously hugely economically important for the South, but I’m not at all convinced that opposition to slavery in the North was also about economics.  I think all that talk about economics actually over-complicated things.  Debunking the myth?  Many people believed that slavery was wrong.  That didn’t mean that they wanted, or wanted their husbands and sons and brothers, to go off to fight in a war about it.  Myth debunked!

When we actually got to the war, it was oversimplified.  Yes, OK, there were time constraints, but that was no excuse for factual inaccuracies!  No, it was not a case of nineteen free states versus eleven slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, all slave states, remained in the Union.  And, if you want to be thorough, West Virginia seceded from Virginia!  And there were not eleven states in the Confederacy at the time of Fort Sumter!  Having said which, the issue of the slave states which didn’t secede was mentioned when talking about the Confederate battle flag, which has thirteen stars because it includes Kentucky and Missouri.  And it was a fair point that what everyone thinks of as the Confederate flag is actually the Confederate battle flag.

Oversimplication’s one thing, but blatant errors are another.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued after three years of fighting, apparently.  Ahem … Fort Sumter, April 1861, Manassas/Bull Run, July 1861, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862, to take effect in January, 1863.  How do you make that into three years of fighting?!

I rather bizarrely started thinking about The King and I, at this point.  I know that sounds daft, but international perceptions of the American South had been very deeply affected by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a lot of people today say that the first time they heard of that book was when they first saw The King and I.  We also get Deborah Kerr proclaiming that Mr Lincoln is “fighting a great war to free the slaves”.  Yes, all right, all right, The King and I is hardly an accurate reflection of anything; but was that how the rest of the world saw it even at the time?  Quite possibly, yes. There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre.  A letter was sent to him from the working men of Manchester (er, what about the working women?!) saying that they supported his war, his anti-slavery war.  Despite the terrible effects of the Cotton Famine.  By the way, why weren’t blockade runners mentioned in this programme?  If you want to talk about romanticising the Lost Cause, you need blockade runners!  Anyway.  Lincoln wrote back … and, whilst his letter mentioned slavery, he said that his main responsibility was the preservation of the Union.

So who’s inventing the myth?  The whole argument of this programme was that America was telling fibs about its own history, but I think there’s an argument that the myth of the war being an anti-slavery crusade existed outside America well before it existed within America.  It is definitely a myth, though.  Who’s the myth about, Lincoln or the Union?  That all got a bit confused, as well, but Lincoln has very much become the personification of the Union – which is daft in itself, because he wasn’t really that popular.

Lucy made two crucial points here.  Lincoln never seems to have been that keen on immediate emancipation, and certainly not in favour of equal rights for African Americans.  And the proclamation only declared the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not in the slave states which remained within the Union.  Battle Hymn of the Republic – “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free”.  Was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation supposed to make the war about slavery, even if not for ideological reasons on Lincoln’s own part than to boost morale and support in the North?  Or was it in the hope that the slaves of the South would all run off, knacker the Southern economy even more than it was knackered already and destroy Southern morale?

This is the crux of the matter … but, just as things were getting really interesting, the programme dropped the subject and started talking about Sherman’s march through Georgia.  It didn’t play Marching Through Georgia – you know, the one that gets used as a football song in England – for some reason, although it did play the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with Lucy dressed up as a Union soldier.  And it didn’t mention the infamous quote about presenting the city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.  Was the march a great act of heroism or was it a war crime?  Well, read Gone With The Wind.  It may be biased, but it doesn’t say anything about Sherman’s march that wasn’t true.  But this all seemed to have got a bit waffly.

However, it got back to the point, with the events at Ebenezer Creek in December 1864, shortly before Savannah fell.  Many fleeing slaves were following the Union Army.  The Army looked on them as more of a nuisance than anything else.  Having crossed the creek, the Union XIV Corps destroyed the pontoon bridges which it had built.  The refugees tried to swim across.  Many of them drowned.  So much for “let us die to make men free”.

Back to Lincoln.  Why did the Gettysburg Address not get a mention in this?  That’s fascinating, because it talks about all men being created equal, but it means the question of whether or not the United States can survive, not whether or not black and white people are created equal.  It never got a mention.   However, we did hear a lot about Lincoln’s assassination.  Dying a violent death can often make someone into a saint and a martyr, whatever they’ve done during their lifetime – look at Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  We were shown postcards showing pictures of Lincoln as a semi-divine figure – and Lucy commented on how the fact that he was assassinated on Good Friday seemed to add to that.  The great Frederick Douglass stated at the time that Lincoln wasn’t the great anti-slavery hero that he was made out to be, but the myth grew.

And, because he was dead, no-one could blame Lincoln for how badly wrong things went once the war was over.  The programme discussed sharecropping, and convict leasing.  Yes, it was appalling.  Yes, it makes a mockery of the idea that the war had anything to do with what we’d now call civil rights.  But it’s not a “fib”.  Everyone knows about it.

So that was the Union.  Well, it was Lincoln.  On to the Confederacy.  Various issues.  The romantic idea of the Lost Cause.  The distortion of Confederate history to try to justify horrifying violent racism.  And the argument that the war was about states’ rights.

Lucy said that it wasn’t about states’ rights – that it was about slavery.  I actually think that it was about states’ rights.  There’d been issues over tariffs going back to Calhoun and Nullification and all that.  But states’ rights were inevitably bound up with slavery, because the disputes between the states were inevitably about economics, and disputes about economics were inevitably about slavery.  So you can’t separate the two things.  However, what is indisputable is that Lincoln’s election brought matters to a head, and led to secession, because he was seen as being anti-slavery.  There’s not really much arguing with that.

But what the programme didn’t say was that the states’ rights argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the war was about Northern aggression.  More about that later.

Fast forward to 1915, and The Birth of a Nation.  It was controversial even at the time – and yet it got huge viewing figures.  Although it’s a Civil War film, its significance is in relation to the Ku Klux Klan – which, as Lucy said, had long since died out at this point, but now made a comeback, complete with white robes and burning crosses … which had nothing to do with the Reconstruction-era Klan.  Reconstruction era, OK.  The Klan did not exist during the Civil War itself.  It was more akin to the Spanish Inquisition than anything else, which was quite ironic as the new-look Klan targeted not only African Americans but anyone else who wasn’t a “WASP” – white Jews and Catholics.  That was more Know-Nothing than Civil War – and the Know Nothings were in the North!

So what’s the issue here?  Well, it’s the distortion of the Southern myth, by people in the South.  The myth was supposed to be that the war was about states’ rights.  Suddenly, the myth became that it was about the persecution of white Southerners.  Incredibly dangerous – and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the inter-war years, and on into the 1960s, were beyond sickening.  And it’s misusing Southern history.  The Klan didn’t even exist during the war.

And then from violence to romance – with Lucy Worsley trying to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara, and talking about the idea of the Lost Cause.

About Gone With The Wind.  It romanticises slavery.  Ashley Wilkes does say that he’d have freed all his family’s slaves when his father died, but Ashley is supposed to be out of step with everyone else.  It also presents some horrible stereotypes of African American characters such as Big Sam and Prissy.  And it romanticises plantation life in the antebellum South, although a) the book doesn’t do that as much as the film does and b) someone needs to tell Lucy that Scarlett was not the mistress of Tara (well, except very briefly).  What it does not do is romanticise the Glorious Cause, later the Lost Cause.  Throughout the book, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very cynical about “the Cause”, and contemptuous of those who do romanticise it.

Going back to what it does do – yes, it shows how “the Cause” was romanticised, especially by women.  Margaret Mitchell said that she grew up hearing these stories.  She wasn’t born until 1900.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been founded only six years earlier, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans almost four years later, almost thirty years after the end of the war.   In this programme, we were told how, in the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had people checking the textbooks used in the South, trying to ensure that they didn’t say anything negative about the Confederacy!   Seventy years after the war, two completely different versions of events, The Lost Cause and the Anti-Slavery Crusade, both completely one-sided, neither accurate, were being peddled.  That’s not unusual, after a war, but when it’s in what’s supposed to be one country … how do you move on?

And the descendants of the freed slaves weren’t really getting a look-in in putting forward either version, never mind getting equal rights.  Martin Luther King, as the programme pointed out, made a very powerful comment about the end of the war having offered black Americans a promissory note, which had never been redeemed.

There still isn’t really a … a take on the Civil War, for lack of a better way of putting it, from the viewpoint of slaves.  People argue about the extent to which the war was about slavery, but the views of those who were enslaved, and the impact on those who were enslaved, never really comes into those arguments.

Back to Gone With The Wind.  Yes, it’s a Civil War novel, but a lot of it is about life in wartime generally. One of the most powerful scenes in is when the casualty lists reach Atlanta, after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Scarlett, reading through the lists, finds name after name of young men she’d grown up with, known all her life.  She becomes so distressed that she can’t read on any further.  Rhett, normally so cynical, is upset and angry at the waste of life.  Mrs Meade learns that her son Darcy has been killed: Melanie tries to comfort her, but there’s little she can say.  The Misses McLure learn that their brother Dallas, their own relative in the world apart from each other, is dead.  Dallas’s sweetheart, Fanny Elsing, collapses in her mother’s arms.  That’s not about slavery, or secession, or any of it: that’s just about war and its devastating consquences.

Also, I’ve just said that it’s a Civil War novel, and that’s how everyone thinks of it, but much of it is actually set during Reconstruction.  Reconstruction was an absolute screw-up, and that’s partly why the “Lost Cause” got so romanticised.  It’s a big part of the myth of Lincoln as well.  If you’re succeeded by an idiot, history will remember you as one of the greats, because you look so good by comparison.  Barack Obama’s place in history is already secured!   It’s hard not to think that everything would have been different had Lincoln been in charge of Reconstruction, because he could hardly have done a worse job than Andrew Johnson’s useless government did.

And, after the war, Suellen O’Hara, one of Scarlett’s sisters, marries a Confederate veteran called Will Benteen.  Will typifies the South far more than the likes of Ashley Wilkes and the other men in the book do.  He comes from a relatively poor family.  It’s unlikely that he ever owned slaves: he wouldn’t have been able to afford to.  He had no political influence before the war: the decision about secession had nothing to do with him.  But he fought for his home state.  And, in doing so, he lost his health (he lost a leg) and his home.

None of this got a mention, and I thought that that was a bit unfair.  I don’t particularly mean in terms of characters in a novel, obviously!  I mean in general.

Lucy said that Gone With The Wind reunified the country!  I suppose it did, in a way.  It was so popular.  That’s a bit mad, really.  I mean, Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, mild-mannered Melanie, who couldn’t believe any ill of anyone, said that she’d teach her children and her grandchildren to hate the Yankees.  Should Northerners have hated  Gone With The Wind?  No.  It’s too good.  And its themes are universal, as typified by that scene with the Gettysburg casualty lists.  That’s the real tragedy of all this.  This war killed 600,000 Americans, and destroyed the lives of many others.   There’s nothing glorious about any war.  Yet this one’s been made to seem glorious in different ways, by different people, for different reasons.

And then on to the present day.  Charlottesville. We all know what happened at Charlottesville in 2017.  This is painful to write about, because it’s so horrible.  2017.  The twenty-first century.  I’m not a great fan of pulling statues down.  For one thing, it provides a flashpoint for trouble.  One man Lucy interviewed said that it’d make more sense to put up educational literature and use Confederate statues as a discussion point. However, what’s happening is that Confederate imagery – flags, statues – has become a modern-day battleground, between people who view it as a symbol of racism and people who use it as a symbol of racism, waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi flags, talking about Southern culture in the same breath as they shout anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic slogans.  It’s horrible: there aren’t words strong enough to say how horrible it is.

This is how history gets misused.  A primary school word like “fib” doesn’t exactly cover it.  And it makes it very hard to talk about the Civil War, because it’s got all tangled up with the “alt-right”, with anti-Islamism, with anti-Semitism, with misogyny, with homophobia, with transphobia … none of which have got anything to do with the Civil War.   It’s a long way from Will Benteen.  It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln.

I once read a book which said that Britain still hadn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1640s.  America certainly hasn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1860s.  And the distortion of history is getting worse.  This was a very disturbing programme.  Did Gone With The Wind unify America, as Lucy suggested?  I only wish someone could come up with any sort of book or any sort of film that could bring about unity today!  Oh dear.  I started studying the American Civil War in the 1980s.  It really wasn’t like this, then.  Someone pour me a mint julep with extra whisky.  I think I need one!

 

Castles Burning by Magda Denes

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I’m revisiting Hungarian history at the moment, and this particular book also ties in with Holocaust Memorial Day (which is tomorrow).  It’s a different sort of Holocaust memoir, partly because the situation in Budapest was different to that anywhere else, and partly because, whilst it’s aimed at adults, it’s told from the point of view of a child.  Magda Denes somehow manages to be very entertaining whilst never shying away from the details of life in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, the militant secularist Zionist resistance group with which her brother was involved, and – over a third of the book – her time as a Displaced Person once the war was over.  She felt for many years that she wasn’t entitled to talk about her experiences, because of a sense that only those who’d been survived concentration camps or massacres had that right; and she only wrote this book when she was dying.

I read a newspaper article last year, which sparked off a lot of discussion in a Facebook book group to which I belong, saying that it was inappropriate for Anne Frank to have become the face of the Holocaust (for lack of a better way of putting it), because her diary isn’t about concentration camps.  The author seemed to have completely missed the point of The Diary of a Young Girl – that it humanises all those horrific statistics about the numbers of people killed, by showing that they were all just ordinary people.  Anne Frank wrote about squabbles with family members, and about fancying Peter van Daan, just as any other teenager might have done, because she should have been just like any other teenager.  Likewise Magda’s observations about family dynamics, school, and so on.

Holocaust memoirs don’t have to be about concentration camps.  Many Holocaust victims died in massacres, in forced labour battalions, or in ghettoes.   Survivors’ experiences are valid whether they survived camps, ghettoes or forced labour, or whether they went into hiding.  And they’re valid no matter what group of persecuted people they come from: the current right-wing Polish government seems to think that it’s some sort of competition, which it assuredly isn’t.  No-one’s comparing different experiences: it’s not a question of comparison, and it’s certainly not a competition.  It’s very sad that Magda Denes felt unable for so long to speak out.  And, from what she said, many other people in similar situations felt the same.

Following Prince William’s visit to the grave of his great-grandmother, Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andrew of Greece, last year, there was quite a bit of talk in the media last year about the Jewish family whom she’d helped to hide in wartime Athens.  When I went to Lithuania, I had a long chat with a tour guide (I don’t think she was used to British tourists being au fait with Lithuanian history.  I’m weird!) whose grandmother had hidden a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation.  In Assisi, one of my favourite places, tens of Jews were saved by being hidden in the Basilica of St Francis.  There are a lot of these stories, but they aren’t often told.

They usually involve heroism, on the part of those who risked their own safety to hide those at risk, and sometimes, where families were separated, on the part of those who sent children away to try to save their lives, knowing that they’d probably never see them again.  And, when thinking about the Budapest ghetto, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of people by issuing protective passports and arranging sheltered accommodation under Swedish protection.

Distressing as any sort of Holocaust story is, these tales of heroism are also quite uplifting.  The way in which this one starts is anything but.  Magda Denes came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest.  Her father was a well-respected publisher.  In 1939, fearing for his safety, he liquidated the family’s assets and fled to America, leaving his wife and two young children behind, with nothing.  He was supposed to be sending for them, or at least sending them money, but he never did.  It was brave of her to write about that.  You don’t expect stories like that … and yet, of course, the fact that he was a complete bastard, who scarpered with all the family’s money and left his wife and kids to face their fate, didn’t make him any less of a refugee and potential victim of persecution.   There’s a lot to think about, with this book.

Magda, her mother and her brother moved in with her mother’s parents, who weren’t well-off and weren’t overly pleased at having three extra people in their small home. At this point, no-one in Budapest was actually either in hiding or in a ghetto.  However, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany, and, in 1938, began to introduce anti-Jewish laws – around 5% of all Hungarians, and around 23% of the population of Budapest, being Jewish.  The Hungarians got an extremely raw deal when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered after the First World War, and that, along with fear of the Soviet Union, explains although obviously doesn’t excuse the Nazi alliance. The laws became more and more restrictive as time went on

In 1941, foreign Jews living in Hungary, mainly refugees from Poland, were deported to Ukraine.  It’s thought that they numbered around 16,000 of the 23,600 people massacred by German, Hungarian and Ukrainian forces at Kamianets-Podilskyi.  Many Jews were killed, along with many Orthodox Serbs and Romani people, were killed by Hungarian forces who occupied Vojvodina, either killed outright or in appalling conditions in the copper mines, and many Hungarian Jews also died in forced labour battalions.

The book didn’t really say much about this, or about anything that was going on between 1939 and October 1944 – but, from the viewpoint of a small child, there probably wasn’t much to say.  There was an interesting interlude in which Magda was diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium, where treatment included eating as much fatty food as possible, lying outside whilst wrapped in blankets and receiving blood transfusions from her mother.  She made a full recovery.  There was quite a bit about food shortages, but, other than that, nothing was really specific to the war, never mind to the Holocaust … but always with the background of the increasing restrictions.  Normal and yet abnormal.

Despite what had happened in 1941, the Hungarian government didn’t allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camps, until relations between the Hungarian authorities and Nazi Germany deteriorated, and the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944.  Deportations began in May 1944 … but not from Budapest.  Jews in Budapest were forced to live in designated houses, marked by yellow stars and horrendously overcrowded, but not deported.  It’s not entirely clear what was going on, but it is clear that, by this time, reports about what was going on in the death camps were circulating around the world.  It seems that there were plans for mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in the summer of 1944, but that they never took place, after intervention from, amongst others, President Roosevelt and King Gustav V of Sweden.  What was going on?  Had the Hungarian authorities decided that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and were trying to avoid making themselves look any worse than they already did?  And why was Budapest treated differently to the rest of Hungary?  It’s thought that around a third of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau were from Hungary, and yet the deportations from Budapest itself were stopped.   Was it just a matter of timing, in terms of external intervention?

In October 1944, the Hungarian government negotiated a ceasefire with the Soviets, to which the Nazis responded by facilitating a takeover by the far-right Arrow Cross party.  Most of the book is set from this time onwards.  They forced the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, and began deportations from Budapest to labour camps and death camps.  There were also mass shootings of Jews on the banks of the Danube.  This has been in the news lately: during some work being done in the area, bones were found, almost certainly those of the victims of those massacres.  Israeli divers have begun an operation to recover the bones, planning to give them a funeral, but some Hungarian Jewish community leaders are unhappy about it and feel that the bones should be left undisturbed.

Even before the Arrow Cross takeover, a number of foreign diplomats – Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg is the best known, but there were others too, from Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, and Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish Hungarian lawyer who bribed Adolf Eichmann to let 1,600 Jews leave Budapest for Switzerland  – had been trying to try to save as many Hungarian Jews as they could, by issuing them with passports, and enabling them to live in houses which had been declared part of their embassies and were therefore not legally Hungarian territory – the so-called “International Ghetto”.

This formed a big part of the book, and it’s well worth reading because it is something unique to Budapest.  Magda was initially taken to stay in a house under the protection of the Spanish Red Cross.  Tragically, it was later raided and those there killed, but, by then, she’d been taken to stay with family friends.  En route, she and her mother were shot at by Arrow Cross men who knew her mother from her former job and recognised them: this apparently wasn’t uncommon in Budapest.  She then joined her mother, brother and other relatives at a building under the protection of the Swiss consulate.  It’s written from the prospective of a child, and she was more concerned about why they’d all gone there without her than anything else, but we then learned what was going on there.  It wasn’t just a safe house – not that it was all that safe, with 3,600 people crowded into a building which was only meant to house 400, food short, disease rife and the city under siege.  It was the headquarters of an organisation trying to help people to escape.

I’m not particularly au fait with the Hashomer Hatzair movement.  Apparently it’s still a well-known Jewish youth organisation, operating in many countries, but it hasn’t got any branches in the UK so the name isn’t really known here.  It (thank you, Wikipedia!) began life in Austro-Hungarian-ruled Galicia just before the First World War, and became popular in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe, partly as one of the many Scout/Guide type groups which became so popular in many places in the inter-war years and partly as a Zionist socialist group, with wings of it affiliated to far left organisations.  It was only one of many Zionist groups, and one of the more extreme ones, but, as I say every time I get involved in a discussion on the Middle Eastern situation, Zionism was originally largely a left-wing, secular movement: the idea of it as a right-wing, religious movement is very recent.  Anyway, that’s another story.

This group was heavily involved in organising the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and, in Romania (where many of its leaders were executed), Lithuania and Hungary, in gathering intelligence and trying to help Jews to escape or to go into hiding.  Magda’s mother and brother became very involved in it, doing work such as forging identity documents and warning people of planned deportations.  Later on, we saw Magda’s mother and aunt carrying two sets of identity papers, one set showing them as Jews and the other as Catholics, and fumbling in their bags, trying to decide which set to use.  The grim humour of this book makes it very readable.

The work they were doing was extremely brave and heroic, and saved many lives.  However, the organisation itself sounds quite dictatorial.  The “committee” organised everything that went on in this building, and everyone had to do as they said.  And their views were quite militant: I gather that organisation’s anti-religious views cause issues between it and other Zionist organisations even now.  Although the building was under Swiss protection, at one point the Nazis shot at committee members, and a woman was killed.  Someone wanted to hold a memorial service for her, and asked for volunteers to form the quota of ten post-barmitzvah males without whom the Jewish prayers for the dead aren’t supposed to be said.  Magda’s grandfather and many other men wanted to step forward, but didn’t dare do so for fear of angering the committee, who didn’t want any form of religious service being held.

Without wanting to write a great long essay about the Dreyfus affair and Russian narodniki and religion being the opium of the people and all the rest of it, I do get the idea of Zionism and secularism … but that sort of militant secularism, making people feel afraid to hold a religious service when they’d just suffered a bereavement, if that was what they wanted to do, just sounds very … Soviet?   But this organisation saved many lives – and, after the war, helped Magda and the other surviving members of her family again and again, to leave Budapest, and during the time they spent in Paris, and even when they were in Bilbao, waiting to take ship across the Atlantic.  There are a lot of nuances and complexities in this book, right from the beginning when the publisher who’d bravely spoken out against the Nazis spinelessly abandoned his wife and kids.

Again, it’s very unclear what was going on, but it seems that, in January 1945, plans were afoot for the German troops in Hungary to murder all the remaining inhabitants of the main ghetto, and that this was stopped – according to some reports, because Raoul Wallenberg told the German commander that, if it went ahead he’d ensure that he was tried for war crimes once the war was over.  Other reports say that it was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman posing as a Spanish diplomat, who saved the Budapest ghetto.  It really is frustrating that we can’t seem to find out.  Nor can we find out exactly what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared – probably executed by the Soviets on allegations of espionage.

Meanwhile, Budapest was under siege by the Red Army, and also undergoing intense aerial bombardment. The ghetto was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945, and the city of Budapest surrendered unconditionally in the February.  The behaviour of the Red Army in Hungary was beyond appalling, with thousands of women raped and all able-bodied men conscripted for forced labour.  However, the lives of as many as 90,000 people in the Budapest Ghetto were saved.  But it was too late for Magda’s brother, captured and shot dead a week earlier.  So close to survival, but he didn’t make it.  Her cousin lived to see the liberation, but the Red Army sent him to take a message behind German lines, and he never came back.  Her grandfather died of an infection, too weak to fight it after years of poor nutrition.  Her mother, aunt and grandmother survived.  So did her uncle and another cousin, who survived Mauthausen.

This was still only halfway through the book.  With Budapest in chaos, Magda and her mother and aunt decided to leave.  They got on a train, any train, and ended up in Debrecen.  The book used “Russian” instead of “Soviet” all the way through.  Most American authors do that.  It really, really, annoys me!  That didn’t go well, so they returned to Budapest.  And, still only eleven years old, she went back to school, and life was supposed to return to some sort of normality, but it couldn’t.

She does an excellent job of describing how she couldn’t cope with normality.  She didn’t want to read, or go to the pictures, because she’d get lost in the world of a book or a film and then it’d all hit her again afterwards.  And her mother felt oppressed by the new communist regime, and decided that they had to leave.  Going to Palestine was ruled out because, at that point, only very few immigrants were being allowed in.  Zionist contacts got them false papers, and they were able to reach the American sector of Austria and register as Displaced Persons.  There were millions of, maybe as many as twenty million, Displaced Persons in post-war Europe, maybe more.  Most were able to return to their countries of origin – or were forcibly repatriated.  Over a million couldn’t, because of fear of persecution.  Displaced Persons camps were set up.  Magda and her mother, aunt and grandmother found themselves in a camp in Bavaria.

Life in the camp … it reminded me a bit of things I’d read about internment camps on the Isle of Man, except that obviously this was in far different circumstances.  The people there became a community. They organised a school – although this meant Magda learning Yiddish, as most of the other pupils were Yiddish-speaking.  Incidentally, the book could have done with a glossary: a lot of Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were used, which not all readers would have understood, and they organised variety shows. And she was OK with that.  It was normality that she couldn’t cope with.  Eventually – and why did the useless father apparently do nothing to try to get them visas for America? – some relatives who, for some reason, had ended up in Cuba, gave then affidavits (presumably guarantees in terms of financial support?), and they were then taken to Paris, to wait for full visas.  It all seems to have been very complicated.

Her use of language is wonderful, and her description of being a Displaced Person is in some ways more powerful than her description of life in the ghetto.  She couldn’t deal with being in Paris, a city that the Nazis had been persuaded not to destroy, because it was too grand, and too beautiful, and people were living too normally: she couldn’t process it.  She was sent to school and made a friend, but the friendship didn’t survive the other girl seeing the chaos in which the Denes family were living, in a hostel full of Displaced Persons.  Silly expression, isn’t it, “Displaced Persons”?  It sounds so mundane.  The grim humour came into it again – she remarked on the number of books showing life as an émigré in Paris to be glamorous and exciting.

Struggling at her French school because of the language barrier, she was sent to a school for Hungarian émigrés, but it was a disaster.  As much as she knew that none of the children there were responsible for her brother’s death and everything else that had happened in Budapest, she couldn’t cope with being around Hungarians who weren’t Jewish, because they seemed to represent the people who’d torn her life apart.

This is an incredibly sensitive area, even now.  Maybe especially now, with the rise of the far right in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.  No-one’s trying to point the finger, to make any suggestions of collective responsibility, and certainly not to blame anyone now for things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but, despite what the Eastern Bloc regimes in particular tried to teach, it wasn’t all about Nazi Germany.  Also, this was why so many people couldn’t go back to their places of origin.  Some did, but many felt that they couldn’t.

Eventually, the visas came through.  There was a nice interlude in Bilbao, where, the civil war long over and Spain having been neutral during the Second World War, there were no food shortages: there were some fascinating descriptions of the family’s reactions to seeing the food stalls in the markets.  And then the ship across the Atlantic.  It docked in New York.  Magda was eventually to end up there, but not yet, and, with the idea of America, the land of the free, in her mind, she longed to disembark, but knew that she couldn’t.  Then, bizarrely, her father came to visit them – and just moaned that New York was full of crime.

The book ended with their arrival in Cuba.  I’d like to have known more, about how they got on in Cuba, and about how she eventually ended up in New York, but it was a positive ending.  They’d survived.  A new life lay ahead.   And she’d thought her story didn’t deserve to be told.  It did.  It really, really did.

Chris Tarrant: Extreme Nuclear Railway – Channel 5

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There was a strange dearth of Cossacks in this.  Who goes on a tour of Ukraine and doesn’t have their photo taken with Cossacks?! And I was cringing when Chris Tarrant blithely informed a local guide in Lviv that he expected the place to look Russian. Someone give that man a very long and detailed lecture on the Polish partitions, please!   However, there was quite a bit of interesting information in this whistle-stop tour of Ukraine, not least the fact that the current head of health and safety at Chornobyl (and, yes, it is transliterated with a second o, not with an e) comes from Bury.  I love that!

And I love Russia. And so nobody has ever accused me of being biased towards Ukraine: it’s awkward to do both!  However, it does really annoy me when people refer to “the Ukraine”.  Lose the “the”, OK.  And transliterate the Ukrainian names for places, not the Russian names, unless you’re talking about majority Russian-speaking areas, like Odessa (which would be Odesa in Ukrainian).  There.  I like to be pedantic.  Oh, and don’t moan about Ukrainian railway maps being in Cyrillic.  Of course they’re in Cyrillic – what do you expect?!

So, we kicked off with a railway journey through the Carpathians and a visit to the capital of Ukrainian Galicia – Lviv, also known as Lemberg in German and Yiddish, Lwow in Polish, Lvov in Russian and Ilyvo in Hungarian, formerly the capital of Ruthenia, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then under Austrian rule, then under Polish rule, briefly part the Soviet Union for less than half a century and now very loudly and proudly Ukrainian. Chris said that he expected it to look Russian.  Ouch.  Even worse, he was using “Russian” to mean “Soviet”, as in drab and grey and miserable.  No, no, no.  Galicia is not Russian, and Russian is very, very definitely not a synonym for drab.  Anything but!

However, the guide soon put him right, and he seemed very impressed with the place. Fascinating history.  I could waffle about the history of Galicia all day!  He also acknowledged the darkest period of its history, with a visit to sewers in which a number of Galician Jews had hidden during the Nazi occupation.

Next up came a place called Rivrie. No history there, but it was apparently supposed to be very romantic.  Hmm.  I think I’ll stick to Venice!   But the next long railway trip was interesting, because that part of the track, built in 1873, linked Austro-Hungarian Poland and Russian Poland.  That would have been ten years after the uprising, but the uprising wasn’t mentioned … and possibly wasn’t very relevant.  Both Russia and Hungary were industrialising big time at that point, though, and the railway link must have been crucial.

Then back to the twentieth century, and the Holodomor. I really want to put “Holodymyr”, which looks more Ukrainian, but “Holodomor” does seem to be the generally-used spelling.  There is still so much controversy over this, the famine in 1932-33 which killed as many as ten million people.  Stalinist collectivisation, forced industrialisation and appalling mismanagement led to grain shortages.  Food was requisitioned, and anyone who resisted was killed or sent to Siberia.  The official Soviet stance was that there never was a famine.  Others have claimed that it was due to natural causes and wasn’t man-made.  However, it’s now generally accepted it was a result of the policies of Stalin’s government.  Certainly it seems that the rural and to some extent urban population of Ukraine was sacrificed to his Five Year Plans, but there’s some debate as to whether or not it was also an deliberate attempt to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.  Some countries have recognised it as genocide.  Whatever the issues of semantics, what’s indisputable is that millions of people died.

The Chornobyl disaster wasn’t deliberate, at least, but who will ever know how many deaths it was responsible for, how many people’s health has been affected by it, and what sort of damage has been done to the environment. We were told that $700 billion has so far been spent on such clean-up operations have been possible, and reminded that the Soviet authorities didn’t admit that anything had happened until abnormal levels of radiation were detected over Sweden.

You can actually go on trips there, now. I always wonder why anyone would want to, but Chris seemed to find it quite interesting.  Well, it was interesting … just a rather odd choice of destination.  And what was particularly interesting was that the guy currently in charge of the clean-up operation was from Bury!   Brilliant.

It was a whistle-stop tour, and it wasn’t meant as a history programme, so I suppose it can be excused for not giving a long and detailed explanation of the causes of the civil war. I’d have gone back to the 1640s and taken it from there!  Or maybe I’d’ve gone right back to Kievan Rus.  Kyivan Rus.  Whatever!   We were, however, reminded that this ongoing conflict has so far killed 10,000 people, and were shown an area of a railway station where soldiers get physical and moral support.

Then on to Podilsk, where nuclear weapons were stored… to play some rather sick computer thing which made it look as if you were launching a nuclear missile and blowing up a Western city. No, me neither!  Give me Kyiv and its incredible churches and monasteries!  Why would you want to pretend to launch a nuclear weapon?!!

And finally, Odessa. Chris was travelling by train, so his luggage arrived at the same time he did.  I arrived at Odessa airport to find that my luggage had been left in Prague.  About eight of us were in the same boat.  I don’t think the lost luggage department at Odessa airport had ever got out of the Stalinist era.  It was a nightmare.  But our luggage did turn up the following day.  Anyway.  Chris did talk about Ukraine being “the bread basket of Europe”, and I thought we were going to get a nice history lecture.  I’d’ve started with the reign of Catherine the Great and then gone on at length about the Crimean War and the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin … but the programme was nearly over by then, and we just got a few shots of grain being transported and stuff being loaded on to ships.

Oh well. It wasn’t really meant to be a history of Ukraine, and there’s only so much you can fit into an hour, minus adverts.  But there was some interesting stuff in there.  It’s just such a shame that they chose to call the programme “Extreme Nuclear Railway”.  Rather an insult to Ukrainian history and culture!  My trip to Ukraine, in 2008, was advertised as “Land of the Cossacks”.  Much better marketing!

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 3)

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The third episode of this fascinating series was as interesting as the first two, but also rather irritating in parts.  The BBC seemed determined to mock and criticise most things about 1950s grammar schools, rather than letting either pupils or viewers make up their own minds; and the kids got a bit snowflake-ish for the first time – I had to laugh when one of them asked if the free school milk provided by the post-war government was semi-skimmed, and another complained that there was no alternative offered.  And it really threw me to realise that we’re now as far from the 1980s/early 1990s as the 1980s/early 1990s were from the 1950s.  That’s frightening!  That is really, really frightening!  Still a great episode, though.

My mum and dad both went to grammar schools in the 1950s.  They both went on to further education, which none of my grandparents had done.  A lot of families across the UK can tell similar stories: grammar schools offered incredible opportunities to many people who would not have had those opportunities without them.  So I’ve always had a very positive image of the grammar school system.  However, I have to say that I hadn’t realised that grammar school provision was so uneven across the country – the programme said that 35% of children were able to attend grammar schools in some parts of the South East, but only 10% in Nottingham – nor, which certainly wasn’t the case round here, that in some areas there were far more places available for boys than for girls.

Fair point about the system not exactly being ideal, but I still felt that the BBC was being deliberately negative.  They put a lot of emphasis on lessons on deportment and elocution, which I’ve never heard anyone who went to grammar schools in the 1950s mention, and it was made to sound as if the schools were trying to drive a wedge between the children and their families.  I’ve never heard anyone say that that was their experience of grammar schools.

There was a lot of negativity about the actual lessons, as well.  The impression given was that grammar school pupils were just expected to sit in silence, copy things down from the blackboard (are you still allowed to use the word “blackboard”?) and learn them by rote.  Consequently, the kids and the teachers did nothing but complain about it.  Er, no, BBC – I don’t think so!  Does anyone seriously believe that that was how all grammar school lessons were taught?

Having said which, I quite like the idea of sitting in silence in class!  I wouldn’t speak in lessons in secondary school, because I was always convinced that everyone would laugh at me, so sitting in silence and learning things off by heart would have suited me quite nicely 🙂 , and saved me from getting all those comments at parents’ evenings and on school reports about how I wouldn’t speak up in class … although it certainly didn’t reflect anything I’ve ever been told by people who were educated at grammar schools in the 1950s.  I wouldn’t have liked the hats, though.  I think my school did away with hats in the 1970s, so, mercifully, we didn’t have to wear them in my day!  And why were the male teachers wearing hats indoors?  Isn’t it incredibly bad manners for a man to wear a hat indoors, unless it’s for religious reasons?!

OK, enough moaning!  They did at least manage to point out that grammar schools offered a lot of opportunities for girls.  Most of the lessons we saw were with the girls, whilst we saw the boys taking part in the school harvest scheme, helping to pick fruit.  I love fruit-picking and would rather have enjoyed that … but they didn’t get paid much, and the idea eventually died off.  We also, as already mentioned, heard about the provision of free school milk.  And, no, it wasn’t semi-skimmed, and there was no alternative for kids who didn’t drink milk!!

The series is doing a superb job of tracing the way in which schools have been the conduit for trying to improve children’s health; and we also heard about school dinners, and how they were nutritionally balanced, and, of course, off ration … if not necessarily very nice.  And how kids were made to stay in the dining room until they’d finished what was on their plate.  That brought back memories!  It didn’t happen at my secondary school, and we were allowed to take out own food after the first two years of secondary school anyway, but they used to try it at primary school!  One lad, who was incredibly fussy and hardly ate anything other than bananas, must have been kept behind every day.  It didn’t work: he still wouldn’t eat the school dinners.  No-one ever succeeded in getting me to eat rice pudding, either.  We didn’t get free school milk, though.  Maggie Thatcher had done away with it by then.

And they’re also making a big effort to include a variety of activities in these programmes, rather than just focusing on what actually went on in the classrooms.  No rifle training in this one, but we did get the cycling proficiency test.  Ugh!  Now that really did bring back bad memories!  By my day, in the 1980s, cycling proficiency tests were taken at primary school.  Only four kids in the entire class failed; and of course I – the person who later went on to fail four driving tests, before finally passing at the fifth attempt! – was one of them.  I can remember who two of the others were, but, annoyingly, I can’t remember who the fourth one was.  That’s bugging me now.

I’m quite sure that they’ve all long since forgotten about it, but, being someone who’s had a lifetime of anxiety issues, I took it to mean that I was useless.  On top of that, I shortly afterwards got a lecture from a doctor about how fat I was, and how I needed to take more exercise, like cycling … so the cycling proficiency test trauma got tangled up in my mind with being a fat failure.  I was a seriously mixed-up ten-year-old!   However, I’m probably the only person in the entire world who’s ever been traumatised by the cycling proficiency test: I’m just strange!  Most of the kids in this seemed to enjoy it, even though teenagers riding bikes is fairly rare these days.  It was pointed out that a lot of teenagers used to cycle to school in the 1950s.  That’s unusual now.

Next up came the use of projectors.  My secondary school was still using projectors in the 1980s!  Mainly for French lessons, for some reason.  Languages weren’t  mentioned in this episode: instead, the girls had to watch a cringeworthy sex education programme about a girl called Susan whose mum was having another baby.  Well, at least something was being explained to them: you hear stories about girls who knew nothing on that subject even when they got married.  Strangely, this was for girls only.  No such lessons for boys.  That was … interesting.  Was it assumed that boys would find out elsewhere, or that boys just didn’t need to know about babies?

Most of this episode involved separate activities for girls and boys, and we saw the boys being made to do cross country running.  When we were little kids, my sister and I used to refer to some tunnels which could be seen in the distance from a nearby park as “Daddy’s running tunnels”, because we knew that Dad had had past those tunnels as part of school cross country running.  They were miles from where what used to be the local boys’ grammar school was!  Poor Dad 🙂 .  None of the boys in this seemed overly keen on cross country running, and the teacher said that he hadn’t got very fond memories of it either!

After that, the BBC had to get CND in there.  I’m not sure how big a part CND actually played at grammar schools: I suspect not nearly as much as the BBC made it seem that they did.  Then we got 1950s milk bars, and some lovely 1950s music, which was good fun.  The verdict of the children was that out of school time was starting to feel much more modern, but that what actually happened in school seemed a long way in the past.  It didn’t to me, which made me feel old!

It was good to hear their views, but I felt that the BBC generally tried to give a very one-sided, negative, view of the grammar school system.  However, they did invite Joan Bakewell, who went to Stockport Grammar School for Girls, to speak about her experiences, and she gave both sides to the story, explaining that going to grammar school had opened up a   world of opportunity for her, but that her sister hadn’t passed the eleven plus and had missed out on them.  I don’t know what the answer to the grammar school debate is, but I wish the BBC hadn’t tried so hard to tell us, instead of letting us decide.  All the same, it was another interesting episode.  A lot of people seem to be talking about this series, and that’s always a sign that it’s worth watching!

 

Spanish Lavender by Joan Fallon

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I was hoping that this was going to be about the International Brigades; but unfortunately it was just a rather silly story, poorly-written and littered with irritating errors (“expatriate” was repeatedly spelt “ex-patriot”!), about a girl running off to take photos of the Spanish Civil War and getting involved with two men and a baby.  However, it did raise the never-ending question, very relevant in a week in which there’ve been reports of Syrian children dying of cold and hunger in refugee camps, of whether or not the international community should intervene in civil wars.

I’m not sure that the Life on Marbs idea of British expatriates (or indeed “ex-patriots”) living in the Marbella/Estepona/San Pedro area was really a thing in the 1930s.  However, OK, there would have been some Britons living there – although someone should really tell the author that they would not have referred to themselves as “Brits”, a term which didn’t exist until the Second World War.  Amongst them is our heroine, Elizabeth Marshall, a young woman in her 20s from a well-to-do middle-class family, living with her parents and brother.  With civil war raging and the Nationalists about to take Malaga, it’s decided that all British citizens in the area should be evacuated to Gibraltar, and then to Britain.  The evacuation of non-Spanish nationals was certainly true enough.

The dialogue’s poor, the characters are wooden, and silly mistakes such as the spelling of  the Spanish housekeeper’s name as “Conception” rather than “Concepcion” are annoying, but the book does make some good points with its descriptions of the bombing of Malaga by the Nationalists, with German and Italian assistance, and the desperate attempts of civilians to try to escape from a city bordered by water and mountains.

When the Marshalls reach the coast, they wait for a ship … and Elizabeth decides to run away, to take photos of what’s going on.  It’s supposed to sound brave and heroic, but it’s not really very convincing.  However, she gets to Malaga, where she rescues a baby who’s been abandoned in the street.  This is presumably meant to be very poignant, but the storylines just don’t work very well.  She meets up with a Spanish aristocrat, Juan, and an Englishman, Alex … and Juan checks her into a posh hotel so that she can get milk for the baby (as you do).  Then the baby dies anyway.  I’m not sure what the point of that storyline was.  And Elizabeth and Juan become lovers.

They all decide that they need to get out of Malaga, and head for Almeria.  En route, they’re caught up in a brutal attack by Franco’s forces on civilian refugees.  It’s thought that up to 5,000 people were killed in the attack, and many other citizens of Malaga were raped and murdered when the Nationalists took the city.  German and Italian forces bombed the refugees from the air, and Nationalist ships attacked them from the sea.  They couldn’t get away: there was no means of escape.  This isn’t a very good book, but this is something that’s largely been forgotten, and the book’s coverage of it is pretty accurate.  Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor working with the Republicans, did indeed rescue as many of the injured as he could.  As far as the story goes, Juan, who’s been badly injured, is taken to Almeria by Bethune.  Elizabeth and Alex follow on foot.  When they reach the city, he’s nowhere to be found, and they’re left to assume that he’s died and been buried, alongside many others, in an unmarked grave. However, the reader learns that he’s still alive and has joined the Republican army, hoping that Elizabeth, who’d refused to leave without him, will go home to Britain and safety.

Then, just as it’s getting interesting, we suddenly jump forward to the 21st century!  We learn that – why does this always happen, in books?! – Elizabeth, having duly returned to her family, had found out that she was expecting Juan’s baby, and had accepted Alex’s offer of marriage.  It could have been quite good.  Elizabeth’s photos could have been published and she could have made a name for herself.  Juan could have turned up a few years later – and we learn that Alex went back to Spain, found out that Juan was alive, and never told Elizabeth.

But we don’t get any of that.  Instead, we get a rather boring story about how, after they’re all dead, Elizabeth and Juan’s granddaughter Kate finds out that Alex wasn’t her biological grandfather, goes to Spain, and, within about five minutes, has found Juan’s surviving relatives and been welcomed into the bosom of his family (who’d tried to cover up the fact that he existed, because they were Nationalists).  There are a lot of references to golf.  Kate meets two different men, but neither relationship is really developed properly.

None of the storylines are developed properly, really; and, as I’ve said, the characters are wooden and the dialogue poorly-written.  But this is the first time that I’ve ever come across a novel which covers this little-known massacre: Spanish Civil War novels in English are usually set in Catalunya, and usually refer to the massacre in Guernica, in the Basque country, and never mention Andalucia.

We’re told that Elizabeth is angry and distressed about why other countries are doing nothing to help, especially when there are British ships at Gibraltar.  (We know now that the Gibraltarian authorities secretly aided the Nationalists – not during the massacre, obviously, but in general.).  There was a lot of debate at the time, especially in Britain, France and the USA, about whether or not to intervene.  A Non-Intervention Committee was formed, and no-one was supposed to be getting involved, except as observers and to protect international shipping, but Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and to some extent Salazar’s Portugal all aided the Nationalists, whilst the Soviet Union and to some extent Poland and Mexico provided support to the Republicans.

There was huge international press coverage of the war, and of course the International Brigades – who are now seen as being quite romantic – were formed.  Opinion in Britain and elsewhere was deeply divided.  It was feared that involvement by foreign powers could spark a pan-European war.  And “boots on the ground” in other countries’ civil wars … well, think of Korea, of Vietnam, of Iraq.  It never ends well.  But can it ever be OK to stand by and do nothing when you know full well that civilians are suffering, horrifically.  We know what’s going on in Syria.  We know what’s going on in Yemen.  We know what’s going on in the sadly misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo.  There aren’t any answers, but the Spanish Civil War was the first time after the formation of the League of Nations that the subject came up.  The war killed about 500,000 people, similar to the estimated death toll in the Syrian Civil War.

There are no answers, but there are a lot of questions.  This book isn’t very good, but it does ask some of those questions, and make you think about them.