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Be still my beating heart

There’s a lot in what we choose to call a place. Names come with reputations. I know. I did my first MA in Oxford Brookes but all anyone hears when I tell them is Oxford – and they’re two completely different universities, even if both happen to be in the same town.

I was reminded of this recently when I discovered that the term concentration camp is not generic. The Nazi administration had a ranking during the Second World War. They had the  Police Prison (Polizeigegfängnis) and the Work Education Camp (Arbeitserziehungslager), both of which were often combined into one. Then there was the concentration camp (Konzentrationslager) and the extermination camp (Vernichtungslagerv) aka death camp (Todeslager). Last month, at Terezin, I had begun to distinguish them, and my education continues. Last week I visited Salaspils. Just 18 km (or 22 km or 25 km depending on who you ask) southeast of Riga lies the Salaspils Memorial, probably the most difficult place to find in the whole of  Latvia as, I kid you not, no one seems to have heard of it. Yet it’s been there since 1967.

After drawing a complete blank on Google (plenty of information but none of it consistent or in any way constructive), we checked at the Tourist Office. The chap there told us to take the train to Darzini, get off,  walk 500m and we’d be there. He said there were some buildings left and a photo exhibition. Plenty to see. So we took him at his word.

IMG_3727 (800x600)In the middle of the woods, some time later, I realised that just because he worked in a tourist office didn’t make him an expert – that was an assumption on my part. He’d probably done the same Google search as I had. The train station is literally in the middle of a forest. We followed a woman through the trees and came to a motorway. We vaguely remembered some advice on the Net about being careful when crossing it, but we decided to check at a local hotel. Five km, he said, that way, pointing left. But our note from the Tourist Information man said 500 m. We asked a woman at the bus stop. You need to get a bus 2 km this way, pointing right. But our note… and that last chap… We asked another lad at another bus stop and he told us to go 3 km by bus and then walk 2 km into the woods. Eventually, as all good tourists do, we went back to the hotel and called a taxi. It was about 5 minutes by car, to the left, but deep in the woods. Had we indeed gotten off the train and followed the forest path that runs parallel to the train tracks in the same direction for 500 m and then taken a paved road to the left, we’d have found it. But a sign would have been helpful.

The greeting on the memorial gate reads: the earth moans beyond this gate. When I heard the metronome that beats loudly and reverberates across the clearing, I knew why. [Do you remember the movie Angel Heart? And the heartbeat that ran through it? This was something similar.] It was eerie.

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At the end of the gate, there’s what looks like a calendar. I’m not sure if the scratch marks denote days or deaths but they run from 1941 to 1944 so perhaps a calendar. What information I found initially said that 12 000 people passed through the camp and about 3000 of them died here, including more than 600 children aged 5-9. And, something that gave me pause for thought, no matter how accurate it might be: apparently by the end of 1942, the inmates were mainly political prisoners and foreigners designated as politically suspect. Of them, 12 were Jews. But later searches and reading through the comments on one posting tell a different story. One said that 7000 children perished with the total number of  victims in the range of 53 700 people with different ethnic and religious background and from different European countries: Latvia, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic. The short thread makes for an interesting read and shows just how little is known about what happened there. But I did find something that suggests the numbers are underestimated. A testimony from Olga Birjukowa (86) aus Saporoshe who says she was prisoner No. 50258 in Salaspils. She tells of seeing healthy prisoners bled to death and thrown half-dead into graves [subject to Google Translation!]

There are none of the usual maps or bookshops or guides at this particular memorial. A dearth of information. Just this desolate place in the middle a forest with a metronome keeping time and memories alive.

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Six giant sculptures stand in silent testimony guarding the foundations of the 15 barracks that made up the camp. The most poignant, for me, was the one of the mother trying to shield her children from a fate worse than death.

IMG_3732 (800x600)Atop the foundation of each barracks sits what might be the remains of an outer wall.  And in these walls, people have left soft toys of all things. With so little information out there and no one around to ask, it would seem that the memory of what went on is still alive in the hearts and minds of some, though perhaps not for sharing with tourists, however well-intentioned they might be…which might explain why no one other than the taxi driver knew (or was prepared to tell us) where we wanted to go.

On top of the black marble tomb-like casing which houses the metronome, someone had left some flowers tied with a rosary beads. A bowl of rice pudding stood beside it. No one around. In the middle of the forest. The sound of a heartbeat louder than any thought that ran through my mind. It was one of the strangest and one of the most moving experiences I have had since I first started visiting the camps back in the 1980s. It’s impossible to explain.

IMG_3763 (600x800)Walking back out to the car park, we passed a living fir tree still home to some ragged ornaments. Even though the tree wasn’t old enough to have been around when those Jewish children perished, it was nevertheless a stark reminder of how even in the face of suffering, the human ability to survive and make the most of what we have is remarkable. For a minute, I thought back to that graveyard in Hawaii where the gravestones were decorated for Christmas. I remembered, too, the houses in the township I visited in South Africa, and the efforts made to make the shacks look homely. What matters is our spirit. Easy said, I know, when I’ve lived a relatively charmed and blessed life, yet I’m convinced it is our spirit that picks us up and makes us keep on going.

IMG_3751 (595x800)We drove away in the taxi (the nice man very kindly waited for us), and were almost immediately pulled up short at the railway crossing. The light was red but the air was silent. Eventually we heard a train and saw the steam. As it crawled towards us, moving slower than a fast walk, I saw how perfect the location was. Shielded from the town, set back in the woods, right beside the railway tracks yet hidden from view. The train passed by, one engine, 78 carriages (is carriage the right word?) The first deportation of Jews to arrive at Salaspils in October 1941 numbered 1000. The timing of its passing added to my general feeling of disquiet. Something horrible had happened in those woods, in that forest. Something that some people don’t want to talk about and yet something that other people are unable to forget.

IMG_3747 (596x800)Two more things worth mentioning. There’s a memorial to Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who volunteered to die in place of a total stranger and later lost his own life in Auschwitz, erected by Elizabeth Erb, then president of the Maximilian Kolbe Werk organisation, dedicated to reconciliation for survivors. That so many who lived through this are still alive today is amazing. That their numbers are dwindling is terrifying. When they’re gone, will their stories die, too? Will we stop remembering? That horrifies me. as did the realisation that there were many sub-camps in and around Riga with their main HQ at a second camp  in the suburb of Mežaparks (German: Kaiserwald). Nothing remains of it except a memorial stone bearing the words: In memory of the victims of the national socialist concentration camp Riga-Kaiserwald and its subordinate camps. In 1943-1944 more than 18 000 imprisoned Jews from Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Austrian, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were held in the Riga-Kaiserwald concentration camps. The majority of the imprisoned did not live to see liberation. At least there is a stone.

Something old, something new

It would be the adventurous driver indeed who made an attempt to navigate this old Roman road up Xemxija hill in Malta. Judging by the dearth of visitors on a fine, sunny Sunday, this heritage site is either not well publicised in the tourist guides or is of little interest to the masses. For me, it was fascinating. To walk along a road on which Roman centurions had walked more than a thousand years ago was quite the experience. I felt something similar (but a lot more gut-wrenching) when I walked down to the gas chambers from the main gates of Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. That sense of trodding in the footsteps of history and wondering what my life would have been like had I been born into that era.

I don’t know why I expect older civilisations to be primitive. Perhaps because I’ve been brought up on the back of progress, constantly treading the wheel of continuous improvement. Anything older than now can’t possibly be better if everything we invent is an improvement on what has gone before. And yet at almost every turn in the trail, I saw evidence that has stood the test of time. There was something a little surreal standing in front of an ancient Roman burial cave while looking across the water at modern high-rise developments.

And when those buildings border on ugly, it’s pretty difficult to appreciate the esthetics of progress. I know things can’t stay the same – that we have to move forward. But part of me wonders how much we have destroyed along the way – what is the true price of progress?

Looking down into the burial cave, I can imagine the body being entombed and the stone being rolled in front of the opening to seal it inside. I wonder when the break came – when these underground tombs were replaced by headstones marking the passage of lives and the passage of time. That, in its day, would have been seen as progress.

I remember walking through a flea market with my mother in Dublin many years ago. She was horrified to see the prices being asked for stuff she and her sisters had thrown out when her mother moved from the family home to the gatehouse. What she had thought of as trash was now being touted as part of history and attracting a price commensurate with this responsibility. I look around today at my ‘stuff’ and for the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone seeing any value in any of it in 100 years time – except for the stuff that I have which is already 100 years old.