A chandelier made from 7144 individual Swarovski crystal beads strung on strands falling from the ceiling would be at home in a ballroom in just about any part of the world. To see it hanging through three floors of a museum though is quite something. My illicit photo certainly doesn’t do it justice.

20140509_102354_resized-1I was in the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Skopje. Signs everywhere said no cameras. There was only me and the security guard. The centre opened in March 2011, some 68 years after 7144 Jews were deported from Skopje to Treblinka by the occupying Bulgarian forces. Fewer than 100 survived.

IMG_2005 (800x600)Shepherded in the Monopol building (a tobacco factory) before deportation, conditions, while horrendous, were nothing like what was in store.

We were in a terrible mood. The youngsters tried to sing every so often, but the adults and the elderly people were in deep depression. We did not know what awaited us, but the dreadful treatment we received from the Bulgarians showed the value of the promises given us that we would only be taken to a Bulgarian work camp. Here and there youngsters whispered of the possibility of an uprising and a mass escape, but they never materialized. There was no prospect of it succeeding. The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and behind that a barbed wire fence. At each of the four corners there was a sentry with a machine gun and other armed guards would patrol the yard. Also, the belief that the worst possible fate did not await us prevented such suicidal acts from taking place.

When I stopped to photograph the building that housed Skopje’s Jews before they were deported, the security guard was none too impressed. When we told him that it was a memorial, an important building, he said he didn’t know.

And that’s what frightens me most. That we’ll forget. That we’ll forget that 11 million died in the holocaust, 6 million of them Jews. Places like the Monopol building should be recognised. And remembered. On 21 June 1944, all Jews in Budapest were required to move into one of 2000 special houses – the yellow star houses. This year, on 21 June, people will stand in vigil outside each of these houses – to be sure that we don’t forget.



I don’t have the bladder to be a spy

I’m directionally challenged. I have a hard time with East/West, barely managing left/right. By the time I figure out which way I should have the map facing, dusk is upon us and the day is wasted. And no matter how many helpful billboards there are with large YOU ARE HERE dots, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll be walking in circles for hours, until out of sheer frustration, I approach someone and beg them to walk me, by the hand, to spot X.

The resistance museum in Oslo is tucked away in Akershus Castle. Although clearly marked on said billboard maps, it took me two hours of aimless wandering before I finally accosted a local and, tears brimming, begged to be taken there in person. As Murphy’s law would have it, I was practically on top of it. Another embarrassing moment in the annals of M4.

IMG_6792 (800x597)There is something poetic about siting a resistance museum near the spot where Norwegian patriots were executed by the Germans in World War II. It was established as a foundation in 1966 (a great year for the world by all accounts) and opened to the public in 1970 with a mission to:

[Contribute] to the presentation of a true and authentic picture of the occupation by means of objects, pictures, printed matter, etc., collected, preserved, and exhibited with a view to giving the young people of today and coming generations a true to life impression of the evil represented by occupation and foreign rule, in this way helping to strengthen the sense of unity and defence of our national liberties.

Heady words. Mission accomplished. I went in knowing nothing about Norway in the war and came out with a lasting impression of the fortitude of her people and their determination to stay whole, despite the odds.

Prior to WWII, Norway had enjoyed 126 years of peace and wasn’t about to let go of it without a fight. At the entrance to the 200-meter vault, a line from a poem by wartime poet Nordahl Grieg captures the feeling:

Today no flag at the masthead on Eidsvoll’s greensward is seen,
but now we know as never before exactly what freedom can mean.
A song that is truly triumphant is sung by a million folk,
though whispered by lips that are sealed ‘neath an alien tyrant’s yoke.

IMG_6797 (600x800)Just nine days after Germany decided to invade Norway, Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Norwegian government that was summarily rejected. This can be seen in the museum pierced by one of hundreds of Mauser rifles arranged in the shape of a swastika. Following the evacuation of the royal family Norway took up the fight, despite an appeal by Vidkun Quisling who had seized power by a Nazi-backed coup d’etat. Later, he would be known as the ‘man who became a noun’ as the word ‘quisling’ came to mean ‘traitor’.

I’m fascinated by resistance and have often wondered what I would do if I found myself in the middle of a war. Would I be brave enough? I know I don’t have the bladder to be a spy but I would hope that I would be counted amongst those who took a stand against tyranny. And reading about the Norwegian resistance brought home to me what a nation can do if it stands together. The Supreme Court, in its entirety, resigned. Teachers, too. One in ten were arrested and 500 sent to Skjoerstad for their efforts. Actors from the theatres all over the country went on strike. Over a thousand police officers refused to sign a letter declaring their loyalty to the Nazis and 470 were arrested. Despite Hitler’s directive that Any pity for the civil population is inappropriate and Bishop Berggrav’s warning against civil resistance towards occupying forces – only warriors wage wars – the people stood firm. It seemed that an appeal from King Haakon printed in Lofotposten – I implore all Norwegians to support us in our attempts to free the country…Norway’s future is at stake – fell on more receptive ears. Despite edicts from the Church Department, the clergy would eventually come around and in 1941, a pastoral letter that refused to accept the Nazi’s changes was read from most pulpits. The reaction: for every German killed by resistance, 50 – 100 hostages were to be executed.

Despite these odds, at its zenith, 5000 men and women wrote, edited, printed, and distributed 60 clandestine newspapers with a circulation in 1943 of half a million copies knowing that, if caught, they faced certain death.

Norwegians living abroad didn’t escape penalty either. On 11 December 1941, they were stripped their citizenship and had to forfeit their assets in Norway. Reading back on the timeline of events, I’m left wondering at how ludicrous it was. In Trondheim, in March 1942, five men were executed for listening to radio and spreading information. We take so much of our freedom for granted.

On 16 November 1942, US President FD Roosevelt gave his famous Look to Norway speech:

If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.

Even now, reading these words, I can only begin to imagine the immense boost that must have given the country – and the pride… the pride in being Norwegian, what it must have been like. The Internet is full of cross-references to reporter Leland Stowe’s account of events. Stowe was Oslo when the Germans marched into the city. He reported seeing shocked Norwegians standing around watching …doing nothing… and read this as indifference and acceptance by the Norwegian public: we could see this stunned look of incomprehension in their upturned faces and bewildered citizens looked dumbly on. Unfortunately, I can’t track down Stowe’s Time article – I am sure it would make interesting reading and highlight, yet again, how dependent we are on media interpretation.

I was a little surprised in my reading to see that author Knut Hamsun wrote a short obituary for Hitler in which he described him as a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. I particularly enjoyed his book Dreamers and am a tad discomfited that we differ in our views of Hitler. Is it a question of my illusions being shattered or rather that I need to better manage my expectations? I wonder.

This excellent museum is well worth a visit if you find yourself in Oslo. I have only one issue with the exhibition and that is its inconsistency when it comes to reporting on the Jewish participation. In the foyer, there’s  a scaled-down version of what happened to a number of Norwegian Jew who fought in the resistance and its stats differ from those in the main exhibition: 772 / 760 deported; 34/24 survived. A minor difference perhaps, but the pedant in me can’t help but reflect on the Foundation’s mission: to present a true and authentic picture …

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.

Not in our town

What makes people join neo-Nazi groups? Why do they want to purify the American northwest? What is it about us, normal, everyday folk, that lets us be selective about the causes we support and the oppression we resist?Isn’t one injustice the same as the next? When will the media stop classifying crimes according to colour, creed, ethnicity – isn’t a crime a crime no matter the pedigree of the perpetrator?

On Monday last, I attended a symposium at the Central European University where filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, founder of the Not in our Town movement spoke about a PBS documentary she made back in 1995 in Billings, Montana. The townspeople, faced with racial attacks on Jews and Native Americans, banded together and spoke with one voice telling local neo-Nazi groups that they would not tolerate hate crimes in their town. This act of solidarity was a catalyst for similar actions across the United States, and indeed all over the world. The success of the people of Billings prompted others to stand firm and say No! You bite one, you bite us all.

nOITNIOT’s mission is to guide, support and inspire people and communities to work together to stop hate and build safe, inclusive environments for all. In Hungary under the sponsorship of CEU’s Center for Media and Communication and the US Embassy, with Hungarian translation provided by the Embassy of Norway,  O’Neill’s presentation was shown in the face of what Norwegian Ambassador Tove Skarstein called ‘a burning challenge for Europe’ – Roma inclusion. Her visit will also include a trip to the Police Secondary School in Miskolc, and to the University there, and to the teacher training college in Nyiregyhaza.

The Hungarian government was represented by Dr Zóltán Kovács, Secretary of State for Social Inclusion, Ministry of Human Resources. He spoke of Roma inclusion as something that has been ‘put aside […] not dealt with’ for the last 20 years. He also referred to Hungary’s role in developing an inclusion strategy for the EU and the move to legislate for social inclusion at home. I found this hard to take seriously, particularly in light of the Parliament’s recent approval of a constitutional amendment that would allow local governments to make living on the streets illegal. One has to wonder how social inclusion is defined.

O’Neill described herself not as an expert, but rather a ‘story carrier’ and indeed NIOT is a film that has a lot to say, even 18 years after the fact. In it, then Police Chief Wayne Inman talks of silence being akin to acceptance. When a Native American’s woman’s house was vandalised with swastikas and hate slogans, the local painters union came to her aid to cover the damage. One painter pointed out that her kids were old enough to read, but not old enough to understand and while they could paint the house and cover the damage, nothing could paint over the kids’ memory.

After watching the 30-minute documentary, audience members were asked to turn to those next to them and share which person they identified with most in the film. For me, it was the painter who said that for years he’d stood on the sideline and not done anything; but now he was standing up for what he believed to be right. I’m relatively new to activism – so new in fact that I’m still teetering on the first syllable. But I do know right from wrong, rational from irrational. And I have all but given up trying to understand antisemitism.

I was rather surprised this weekend to be asked why I wasn’t racist. I was in conversation with someone I hope will become a good friend – an American Jew of Polish ancestry who is working hard in Hungary to enable inclusiveness, not only for Roma, but also for Jews. She asked me how many Jews I know and I had to think a while. I know three… now. Perhaps more, but three that I’m sure of. That, too, gave me pause for thought. It’s not something I ask of anyone. And I was amused at one intervention during the symposium, from a Roma woman who spoke of a gay friend wanting to confess something to her. She said – hey, I’m Roma and I know you’re gay – what more is there to confess? But as a teen, he’d been a member of a skinhead group. His reason? He simply wanted to belong.

Good parenting and good education are two powerful weapons against racism and intolerance. A third is good example, as another intervention recounted. It’s not enough to stand by and do nothing. Speaking up and saying how such talk/action/behaviour offends you and that you’d rather it stop, is just one small step yet if enough people take that step, then it can have a huge ripple effect – just look at NIOT and what people and communities all over the world are accomplishing in its name.

There is talk of establishing tolerance towns in Hungary, where all society can co-exist, peacefully, without fear or hatred. There were a number of mayors present in the audience on Monday night, and admittedly, their interventions were subject to translation so I can’t repeat the intent with certainty – yet when I hear of Roma being talked about as ‘them’ and ‘they’, I want to scream. As one activist said: give us our names as it’s the faceless mass that gives rise to racism.

More on this as the project unfolds.

2013 Grateful 39

I’d never given much thought to the difference between a concentration camp and an extermination camp until I visited Terezín, about 60km outside Prague, last weekend. It’s a fortress town, surrounded by walls, consisting of large barracks buildings dating back to the late eighteenth century. If ever a town was built to be a prison, this was it. Easy to guard, close to the railway, and it already had a police prison in the Small Fortress.

IMG_2962 (800x598)The grand plan was to isolate all Jews from the general population, concentrate them in a few places, and then send them eastwards to be terminated. Terezín fit the bill beautifully. The first lot of 324 Jews arrived from Prague on 24 November 1941. Their job was to prepare the town for the onslaught that was to follow. So many Jews arrived that on 16 February 1942, the original inhabitants were given till 30 June to leave.

In the years that followed, over 150 000 Jews would pass through the town of Terezín. Only 3600 would survive to bear witness to what went on there. There’s a fascinating article that tells of how many Jews voluntarily moved there, thinking the town was a gift from Hitler himself.

During the Second World War, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS, suggested this magnificent site for a city and spa to be called Theresienstadt and to be owned and governed by Jews. It would be protected exclusively by Czech police, with no SS troops nearby. This utopia would even have its own currency depicting Moses carrying the Ten Commandments. The Czech Jewish community, eager to inhabit their new city, worked beside the Germans to construct and prepare Theresienstadt. German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, declared this glorious region to be a gift to the Jews in recognition of their enormous contributions to Eastern European societies and in preparation for the life awaiting them in Palestine.

Yet the horror of what was happening soon became clear. At the Small Fortress, I watched a short propaganda movie that showed how easy it is to believe what we want to believe. The figures it gives are horrendous. 19 000 + shipped out, 3 survived. 1000 shipped, 1 survived.

IMG_3020 (598x800)The Small Fortress is quite the spectacle. Originally built at the end of the eighteenth century, it reminded me a lot of the fort at Komárom, except for the purpose to which it was put. From day one of its existence it was a prison. Franz Ferdinand’s assassin spent time inside its walls. As the Nazi’s kicked into gear, prison space was at a premium. The Gestapo moved in, in 1940, and by the time the war ended, some 32 000 prisoners would have graced it with their presence, including 5000 women.  For most, it was a temporary stop, but for some 2600, it was the end. Disease, living conditions and torture put paid to any hope they might have had of surviving.

IMG_3016 (800x600)Well-mapped for tourists, everything is spelled out in stark detail. The numbered exhibitions clearly state, in concise English, what went on. The execution grounds, the bullet-ridden walls, the gallows from which three people were hanged – all testify to man’s inhumanity to man.

IMG_2967 (800x600)I have the good fortune to live in a spacious apartment. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get my head around what it must have been like to share the same space with so many others. Numbers were etched into wooden bunk beds where people considered themselves fortunate to live, because to be alive was what mattered. Rows of hand basins in the ‘model barbershop’ were there to show how much the authorities valued hygiene.

IMG_2975 (800x600)After a while, I  found myself thinking back to Auschwitz and to Dachau and to the remnants of the horrors I’d seen there. In comparison, Terezín was small potatoes. It wasn’t even a labour camp as such – it was, in effect, a Gestapo prison – a holding ground – which makes the inscription Arbeit macht frei a little unusual.

IMG_2994 (600x800)STOP RIGHT THERE! Has it really come to this? Have I become so inured to atrocities that I find myself weighing the numbers and from my privileged vantage point coming out with thoughts like ‘small potatoes’? Sweet Mother of Divine Jesus, deliver me, and please tell me that it is just my way of coping with what I was seeing and hearing and reading and imagining.

I tell you, there’s nothing quite like a cold hard lump of steel to shake my reality. This statue, and others in the grounds, said far more than numbers ever could. And while numbers might have that initial grenade-type effect, it’s images like these that really hit home. May we be damned for eternity if we EVER allow something like this to happen again.

This week, I am grateful for those monuments to the past that serve as constant reminders of the fragility of human life, our propensity to abuse our power, and our reluctance to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice. Let them continue to remind us of our responsibilities as human beings.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

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Severed tongues and ghettos

I’ve been dreaming a lot more than usual lately. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’ve been sleeping a lot more than usual lately, too. I have a bug and have had it for about 10 days now. It comes and goes and my voice comes and goes with it. So I’ve taken to my bed as often as I can and stayed in it for as long as possible. More sleep, more dreams. Hardly surprising.

Yet two dreams in particular stand out. And they’re topical enough for me to comment on them and to invite your interpretation.

In one, all the Jews and Roma in the city of Budapest were moving en masse into the VIIIth district. Streets leading into the district were being closed off with ornate Transylvanian gates. Those living here will know that the VIIIth is often referred to as the ghetto and that in and of itself is nothing new. In my dream, I was running around trying to convince people NOT to move. And not because I live in the VIIIth and didn’t want to be locked in – that wasn’t an issue. My argument was that they shouldn’t be locking themselves in but rather locking their accusers out. I’m still not sure I see a difference but in my dream there was one – quite a definite one.

IMG_5221 (800x600)The answers I received to my series of whys – why are you moving, why all together, why now – were the same. ‘We need to stand together and face our oppressors as a united group.’ I thought it a little too much like easy pickings – I thought of how easy it is to eradicate a problem or issue when it’s contained. When I tried to argue more, pointing to the ghettos of yore and what happened back in the 1940s, I was told repeatedly that a) I was not Hungarian; b) I was not Jewish; and c) I was not Roma so therefore I simply couldn’t understand. This still troubles me.

It could be a reflection of a conversation I had some months ago with a 30-something-year-old professional in which they asked how long I intended to stay in Budapest. I said it depended on who won the next election. They asked why. I said that I didn’t want to live in a society that elected politicians who talked of putting Jews on registers because they posed a threat to national security; I didn’t want to live in a country that seemed so openly anti-Roma in its policy (and I’m still smarting from the Azerbaijan fiasco). They couldn’t see my point. ‘Why should it bother you?’ they asked. After all, ‘you’re not Hungarian, not Jewish, not Roma – so why should it bother you who is in government? But that was a couple of months ago….

In a second dream this week, I was taking care of two children aged about 8 and 10, boy and girl. They weren’t my kids. I don’t know how I ended up minding them or who they belonged to. We seemed to be living out of the back of a truck which was nothing out of the ordinary as in my dream, buildings were all commercial and static and living accommodation transient.Life was trundling along just fine (surprising in itself!). Then both of them decided, for no apparent reason, to cut off their tongues. Which they did. No tears, no blood, no histrionics. They came to me smiling and handed over their severed tongues, each of which had two overlapping layers. I freaked on the inside but stayed calm on the outside. I found some ice, boxed up the bits, and called the ambulance, managing all this in Hungarian (aren’t dreams great!). My biggest problem was that I forgot to label the bits and couldn’t tell which tongue belonged to which child. It was this and not the cutting of tongues that was causing my angst.

I’m left wondering whether these two dreams are related – whether there is something I don’t want to say or have said – whether I am more concerned than I think about the state of the nation… Perhaps I just need less sleep.

Any thoughts?

The Saturday Place

Szombathely translates literally as the Saturday Place and is the oldest and tenth largest city in Hungary. Dating back to 45 AD, Constantine the Great is said to have visited a number of times.  Hungarians finally took up residence in 900 AD after a string of other nationalities had been and gone. Beset by tragedy, the city has had quite a colourful past. In 1710, 2000 people lost their lives in a plague. In 1716 the city was destroyed by a fire, rebuilt and again destroyed in 1817.

Synagogue is now a concert hall

After the Treaty of Trianon, the city ceased to be the centre of Western Hungary as it was now just 10 km from the new border with Austria. On three days in July 1944, 4228  Jews were deported by the Hungarian authorities from Szombathely to Auschwitz.

The Iseum, a temple to the Goddess Isis,  also known as the Isis Szentély Romkertje,  is a 2nd century AD Roman temple site dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. It was excavated in the 1950s. Today, part of the site has been reconstructed and you can still see the the ruins of two temples.

Walking around the town on a Saturday was a little surreal. Perhaps because it was so hot and the weather was keeping the people at bay. With a population of just 85 000 , it’s not exactly a metropolis but I’d have expected to see more bodies.  Like many other towns and cities in Hungary and indeed elsewhere, multinational chains have made their way to the high street but some locally owned boutiques are still clinging on for dear life.

At night, various cafés dot the town’s square and people sit underneath the awnings talking quietly. We ate at the Pannónia Ettérem and Café on Friday night, thankful to find somewhere open and still serving. The food was good, service pleasant, and atmosphere just right. A cocktail afterwards at Paparazzi rounded off the night nicely – and yes, they make a good cosmopolitan.

The next day, coffee at the Café Molo was a joy. Nestled right beside the music school, I enjoyed a morning cappucino to strains of jazz and blues while looking out over the Iseum. A picture perfect morning. The city is a curious mix of old and new and while it has a certain charm – not least the connection to Ireland via the ficticious Leopold Bloom – there is something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s as if the city is in some sort of parallel universe, untouched by the angst and normacly of twenty-first century living. I felt as if I was walking on a glass floor looking in but never really being allowed inside. Most peculiar.