The benefits of nosey neighbours

As events in Cleveland Ohio unfold and take centre stage on the world news platform, I’m left wondering what my neighbours are up to.

For more than ten years, Ariel Castro, 52, registered owner of 2207 Seymour Ave., Cleveland, allegedly held three women captive in full view of his neighbours and friends and family. His is not a secluded country cottage at the end of a laneway, or a manor house set on ten acres with a mile-long avenue from gate to front door, or a remote mountain residence in the middle of nowhere. It’s an ordinary house on an ordinary street in ordinary America.

That he might have kidnapped Michelle Knight, then 21, in August 2002 and held her captive until last week boggles the mind. That he might have abducted Amanda Berry, then 17, in April 2003, beggars belief. That he might have spirited away his daughter’s friend Gina DeJesus, then 14, in April 2004, is beyond comprehension. But that he might have held them all, in his house, for more than ten years without anyone suspecting a thing … that’s the stuff movies are made of.

Call first

Castro has nine siblings, an extended family, and a love for classic cars. Friends and relatives have variously described him as ‘smart and funny’ and ‘quiet and private’. Yes, he had some strange habits, like only entering and leaving his house by the back door and not encouraging people to stop by for a coffee. But that’s America.

In the ten years I was Stateside, my ingrained Irish habit of popping in for a cuppa unannounced was quickly replaced by the need to ‘call ahead’. I soon learned that while the Statue of Liberty might have welcomed the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses who were yearning to breathe free, suburban America was a little more guarded about whom it let in its front door. But to each their own. I took it simply as a way of living and soon adapted.

In Ireland, by noon, the village knows what you’ve had for breakfast. The churchyards and corner shops are the nexus of the gossip mill. Any strange or peculiar behaviour is noted in the Captain’s log to be trotted out and appended to the next entry when it is made.

Of course, this is changing. The influx of global immigrants has shifted the balance and this neighbourly nosiness is waning. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t see how Castro could get away with it for so long.

Business as usual

The victims were reportedly kept in chains in the basement and then later moved upstairs to live behind secure doors. Fed through holes in the doors, they report being subjected to beatings and sexual assault.  Surely some family member would have noticed the new décor? Can it be that none of his kids ever stopped by? Did no one have a spare set of keys?IMG_2342

Neighbours are now claiming that they did, in fact, call the police over the years to report unusual sightings such as a naked woman on a leash in the backyard or a child at the window in a house with no children. And yet until Amanda Berry escaped last week and famously ran into the arms of Charles Ramsey, no one other than the girls and Castro apparently knew what was going on.

Drawing parallels

Are we so wrapped up in what’s going on in our own lives that we fail to notice something’s amiss? Are we so self-centred that anything which doesn’t revolve around us is not deserving of attention? Fed as we are by a constant diet of social media updates, have we lost our powers of observation, our ability to spot something out of the ordinary? Have we lost our ability to think? To reason? To deduce? Have we lost whatever innate curiosity we might have been born with? Has it been replaced with an unquestioning acceptance of what is?

Admittedly, I’ve been pretty wrapped up in the Holocaust lately with visits to the camps at Terezin and Salaspils and I’m more than slightly worried at the apparent lack of indigenous concern about what I see as a visible increase in overt anti-Semitism in Budapest, so I can’t help but draw a parallel, however much it might be a figment of my imagination.

Back then, some people also claimed not to have been aware of what was going on in nearby camps. They said they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. And what they did notice could be plausibly explained. The odd comment here, a throwaway remark there – there’s a fine line between quiet castigation and blatant defiance. If our neighbours and friends are behaving oddly, do we not owe it to them and to ourselves, to ask why?

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Cleveland had one of Casto’s neighbours or friends or even one of his extended family members been a little more curious, a little nosier … perhaps Michelle, Amanda, and Gina might have seen the light of day a little earlier.

Last week, I might have bemoaned the fact that my neighbours could report chapter and verse on my comings and goings. This week, I’m strangely secure in the knowledge that at least they’re paying attention.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 May 2013

A matter of perception

I wasn’t born a Catholic, but I may as well have been. I was baptised into the faith of my father (and mother) and have grown up with the institution that is Roman Catholicism. I’ve had my lapses. I’ve had my doubts. And I have points on papal doctrine with which I simply don’t agree. I remind myself constantly that the RC church is a man-made institution, made by men and moulded to their liking.

When I was at school, the exploration of other religions was not discouraged – it was simply never mooted as a possibility. And back then, apart from the occasional Protestant (he who kicked with the left foot), my interaction with other faiths was minimal to the point of being non-existent.

IMG_2955 (800x600)My fascination with the Holocaust began when I  read the Diary of Anne Frank. It was there that I first came across the Star of David. I bought one for my travel bracelet when I was in Budapest back in 2003. And I felt quite guilty wearing it for a while – as I’m not Jewish and have no inclination to join that faith, I questioned my entitlement to wear one. I wondered, too,  if non-Christians suffered similar angst when deciding whether or not to wear a cross and chain. And then I figured that in this day and age, where brand logos trump most iconic religious symbols, mine might be one of a minority of minds through which this thought has passed.

IMG_2951In Terezín last week, seeing the Star of David standing in the shadow of a large cross gave me pause for thought. The Star of David had context. It stood as if an angel, guarding the 2386 graves of the National Cemetery. Thousands more are buried in mass graves; all in all, the remains of some 10 000 people lie there. When I went to find out why these two symbols might be practically cohabiting, I discovered that the cemetery was created after the War had ended. Victims exhumed from other graves were moved there: from mass graves at the forced labour camp at Litoměřice; from shared graves in Lovosice, from the communal cemetery in Terezín. Victims of a typhoid epidemic were also included.

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IMG_2945 (800x600)Some of the stones were marked with names, numbers, and lifespans; others had simply numbers. Row after row after row of them, each one a stark reminder of the inevitability of death and the randomness of its call.

As if the town’s dead hadn’t suffered enough, in mid-April 2008, 327 bronze markers were stolen from the Jewish cemetery in Terezín;  700 more were stolen the next week. My first reaction when I read this: what depths people sink to. My second: what ends people are driven to. It’s all a matter of perception.

The bliss of solitude

My short-term memory is worsening by the day. My long-term memory isn’t much better. I find myself having vague recollections of events and conversations rather than my usual  chapter and verse. I’m getting older. That’s a given. And with each advancing year, something else gives.

In the midst of all this self-induced angst, I was heartened to recall some lines from a poem I learned in secondary school. From Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud. I was in Terezín in the Czech Republic last weekend when they wove their way back into my brain:

When oft upon my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon my inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.

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Down by the Ohre river, there’s a pietní místo – a pious place – with signs showing what not to do. No swimming. No sunbathing. The why of it all became clearer as we approached the monument. It was here, in November 1944, that the Nazis ordered the ashes of 22 000 Jews – all victims from the Terezín ghetto – to be dumped in the water. Hard to imagine. Hard to get my head around those sorts of numbers, that sort of volume. It was made even more surreal because in my bag, I had a small urn with just 5% of Lori’s ashes which I would scatter later from the Charles Bridge in Prague. Now, math has never been my strongest suit, but even so, I still couldn’t get a grip on the magnitude of what had happened here.

IMG_2932 (590x800)The death rate in the ghetto was high. Records show that 22% of internees died there – about 30 000. At first they were buried locally – the first 1250 in individual graves, and then 217 in mass graves. But towards the end of 1942, the cremations started. The ashes of some 8000 or so are still in urns at the local crematorium. The remains of the other 22 000 have settled in the silt or floated away.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like in 1944, in November. I can’t imagine the logistics, the affect on the water, the sheer volume of ash that had to be disposed of. And while I was struggling to come to terms with all of this, I kept going back to the sign that said no swimming, no sunbathing. And I wondered why anyone would have to be told not to.

IMG_2929 (598x800)It defies reason. The lines from Wordsworth came flooding back – in vacant or in pensive mood – because everything about this place leaned towards pensive. It was eerily silent. No noise. No birds. Even the water was quiet. Despite the intervening 70 years or so, there is still a heavy presence that challenges thought and defies speech. And when we did speak, we spoke in whispers, so as not to disturb the spirit of the place. Although it was the 29th of March, snow still covered the ground and the signs of spring had yet to appear.

IMG_2934 (600x800)I wondered what it might be like in summer. Would people picnic here? Would mothers sit by the river bank as they watched they kids playing? Would courting couples come to get away from it all? Or is it indeed a pious place where people would show the dutiful respect required by definition, where they would come to sit in silence and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man and how it makes countless thousands mourn? I wondered, too, which would be best – should we celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us with gaiety and laughter, showing them that they did not die in vain, or should we be sombre and silent? Can we be happy and still remember, or do those memories weigh us down and make us sad. What does a dutiful respect require? And what would they have wanted?

I mentally compared the gaily decorated graves I found in Hawaii which lie in stark contrast to the Jewish cemetery in Budapest and wondered what I’d prefer. I remembered years ago visiting the concentration camp at Dachau and being horrified at some tourists who had dared to laugh in the face of such atrocities. I found myself leaning towards piety.  In the midst of the manic lives we lead, alongside the constant push to do and be done to, we need the time, the space, and indeed the opportunity to remember. Perhaps bliss is not quite the right word for this occasion Mr Wordsworth. As I searched my memory banks for something more suitable, I hit upon the line from John Donne’s poem Death and agree that

…from thee [death] much more must flow.

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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