Richard White

explorations in place and time


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Honouring Esther Day 3 raw

Belsen disenchanted. Roaming. Soil

Our day begins with another round of rummaging in bags for lost things and continuing battles with roaming data and mobile devices. Not quite sorted but in the metaphoric lens with which we are viewing this experience it reads as loss and discovery, the ebb and flow of memory and communication.
Belsen Roundhouse windowserased
Its about layers and what we tell ourselves and are told about each one. What happens when you dig through them and question through. Lorna took her first soil sample from the yard of a house built within the barbed wire perimeter of the Waldeslust camp. A pile of earth pushed aside from the building work, dark and sandy. Perhaps Esther trod on that earth. New house, white walls, shoes outside on the porch, dog barking and as I stood guard on that strange and rather furtive new ritual the central heating kicked in. Only steam from the chimney. Mix of guilt and catharsis, maybe they were just  ignoring us.
Waldeslust soil1
On to Belsen following the route of the walk where in all the emotion I discovered that this too was a landscaped terrain. Doubly so. After the war with the huts burned and the dead buried in the vast mass graves, the German Administration was ordered to turn the place into a memorial. The grounds were tidied up, much of the remaining historical evidence apart from the graves erased, hills and hummocks were raised and paths created, trees felled and a management system introduced.  The iconic watchtowers were taken down and the fences and barbed wire all dumped into a bomb crater and buried. Crucially the entrance was changed to the current one, disconnecting the place from the barracks and the orientation towards the railway. More recently a new management system has been introduced and some archaeological work has revealed the footings of buildings and buried tracks. Fashion and changing ideas yes but something more than the barbed wire was buried. Wild boar disregard it all and recently near the edge of the woods a wolf was seen.

We discuss dilemmas and legacies with the archivist Bernd Horstmann, charming friendly and supportive. He had managed to get us in to visit the rest of the Belsen story still held behind barbed wire. Deep in the Nazi built military camp occupied by the victorious British and now returned to the Germans we saw buildings where survivors of Belsen were cared for and where some died and where buried. We saw their meeting places and heard echoes of their stories. Most impressive of all was the vast Round House once a concert hall, once makeshift hospital, now echoing, empty and cavernous. Full of ghosts. The British military have handed it over in full working order. The German uniformed soldier at the gate spoke German to our ears and we reached for our ID, hearing us he slipped back into scouse. Strange alliances of language and accent. The remaining few who stayed rooted in the place when their fellow soldiers and families were sent back to England. Along with the site and buildings including churches and shops and cookhouses, a new built secondary school for 500 children, also stands empty. Cold War front line spaces idle and silent. Meanwhile refugees trudge their way to makeshift camps. History knocking on the door.
Belsen Roundhouse interior1
Discovering Belsen walking through the ghost entrance as Esther did when it was hard real and deathly 71 years ago, welcomed by an icy blast of wind and rain. The landscaping tells its story, the horror is not concealed. At the stone I remember the slow dissolve to life I tried to create in July. Again I am overcome. I hear Esther retold talking about the shakey sensation of early fever, the creeping awareness of death approaching, saying to to herself and to her dead mother that she had done her best, she had tried to make it, to tell the story but that she feared she would not be able to carry on. Thanks to the soldiers she did, we will be there on Friday to ensure that the story continues to be told.


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Honouring Esther day 1 and day 2 raw

 Day 1 Hannover airport 31/1/16

Lost keys found, dark motorway dash to the airport, weaving the car through the stockyards and abandoned parking lots. The satnav leading us blindly into the sodium lit desolate space at the edge of the city. Here we left the car, the familiar disorder and last comfort of our car/home. On into the glistening night to the bright lights and panic space of airport departure lounge.

We hand over our bags, the great bag with everything: my bag of electricals, my boots, warm clothes, Christmas present Kendal mint cake and clean underwear. Rushing rushing to the departure lounge where, in order we are called row by row to our seats. With barely a moment to bicker we are on the plane and the fairground adrenaline kicks in as we lurch into the sky. Such a rush as to momentarily blow all thoughts of carbon impact out of my head.

Through the cloud and out to a golden dawn and we turn and head into it over a cotton wool ocean. I finally read Peter Jackson’s book and sense his shock at discovering, far grimmer than the stories of the refugees that occupied the bunkers, that there on the edge of his patch of Luneburg Heath there was a mini horror story from the Holocaust.

Waldeslust, earthy joy of the forest, Lager 3, Judenlager a camp for Polish Jewish women, where Esther and others were held as slave labourers for the Nazis who finally marched them to Belsen on 4 February 1945. And so from there 71 years later, on Thursday , we will walk the same route.

All this has been preparation……

Flying over the forests and clearings, seeing the great rivers snaking their ox bowed way to the mist, thinking of Lancaster bombers following the river to wreak destruction. Thinking of Jonny’s airman who walked back from Poland saved by his art. Navigated by my Uncle Reg the alltitude destroying his lungs, seeing him in a Celle cafe as I ate dense yellow omelette with cranberry sauce dusted in icing sugar. It was the texture of a lung.  The first food on this side.

The big bag of electricals did not arrive, the devices did not connect easily. They had been told us far too much of what they thought we wanted to hear but reality is different. I seethed with anger and declared word war on British Airways as still with no sleep we drove out into Germany; I learned to flydrive the hire car: 6 gears with dash board fruit machine for distraction. The engine stops disconcertingly at traffic lights but so beautifully, the mirrors fold away and lights blink demurely when it locks.

A welsh woman in the same cafe commends us and a feeling that we are doing something special begins. A botched attempt to drive the route satnav get us lost and found in the carpark at the Bergen Belsen memorial. Cold and grim. Trees dark, the forest. Growing witnesses in the mist and drizzle. We are not ready we are not ready we arrived too quick. We didn’t even get out of the car but pulled out and drove on. Across the road I look out to the path and the woods at first imagining us arriving on Friday and immediately found myself looking into the face of living death, the women, a young emaciated Esther shuffling towards us. Relentlessly

End of the day still no bloody bag and I am incandescent. We meet with the amazing Annette Wieneke, her partner and daughter and share immediate crises, slowly real affinity blooms and we look from face to face at ourselves  seeing our reflections in this strange moment in our histories. Annette’s book a labour of love written as a young mother 20 years ago, Lorna making sense of her past and her mother’s story from 70 years ago. Entwined in their histories, like the routes of our walks. Tough rocks that the glacier of time and history has not worn smooth.

Syrian restaurant, fresh mint tea on a Sunday night. Cold drizzle that should be snow. Still no bag, I am loosing all sense of proportion as I discover my angry phone calls are not with someone at Hannover airport but with a call centre operator in Madrid. We begin to talk in metaphors. All this is preparation. We have the tools to communicate but the only recording possible is with the mind using the body. Eyes and ears.

Day 2 Celle

A teddy bear in a museum/gallery in Celle reduces me to tears. A childhood under the shadow of the swastika. An empty room with a tin bath and a teddy. A child’s toy bears witness. I took my mother’s teddy to her funeral, it was mine too but I never forgot it was hers. The bear soaked up my tears. The squalid last days of the war, one town helped death marchers escape and hid them, in another  towns people,coerced or complicit, chased down, shot or captured escaped prisoners. The Celle Hare Hunt. The rounded up survivors were death marched to Belsen along the same route we had driven.

The bag appeared at the door this morning as if it was all normal. Sign here. Nothing stolen. What was that all about? My emotions will locate elsewhere before this is over. The bear grounded me.

The Celle Synagogue: it survived Nazi thug axes and was never put to flame as it would have set the town alight. Here new life and recovery began as Belsen survivors reclaimed the building in 1946. In the street outside polished by snow grip grit, rain and foot fall, my first Stolpersteine, ‘stumbling stones’  peoples remembering places for the people that once lived there, old people who fled to Holland but were brought back to Auschwitz to be killed, others disappeared and one my mothers age dead before she could be a mother. Here remembered.

And the meetings began. Formality at the county hall with the Landrat and the kind man, Rainer Voss, who knew the shameful stories of Celle, carer for survivor memories, proud to conserve the first post war publications from Bergen-Belsen camp and other records so diligently kept that now fuel family history research. We sit round the table a bit grilled, a bit honoured…welcomed and respected.

Some further encounters and arguments with the calm voice of the sat nav later we are seated in the Zuhlke garden centre alongside Hambuhren Tiger orchids, a display Uncle Reg, late of Bomber Command, would have been proud of. Here we meet with Julius Krizsan our local fixer and former Green Party MP, as avuncular and no nonsense as I had expected from our email exchange, local historian Irmlinde Florian, Hans Ovelmann an eye witness and Herr Zuhlke owner of the garden centre that sits on the edge of the Waldeslust site. The walk was toasted with light bulb glasses of Irmlinde’s red home brew. Prost.

We tell our story. Choice. Free will. Human Rights. The stations of our walk. Resonances. We tour the perimeter of the site and view the remains of Waldeslust, what horrors and squalor has that building seen. We see some things that Esther may have seen and we look on. Try to imagine and can’t. The tall trees are recent, the big one perhaps a sapling 71 years ago. A Narnia lamp in a thawed landscape, dark trunks and evergreens, the absence of snow adding to the macabre.

As darkness fell we had recce’d the first day of the walk, identified the stopping points and been welcomed into the home of Herr Krizsan. Things were beginning to slot into place until mobile streaming rattled confidence in the technology. Nothing feels safe, the uncertainty is edgy, stressy and transient, the emotion raw and just skin deep. We will do this. We will remember.

In this state we began our final engagement for the day with a group of women from the Bath Braunschweig Association who had come all the way from their city to hear about the project. Over a meal we tell our story. Resonances. Freedom. Internationalism. Choice. Solidarity. The themes, the stations, justice and the rule of law.

We are overwhelmed already, immersed. Tomorrow checking day two of the walk the long haul through the woods to Belsen.