Birkenau: Metropolis of Death

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Today’s post title comes from Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination, written by Otto Dov Kulka, 80-year-old professor emeritus of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Kulka spent his childhood imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

From Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night: "And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.   We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”   We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau."

From Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night:
“And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.
We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”

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Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz II, a 171-hectare sister camp to 20-hectare Auschwitz I), was overwhelming to me not only in its grisly outfittings and haunting stories, but in its sheer vastness. Otto Dov Kulka’s choice of the word “Metropolis” is clear and precise, clean of melodrama or exaggeration. Horizon-pushing is the impression, and bone-numbingly bleak.

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The day our family visited, the ice-snow was scratching laterally, metallically, across our faces.  We clutched our down-filled coats to our chests, stamped our lined boots, and tugged down on our thermal hats while our guide explained that prisoners, dressed in thin cotton shifts, crude wooden clogs, and weary from exposure, malnourishment, the 12-hours days of forced heavy labor and from perpetual beatings, died mostly at this time of year.

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Had our family been deported to Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive.  We parents are too close to age 50, considered too lod for productive labor, and Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for "best workers."

Had the members of our family who were with us on this visit actually been imprisoned at Birkenau, our 17-year-old Dalton would have probably been the only one to survive. We parents are too close to age 50, considered old for productive labor. We would have been gassed or killed on the spot.  Luc is younger than age 14, which was generally the cut-off age for “best workers.” He would have probably been disposed of, too.

The following are excerpts from Thomas W. Laqueur’s review of Otto Dov Kulka’s memoir.

Kulka and his parents came to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Theresienstadt [a smaller camp close to Prague] in September 1943, and he left the camp, by then a strange ghost town, in the infamous death march of 18 January 1945. He and his mother were spared the wholesale annihilation of the first 5,000 in March 1944 because he was in the Birkenau hospital recovering from diphtheria and she was nursing him. A hospital was only metres from where thousands were murdered every day; surreal. He was sure that he would die that June when he was stopped at the gate by an SS guard – “Bulldog” (we see his picture) – and prevented from joining a group of men who had been selected for labour.

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Upper bunk. As few as five, as many as ten bodies slept stacked chest to back on one level.  Sleeping on one's dies, one could not turn in the night without all the other bodies turning with you.

Upper bunk. As few as four, but more often as many as ten bodies slept stacked on their sides, chest to back on each bunk level. One could not turn in the night without requiring all the other bodies to turn at the same time. Sometimes there was a thin layer of straw. More commonly, prisoners slept on the bare planks.

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But as his group of boys was marched back they were not directed toward the gas chamber but to another part of the camp to pull carts. Boys were cheaper than donkeys. Again, he survived. The child was spared the depths of torment felt by adults in the murderous Auschwitz universe because, the historian tells us, there was less dignity and autonomy to strip away.

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The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. The "toilets" were a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath was an open trough.  This ran down the middle fo the bunk house.

The bunks were tilted to allow for human waste or vomit to run down and drain off the lower edge. Dysentery was common, and prisoners were only allowed two 30- second toilet pauses a day. In some barracks,  “toilets” were no more than a long wooden plank with holes. Beneath the plank was an open trough that ran down the middle of the barrack.

The flames of the ovens rose several meters high above the chimneys, but he lived a life in which the world of European high culture still mattered. An older boy, with whom he shared a hospital bunk, gave him a secreted copy of Crime and Punishment; a conductor organised a children’s choir that sang Beethoven/Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in a lavatory barrack where the acoustics were good. Did he choose this music as an absurd, purposeless protest, meant to hold on to values that Auschwitz radically denied, or was it an act of sarcasm, “the outermost limit of self-amusement,” Kulka asks.

"Sei Ruhig!"  Be quiet!   A barrack warning.

“Sei ruhig!”
Be quiet!
A warning stenciled on a barrack wall.

"Eine Laus ist dein Tod" A louse means your death.  Another ironic barrack warning.

“Eine Laus ist dein Tod”
A louse : your death.
Ironic warning on barrack wall.

As a boy he did not know; he sang. And as a man he says that he has lived by the first explanation, an illusion perhaps “greater than the fierceness of sarcasm”. Having sung Beethoven opposite the Auschwitz crematorium is, perhaps, part of Kulka’s “private mythology”, but is also, as readers know from the ending, evidence of the continuity of culture in hopeless circumstances.

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…Why, after … any illusion of escaping death had gone, did Jewish communal life, and indeed cultural life more generally, persist? There were efforts to save the sick; there were concerts, theatrical performances and schools. In a world in which death was a certainty, people acted as if there was a future. Men thought about going to their deaths bravely, as if it mattered to posterity, as if there would be a posterity.

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From the depths of the gas chambers they sang the confessions of “three secular movements of political messianism” – the Czech national anthem, the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, and the International. A 20-year-old girl wrote poetry in the shadow of the crematoria that demonstrated her “abiding commitment to humanism” and to a moral ideal that rejected all violence and bloodshed. It survived; she was gassed and burned to cinders. We do not know her name.

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The boy [Kulka] grows up and becomes a historian. As an adult, he and his father visit the site of the Stutthof concentration camp, now a featureless field at the estuary of the Vistula. He includes a picture of them in front of a map of the camp that attempts to evoke what had once stood on these empty fields. What now remains is only meaningless landscape. The author’s mother had arrived there in September 1944 after a deadly march from Auschwitz; she worked at searching shoes, sent there from other camps, for valuables and then repairing them before they were forwarded to Germany. The men – father and son – had learned from a survivor the circumstances under which their wife and mother had died. Arriving pregnant with a child conceived in Auschwitz, she gave birth to a healthy baby that her attendant women then strangled to avoid detection; she used a hidden diamond that her husband had given her to buy food for a critically sick comrade; the comrade lived; she then became ill; she did not live. Kulka says Kadish near where she was buried. He had seen his mother last when she marched out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate and, unlike Orpheus, she did not look back at him.

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**

Nearly all of these images courtesy of Dalton Bradford. Thank you, son.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Auschwitz: Images and Words

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"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

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 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

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Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

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Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

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Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Krakow, Poland: Pre-Easter, Post-War

This post continues a week of daily posts on Global Mom’s recent family trip to Poland.

Decorated carraige horses on Rynek Główny, Krakow's marketplace dating from the 13th century

Decorated carraige horses on Rynek Główny, Krakow’s marketplace dating from the 13th century

On the train from Warsaw to Krakow, our family lucked out. We shared our compartment with Jan, a native Pole who has lived the last three decades in the UK. For three uninterrupted hours, I’m afraid I gave the man no rest by interviewing him about everything from world politics, World Ward II and post World War II reconstruction, Jews in Poland, and Catholicism in Poland, to Poland’s best foods, best cities, best music, best sites, and details of his family history. (He was interested in genealogy, a point of common interest).

It was only after all this questioning and note-taking, that I realized we should get footage of this to share with you, and so here’s a brief segment of our time spent talking about his family, whose profile arcs over pre and post WWII. Jan’s now-105-year-old mother experienced the length of it while his father spent seven years in a Prisoner of War camp. As Jan explained (but you might not be able to hear too well; trains are noisy), his father left one morning, telling his mother he’d be home by dinner. Seven years later, that father returned, having spent nearly all of those seven years in prisoner of war camps. “Things got better,” Jan said at the end of this part of the conversation, “after Stalin died.”

I think we all agree on that.

As Jan had promised, Krakow felt warmer than the thermometer measured. Even with a cold front dragging its stiff arm across all of southern Poland, the town square seemed to smile in daffodilled defiance. Easter decorations hung everywhere.

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Students gathered. People ate at the open stalls. The market was busy.

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Music played from the many cafés. And every hour on the hour, a trumpeter stood in the taller of the two towers of St. Mary’s Basilica, cracking the air with the sounds of a traditional tune called the heynal. The heynal links to legend, I was told. It always ends abruptly and midphrase, a tradition holding from the 13th century, when a trumpeter warning of the Mongol attack, took an arrow to the neck.

Carriages in front of St. Mary's Basilica, which is famous for its elaborate altarpiece by Veit Stoss

Carriages in front of St. Mary’s Basilica, famous for its two mismatching towers and its elaborate altarpiece by Veit Stoss

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Towers of St. Mary's Basilica

Towers of St. Mary’s Basilica

The central Cloth Hall on the Market Place with statue of the Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz

The central Cloth Hall on the Market Place with statue of the Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz

Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, considered the Goethe or Lord Byron of Poland

Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, considered the Goethe or Lord Byron of Poland

The Renaissance Cloth Hall with interior arcade

The Renaissance Cloth Hall on Rynek Główny with interior arcade

Upon the Nazi invastion, the Market Place was given a German name, Old Market, then became Adolf Hitler Platz

Upon the Nazi invasion, the Market Place was renamed as Old Market and then  Adolf Hitler Platz

The city was overtaken, and many of its cultural landmarks ransacked or decimated.

The city was overtaken, and many of its cultural landmarks ransacked or decimated.

The Adam Mickiewicz statue was toppled

The Adam Mickiewicz statue was toppled

Palac Bonerowski, which stands on the Market Place, a noble residence-turned-21st century hotel...

Palac Bonerowski, which stands today on the Market Place, a noble residence-turned-21st century hotel…

...became a backdrop for the Nazi presence. . .

…became a backdrop for the Nazi presence.   Note the statue in the lower lefthand corner

The same statue stands in the same place today,having  witnessed many changes

The same statue stands in the same place today, having witnessed many unspeakable events

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Upwards of 15,000 Jews were forced to live within the  ghetto, from which they were then deported to concentration or extermination camps.  The following four images courtesy of the Oskar Schindler Factory museum

Upwards of 15,000 Jews were forced to live within the Krakow ghetto, from where they were then deported to concentration or extermination camps. This and the following three images courtesy of the Oskar Schindler Factory museum

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Families crammed into small living spaces – normally four families per apartment – if they were fortunate enough not to end up living on the street. These plaster figures depict the shared living quarters. Oskar Schindler Museum

If they were lucky enough to not live in the streets, families crammed into small living spaces, normally four families per apartment.  These plaster figures depict the shared living quarters. Oskar Schindler Museum

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Oskar Schindler, whose enamelware and metalware factory served to employ (and save from extermination) several  hundred Krakow Jews. Schindler's writing desk.

Oskar Schindler, whose enamelware and metalware factory served to employ (and save from extermination) several hundred Krakow Jews.

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Retracing the steps of the Jewish ghettos and deportation routes

Retracing the steps of the Jewish ghetto and deportation routes

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St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral

St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral

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Easter snowfall

Easter snowfall

Interior courtyard of Wawel, Krakow's royal castle

Interior courtyard of Wawel, Krakow’s royal castle

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Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, whose symbolism and complex history is almost as intriguing as the beauty itself.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine, which hangs in a private room in Wawel, and whose symbolism and complex history are almost as captivating as the beauty of the painting itself.

Leaving Krakow. . .

Leaving Krakow. . .

For Auschwitz and Birkenau...

. . .for Auschwitz and Birkenau…

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Warsaw, Poland: City of Uprisings

The following week of daily posts will be devoted to Global Mom’s recent trip to Poland. The text is minimalist, the images large format. I hope you enjoy the journey and share this collection with your family and friends.

Easter, for many the world over, summons images of death and rebirth. Warsaw does something similar in me. The Polish capital has been destroyed many times, only to rise up again, and again and again.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Old Town Square, Warsaw, is  UNESCO Heritage site, showcasing architecture dating to the 13th century, reconstructed after the Nazi's targeted terror bombings of WWII

Old Town Square, Warsaw, a UNESCO Heritage site, showcasing architecture dating to the 13th century, reconstructed after the Nazi’s targeted terror bombings of WWII

A cast iron model of Old Warsaw in the foreground, with the reconstructed royal castle in the background

A cast iron model of Old Warsaw in the foreground, with the reconstructed royal castle in the background

Warsaw has witnessed many uprisings: The Warsaw Uprising of 1794. . .

Warsaw has witnessed several uprisings: The Warsaw Uprising of 1794. . .

The November Uprising. . .

The November Uprising. . .

The January Uprising. . .

The January Uprising. . .

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising of April 1943

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. This is a marker embedded in the sidewalk, showing the precise location of the ghetto wall

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The monument to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising

The monument to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising was led by Mordecai Anielewicz, who, with fellow insurgents, took his own life when the Germans quashed their grass roots rebellion

The Jewish Ghetto Uprising was led by Mordecai Anielewicz, who, with fellow insurgents, took his own life when the Germans finally quashed their grass roots rebellion.

The Warsaw Uprising led by the Home Army, late summer, 1943

The Warsaw Uprising led by the Home Army, late summer, 1943

Civilians and soldiers, fighting side-by-side against the Red Army under direction of the Polish government in exile in London

Civilians and soldiers fought side-by-side against the Red Army under direction of the Polish government in exile in London.  They were forced to capitulate, and any surviving Poles were sent to POW or extermination camps, and to Siberia

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Warsaw, following the Nazi's "Burn and Destroy" campaign

Warsaw, following the Nazi’s “Burn and Destroy” campaign. Between 170,000 and 200,000 civilians were killed, and remaining others were sent to “transit camps”.  Over 1,100,000 Jews had already been sent to nearby concentration/extermination camps. . .

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The Russian forces overtook when Germany retreated at the end of the war, and  began a massive reconstruction campaign amid the ruins. This consisted primarily of "modernizing" the razed city, and erecting Stalinesque buildings like this, the enormous Culture and Science Museum

The Russian forces overtook when Germany retreated at the end of the war, and began a massive reconstruction campaign amid the ruins. This consisted primarily of “modernizing” the razed city, and erecting Stalinesque buildings like this, the enormous Culture and Science Museum

The old city square and royal road was spared, and rebuilt on the mounds of the ghetto rubble.  In some places, as in the foundation of this building, one can see how old buildings were rebuilt on piles of debris

The old city square and royal road were spared, and rebuilt on the mounds of the ghetto rubble. In some places, as in the foundation of this building, one can see how old buildings were rebuilt right on top of piles of debris

Based on the canvases of Italian painter Benardo Bellotto, the old square was meticulously rebuilt.

Based on the 18th century canvases of Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto, the old square was meticulously rebuilt, using as many pieces of scrap, paint chips and ornamentation as could be retrieved from the ruins

It was completed to perfection in 1953

It was completed to perfection in 1953

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Right on the old square, the home of Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, 1911 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her theory of radioactivity

Right on the old square, the home of Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie, 1911 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her theory of radioactivity

More tomorrow on the beautiful architecture, Easter rituals and people of Warsaw. . .

More tomorrow on the beautiful architecture, Easter rituals and people of Warsaw. . .

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Global Mom Publishing Update

Global Mom Cover (large) 2

Global Mom, the book, and Global Mom, the Mom, have hit the road.

Wearing her newest (and final) cover, the book strode right out the door, stopping somewhere along the way to make sure she’s well-pressed. Next, she’ll go to the market to meet the public.

As of June 1st, Global Mom: A Memoir will be in major bookstores (like Barnes & Noble) as well as smaller independent stores, and if for some reason you can’t find her there, she’ll be available for order on Amazon. Between now and then, you (and your friends) can pre-order if you’d like. Just don’t be thrown when you go here to order and find Global Mom wearing last season’s cover:

GLOBAL MOM COVER

(We’ll get someone at Amazon to help us with a quick wardrobe change well before June 1st.)

Some readers have asked if Global Mom will be available digitally, and, if so, when.

Yes, she will. She will be available on all digital readers at the same time she’s released in hard copy.

Oh, and one more bit of nice news: There are plans in the works for me to record an audio version to be available on iTunes. Honestly, I’d rather do that than proofread anything, even the alphabet.  And by the way, if you’re interested in doing any sound effects on the recording, sign up right here in the comment thread.

In the meantime. . .

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Global Mom the Mom has also hit the road. For Poland.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow. Cold, wet, shivering. Fantastic.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow. Cold, wet, shivering. Fantastic.

Wearing every last layer of our warmest clothing, our family spent the last week between central (Warsaw) and southern (Krakow) Poland. We’d planned for some time on traveling there with our kids, and thought Easter week in a country that’s over 90% devoted Catholic would be a good time.

We chose well.

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You can visit Poland with me in just a couple of posts from now, when I take you through the Jewish ghettos of both cities. . .

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Important sites where history has left its scars and where award-winning movies have been filmed. I’ll take you, for instance, to Oskar Schindler’s factory. . .

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Schindler Jews

Schindler Jews

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. . .And to the buildings that were the backdrop for “The Pianist”.

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You’ll see beautiful architecture. . .

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Contrasts between WWII devastation, Nazi occupation and today’s renewal. . .

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And we’ll have stuffed cabbage leaves and fish soup in this funky open kitchen restaurant where I got to chat up the chef while he whipped up Polish dumplings.

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You’ll meet other native Poles as well, with whom we took video footage.

Jan, native Pole, with whom we shared our train compartment and talked for hours.

Jan, native Pole, with whom we shared our train compartment and talked for hours.

(Live video footage will be a new and regular feature of this blog. And yes, I’m learning this all on the fly.)

You’ll see street musicians. . .

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Street dancers. . .

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A handsome parade of costumed and picketing atheists in front of cathedrals over-spilling with worshipful Poles. . .

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A procession of hundreds late at night on Holy Friday down a main boulevard of Warsaw. And the massive wooden cross. . .

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A lesser known (but my favorite) Leonardo DaVinci portrait. . .

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An evening vigil of hundreds of Israeli youth at the huge monument to the Jewish Uprising. . .

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. . .Which you saw in this post, and towers over this square where I first met the last living survivor of the Uprising, the man you might remember as Antonini.

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And no one should miss a visit to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. The experience for our family was blood-chilling. The boys say they’ll always remember it as the coldest day of their lives.

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So please follow me* on my daily posts this week, beginning with excerpts from Global Mom, where we’ve just moved into the very heart of Paris. As you know from the last post, the move was slightly messy. It gets messier.

And then I’ll bring you along for the several posts and photos from Poland.

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(The irony running underneath this week wasn’t lost on me: one hour editing a piece on the “slightly messy” but ultimately cushy relocation to Paris. Then the next hour visiting the train lines that deported human cargo to their deaths.  You’re right.  The juxtaposition’s painful. And invaluable.)

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And at the end of it all, on Easter Sunday over all of northern Poland fell the white comforter of heavy snowfall.

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*Instead of “Follow Me,” I prefer, “Come along with me.” If you want to do that on this blog, just scroll down past “Leave a Comment”, and click “Follow This Blog Via Email”. It’s an honor having your company on the road.

Luc at the camera. Train back to Warsaw. Colder, wetter, still shivering. And fantastic.

Luc at the camera. Train from Krakow back to Warsaw. Colder, wetter, still shivering. And fantastic.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Besieging God

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In the scripture story I read aloud to my nine-year-olds in Sunday school class two weeks ago, a man had prayed all through the day and into the night, and into the next day. “Look right here,” I pointed to the page for the kids, “he even says he ‘wrestled’ in prayer. Sounds like it must have been pretty urgent, don’t you think? Sounds as if he really beseeched God.”

Beseeched?” Camille asked, wriggling between Annie and Claire. Nothing gets past these kids, even if sometimes their feet can’t reach the floor when they’re in the grownup chairs. Claire’s eyebrows sloped and pinched together; “What’s beseeched?” “Yeah, what’s that?” Annie asked, curling her lip.

I rattled off a few synonyms: supplicated, pled, importuned.

(More wriggling, sloped brows, curling lips.)

William, wise beyond his nine years, patted his hand on the table, calling everyone to order.

“Besieged,” William said. “What she said was he besieged God.”

That was last Sunday, and this Saturday morning I was still replaying that moment – that word – in my head. Besiege. William had hit on a brilliant thing. In fact, John Donne and Tertullian would have agreed:

Earnest prayer has the nature of importunity. . .We press, we importune God. . .Prayer has the nature of impudence and more. Prayer has the nature of violence; in the public prayers of the congregation, we besiege God, says Tertullian, and we take God prisoner, and bring God to our conditions, and God is glad to be straitened by us in that siege.

-John Donne, in The Complete English Poems of George Herbert, ed. J. Tobin. 347

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With that excerpt scrolling through my thoughts, I moved in and around the clusters of visitors in the Cologne cathedral – Cologne, which in World War II had been a Militärbereichshauptkommandoquartier, one of those confounding German compound words which means a central command station for military purposes.

Prayer as besieging. Cologne as a siege center. The Cologne cathedral as a symbol for besieging prayer.

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When I was a child like Annie, Camille, Claire and William, life was fresh and uncomplicated, my heart was unscathed, my mind all chirpy canary yellow with splashes of robin’s egg blue and the floating fluff of clouds. I realize now I was lucky, as are these four. At nine, I knew nothing of what far too many nine-year-olds in this world do; that life can be harsh, even hostile, often brutal. And in that innocent world it was sufficient to “say my prayers.”

I was taught to say my prayers as soon as I was taught to recite the alphabet. These weren’t rote prayers, but were the simple expressions of a little girl: “Hemly Fader, we sank dee fow dis day. . .”

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I was taught that prayers were heard, and that they were answered. I could trust that God was a loving Father, who would respond with blessings, even if sometimes those blessings might not necessarily come, as I began to learn in my teens, when, how, or in the form I might expect them. But He would hear. And He would respond. This is what God was there for. To keep things under control by answering my prayers.

I was taught to pray both in English and in German, since my parents, who weren’t German but loved things German, wanted us to speak that language. With my head bowed and arms folded reverently across my chest, I would say, “Lieber Vater im Himmel. . .”And our family, at the dinner table after the amen of the prayer over the food, would all hold hands and sort of tug up and down on each other’s hands, chanting, “Guten Appetit-teet-teet, let’s eat!”

God, went my logic, provided for our material needs, including every meal. And He was German.

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At the start of the day with my family next to our dining room table, we often knelt. And I knelt alone, mostly at my bedside at night. When there was an exceptional or acute concern – someone was in trouble, there was a war in a foreign country, a president was being impeached, a church leader was sick, the boy down the street was hit by a train in the night, or Mom was having life-threatening surgery – we circled, knelt, and prayed.

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It’s no exaggeration that I can’t imagine my life up until five and a half years ago void of prayer, which had always been a vital enough element of my intimate connection with my Father in Heaven. Prayer, I experienced as I matured, had consistently opened up channels of strength and understanding that were beyond my natural capacities. Prayer had guided me, had guided things to me, had helped me even have specific things: my husband, for instance, our four incredible children, employment, a place to live every time we moved, health, sanity, answers, wisdom,forgiveness, words for writing, lost keys, lost cameras, lost credit cards and even my lost youngest who’d toddled away in a public park in a seedy part of Paris.

You might call that personal revelation. I do, too.

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Prayer also softened things. The bite of stinging betrayal, self-doubt, loneliness, homesickness, disappointment, anger, rage, indignance.

And it sharpened things. It alerted me to physical and spiritual danger, made me a lot smarter than I actually am in those many moments of dire brain need, and helped me on many occasions discern truth from fraud.

Prayer recharged me. It generated some remarkable healings in other’s lives as well as in my own. My life was literally saved at 14, as a matter of fact, and while doctors and medication and treatment and family support were absolutely central, I believe prayer (and God) facilitated them being so.

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Prayer broke me down. It opened me up for inspection, corrected me, blowtorched some real crusty grime and grit from my moldings, blew the wool clean off of my own sight of myself.

And then prayer hid me. In prayer, I found I was understood, and experienced that I was already known to a caring God, who is (this should be no surprise given that he’s God) always an eternal step ahead of me. He knew my needs long before they even became my needs.

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Many years ago, lying flat on my stomach, face smushed to one side, I’d explained my feelings about prayer to a massage therapist, Vickie. She pummeled me regularly over my childbearing and child-on-the-hip-carrying years, trying to treat the debilitating lower back spasms that used to hit without warning and landed me many times on a stretcher, in a hospital, and always in bed and on mega muscle relaxants for a couple of weeks each time.

“Vickie, it’s like this,” I said. “I petition the Lord, and the response is immediate, almost, as if he’d been anticipating my question. The answers and blessings come so freely. All these wonderful, undeserved blessings. They’ve really built my faith.”

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Vickie, who could not have known that in a few weeks from that hour she was going to be diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer, kept kneading my muscles. She sighed at my comment. Lately, she’d been feeling much more tired than usual.

“Yeah,” she said, planting her palms on either side of my lumbar vertebrae, sending heat. “I guess so, Melissa. But that’s not where it ends. I think it’s when you don’t get the FedEx online-shopping-cart answer to your prayers when you really find out what you know.” She lifted her hands to sweep her hair from her face. “It’s when you don’t get your wish list that you see God really, really clearly.”

Massage therapists. They’ve got some special thing.

Vickie’s words came back to me in full timbre when I heard of her diagnosis.

Was prayer going to whonk this one for Vickie, steamroll it? I prayed for major whonking. I trusted in prayer-as-steamroller. Last I heard, Vickie’s still in remission.

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Then Vickie’s words came back again in July of 2007. The summer of implosion. It was through implosion that I relearned prayer, much like I relearned breathing. In fact, prayer became my essential breath. It was also then I started seeing things, including God, much more clearly.

Saying my prayers wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Neither was mere beseeching.

This was the besieging season.

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“Kids,” I said last Sunday in our little church class, “I know what it’s like to be this man in the scriptures.” I reported this with studied dispassion, like a journalist. No need to frighten the kids. No need to share sacred emotion. “I know what it’s like to go somewhere and stay there praying all day, all night, all day again. Did you know, friends, you can pray without words? Mm-hum. You can even fall on your face and cry and, ta-da!, it’s a prayer! Or you can groan, pound your fists, and maybe even yell up into the sky. All prayer.”

Annie’s large blue eyes grew larger, bluer.

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“So. . . what was it?” Claire asked, “What made you pray like that?” She looked like someone from the New York Times perched in the front row of the press corps.

Camille popped up on her knees on her chair and shook her light brown hair around her shoulders, singing, “Didn’t you have a son who died?”

I looked at William, inches to my left, his soft smile unchanged. Exquisite. When I dream of Parker, strangely enough, I so often dream of him at age nine.

“I still have a son,” I corrected her, smiling, “And yes, he died.”

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Those words felt unnatural – spiky and metallic – in my mouth. I could still tongue and taste them nearly a week later while meandering through Cologne’s cathedral.

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Besieging God with prayer. I know the taste of that, too. Broken capillaries in my eyes. Bruises on my palms from pounding on the tiled kitchen floor at 3:00 a.m. Scuffling through Munich’s English Garden in a downpour, talking to the wretched leafless branches. Behind the steering wheel for hours and hours in a loop on the Autobahn. Head tucked into my sternum to avoid banal contact with the public, draining tears and whispers into my lap in the back pew at church.

And head thrown back, staring at the highest point I can focus on, way above the mountains, out there where hope lies. . .

. . .Trying to sing a hymn to myself, but finding sound log-jammed below my heart.

All through the night. The day, The night again. And weeks, months. These years.

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Besieging prayer isn’t about external drama. God can see through hypocritical audience-targeted theatrics. Let’s face it: those prayers have their mortal hearers. The prayer I’m talking about can happen entirely within the ribcage, even while sitting in a public space like, say, a cathedral.

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In that case, it might not bear a single toolmark of outward pathos. But the inward soundtrack could shatter glass.

This prayer wants to pierce and penetrate what might sometimes feel like an opaque canopy stretched over our earth and our minds, keeping us from the big – biggest – picture. That kind of prayer isn’t tidy and toothless, in fact it hardly has anything to do with “saying one’s prayers”, but is jagged-edged in its raw and dynamic vertical groping and yes, it’s not a one-off stab at “the prayer thing.”

If rendered in stone, that prayer would probably look something like the Cologne cathedral, and might take a long time to reach its point.

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This cathedral? A mere 600 years.

All those spires. Aspiring. Besieging for inspiration.

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From pastor and author Dennis Lennon, who describes in Turning The Diamond George Herbert’s sonnet, “Prayer”:

We pray because prayer works, and because it changes things. It changes the world and it is able to penetrate the hearts of men to change their ways. . .[It] even ‘changes’ God, in the sense that a captor ‘changes’ his prisoner. This hair-raising, staggeringly risky picture takes up the idea of the old military engineer’s construction for siege and assault, his ‘engine’ to batter the enemy’s defenses, tunnel under his trenches and blow open the gates of this fortress.

–Lennon, 44-45

You find intimations of this from John Donne, both soldier and poet:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

– Divine Meditations, 14

In a verse like that from Donne, as Lennon writes, there’s no trace of “over-familiarity with the Lord” (like the guy who chuckles, saying, “Hey, when I get to those pearly gates, boy I’ll tell you am I ever going to give the Boss a piece of my mind!”) Instead, there’s a “healthy and realistic awareness of [our] frailty, of life hanging by a thread. . .It suggests a mountaineer pressed up against a rock-face, holding on, just, by the tips of his fingers.”

Or the tips of her fingers.

The man from the scripture story and my Sunday school class experience was not Jacob of the Old Testament. But he resembled him. Jacob, as you probably know, “wrestled” with an angel. His is the story I’ll end with here, because it resonates – it booms – throughout the whole cathedral of my soul.

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Jacob was in a desperate life-or-death situation, in “great fear and distress”, but was hanging on to a promise God had given him long ago, and was ready – in the middle of the night, all alone, with death breathing down his neck– to “wrestle” for that blessing. “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)

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Lennon describes this:

We know ‘the man’ was a theophany, God incognito, for next day Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I saw God face to face’ and lived to tell his story. . .What passed through Jacob’s mind as he grappled with his opponent, crashing around on the bank of the river? At some point the realization dawned (or was it a lightning flash of revelation?) that he was fighting with a God-man, a man representing God: God-as-man. . . .At some point Jacob said to himself, “O my God! It’s God!! I don’t know what’s going on here but now that I have him I’ll show him, how desperately I need him for myself, my family, and my future people. If this is God, I’ll prove to him that I believe him with every scrap of energy within me. Everything I have known about God – those amazing stories, the traditions, the prayers, the history (all words, words, words) are now in my embrace and I will not let go until I have the blessing’–something along those lines? – 49,50

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Jacob, in the throes of besieging prayer, had a life-changing experience. How life-changing, you ask? Well, God changed his name to Israel, which means “he is ruled.”

From that point on and forever more, the man ruled by God walked with a limp.

Could God have chosen a more unambiguous way to indicate his pleasure at Jacob’s tenacious, tough-minded, audacious faith? The new name tells the world this man wrestled with God and over-came. The limps tells the world – look at the weakness of this man’s strength. – 51

When I finished taking all these photographs, I slung my bulky camera bag on one shoulder and made my way up the nave toward the massive cathedral doors. Before pushing out into the glittering drizzle, I hoisted the weight one last time, thrusting a hip out to one side for balance, which made me list. Or even limp.

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Not Your Father’s Cologne

Image: wikicommons

Image: wikicommons

Like blades puncturing a gray tarp, the spires of the Cologne (Köln) cathedral (Dom) shoot with sanguine self-assertion into an upperworld, an otherworld. Audacious, virile, epic – the Kölner Dom’s pitch is stratospheric, almost enough to make you veer off the road as you swing into town at night, as we did last Friday.

“Whoah. Can you see that?” Twelve-year-old Luc, reading in the back seat, dropped his book and pressed his face against the window. “Whoah. Whoah-ho. Okay, that’s cool.”

The medieval architects of Europe sought to create an on-your-tippy-toes, to-the-very-finger-tips skyscraping of celestial proportions. Their aim? To scratch heaven’s underbelly with stone. Or better, to replicate heaven with it.

Today, this church is a spiny anomaly in a landscape of squatty or swirly modernity. But centuries ago when it was built, the Dom was seen as a meeting place of spheres. God descending to men. Men ascending to God. Heaven as down-to-earth and earth as up-to-heaven. People all over the then-known world made their pilgrimages just to arrive at its doors, touch its walls, fall on their knees, and crawl up to its altar.

And now we were cruising through Friday night rush hour traffic to get our peek.

“So, imagine this one, guys: in World War II, this whole town was completely flattened. Two-hundred-something air raids. About 1,500 tons of explosives, of which 1,000 of those were incendiary. Remember Dresden?”

“Of course. Yeah, we remember Dresden,” Dalton said quietly.

Image: wodumedia

Image: wodumedia

“By the end of the war. . .let’s see.. .yes, by the end of the war less than 5% of the inhabitants were still here. Many had been killed; most had been evacuated from the ruins. I also read that virtually all of Köln’s 11,000 Jews had been deported to concentration camps or murdered on the spot. All six synagogues had been destroyed. Only one has since been rebuilt.”

Silence.

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We were within a few streets from the cathedral. We had to hang our heads out our windows to try to see the whole structure, it was that tall. Built over the span of six-hundred years by the hands of mostly nameless artisans, and without as much as a forklift or a power saw, the cathedral dominated the whole night sky.

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“What else, Mel?” Randall was navigating the inner city’s labyrinth of one-ways. Our GPS spoke to us in German, like a Lufthansa flight attendant murmuring politely from our glove box.

“Well, the urban planner responsible for rebuilding the city after 1945 called Köln ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble.’ Except –” I opened my window to try to get a photo as we came around a corner, “except this cathedral.”

We parked, bumper to curbside, in front of a blackened Emerald City.

“Seriously?” Dalton asked, stepping out of the back and into light rain. We walked right to the front doors, my camera at the ready.

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door handles, main entrance

door handles, main entrance

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“Yeah, I’d say seriously. She was hit I don’t know how many times by allied bombs – seventy-something, I think – and she never collapsed, if you can believe it.”

I shielded my lens from the rain.

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“And that’s gotta be thanks to her flying buttresses, right?” Luc cracked a smile and lifted his brows to Dalton.

(I’ve decided twelve-year-old boys, like some twenty-year-old boys I taught in college, just can’t get enough of flying buttresses.)

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“Dude, check out the flying buttresses,” Luc elbowed his brother, snorting and giggling, pointing to the cathedral’s exterior stone arches that support the weight of so much wall with windows.

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Lovely sons, these, who can correctly identify parts of a building’s anatomy.

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The following morning, knowing I had only a few hours before we would leave town, I made my way back through her doors. By my third hour there, hundreds of other visitors had joined me.

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In the next two posts, I’d first like to share with you what I saw and thought as I looked not only at this magnificent tribute to faith, but also at all the people there with me, looking, too. The post is called, “Beseiging God.”

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Then, I’ll explain the reason for our family’s trip to Germany in a post entitled, “Praying Like a Good Sport.”

Hope you’ll be there.

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This work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Firebombed Beauty

Images and text © Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Images and text © Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

“The dead open the eyes of the blind.”

It is said that the ancient Romans used to recite these words at burials. I have recited these words to myself over five and a half years, and find they are true for me in multiple ways.

Fresh from the out-of-the-blue ruin of losing my son, I saw reality with newly-opened eyes. I can say without any trace of pride – more with wonder, really – that I discerned things in new ways. Part of what I saw anew was that death was everywhere. The withering vine, the rotting tree, the parched reservoir – I now saw them all with painful clarity: they were evidences to me that death and decay were omnipresent, the rule (not the exception) of this mortal existence.

With eyes opened  to the omnipresence of death, and knowing I would never again have the luxury of my former blindness, I longed to be close to others who had similar eyesight. I deliberately sought out those who knew significant loss. With them, I felt kinship and consolation.

Beyond seeking out people in pain, I also sought out places of pain.

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Dresden, Germany lay five hours northward from Munich. “Dresden”, if the name doesn’t send an immediate shockwave through you, deserves a paragraph or two of solemn attention. What I’m going to write here will help explain why several times, drawn to places of pain, I bee-lined it with my family to Dresden.

“Listening? You all listening back there?” I was now sitting shotgun, Randall was driving up the wintery autobahn, and I had my notes open on my lap.

“Yeah. Go ahead, Mom. Listening,” came Claire’s voice from the back seat.

I read:

Dresden is a living landmark to massive devastation and painstaking reconstruction. A century ago, this city then known as Germany’s Jewel Box or Florence on the Elbe [River] boasted, among other important edifices, the eminent Zwinger museum, Semper opera house, and its gently towering Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady.

This is where I stopped reading and explained why, besides visiting our church’s temple (a structure sacred to us, built in the eastern city of Freiberg in the years when Germany was still divided into East and West), I was intent on getting us to Dresden.

I continued to read aloud to my family from the material I‘d sifted through over weeks. I’d had to sift because what happened in Dresden in the last months of World War II is unquestionably one of the most contested military maneuvers of modern history. It has aroused widespread and unresolved controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. Accusations, justifications, wild speculations, exaggerated or minimized claims of the death toll, subsequent novels and movies based on the horror – all have blurred the contours of whatever we might pin down today as the truth regarding Dresden.

What I wanted my children to know were the cold facts upon which the most respected historians agree: that between Febraury 13 and 15 of 1945, in the ultimate winding down scenes of the global conflict, 722 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped several thousand tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden.

“And now we’re driving our family car right into the heart of all this history,” I said.

The firebombing resulted in a colossal firestorm, which phenomenon destroyed fifteen square miles of the city center and killed somewhere close to 25,000 people. Some estimates, which take into consideration the thousands of refugees who’d fled to Dresden ahead of the approaching Russian forces, go as high as 300,000 fatalities. Such claims, however, are generally discounted as overblown.

What is not discounted but what I did not add because it was too much to try to articulate, was that these civilians – men, women and many children – died either by suffocation in air raid shelters where they were crammed and oxygen was sucked into the above ground firestorm, or they were crushed by falling debris and collapsing buildings as they ran through the streets. Most were incinerated alive.

For various voices documenting the attack on Dresden, you might consider going here, here, here or here. I have to warn, however, that the eyewitness accounts offered from survivors read like pure apocalypse.

Post-post-apocalyptic Dresden; that was what I wanted my family to see as we approached the Elbe River. I’d last seen Dresden in its general state of ruin when I was a teenager in the late ’70’s.

Image: Bundesarchiv

Image: Bundesarchiv

I held my breath a bit now to see this city decades later, transformed, as I’d read it had been. I wanted for myself and for my family to see the city’s emblem, Dresden’s creamy soft-domed cathedral standing whole and wise on the skyline.

“The Frauenkirche,” I half-turned so the three in the backseat could hear every word, “is the main reason for our visit. Whoever sees her dome first. . . well, you’ll know it.”

And there she stood.

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“The last time I saw her,” I told my family as we walked across cobblestones up to the cathedral, “she was a sprawled heap of rubble, no more than a sandstone quarry.”

There, on a plaque, we read that the citizens of Dresden had left her as she’d fallen: splayed and scorched, a mountain of scarred stones. For over forty years, in fact, (that Biblical number of exile), they’d left her crumbled remains just as they’d fallen, a haunting anti-war memorial.

During the firebombing, her famous 100-meter-high dome weighing 12 tons and supported by eight elegant pillars – an architectural marvel like St. Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in Rome – had held up just long enough so that 300 people who’d run into the crypt for refuge could be evacuated. Why would they run from cover into the streets, which were filled with flying ash and burning whips of flame? Because the 650,000 incendiary bombs generated heat that exceeded 1,000 Celsius, and that roaring furnace made the cathedral pillars themselves into incandescent shafts of dynamite. The Lady herself was like a scaffolding of ammunition, and began rumbling and shaking like an engine ready to explode.

The dome fell late on the night of February 15th, the eight pillars glowed red and erupted like cannons, and the cathedral walls shattered as if detonated, sending 6,000 tons of stone downward. In one echoing blow, the floor (and the crypt below) were decimated.

Standing on the public square that fans out from the church, our family  eavesdropped on a tour group:

Over the ensuing years while Dresden was under East Germany’s Communist rule, citizens quietly collected and catalogued the charred pieces of rubble, peacefully planning for a day when their cathedral would be reconstructed. By the mid-1980’s, the East German civil rights and peace movement that resisted the Communist regime had gained traction, and the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche served as a symbol around which protestors rallied. This helped propel the events that led to the demolition of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany.

In 1994, a man named Günter Blobel, a naturalized American citizen who had known firsthand as a child refugee the devastation of the Dresden bombings, established the “Friends of Dresden.” This nonprofit organization set out to preserve and, if possible, reconstruct the city’s cultural and artistic heart. Then when Blobel won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1999, he donated the entire $1 million winnings to see that the Frauenkirche be rebuilt as well as a new synagogue be constructed not far away.

Image: these 4 photos come from the archives of Dwight Pounds, good friend and excellent photographer.

Image: these 4 photos come from the archives of Dwight Pounds, good friend and excellent photographer.

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We entered into and walked around the cathedral. Her pristine walls were painted to replicate her original state, all in chiffon yellow and Easter pastels.

“Think of this,” I told my boys, “even after all they’d suffered, after all the evil they’d seen, the survivors didn’t cave in. They looked ahead to when they would one day rebuild. They carefully stored every bit of the rubble they could so that when the time was right – there had to be plenty of financial, political and technological support, right?– they could actually reinsert thousands of the original stones, and right in the very place they had been in the first place. Amazing, huh?”

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Looking above our heads, we saw the cupola, which had finally been completed in the year 2000. Atop that dome, we learned, had been placed a newly gilded orb and cross fashioned by British silversmith Alan Smith, whose father, Frank, had flown in an aircrew that had bombed Dresden.Forty-five years after decimation, the cathedral’s dome and cross could finally be seen there on the banks of the Elbe.

And inside, the church’s original cross, blackened and contorted from enemy bombs, stood next to the altar, the altar which is a relief depiction of Jesus suffering in Gethsemane, and which, incidentally, had been only partially damaged in the 1945 fire raids. It and the altar had been the only segments of the structure left standing while the rest of the cathedral showered in a storm of fire and stone to the ground.

Image: worldmarketportraits

Image: worldmarketportraits

Outside now and standing with Randall and our children in a waning parallelogram of early evening sunshine, I felt warmed with hope. If out of sheer obliteration this kind of architectural and political vigor can rise, then surely out of my private patch of demolition something valuable or even beautiful might emerge.

And what would it look like?

 

Really: what does beauty from ashes actually look like?

I had the prototype standing right in front of me. Strange and imperfect, with blackened roughness touching bisque smoothness. Burned scar tissue splotchiness grafted together with taut chalky curves. Functional and strong after years of rehabilitation, a monument that was a victim to war, but which spawned a movement that reunited an entire country.  And forever in its stones a patchwork of death and life, loss and gain, destruction and reconstruction.

Strange, yes. But for me at least, reverberating with comfort that no slick or unscathed surface is able to offer.

The same holds true for our Mother Earth, whose crust, writes philosopher Eleanore Stump in “The Mirror of Evil”, is “soaked with the tears of the suffering”.

We live in a world where the wrecked victims of this human evil float on the surface of all history, animate suffering flotsam and jetsam … It’s morbid, you might say, to keep thinking about the evils of the world; it’s depressive, it’s sick.

[You might also say that if you’re grieving, what you need is Disneyland and Sleeping Beauty, not Dresden and the firebombed Church of Our Lady. But that’s just not how I work.]

… A loathing focus on the evils of our world and ourselves prepares us to be the more startled by the taste of true goodness when we find it and the more determined to follow that taste until we see where it leads. And where it leads is to the truest goodness of all… the mirror of evil becomes translucent. And we can see through it to the goodness of God…

Even our own evils – our moral evils, our decay, our death – lose their power to crush us if we see the goodness of God. The ultimate end of our lives is this, Ecclesiastes says: “The dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it.” (12:7) – to God, who loves us as a good mother loves her children.

-Eleanore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil”, in God and the Philosophers, ed. Thomas V. Morris. 236-243

**

I stepped a few feet from the kids and went over into the shadow just to take a last and closer look at the side of the Frauenkirche. Don’t ask me what I was checking for, but it was my instinct, and as I drew closer, I planted my palm discreetly against her outer wall.

Death stones pushing always against Life stones. Lines of mortar running like meticulous sutures all over this architectural heart that’s known implosion and rebirth.

And my kids probably nervous that I might be over there breaking down in anguish over Parker.

I wasn’t.

In that moment, I was actually just starting to be built back up.

007

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Antonini, Part 1

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All of today’s photos come from the private archives of my father, David Dalton. He recently gifted me with 20,000 shots cataloguing our family’s life. This post I gratefully gift to him on his 78th birthday. Love you, Dad.

It was late autumn of 1987 in Warsaw, Poland as my parents, my husband and I found our way down what the Poles call Memory Lane, a street whose existence, however much its name sounds like a Nat King Cole tune, marks one of the most bitter delineations in modern history.  This was the border of the city’s former Jewish ghetto.

Only meters from our path was where the infamous month-long resistance had taken place, biggest of its kind in World War II, when 13,000 Jews – men, women and children – lost their lives fighting the Nazis’ effort to empty the ghetto with violence. Nearly all of its inhabitants were sent to the their deaths either right on their doorsteps or in outlying extermination camps.

On this particular morning we eventually found ourselves standing in the shadow of the looming grey stone monument to the resistance. It is, appropriately, a massive wall with sculpted figures emerging from the surface, thrusting hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, and bare fists into the air.

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I stamped my feet lightly against the late October chill and my husband wrapped an arm around me. We followed my mom, who was, as always, reading aloud to us from a guide book.  My dad, meanwhile, was in the middle of the square taking pictures. I could see he was also trying to keep warm, as a puff of vapor rose from his mouth.  Despite the late morning sun creeping over the upper edge of the 36 ft. (11 meter) tall monument, the world was chilled and palpably sober.

Then from a distance, I saw a white-haired man in a black beret and gray trench coat approach and begin talking with my dad. In a minute or so, my dad waved that we all should come. Quickly.  As I came closer, I saw the man held a small bunch of flowers laterally across himself, almost like one would carry a child.

“Shalom,” the man said to each of us as we approached.

“Shalom,” we each responded.

“Peace.”

And in return, “Peace.”

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The man was maybe sixty years old, compact and softly contoured with a face hauntingly reminiscent of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. The conversation as we entered it was an oddly functional hybrid of Yiddish (spoken by the stranger) and German, from the rest of us.

“Antonini,” my dad held his hand toward the man while turning to us to explain, “has come today on behalf of his kranke katholische Frau,” (his “sick Catholic wife”), whose birthday it was, and who’d asked that flowers be laid on this memorial site. The man and his wife had followed this ritual for decades, Antonini explained. Every birthday and on all other significant dates during the year, the two came here zur Erinnerung, or in remembrance.

With the hands of a butcher, I thought – thick  fingers, padded palms – Antonini carefully laid the flowers at the foot of the monument, then stepped back on his thick-soled brown leather shoes.  They looked like they were at least twenty years old but had been meticulously maintained ever since. Probably polished them this morning, I thought. He was dressed neatly yet modestly, and from where I stood now at his side I focused on his white sideburn that matched the shock of hair just over his ear. His profile was placid, almost immobile, as he looked up  at the monument and into its vigorous and oversized faces chiseled in stone.

“We’re so sorry your wife is ill, Antonini,” my mom said. “Why, if we might ask, would your Catholic wife want to pay special tribute to those lost in the Jewish uprising?”

His arms held politely to his sides, Antonini now brought his fingers together, lacing them at the tips, then lifted and dropped them once with a single breath. “Warum?” he sighed.

Why?

“Because this,” he said, glancing at the monument, “is our story, my wife’s and mine.” His eyes fell to the ground a few feet from where we stood, to a large engraved metal disc made to resemble a manhole cover. This, we’d read earlier, was the first monument to the uprising, a reminder of the manholes through which hundreds of Jews had lowered themselves into Warsaw’s sewer system in order to smuggle goods or to escape annihilation on the street. Countless many had hidden for days and weeks in those sewers, and upon trying to emerge, the Nazis fumigated them with Zyklon.

“This story,” my dad stepped closer, “your wife’s story, your story, would you mind sharing it with us? Unless, of course. . .forgive me. . .it’s too pain-“

“Nein. Ich meine, Ja. Ja, natürlich,” Antonini interjected warmly, “natürlich kann ich sie Ihnen erzählen.”

No, I mean yes, yes of course. He wanted to share the story with us.

That is, if we wanted to hear it.

Over a two-hour lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Warsaw’s main square, (my dad had asked Antonini where we could take him for a warm lunch; this was his choice!), Antonini shared his story.  We sat at a corner table with the window and its filmy white lace curtains at my back. I remember the afternoon in vivid film clips and didn’t miss a single detail of Antonini, neither his soft mouth as it molded around the German with its Yiddish lilt, nor his expressive eyes that were tokens of a life beyond my comprehension. We wrote it all down:

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I was seventeen when I fought in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis who had overtaken Warsaw. Along with all of the other Jewish teenaged boys I knew, I was shipped off to Lublin. I was separated from my family, from my beloved and gifted older brother, David, who was then the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. By a miracle and driven by my concern for my family and neighbors whose fate I could not know and was pained to imagine, I eventually escaped from Lublin. I made my way back to Warsaw. What would I find there? From my family, who still remained? And if they did remain, in what condition?

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I was so weak when I finally reached the city that I could only crawl in silence, terrified with every movement that I would be sighted by the enemy and tortured or murdered on the spot. At some point I grew delirious from hunger and fatigue and collapsed in the middle of a street.

I was awakened when someone, I did not know who, lifted me and carried me quickly out of sight and into a home. It was the home of a Catholic family who then fed me and gave me water to drink. They proceeded to care for me in every way they could although they, too, were victims of war with food and other goods in scarce supply, their own health and well-being at serious risk.  They then hid me for many, many months in their basement.  They hid me, as a matter of fact, until the war was over. They saved me.

When the Nazis retreated from Warsaw I finally discovered the horrors that had happened to my people.  Flamethrowers and smoke bombs had been used to drive out or kill all the inhabitants of the ghetto.  All those left had been shipped, as I had been, to extermination at Lublin, Treblinka, and other concentrations camps.

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The resistance had ended a month after it had begun when, with the press of one detonator button, Warsaw’s great Jewish synagogue had been instantly turned to rubble. In the end, after searching everywhere, I found that my entire family – parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and my dear David – had died.  I was alone in the world.

The Catholic family gave me more than the gift of survival by hiding me under their roof.  They gave me a future. They advised that until it was absolutely secure for Jews to move freely in society, I should change my identity.  Antonini is the new name I took; I had to deny my Jewishnesss, and for years ceased to speak Yiddish or Hebrew.

And in time the remarkable happened: their daughter and I – we had been through so much together – we married.  I married the Catholic daughter of my adopted Catholic family, the only family that remained for me.

To my knowledge – and I must believe this is true, since I have been in Warsaw all these forty years since and know the Jewish community here well – I am the last living survivor of the Ghetto Uprising.  I am where that terrible story ends.

We finished our lunch.

Asking what time it was, Antonini apologized but he really needed to get home to his ill wife. While we paid the bill, we had all the leftovers packed up for him to take home, although the waitress puzzled openly at the idea of “leftovers.” (The people she knew, people who had known real hunger, never ever had food, what was it called? “Left over”? ) But she found three large glass jars in the kitchen, filled them with everything we hadn’t been able to touch for all our fixation on Antonini’s story tellng, and put the heavy jars in a nylon sack.  After thanking us for that extra food that would make for his wife’s birthday meal, Antonini shared one parting detail:

“In Jerusalem in the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, a trees stands in honor of my wife.  We received a formal letter with a picture and identification attached inviting both of us to the dedication.  Signed by prime minister Menachem Begin. Framed. It hangs in the middle of our apartment wall.”

We clapped and laughed in quiet celebration for our friend, and told him how wonderful an honor that was.

“Yes,” he nodded, his head titled slightly to one side.  “But of course we could never afford to travel,” Antonini’s eyes were, for the first time in over three hours together, not just glassy with tears but spilling over with them.  “And now my wife is too ill to make the trip. She’ll probably never see her tree.”

With that, my parents looked to each other, my mom sat up ramrod straight, beaming, and my dad’s usually professorial face softened, melted. He let out a single, muffled laughed. Then he lifted one eyebrow.

“Antonini,” my dad said, clearing his throat and leaning his whole weight on his elbows on the table, looking Antonini in the eyes, “it so happens that our youngest son, Aaron, will be in Jerusalem in two weeks. He is part of the study abroad group we are leading in Vienna, and some of the students are going to be visiting the Holy Land.”

My mom jumped in, “Can we give you a gift, Antonini?  Can we promise you that Aaron will visit the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles for your wife?”

“He’ll take a picture of the tree, of the honorary plaque,” my dad said, “and then may he send that photo to your address? A belated birthday gift? To your wife?”

And in one slow-mo instant right in front of me I witnessed a transformation. Our Rembrandt portrait came to life.  His lips parted. Then they pursed.  Then, almost imperceptibly, his eyes widened. Then he bent into his shoulders, slowly placing one wrinkled hand and then the other across his chest. He shook his bald head to one side and then, heaving a sigh, to the other. Then he brought his stare up to meet our collective stare, and spoke in half a voice, “Heute haben Sie einen schweren Stein von meinem Herzen aufgehoben.”

“Today, you have lifted a heavy stone from my heart.”

With those words we all embraced, exchanged addresses, and watched our Antonini walk away, a big bag of bottled egg foo yong and fried rice hanging at his elbow.

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As he walked up the street and around the corner, I felt the words, “heavy stone” echoing in my mind and I focused on the weight of that sack, the one Antonini was going to carry alone and all the way home. How far did he have to go yet, I wondered. How many blocks? Would the weight of the bottles break the handles of the sack? How many times would he have to stop, bend over, place the bag on the ground, straighten his tired back, rub those padded palms together and knead those thick fingers, bend over again, switch arms, heft the sack and trudge on, one step at a time?

He’d insisted, though. He’d said he could carry it alone, the bag, that he didn’t want to burden us with it. Really, his home was not far, he’d smiled with those moist painter’s eyes.  Not far at all.

And you know? I believed Antonini. He’d be fine. He was resilient, after all.  One of the great survivors. The last of his own people.  Certainly if anyone could carry a weight all alone, it was he.

So I waved one last time as he came to the last corner, waved with both arms in the air and raised up on my tip toes. Auf Wiedersehen! Bye! Shalom!

I don’t have to tell you I was pretty young and inexperienced. Dewy.  Unscarred. You’ll forgive me, I hope, that back then I’d had little visceral experience with the harsher realities of life, and so although drawn to Antonini and captivated by his story, I wonder today: did I see him?  Did I truly see and experience who he was? Because I know only now that I had no eye, really – no cellular sense – for the ponderous but invisible weight of his vast loss and lasting grief, the burden of his lifelong loneliness.

Maybe Antonini could manage just fine without me. Chances are he did.  And that evening, he and his sick Catholic wife had a joyous dinner during which he had his own unusual story to tell of a family of foreigners who were at the monument that morning. How they listened to the story. How their son – Aaron, a good Hebrew name!– is traveling to Jerusalem. . .

I can go for days on the fumes alone of that thought.

I wonder, too, what might I have learned from walking – continuing, listening, carrying even a bit of Antonini’s bag of leftovers – just a few more steps? A few more steps or even, if he had let me, the rest of the way home?

**
Antonini, Part 2 in our next post. . .