It took me 52 years to come here, even though since 1989 it would have been logistically an easy trip. I followed the track from my mother's birth place along the paths of the refugees, seeing it all - also the German Concentration Camp Stutthof. I spare you the cruelty, violence and the stories of the collapse of humanity. I deeply regret them, but it would not help to add more "awareness porn" to the online world. We all know our responsibility. And if you feel in doubt, just visit a war cemetary. Here you will meet moments of deep silence and then wonderful people living here cheering you up. And in the end they were the main victims of German invasion and tyranny, before the Nazi agression bounced back. Not even to talk about Russia, and the holocaust. And another thing to remember, when standing where they crossed the ice under heavy civilian losses in 1945: protecting refugees from today's war zones is not charity, but it's our duty.
Wójtowo (Voigtsdorf) is located between Lutry (Lautern) and Reszel (Rösel) in the Polish part of former East Prussia (Ostpreussen). A few plots of land in this small agricultural settlement was enough to be relatively wealthy. And it was not too much to be executed on the spot as land owner when the Red Army moved in, back in 1945. Who knows the truth after all these years only captured by oral history? I was there today for the first time, to see my mother's birthplace. I took many photos that may trigger her memories: the buildings, school, garden and just the fields across the road. She never came back. I also talked to people. There are stories of violence, betrayal, and death, but also those of bravery and humanity. I decided not to write in public about what I heard. It's too easily misunderstood in the rough world of social media and there are radical views on this chapter of history. And honestly, I can't even talk about it without loosing my voice.
All that counts for me today is that I am happy to see my mother's birthplace. Now a wonderful Polish family is living in the house. It is still as a farm. I even saw some Trakehner horses. They maintain it by the means they can earn from the land. That's not easy. It never was.
In the late winter of 1945, the ice on the "Frisches Haff" at the Baltic Sea was not thick enough anymore to carry all carriages and horses. My mother and her family left Eastern Prussia under the pressure of the incoming Russian Army. What happened then, was a story that shaped us for generations. Some went on land Westward, others crossed the thin ice. Too slow to make it off there before sunrise, they became easy targets for the Russian Air Force pilots. Nowhere to hide, they pretended to be dead, lying still on the ice until sunset, watching their neighbours sink and die randomly. They were running from an Army which was seeking to defeat the country which invaded it brutally and merciless before. For those who survived then came hunger, typhoid, the search for their relatives and children, homeless years, hope and despair - and for some the madness never left them. Some families were reunited in the 50s with the return of surviving prisoners of war from Siberia. Others in 1989 when the German wall fell. Many did never see each other again.
Tomorrow I still have a project presentation, and then I am on my way to Gdańsk (Danzig), with an old bilingual map, a field GPS and the few photos, articles, and extracts from birth registers. From there, I will head South-East to a village which has was called Voigtsdorf, close to Rösel. I am looking for the place abandoned by Anton Siegmund and Maria née Gabriel and their children in that late winter of 1945, in Poland and their favorite Café and chocolate maker in Königsberg / Kaliningrad (Russia).
When you walk down the Neroberg into the direction of Wiesbaden, suddenly framed by the forest trees, appears the Russian-Orthodox church. It was built by Herzog Adolf von Nassau in memory of his wife, the Russian Princess Jelisaweta Michailowna, who died at the age of 18 together with their first child while giving birth. It is a very beautiful and exotic building in this region, and also the interior is bright and holds a the tomb of the Princess. I also like it, that they implement minimum standards in apparel for people entering it, not so much for religious reasons, but I think it is a disgrace if you have such a beautiful building littered with excess of "functional wear". Wiesbaden itself and the neighbouring forests, I like a lot. It's an old thermal bath and was developed into a major bathing location under the rule of (the very disputable) Wilhelm II.
It is nice to be back to Malta for a few days, even though the weather is not significantly better than in Germany. I had friends to come and visit me, and I also caught up with those on the island. I am very sorry, I was not able to see everybody, but I will be back soon.
The little country is in a building boom and for some this causes discontent. It is hard to keep the balance between building up capacity and infrastructure at the same time at such a pace. That's quite normal - everywhere. A risk then often is, that the infrastructure development falls back, or the technology used is dysfunktional because there can be no "money made" with it. I would guess this risk is even higher in Malta, because there are hefty subsidies on public services. A lot of projects I see, are just an expansion, but not a true modernisation. This is a limited strategy in such a small country. Now the developers still have cash, given the rising property prices and extremely low interest rates. Should the coming demand have been hugely overestimated, then specially for the larger developments, the potential bubble would hit the developers and then the banks quite quickly. It's always the same game and not unseen in Malta either. Luckily there is a large proportion of foreign cash coming in, which is not borrowed from local banks. However, this drives up inflation and subsequently labour cost, which is one of the few competitive advantages. Further, even with all creativity to create "opportunities", also the ways of attracting foreigners into Malta are limited. Specially, for those who really want to live, work and spend money here: facing bad infrastructure, outdated and ineffective institutions, political trench battles, low management competence, unskilled workers, and a weak education system. I would be personally not unhappy to see a slower economic growth in Malta, and a better balance. But now, that it made "boom" already, I guess we will just watch how high it flies.
Yes, I am a city dweller in Frankfurt. But the park just beside my habitat is crossed by the Nidda creek, which in its lower part can be easily paddled. So, I got a Nordik Scubi 1 foldable kayak, which design reminds me a bit of the Klepper Aerius, but is much lighter (just 12 kg, as the manufacturer says) and much cheaper. First I was sceptical what this small boat can do for somebody of 1,90 meters height and 84 kg. Today I took it for a first paddle, and it turned out to be the perfect "always in your pocket boat". It took me 30 minutes first assembly, and I found it easy. I am using a 4 piece collapsible paddle of 240 cm, which I was warned could be wobbly, but it's not. And then I got a little trolley from the Chinese man running a shop on Leipzigstrasse and a 22 liter Ortlieb drybag. Pump and drybag fit behind the seat for storage. The trolley can be strapped on top. You can't store anything in the foot room at my body size.
Then off I went. Watch out: the Nidda from Niddapark, has one barrage which requires to take the boat around. Then it is very nice and quiet until before Höchst where the water gets fast two times. But in both cases, follow the current on the deep stretches and all will be fine. I was a bit concerned what will happen when I hit a rock with the light boat. But I did not. Entering the Main river at Höchst, you will pass a few house boats and a floating restaurant. I decided to go upstream until the foot of the Griesheim hydropower plant. There is no strong current, so no problem. Then I turned back, disassembled at Höchst and too the tram way (Line 11) back to Frankfurt. I did not manage to get the pump back into the boat bag in the field, so keep some extra space in your rucksack. Going along the rivers is always a nice and interesting view on city life. And in this case, it does not even feel like a city. The little kayak had a really good start: stable and easy to manoeuver, quick in assembly and collapse, small when packed. I like this boat.
I love the Westerwald forest and the rivers. But for 9 years I had to decent to the Lyceum in the small town of Neuwied. We call it Gynmasium, and it is the traditional school track to prepare you for University following 4 years of primary school. Every day I walked or cycled along the Wied river and then the upstream direction of the Rhine river. It took about an hour to walk one way, and back in the afternoon. The rest of the day I spent "hiding" in the countryside and forest before the next morning I had to decent again - 6 days a week. There was nothing exceptionally wrong with the school, in my view. Even though only a few teachers were good. Sometimes there were retired Nazis making some pocket money to top up their pension, church bred Latin and history teachers, or fluffy 1968 students which had concluded in the shades of the upraises that nothing really matters. We had the first wave of immigrants from Russia, which were usually of German origin and have been deported by Stalin into Siberia. Some of them became dear friends and others got fame for the brutality with which they resolved conflict. Knifes, chains, Nunchaku and even guns were daily toys. Then came the unfortunate, but very smart, Iranians, fleeing the revolution. As I was banned from religious studies, like them, we got along quite well. Neuwied once was famed for the highest German crime rate per capita. It does shape your attitude to what you can expect from people.
As a teenage boy in Neuwied there were just three ways to choose for your life: 1) degenerate to the equilibrium, 2) go to Waffen Walter (the local gun shop) and put a 9 mm Parabellum bullet through your head, or 3) fight your way out. As 2 is always an option, I decided for 3 as a start. Home was also not much of a help either. Neuwied was the anti-model for everything. Then I was drafted into the Army. Next anti-model. And last but not least, let's not forget the church. Acting people. nothing but an anti-model.
Luckily there was short wave radio, first a receiver, then an (illegal) transceiver which connected me with the world. Then there was the school library and a local museum. Once I picked up a copy of the National Geographic Magazine at the train station, an unsold copy and the shop owner sent the title page back to the publisher for refund. But he gave all other pages to me. My conclusion was that no matter which direction you go away from Neuwied, it can only get better. And very luckily, I had excellent Math, Physics, English, Biology and Geography teachers. I owe them a lot. My French teacher was also good. But I did not appreciate it at the time. Communication changed since the short wave time, but still short wave radio remained a symbol of freedom for me. I met a Soviet run-away in the South China Sea, who was just the same. The other symbols of freedom remained also. That maybe the heritage of a refugee family. I think, one day I have to talk to today's refugees to tell them what not to do to their children.
Today, my sister and I decided to go these paths one more time. The beauty of the fields, forests and rivers is unchanged. But the city of Neuwied became an even more depressing place. Where the former bookshop was, now resides a discount store. People are fat and dull. Teenage women are pregnant at the side of a tattoed male creatures. Then the perceived age demographic grows exponentially. Like there is nothing between the young proletarian and grandparents. A bit like a small German version of Manchester, Wolverhampton or Glasgow. Shops are closing. The streets are littered and under construction. The Rhine river, which I love, runs through filth. And I was reminded of the donkey in the Grimm fairy tale Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Bremen Town Musicians) when he convinced his followers to join the journey: "Join me. Something better than death you will find everywhere."
That's my home. Good we were born in a time, we still had the courage to run away from it and hide in the forest.
The week started with a trip to Dresden, where I gave a guest lecture on China and the "One Belt, one Road Initiative" at the Technical University in the Zentrum für Internationale Studien. It was a great pleasure to be back to Dresden and catching up. And I really enjoyed the quality of the students. As I had one day gap between my Dresden assignment and further meetings in Berlin, I decided hop over to Leipzig and stay there over night. I have fond memories of Leipzig from the time of the German-German reunification and heard recently that it would become for creative people, an alternative to Berlin (where the cost of living is rising). I went to the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig, visited some galeries, and talked to a few people. But somehow, I could not confirm what many people say about Leipzig. Sure, my visit was very short and it always depends a lot on the angle how you enter a city. Then in Berlin, of course, it was easy to confirm that the city is "hip". In the start-up scene some people bragged how often they already went bankrupt. It's entertaining, but professionally there is not much to do for me there. The week ended with a meeting and lecture in Mannheim, as well as catching up at the Mannheim University Business School, where I had the chance to see the impressive new facilities on campus.
Astana has a history going back to the Russian Imperial Era. It was then called Aqmoly in Kazakh and Акмолинский приказ (Akmolinsky prikaz) in Russian. But nearly all you can see today has been developed after the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and when Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1998. The development of the city was mainly funded by a special form of tax on the development of the national oil and gas reserves. And Kazakhstan is one of the more than 65 countries participating in the Chinese initiated "One Belt, one Road", also sometimes called "The New Silk Road". There are major ambitions and Kazakh activities often mentioned in this context is Qorğas (Khorgos) or 霍尔果斯 in Chinese. It is a large rail connected dryport and anout 10 km North-East of it a new transnational Kazakh-Chinese city, sometimes called "The Kazakh Dubai". And then, of course for the oil rich country, which has just started to develop major oil fields in the Caspian sea. It is a world of plenty and a region of fast development. This is not driven, but supported by "One Belt, one Road" and of course non-oil-and-gas infrastructure becomes an enabler for the expansion of manufacturing. I enjoyed the trip to Kazakhstan, I met wonderful people, a great spirit, and I will go back.
The Arthouse Cinema in Frankfurt is located at Roßmarkt 7 (take subway to Hauptwache). There is another one in Frankfurt Sachsenhausen, but this is a but further for me, and I really like the Roßmarkt Cinema for the venue and the movies they pick. Quite frequently there are also special events in which the director or producer is invited for a question and answer session. I got myself a rebate card, and found it very easy in the last few weeks to break even, because there is so much to see. The list below is just my start. I am not a cinema critic, but I also wrote a few words how I found the films
- Das stille Klassenzimmer (The silent classroom): excellent
- The Post (Die Verlegerin): kitsch
- Die stille Revolution (The silent revolution): too many platitudes, Jannike Stoehr did a great job in her interview
- Zwei Herren im Anzug (Two men in a suit): excellent
- The Mercy (Vor uns das Meer): trying to make a romantic story of an idiot trying to sail the world
- The Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri: excellent, not what I expected
- Sami blood (Das Mädchen aus dem Norden): interesting
- Drei Tage Quiberon (Three days Quiberon): interesting, but hard to think myself into Romy Schneider's tragedy
- Death of Stalin: so bad that I left the cinema half way through
- Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire): still very good, digitally remastered, and rare chance to see on big screen