Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Belsen

Today was about slowly making our way south from the village of Marxem to the tiny airport in Hannover.  We drove through the Luneburger Heide, learning in the process that Heide means both heather and heath in German. Bizarrely, it also means heathen - reminding us that all three words have the same derivation. Heaven knows where the heathen/ heath thing emerged. One assumes that heathens were originally forced to live on the outskirts of communities. Anyone got a dictionary of etymology? 


We visited a strange little stone garden in one particular village, which was filled with various stone sculptures with slightly pretentious titles designed to provoke thought. I didn't do a great deal of thinking, but I did enjoy watching a deer skipping about in the sunshine in the corn fields behind.  ...On through the Heide and deep into the forests around the curiously-named village of Celle. Curiously-named, because there are so few German words beginning with the letter C; just 2 pages in my Mum's mini-dictionary and most of them are foreign words.

Lurking like a terrible shadow in the forests near Celle is Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; a dark, sad, windswept place. Unlike Auschwitz there's nothing left of the original buildings, just a few monuments, one or two latter-day gravestones and huge mounds of earth marking the spot where several mass-burials took place. Here a thousand corpses, there eight hundred, there five thousand. Bewildering numbers, one of whom, of course, was Anne Frank, who died of Typhoid there in 1945. We walked around in silence, not even attempting to comprehend. I can't begin to explain why a thoroughly decent race of people would be complicit, or at least turn a blind eye to that level of barbarity. I suppose we can only really view the place as a warning to us all. One moment we're complaining about inflation, high taxes and immigration and then a politician comes along who seems to have all the answers... Begging the question; how far would you take things if you thought what you were doing was legitimate? If you were only obeying orders?



It's a weird spot, which felt at least partially at peace. Each monument is piled high with an infinite number of tiny stones, each signifying another  visitor, another tiny chink of love sprinkled helplessly onto the horror. Many tears must have fallen onto that ground. Many notes of apology must have been shoved into cracks between monuments and written in silver pen onto stones. Ultimately, it's a place where words aren't enough to express the enormity of the emotions which are inevitably stirred.  
There's an large army camp somewhere close to the site and our journey between the monuments was accompanied by the eerie sounds of machine guns in the distance, carried to us on a light breeze. It was a curiously chilling addition to a curiously chilling occasion. 

We went from Belsen into Hannover city centre, which is a deeply horrible place. Shops. Shops. More shops. Men wearing yellow jumpers selling bratwurst from little plastic tables. Every shop you'd expect to find in any city centre, anywhere in the world, including, I'm saddened to say, Claire's Accessories. But for the tragic Bratwurst seller under his multicoloured umbrella hat and holding a bottle of mustard, I could have been standing in Milton Keynes. There were no old buildings - or parks; just a heap of well-polished concrete, steel and glass. This is a town with no soul.  We based ourselves in a department store. We even ate in the department store. Hannover is where our royal family comes from... And it's horrid. Truly ghastly. If anyone offers you a free trip there, run like a crazy thing in the opposite direction! 

350 years ago, Pepys spent the day weighing the crusedos which Lord Sandwich had collected during his time in Portugal. A crusedo was a Portuguese coin, and in those days, the only way a currency could be converted was by weighing it.  3000 crucedos was apparently equivalent to about 550l. So there!

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