Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Easter in Poland


Click on photos to enlarge for a superior image




One of the beautiful wooden formerly Orthodox (now Roman Catholic) churches in the remote Bieszczady region of  S-E Poland

In Poland I feel strongly surrounded by the atmosphere of religion particularly at Easter. During my first experience it was as though childhood religious feelings had burst upon me with renewed vigour. The haunting feeling of Christ in his sepulchre lay heavy in the air. Easter is one of the greatest Roman Catholic festivals in Poland. In the Kazimierz parish church on that Good Friday rivulets of 'blood' ran to the floor from the body of Christ twisted in agony on the cross. His tomb was guarded by a pair of weary firemen in brass helmets holding silver axes. Three nuns were fervently praying while others performed the Stations of the Cross. Candles had been overturned and crucifixes were lying flat. Outside the sun was setting behind an old wooden barn and trees containing the nests of jackdaws and rooks thrust into a reddening sky. This beautiful Parish Church built in 1610-13 was inscribed by the builder Jacobus Balin and is decorated with elegant panels, rosettes and hearts in grey plaster. It is the finest example of the elegant Lublin Renaissance style which flourished in the south-east of the country in the seventeenth century.

 
On Easter Saturday the faithful bring święcone to the church. These are small baskets decorated with white flowers, green leaves and covered with a white lace napkin. They contain hard-boiled eggs, sausage, bread, cake, salt, pepper and other food which is blessed by the priest and sprinkled with Holy Water. The contents is placed on a plate on Easter Sunday morning and each member of the family takes a portion of blessed boiled egg and salt and extends individual good wishes. At Kazimierz Dolny traditional bread cockerels are sold at the bakers as well as bread in the form of crabs or pigeons. The religious intensity of Easter is unsettling to anyone brought up in the largely secular society of Western Europe.


Imaginative, brilliantly carved but shocking Stations of the Cross each in its own chapel situated on their own steep Calvary one must climb at the astonishing Shrine of Wambierzyce near Duszniki Zdroj in the South-West of Poland



Easter Day began with a peal of bells and a procession of little girls in white turning graciously and strewing flower petals before a priest carrying the monstrance containing the Eucharist. An enormous Easter breakfast was served with a delicious fermented yeast soup called żurek. Cold meats with wine were soon followed by smoked trout, steak, Easter cake and Bulgarian champagne. Replete we walked off the feast along the banks of the Vistula towards the tiny fishing village of Mecmierz.

 

No sooner had Zozia and I set off than the wind began to rise and the sky to darken, but the low rushing clouds and occasional sunshine were invigorating. The river lies in a flood-plain with islands of lush green and wide sandbars, wavelets running up energetically against the shore. On the opposite bank of the Vistula a ridge of rock is exposed like a scar on the landscape which terminates at the village of Janowiec. A monumental Gothic castle was erected here on a dark green wooded escarpment with little evidence of habitation. This dream of a Sarmatian stronghold was once the seat of the Firlejs, one of the most powerful Polish families. It then passed to the fabulously wealthy Marcin Lubomirski and was allegedly gambled away at cards in a fit of madness one evening in 1783.

 

A squall began to engulf the fortress and sheets of torrential rain moved towards us. We hesitated, fascinated by the lightning flashing over the battlements until we took shelter under some low shrubs. A glow broke over the broad ruffled water and ghostly sandbanks, a suspicion of thunder rumbled in the distance. In the rain Zosia’s sodden blouse and cotton trousers clung seductively to her body as we hurried along the muddy path and birds flew in wild arcs above the breaking wavelets. The spring squall passed as quickly as it had arrived and the sun emerged. Long, green weed was flowing in the swiftly moving river current like the hair of a bather. The wooden, thatched houses of Mecmierz straggled in picturesque disorder along the roadside. A windmill stood vacantly on a promontory. The sweeping panorama is strangely reminiscent of Asia with the rich, nervous greens of early spring marooned as if in paddy fields. Forested cliffs patrolled by birds of prey aroused the noble Sarmatian Poland of my imagination. We crossed fields with isolated trees and copses before a final descent to the town through a gorge dusted with bluebells.



Wooden folk carving of the crucified Christ at the Carmelite Monastery on magnificent Lake Wigry in the remote N-E of Poland near the Augustow Wilderness


Easter Monday dawned cold, windy and wet. We were awoken by the screams of children splashing everyone with water, an Easter custom in Poland called Śmigus Dyngus (‘wet Monday’). The weather had the changeable cruelty of spring. Snow, hail and freezing winds were pushing fast-moving dark cloud that broke up on occasion into clear, blue sky. We followed a bifurcation of the Małachowski Gorge along a track which led across meadows and wandered through fresh green orchards glittering with cool rain and ice, air filtered by sunlight. Unique fissures called loess gorges characterise the region, the deep sides sprinkled with tiny white, mauve and blue spring flowers. The steep descent led to a variety of 'cross-gorges' which led upwards in mysterious tunnels. Fallen leaves were densely packed underfoot in a thick carpet.


This labyrinth gave way to a sealed road which led to the Soviet War Cemetery. Reminders of war are never far from any experience of beauty in Poland. It is an emotional place with many unmarked mass graves each holding up to fifty bodies. There are a few single graves with the customary Russian porcelain plaques on the headstones with yellow plastic flowers and a photograph of the deceased - one a beautiful girl of nineteen. A squall of hail suddenly blotted out everything and we were forced to shelter. Sunshine again and then we were heading once more through sparkling fields asking directions at a dilapidated farmhouse with a dilapidated dog. Bright green moss, ice crust on the gnarled roots of trees, delicate flowers and clear, cool air.

[‘Loess is usually deep, fertile soil, rich in organic remains and characterized by slender, vertical tubes that are said to represent stems and roots of plants buried by sediment. When cut by streams or other agencies, loess remains standing in cliffs exhibiting a vertical, columnar structure.’Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth edition 2003]




Wayside Shrine to the victim of a motoring accident in Poland


Extract from Chapter 16  Vistula – Of Dragons, Martyrs and Lovers  taken from the book    

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland by Michael Moran (London 2010) 

Available in both Polish and English.  


http://www.michael-moran.net/poland.htm    (English version)


http://czarne.com.pl/katalog/ksiazki/kraj-z-ksiezyca   (Polish version)


                                                                       *  *  *  *  *

In addition to the 'usual' large scale and operatic Bach St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion, among the greatest masterpieces of the Western music, may I suggest at this time you also listen to this devotional piece by Franz Liszt on Good Friday. These intense miniatures of the greatest simplicity each depict one of the 14 Stations of the Cross. They are deeply personal but on the reduced scale of a Japanese haiku not what one would expect of LisztThey are extraordinarily modern in almost fractured tonality and profoundly inward looking creating a mood in one of deep religious meditation.

Here is the appreciation I wrote of it after first hearing the work at the 2011 Chopin i jego Europa Festival performance in Warsaw. It convinced me completely of the truly religious basis of much of Liszt's misunderstood thought and philosophy. One realizes after listening to the Via Crucis  that Liszt genuinely believed, was a fervent rather theatrical Christian and not the posturing Abbe of common view.

[Rarely recorded today but and excellent version available on Hyperion CDA67199 
    Corydon Singers and Thomas Trotter organ conducted by Matthew Best]

I was heartened to hear almost a complete performance of this work on uplifting and unapologetically serious Polish Radio 2 (Dwojka) last night 30th March 2015. 

This was the version for piano soloist. I must confess to much preferring the version with the solemnity and grandeur of the organ and the added religious associations that instrument creates in the mind and heart.

Ferenc Liszt
Via Crucis, les 14 stations de la croix
soloists, mixed choir and organ

What an extraordinary manner in which to end a music festival and what inspiration lies here.

The venue for the concert was the beautiful and historic baroque Kościół św. Krzyża (Church of the Holy Cross) in Warsaw. It was built between 1679 and 1696 by Giuseppe Simone Bellotti. There are a large number of monuments to famous Poles here including the novelist Bolesław Prus, General Władisław Sikorski but above all, on the first pier on the left, a portrait bust of Fryderyk Chopin and an urn containing his heart brought back to Poland by his sister Ludwika.


                      Kościół św. Krzyża (Church of the Holy Cross) in Warsaw, Poland
Franz Liszt arrived in Rome in September 1878 and took up residence in the Villa d’Este. He lived a simple life here rising with the lark, attending mass at the church at Tivoli and then composition. It was here shortly after arrival that he heard news of the death of his close friend Baron Antal Augusz – he wrote that they were ‘of one heart’. One outcome of his grief was the extraordinary sound world he created of the Via Crucis, les 14 stations de la croix which I heard for the first time tonight. He was also moved by a Service of the Stations he heard in the Colosseum one Good Friday. The Church of the Holy Cross is the most suitable setting imaginable for this sacred work and its resonant acoustic is splendid for the abstract nature of it. The work is in fourteen short movements with texts selected from the Bible by Liszt’s companion, Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein. It was written for mixed choir, soloists and piano or organ. In his official foreword to Via Crucis Liszt wrote:


‘Devotion to the 'Way of the Cross’ is very widespread among Catholics. Many churches feature images of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, which in Good Friday, the faithful follow with an officiating priest. I have participated in this ceremony, notably at the Colosseum in Rome, steeped in the blood of the holy martyrs. In the pages of music which follow I have attempted humbly to express my devout emotion.

O crux, ave, spec unica! [Hail, O Cross, our single hope!]

(from the previously unpublished foreword quoted in Alan Walker Franz Liszt Volume 3 the Final Years 1861-1886 p. 381-2)


This was one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I have heard for a very long time. At the time it was composed it must have been shocking indeed it is so forward-looking in its atonality and avant-garde ‘harmonies’. Refused by publishers it was not performed until fifty years after it was written on Good Friday, 1929 in Budapest. Liszt himself said he ‘was quite shaken by it.’ Not only is the pain of Christ himself depicted but also the suffering of the witnesses, especially his mother.



An Albrecht Durer engraving in his Great Passion series (1497-1510)

The Prelude began with an old plainchant but this is a false indication of the astonishing music that follows. The organ has a heavy, simple phrase as Jesus staggers between Stations on the way to Calvary. He falls thrice. None of the Liszt pyrotechnics in evidence at all. Gone. Subdued. Sublimated into true religious feeling. ‘Jesus meets his mother’ was an absolutely heart-rending Stabat Mater by female voices. I have only ever felt this extraordinary devotional emotion scored for small forces in a performance at Versailles of Francois Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres.


The unfocused chromatic irresolution of ‘The Women of Jerusalem mourn for Jesus’ and then ‘Do not weep for me, but rather weep for yourselves and for your children’ – the grief seemed almost unbearable in light of our ghastly situation of horror, death and mutilation that pertains across many world cultures just now. The Crucifixion music was of extreme simplicity and all the more effective – such a surprise when you think of what Liszt might have written of it in his dramatic youth. I kept hearing Wagnerian chromaticism throughout. Liszt’s great biographer Alan Walker comments on this work ‘A work of outcries, whispers and laments….His music not only made history; it had a history of making history.’ (Vol.3 p. 383-4)


At the conclusion of this profoundly moving work I did not want to hear applause, I simply wanted to remain silent and meditate. The profound spiritual impact of this rarely performed music of Liszt in this unsurpassed setting was something I shall never forget until I too am taken away.

Gallipoli 100th Anniversary - 25th April 2015 'A Viking at Gallipoli' - The Diaries of Captain Nikolai Theodor Svensen of A Company 15th Battalion (Australia)

I have always felt that the broad notion of 'allies betrayed' has bound Poles, Australians and New Zealanders together in spirit however complex and many-sided the actual historical truth. 

The husband of my great-aunt Lillian was the eccentric Lieutenant Nikolai Theodore Svensen ('Theo' to the family). Lililan was the sister of the subject of my recently completed biographical project, the forgotten Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill. She was also a fine pianist. 

Originally from Norway (born in Larvik), Svensen emigrated to Australia and completed his schooling in Brisbane and became a survey draughtsman. Major N.T. Svensen (his final rank) was an incredibly eccentric yet highly talented gentleman. I use the word advisedly as he was descended from a distinguished Norwegian shipping and ship-building family who fell on hard times and emigrated to Australia when steamships supplanted sailing vessels. 

He first served in the Boer War with the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry and had over ten years service with the Queensland Rifles Regiment. At the outbreak of the Great War he enlisted in A Company 15th Battalion AIF on 30 September 1914. His unit embarked from Melbourne on board the Transport A 40 Ceramic on 22 December 1914. He was wounded in the face and chest at Gallipoli on 10 May 1915.   Evacuated from the peninsula in November 1915 with enteric fever he was repatriated to Australia in 1916. Svensen retired with the honorary rank of Major.


Portrait of Captain Nikolai Theodor Svensen (1878-1966) of A Company 15th Battalion (Australia) wearing the Queen’s South Africa (Boer War) Medal and 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

When landing at Anzac Cove he kept a meticulously detailed diary (which I treasure) in minute handwriting in two small volumes covered in dark green leather of the formidable event even during the very moments it was taking place. 'A bullet has just landed eight inches from my foot.' he coolly scribbled during the very landing itself with the grace under pressure of a Nelson. An extraordinary document. 


Captain J F Walsh (left) and Lieutenant N T Svensen (right) leading files of A Company, 15th Battalion during a march through Melbourne, 17th December 1914 shortly before embarkation. Two children are in the right foreground.
Svensen was an obsessional and perfectionist professional soldier throughout his long life. He played exciting table-top war games of Napoleonic and Great War battles with me as a child lasting weeks. We used detailed painted regiments of paper soldiers moving according to a throw of dice with small cannons that fired tiny wooden pellets. Each battle was written up in a ledger and soldiers that had distinguished themselves were decorated accordingly and promoted. He told me blood-curdling stories late into the night of 'Johnny Turk' (as the soldiers referred to the enemy) when I stayed with he and Lilian as a child over a period of years whilst my father was studying medicine at Queensland University.

These years spent in that eccentric environment as a child go a long way to explaining why I turned out to be the odd creature obsessed with detail that I feel myself to be.


Major N. T. Svensen prepares to fight a Napoleonic battle. He was a pioneer of  international Table Top War Games and as a child I was drawn into this world. Hence my love of the 1993  ITV series Sharpe one of the finest television series ever made on any subject

During these memorial years of the Great War, I have decided to write up the unique account of his personal campaign at Gallipoli which as a commissioned officer was of an intensity of detail unrivaled in my experience. On the new blog (not this post) I have lodged photographs and extracts as I discovered them during my researches. 

This posting is simply in the form of a communique.

Further material, photographs and updates on Major N. T. Svensen can be found at this blog address: 

http://www.gallipoliviking.blogspot.com/




Major Nikolai Theodor Svensen (1878-1966) 

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Auschwitz-Birkenau – January 27, 2015. 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Nazi Germany's Concentration and Extermination Camp

Click on photographs for a superior image (Nikon F 2 and Fuji Film taken in 1992)


Approaching Auschwitz on the Ferry in 1992

Winter sunset at Auschwitz 1992

Crematorium remains at Birkenau  1992

Zyklon B crystals Majdanek Camp Museum 1992

Detail at the Children's Memorial at the Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

Unkempt Jewish Cemetery at Lesko, south-east Poland


The compression of time into an instant image. Birkenau - the 'Little Wood'

[Behind the main Birkenau camp there were two more crematoria, Krems IV and V. They were considerably smaller than II, and III but were still of sufficient size to kill many people each day. 

The area was cordoned off with barbed wire. Branches of leaves were woven thickly into the wire to deaden noises and shield the crematoria and gas chambers from view. The first view is of the path leading to Krematorium V that began operations on April 4, 1943. It had a cremation capacity of 768 corpses in a 24-hour period. The ruins of the structure are at the end of a path. People were either brought here by truck or were forced to walk about a mile to what has become known as 'The Little Wood'.]



Ghosts of Warsaw inhabit  Próżna Street 

On this day you may wish to read my description of and reflections on a rather gruelling and bleak visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau in the early 1990s (before it was sanitized as a tourist attraction) from my literary travel book on Poland  A Country in the Moon : Travels in Search of The Heart of Poland (London 2008).

Click on this link for the chapter:

Words are insufficient to confront what happened there on any rational human level. Can faith in our human race carry us through a realization of the implications for post-war history and the ubiquitous disrespect for human life that has been its consequence?

There is such a danger that the familiarity of this profoundly evil conception has made too many people indifferent, or as we have seen, irrational and self-serving in expressing denial that the Holocaust occurred at all. Such men are creating yet another opportunity for nameless aggression towards our fellow man and the incomprehensible cruelty and murder of untold numbers of innocent children. 

We seem in 2015 to have regressed to living once again through the Old Testament in certain parts of the world. 

The great author W.G. Sebald, one of the most original voices of our time, believed that we as 'civilized' human beings have not yet been able, or more frighteningly, even desired, to come to any mature spiritual or moral terms with what actually happened during those terrible, almost unfathomable years of insanity. I agree with him completely and until this happens the barbarians who have already breached the walls remain a murderous force within the castle grounds. 

And no, I am not Jewish, Polish or even particularly religious, simply human.

The recent photographs and film of ISIS atrocities have a ghastly familiarity do they not?

The metaphor changes, the landscape and cultures hosting atrocities alter, unexpectedly religion enters the frame but the terrifying and brutal inhumanity of man against man remains the same. 

The price of freedom seems always to be unconscionably high.

A Country in the Moon : Travels in Search of The Heart of Poland (London 2008)

http://www.michael-moran.net/poland.htm     (English)


http://www.michael-moran.net/pages/polish_editions/Kraj_z_Ksiezyca/index.htm (Polish)