Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Warsaw the Phoenix - The Maria Skłodowska-Curie Bridge (Most Marii Skłodowskiej-Curie, formerly North Bridge)


Just to say I was one of the very first cars to cross the new Maria Skłodowska-Curie Bridge (Most Marii Skłodowskiej-Curie, formerly North Bridge) on Sunday March 25th 2012 when it first opened to motor vehicles. This engineering project was incredibly complex (one of the largest in the EU and the most complex intersection design in Warsaw). Despite all the dramas of naming (in true Polish style!) everyone involved is to be congratulated.

Full detailed information and technical links at

The car is my concours 1949 MG TC which I have affectionately tended at ruinous expense, intense frustration but much joy for many years now. Properly registered as a classic car in Poland but still on 'proper' English plates as I prefer the classic look of them to the ghastly yellow Polish ones with silly toy veteran car embossed...

My 1949 MG TC - one of first cars to cross the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Bridge (Most Marii Skłodowskiej-Curie, formerly North Bridge) on March 25th 2012 

Friday, 20 April 2012

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Anniversary

Last night in a quiet moment before I went to sleep I could not help reflecting on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, living as I do where these tragic events occurred not so very long ago. I decided to get out of my warm and cosy bed and read what I had written in my Polish book about this particularly valiant and frantic moment in the tumultuous history of this miracle of a city, Warsaw.

The Ghetto Uprising is too often confused by travellers to this country, understandably unfamiliar with Polish history, with the equally tragic Warsaw Uprising that began on 1 August 1944. As an Australian author with no Jewish or Polish roots, I too initially suffered from a lamentable ignorance of matters almost beyond comprehension for one raised in 'The Lucky Country' - until I began to read. In this I consider myself privileged to have a rather  more objective, what one might even term an outsider's view of such historical events. I count myself lucky not to have absorbed the cruel prejudices against Jews, Poles and Poland that are still inherited by those born into the collective unconscious of Europe.

Doubt hovers over a thought-provoking remark Stalin is reported to have once made. At the Teheran Conference “Churchill had been arguing that a premature opening of a second front in France would result in an unjustified loss of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers. Stalin responded that 'when one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it's statistics'". Quoted in David McCullough Truman (New York 1992)

Accurately sourced quotation or not, the remark points up the danger of becoming all too familiar with historic events and the relative magnitude of deaths. This particular uprising illustrates at once the most bestial in human nature and its most noble qualities of resistance, courage even poetry of the darkest hue. We are in danger not of forgetting the event itself, but of forgetting the detail of it which when once recalled or first encountered profoundly moves the soul to pity.

We are lost in the welter of information concerning the perpetration of our own current appalling atrocities, horrors which are slowly obliterating or leaching away the intensity of memory.

The metaphor changes but the bestiality remains. Remember such past events, not to avoid them happening again. They will not be repeated in the same way by man the chameleon. He is too clever for that. Rather we need to constantly remind ourselves that in human nature a brutish creature of terrifying proportions lies perilously close beneath the surface veneer of charm, moral goodness and virtuous intentions.

Detail within the Childrens' Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

Click on photograph to enlarge

Extract from Chapter 4 Warsaw the Phoenix from the book
A Country in the Moon by Michael Moran (London 2010)


In a history increasingly bleached by time, the city [Warszawa] suffered gross physical destruction by the Nazis, murderous repressions without parallel in revenge for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 19 April – 16 May 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest and most infamous of the Nazi ghettos where almost 480,000 Jews died from either disease, malnutrition, execution or were murdered at Treblinka.

Originally a footnote: [This statistic is from Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940–1945, Gunnar S. Paulsson (New Haven 2002). The book is an extraordinary account of Jews in hiding with carefully researched statistics and many astounding individual stories of courageous Jewish resistance. See also Words Outlive Us: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. Michał Grynberg trans. Philip Boehm (New York 2002) p. 1. This is a heartbreaking collection of first-hand testimonies of life in the ghetto. These eyewitness accounts were written by a remarkable range of people from all walks of life either in the ghetto or clandestinely outside, discovered in the rubble of Warsaw or passed through the hands of survivors. The grimmest of truths lies in the details that speak from pages that ‘challenge us to imagine the unimaginable’. This is individual suffering by real people and not the sanitized, meaningless generalized statistics trotted out as contemporary ‘history’. Indispensable if you have the courage not to turn aside.]

In the Ghetto it was said that everyone had ‘death in his eyes’ or ‘a skull instead of a face’. The creation of it necessitated the displacement of over 200,000 Poles and Jews from their homes and businesses. A popular saying among Germans at the time was ‘The Poles we hate instinctively; the Jews we hate in accordance with orders.’ The displaced lost everything. The Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto by decree on 12 October 1940 – on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

It was divided into three main sections. In the ‘Little Ghetto’ wealthy Jews and the intelligentsia lived well. The pianist Władysław Szpilman (whose memoir of the Ghetto, The Pianist, was an international bestseller) wrote of the Café Nowoczesna: ‘This was the meeting place of the rich; dripping with gold and glittering with diamonds; this was where painted harlots, at tables bedecked with delicacies, seduced the wartime noveaux riches, to the accompaniment of popping champagne corks.’ He went on to describe the hunger and illness of the poor in the ‘Big Ghetto’, dead children lying uncollected in the streets. The third section was the industrial ghetto where the Jewish workers and their families were worked to death as slave labour.

[Śmierć miasta (Death of a City), Władysław Szpilman, compiled by Jerzy Waldorff (Warsaw 1946). This is the original unedited text of The Pianist, trans. Anthea Bell (London 1999)]

The Ghetto witnessed the departure of the packed cattle trucks from the Umschlagplatz (Shipment Square), the transport hub for the extermination camp of Treblinka and the Lublin labour camps.The Jewish police ‘delivered’ up to twelve thousand souls per day to the Nazis in the Umschlagplatz to die or work as slaves. Desperate parents drugged their infants and concealed them in knapsacks and suitcases which were often lost on the carts. Babies woke in the terrifying dark, buried alive, never to be seen again. Jews were driven to the overcrowded holding areas of the ‘Hospital for Infectious Diseases’, a building swimming in faeces, urine and blood ‘as if designed by a satanic architect’. Cattle cars were packed with a hundred and twenty people in a space designed for twenty horses. And then the gas.

After a tiring day at the ‘Umschlag’ one sadistic SS officer habitually drove around the Ghetto streets in a Mercedes sports car picking off strays with his revolver. Another asked a woman carrying a baby on her shoulder if she had had a difficult day’s work. She responded positively to his gesture of concern. He then asked her if she would like a loaf of bread. She thanked him profusely for his generosity. As she walked away with optimism in her heart he took careful aim and shot her baby through the head.

Originally a footnote: [A rarely performed and largely forgotten but unparalleled expression in Western music of this suffering forms the seven agonizing minutes of Ein Überlebender aus Warschau Op. 46 (A Survivor from Warsaw) (1947) for orchestra and narrator by Arnold Schoenberg. In a text written by Schoenberg himself in English (a narrator living in the sewers of Warsaw), German (a violent Nazi sergeant barking orders to the gas chambers) and Hebrew (the prayer Shem’a Yisroel) he expresses how consolation in extreme adversity can come from song and prayer.]

The Ghetto uprising in April 1943, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, was an act of inconceivable courage that has achieved formidable symbolic and moral stature. Yet after ninety per cent of the Jews had been murdered and the Ghetto destroyed and replaced by the concentration camp KL Warschau (where tens of thousands of Gentile Poles died) there remained in Warsaw ‘the largest clandestine community of Jews anywhere in Europe, in fact probably the largest community of people that has lived in hiding in any city, ever.’ (Paulsson)

Some ten per cent of Poles in Warsaw helped Jews to hide, and many more provided food, clothes and money for their Jewish friends. Few were betrayed to the common enemy. Some 28,000 Jews hid on the Aryan side while so-called ‘wild’ Jews returned to the burned-out ruins of the ‘wild’ Ghetto and lived like rats.

An iconic moment of German–Polish reconciliation occurred in December 1970 when the then Federal Chancellor of Germany, Willy Brandt, spontaneously fell to his knees in a silent apology at the memorial to Jews murdered by the SS in the Ghetto. ‘On the abyss of German history and carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them,’ he commented later. This kneeling figure became a symbolic image of the way forward for a mercilessly divided Europe.

    Detail from the Childrens' Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Poland Pictured

The Napoleonic Fortress of Modlin at the confluence of the Vistula and Narew rivers close to Warsaw

Officers exchanging vital tactical intelligence at a re-enactment of the Napoleonic Battle of Raszyn 1809

At the re-enactment of the Napoleonic Battle of Pultusk 1806

Officers at leisure before the Napoleonic Battle of Pultusk 1806

Some of my other photographs of the country, unfortunately not included in my book on Poland A Country in the Moon are available on my website at:


[For those of you who are interested in such matters, they are mostly non-digital photographs I shot with my non-electronic Nikon F2 with the old Nikon lenses. These days I use a digital Leica more often than the F2. However I feel the 'painterly' quality of landscape and subject cannot be convincingly or adequately created through the Adobe or Capture One processing of digital images. It is so difficult to reproduce that particular patina and soft ambience produced by the 'old cameras'.]

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Last Days of the Round Reading Room at the British Museum and the British Library - and a Pleasant Encounter

The Angel of Torun (by Aneta Barnett)
I have such fond memories of the old Round Reading Room at the British Museum. Two of my books on travelling in the seductive South Pacific were completed in that inspiring space, the blue dome arching above one like the southern sky, the blue leather seats worn soft and comfortable by generations of researchers, the leather folding reading frames above each desk illuminated by a green shaded lamp with brass fittings. Leather-bound volumes lined the higher reaches of the walls with gilt-lettered spines protected by gilded mesh screens. A rare perfume of scholasticism hovered about the place. The room possessed a singularly English character and style, something fast disappearing today, undefended.  Many great writers wrote great works of literature under this papier-mache covered dome, the phantoms of their minds seemingly imprinted forever on the air. 

Books were ordered by filling out small slips of paper in duplicate by hand, outlining one's requirements and desk number. I collected them for my bibliographies and have them still tied in bundles in a trunk in the attic. Then a short wait ensued for the delivery. Whispered advice could be obtained from selfless assistants who possessed a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of 'the stacks'. It  was all terribly personal and cosy, even intimate in its reverential silence. Serious registered reseachers used the library in those days, an elite in many ways. Just the possession of a Reader's Card was an intellectual honour in itself at the time, a sign of being engaged on some 'great endeavour'.

The ghostly movement of silent beings drifting across the room wrapt in the intellectual demands of their arcane subject always fascinated me. The gentleman's club atmosphere and hidden alcoves enabled the forbidden, the tachycardia of the illicit and the rendevous (I am told) of many affairs of the heart. I was there on the  last day in 1997 and we all drank champagne and shed a few tears. A most moving occasion.

The new British Library is of course an astonishing facility, one of the great world libraries. However, like much in current life the enormous pressure of contemporary scholastic demands has caused it to evolve into a supremely technological machine and it has necessarily lost the monastic feel of a place frequented by  'the sacred seekers after knowledge', an aura I infallibly experienced every day in the hushed atmosphere of the old Round Reading Room. After all I spent some of the best years of my youth there...

The British Library today is a very different place. These days whenever I need to renew my British Library Reader Pass the procedure has changed and is becoming increasingly technologically automated. This is not surprising as I only need to renew it every few years and the number of 'registered users' of far wider persuasions has increased enormously and we are assured 'democratically'. Scholarly privacy has evolved into a brisk competition for seats. Staff are increasingly pressured and may even resort to unprecedented strike action over conditions and pay. However under these more stressful conditions they remain as helpful, charming and friendly as ever they were. But we talked of the past.

Now as I age and Hercule Poirot's 'little grey cells' increasingly flicker out, I stand bemused 'with bicycle clips in hand' before an illuminated screen displaying many options of ambiguous semantic meaning. Recently during a research visit to London I was afflicted by this state of paralysis when an official angel of mercy miraculously appeared at my side to assist. She was Polish.

The entire world knows thousands of Poles have moved to the United Kingdom and she had overheard me mention to her colleague at the renewal room information desk that I lived in Warsaw. The computerised procedure  became a charming encounter rather than a trial. As I tapped away we spoke of course of Poland and my decision to live in Warsaw a few years ago, considered by the clearly uninformed as a highly eccentric move from Marylebone in Central London where I had lived for thirty years. It is a miracle that Warszawa - so lovely in the leafy summer or in deep winter under snow - exists at all given its tumultuous and tragic history. In an odd way I feel it is a spiritual privilege to be living here although I do have my brief moments of despair. I made my usual joke that I was the person the authorities had exchanged for a million Poles. 

Like many young Poles, Aneta is quite entrepreneurial and has other arrows in her quiver besides registering new pass holders at the British Library. She is a keen photographer and has set up a wedding and portrait studio. She was keen to read my book on Poland and like me believes many more people should see pictures of this beautiful, relatively unknown country. I promised to present some of her outstanding pictures of the fascinating city of Torun on the Vistula River, the birthplace in 1473 of the polymath astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, author of the seminal work on astronomy De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.

Pictures of Torun by Aneta Barnett are available at:  


Also see  http://www.anetaphotography.com/ and http://www.asaphotogroup.com/