Thursday, 25 April 2013

ANZAC DAY in Warsaw - Poland - 98th Anniversary 2013

Early Spring in the beautiful Saxony Gardens in Warsaw on the fringes of which in Pilsudski Square the Anzac Day Ceremony takes place each year
Click on images to enlarge

Many Australians would find it surprising perhaps to discover that an Anzac Day ceremony has taken place here in Warsaw for some years. It is held in Pilsudski Square at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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. In fact during World War II Poles and New Zealanders fought side by side at the appalling Battle of Monte Cassino. The Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade fought alongside Australian troops at the Siege of Tobruk. Three surviving members of the brigade took part in last year's ceremony (2012) but only one today.  The number diminishes with the passing of years but not the memory. A small number of bemused Poles and wide-eyed school-children always assemble to watch this puzzling (for them) ceremony.

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

It is always a very moving moment for me in voluntary exile far away from home. The husband of my great-aunt Lilian (the sister of the subject of my present biographical project Edward Cahill  - also a fine pianist) was Lieutenant Nikolai Theodore Svensen ('Theo' to the family). Originally from Norway (Larvik), he emigrated to Australia and completed his schooling in Brisbane and became a survey draughtsman. 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 rank of Major.

When landing at Anzac Cove he kept a detailed diary (which I treasure) of the formidable event even during the very moments it was taking place. 'A bullet has just landed eight inches from my foot.' he cooly scribbled with the grace under pressure of a Nelson. An extraordinary document. He was an obsessional and perfectionist professional soldier. He played exciting table-top war games of Napoleonic and Great War battles with me lasting weeks. We used detailed painted battalions of paper soldiers moving according to a throw of dice with small cannons that fired tiny wooden pellets. 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.

This year (2013) the Warsaw service began with an Introduction that explained the connection between Polish and Australian forces during the Great War. This was followed by an address by Jean Dunn, the Ambassador of Australia who read a most moving poem The Last to Leave by Leon Gellert which concludes:

The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great batallions by the shore. 

The Ambassador Designate of New Zealand Wendy Hinton then spoke of the close connections and respect felt between Polish, New Zealand and Australian armed forces in both wars especially at Monte Cassino.

There was then a wreath-laying ceremony and a signing of the Remembrance Book. The Last Post, a minute's silence, the concluding trumpet 'Reveille'...No, their unimaginable sacrifice in the Dardanelles shall never be forgotten...

The present day and the past. Soldiers renewing acquaintance before the ceremony 2012
During the ceremony - note the flags of three nations beside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Three elderly  members of the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade in black berets salute the memory of comrades fallen in the Great War and the terrible war that followed  2012
The laying of wreaths 2012
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Warsaw situated in all that remains of the collonade of the great Saxon Palace of Kings Alexander II and Alexander III that once stood on this site destroyed by the Nazis in the systematic destruction of Warsaw  2012

A noble member of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade remembers War   2012


Polish Officers at the Anzac ceremony Warsaw  2013

He who has seen all in age and she protected in her youth   2013

The Australian Ambassador Jean Dunn signing the Book of Remembrance  2013

The Last Post  2013

One of the last surviving members of the historic and heroic Polish Carpathian Rifle Brigade who fought with distinction alongside Australians at the Siege of Tobruk 2013

Monday, 22 April 2013

Casual Car Club (CCC) Warsaw

For anyone interested in my classic car activities I am now Chairman of what we have called the Casual Car Club (CCC) formed recently in Warsaw to take advantage of the splendid motoring Poland has to offer. It was also an attempt to avoid the bureaucracy and political infighting that afflicts too many large car clubs. 

We had our first excursion on Saturday April 20th to Nieborow and Arkadia. Nice pictures of the treasures of Poland even if you have no interest in cars! 

You may like to read about the excursion on this link: 

Friday, 19 April 2013

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 70th Anniversary April 19th 2013

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 only a generation 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. We must remember such past events but 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 remember and 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 photographs to enlarge for superior image

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 alsoWords 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. 

[Footnote: 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 theUmschlagplatz (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

A visit to the Jewish Cemetery adjacent to Powązki in Okopowa Street is a powerful  and melancholic  reminder  of the tremendous historical presence of Jews in Warsaw and the central contribution they made to the life of the city. From 1527 to 1795 Jews were not permitted to live in Warsaw. The cemetery was founded  in 1806, at that time outside the walls, and covered a massive eighty acres. 

Up to 1939 it contained  the bodies of some 200,000 Jews in marked graves. Much of it is a sad and neglected place, finely carved grave- stones  overgrown and  awry,  decorative  wrought iron  rusting  in piles, doors  to mausoleums  gaping as if the soul has fled. Despite this, clearance and dedication  by volunteers  has improved  sections immeasurably  over the years. Most moving are the common  mass graves to the Ghetto Insurgents (overgrown grassy depressions     surrounded by a circle of white marble standing stones with a simple black band) and memorial graves erected by Jewish families living abroad  to  honour family  members  murdered but  never  met.  An inscription  reads ‘In memory  of one million Jewish children  murdered by Nazi German  barbarians 1939–1945.’

   A statue of the renowned Janusz Korczak  ‘The King of Children’ gently accompanies a few of his charges from his orphanage  to their  joint  annihilation. Of  the numberless    descriptions I have read of the horrors of the Holocaust, this passage, describing the final journey  of 200 children to the Treblinka  extermination  camp, is the most heart-rending of all. It comes from Władysław Szpilmans The Pianist.

One day, around  5th August, when I had to take a brief rest from work  and  was walking  down  Gęsia  Street,  I  happened  to  see Janusz Korczak  and his orphans  leaving the ghetto.

The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered  for that  morning.  The children  were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty  that he persuaded  the Germans  to take him too.  He  had spent long years of his life with  children,  and now,  on  this  last journey,  he could  not  leave them  alone.  He wanted  to ease things for them. He  told the orphans  they were going out into the country, so they ought  to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood.

The little column was lead by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play and so they set off.

When I met them in Gęsia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak   was  carrying  two  of  the  smallest  infants,  who  were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story.

I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Zyklon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans’  hearts, the Old  Doctor must have whispered  with one last effort, ‘Its all right, children, it will be all right, so that at least he could  spare his little charges the fear of passing from  life to death.

Janusz Korczak  (1878–1942) was the pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit, the heroic  Polish- Jewish paediatrician,  children’s author  and educational  theorist.  Andrzej  Wajda made a film of his life in 1990 called Dr Korczak. 

All extracts from A Country in the Moon : Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (London and Warsaw 2009)  (English edition)    (Polish edition)

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Bugatti Queen

Club Lapel Badge

I recently received my membership documents from the GRRC (Goodwood Road Racing Club) and a week or so later the annual luxurious and quite brilliant Goodwood Magazine. Of course it presents a style of life and expenditure that I can only dream of in real terms but this issue was particularly interesting with superbly illustrated articles on the Porsche 911 (50th birthday), William Knight the outstanding Goodwood horse trainer, the racing legend Jimmy Clark, the Boultbee Spitfire Academy where you can train to fly a Spitfire and a celebration of two decades of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I managed to attend the Goodwood Revival in 2009 in my concours 1949 MG TC (black with Apple-green Collingburn interior) and am still recovering from the cost from Warsaw of that sublime weekend.  

Click on photographs for best results (Leica D-Lux 4)

A couple of period punters in the March Enclosure Goodwood Revival 2009

LXA 52 The beautifully patinated concours 1949 MG TC (Black with Apple-green Collingburn interior) TC Chassis No: 8315 with yours truly MM at the wheel. Academically correct down to the last detail and illustrated as such in two books on the marque : MG T Series in Detail by Paddy Willmer (Herridge & Sons Books 2005) and the quite superb, large format MG Sports Cars by Malcolm Green (Bramley Books 1997) 

Bentley vs Messerschmitt ME 109 Goodwood Revival 2009

Girls with style and attitude at the Goodwood Revival

Sir Stirling Moss driving the Aston Martin DBR 1 during his 80th Birthday celebrations at the Goodwood Revival 2009  

More on the history of my association with classic cars if you are interested: (English)    (Polish)

But of great interest to me personally, to my joy there was an illustrated article on Hellé Nice (the stage name of Hélène Delangle) - dancer, stripper, cabaret artiste and driver of GP Bugattis and Alfas between the wars. The article was by the author Miranda Seymour based on her book The Bugatti Queen (London 2004). 

I am not usually envious of the biographical subject an author selects but how I wished fate had passed me into the arms of  Hélène Delangle. My kind of woman who I fell deeply in love with after reading this book.  Below are some photographs taken from it and the Amazon review I wrote 9 years ago after reading it. I cannot recommend this book more highly to anyone interested in authentic living, chic style, risk taking, love, uninhibited sex and sheer joie de vivre unencumbered by the emasculating political correctness and health and safety nonsense that has descended upon us like a suffocating and poisonous miasma.

Balzac meets Bugatti  My Amazon review of 16 Mar 2004

This enthralling story of the spirited and brilliant female racing driver Hellé Nice reads like a modern version of a Balzac novel.

It chronicles her intensely adventurous, glamorous and glittering career driving Bugattis, Alfas and other assorted exotic machinery in the south of France, Italy, Brazil and the United States. This with the added frisson of knowing that the girl in question was a drop-dead gorgeous dancer, nightclub stripper and wildly promiscuous.

After gathering all the glittering prizes, her life descends inexorably with the hubris and inevitability of Greek tragedy into desperate poverty, loneliness and ill-health, cruelly neglected and disinherited by her provincial and slightly retarded and dysfunctional French family, abandoned and robbed by her lover. Her downfall was precipitated by a vicious betrayal at a glamorous party when she was publicly accused by the famous and so-called 'cultivated' driver Louis Chiron of collaboration with the Gestapo during the occupation. She subsequently lived in the care of a benevolent French charity until her death in utter obscurity. Her plain, dull sister Solange vindictively omits her name from the family gravestone (now restored) so tormented was she by a primitive and gnawing envy of her joyful and champagne-filled life. Pure Balzac transported to last century.

But the book is far more than that. It is a brilliant evocation of the almost unbelievably reckless nature of 1930s racing. It describes the violent deaths from tremendous accidents that often resulted on the banked courses and unregulated tracks that were so popular in those days. Hellé herself crashed in Brazil killing and injuring many spectators - something that haunted her for the rest of her life. It paints a wonderfully eloquent picture of the aristocratic temperament of those times, courting hazards with ease and negligence; a portrait of those rash, wealthy sons who diced with their lives among the other esoteric pleasures of the Bugatti racing circle. Miranda Seymour's economical style portrays these tragic, even spectacular deaths like so many stabs to the heart. Shocking and desperately moving accounts. The arbitrary nature of torture and execution in Nazi occupied France is similarly treated with fierce economy.

I have only driven a Bugatti T35 once in my life and that around Hamptead Garden Suburb – rather sad but there you are. Yet it was the greatest driving experience I have ever had - the car absolutely alive with the nervous and fractious energy of an Arab stallion. The sound of the engine courses through one like electricity. Seymour captures this pace and excitement in her book as it breathlessly bowls along like a Bugatti itself.

I am also an author with a passion for vintage machinery and the fabulous style of the politically incorrect 1930s - such creatures as Hellé Nice we shall never see again. Oh that I had had the luck to come across this wonderful story and had been born earlier.

Please God, someone make a movie of it! Do read this fantastic biography. Like the author, I too have fallen in love with the ghost of Hellé Nice.

A beautiful girl needs to earn a living the hard way. Hélène in the early Paris years

Flat out at the wheel of the Rothschild Bugatti at La Baule, September 1931

Surely the descendant of the model for that controversial painting 'The Origin of the World' by the French nineteenth century artist Gustave Courbet. Hélène at rest possibly photographed by her mentor Marcel Mongin on a hotel bed in Brighton in 1920

Hélène in triumphant pose on the Bugatti Type 35  at Montlhery in 1930

Hélène in her Paris stage performance releasing a white dove with no inhibitions 

Hélène beside her Alfa Monza before the Comminges GP at St. Gaudens, Haut-Garonne, August  1935

Goodwood Road Racing Club (GRRC) :