Today’s Yesterdays, Around the World: November 19th

I am waking slowly to an overcast Saturday in Florida, a day that holds the promise of slow motion, relaxation.  A day that belies the power of this date.

November the 19th has seen its share of action over the years and across the continents.  Columbus discovered Puerto Rico.  The Mayflower reached Cape Cod.  The Battle of Stalingrad reached a turning point.  Indira Ghandi and Calvin Klein were born.  Franz Schubert and Mike Nichols died.  Apollo 12 astronauts walked on the moon (the ultimate extreme-travel destination).

abraham-lincoln-1863-head-shotAnd my favorite moment from the time and space capsule of November 19th: U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863 as the Civil War raged on.  He stood at the cusp of the one-time battlefield, he dedicated a national cemetery for soldiers, and he reflected on the task of rededicating ourselves to the democratic ideal of equality and resolving that this new nation “by the people, of the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln mused that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” but he was mistaken.  His speech feels like part of the bedrock of our culture– inspiring on our good days, re-centering on our bad days, and acting as a touchstone when the stresses of maintaining our union and healing its fissures weigh heavy.

Who knows what November 19, 2016 will bring to your life and your corner of the world . . . but you could do worse than to start your day with the words of Abraham Lincoln:

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Prague: The Lennon Wall

“I read the news today, oh boy . . .”  (A Day In the Life, Lennon and McCartney)

The news this week is heartbreaking, incomprehensible, and ugly.  Why is the human race so quick to choose fear and anger over love and tolerance?

Amid all of the rainbow pride flags being flown in solidarity and pasted across Facebook homepages, I wanted to offer up this traveler’s “peace flag”–a photo of the Lennon Wall (sometimes called the Peace Wall) in Prague.

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The wall began after John Lennon’s death in 1980.  His picture appeared on the wall, with anti-communist slogans  (remember, this was during the communist regime).  The wall was painted over, but the paintings of Lennon, along with graffiti about Lennon and Beatles lyrics,  kept reappearing.  It was an act of defiance against the corrupt and oppressive government.

During the 80’s, student protesters who called their movement “Lennonism”  (ironic and clever!) often clashed with police in the area.  Whenever the wall was repainted, the graffiti just came back.

The communist regime is long gone, but the wall still stands and continues to draw crowds and artists. It has been painted over many times, by whitewash and by years of artists leaving their messages, and it’s even been reconstructed as it crumbled.  Unlike the Berlin Wall,  which crumbled with the demise of communism, this wall stood for peace and watched communism fall in the (non-violent) 1989 “Velvet Revolution” in the former Czechoslovakia.

This week it stands and speaks to all of us with its rainbow of colors and its haunting refrains of “Give Peace a Chance.”

*The Lennon Wall is nearby the Charles Bridge and the French Embassy.

lennonwall

Surviving the Holocaust: Selma van der Perre

 

From projeckt-ravensbrueck.de webpage
From projeckt-ravensbrueck.de webpage

Last Friday, I had the good fortune to hear the 94 year old  Selma van der Perre speak about her experiences as a Jewish woman during the Holocaust and a survivor of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  I braced myself for difficult stories and a somber afternoon, but what appeared on stage was an absolute spitfire of a woman who radiated hope, energy, and life abundant.  I fell in love with Selma the minute she walked on stage–with a cane and on the arm of a younger person, wearing a neat suit, chic French scarf, and white beret.

She was chic, sharp, and a delight in every way.  Some of the stories she had to tell made your blood run cold and your stomach clench into a knot, but everything about her being shone bright and radiated hope.

Selma-vanderperreShe was a young woman growing up in the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power.  Her family was pulled apart, her father died in Auschwitz, and she became a courier with the Dutch resistance, taking a false identity and dodging the authorities while helping the cause.  Eventually, she was caught and sent to prison, then transferred to Ravensbruck.

Selma could, and eagerly would, tell you stories all day about those years–each story more fascinating than the last, and many of them heart-wrenching. They are her stories to tell, and I couldn’t do them justice, so I won’t try to re-present them here.  You may use this link to hear her tell some of her stories in her own words (from a BBC program on Ravensbruck– “Surviving Ravensbruck”).  I promise you that it is well worth your time.

What I will tell you is how she answered a question about what gave her the strength to go on and to not give up, although she was quite ill and weak much of the time.  She answered this very simply, taking little personal credit.  Yes, what she did in the resistance was dangerous, but it was a difficult time and she wanted to do her part and help people.  And besides that, she didn’t want to give the Nazis the satisfaction of crumbling– she wanted to “stick it to them.”

Ravensbruck prisoners, from Wikipedia
Ravensbruck prisoners, from Wikipedia

Even as a factory worker in Ravensbruck work camp, she and her colleagues would sabotage the gas masks they manufactured for the Third Reich, not screwing them together properly.  Anything they could do to undermine their captors, they did.  And they showed each other kindness–she was adamant that kindness from other inmates (and even a prison guard early on–a guard who was later incarcerated and killed for her part in helping inmates) kept her going during tenuous times.

There are very few survivors of the concentration camps still around, and, like Selma, they have reached a ripe age.  It is so important that we hear their stories whenever and wherever we get the chance.  I very nearly missed hearing her talk.  I had a busy day Friday and her talk wasn’t at a convenient time for me . . . and, as you can imagine, I felt a little discomfort about going.  It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, and the Holocaust is a heavy, horrific topic which anyone might, understandably, want to avoid.   But that would have been a mistake.

When I left the theater and stepped back into the bright afternoon, I was uplifted.  The horror of the history had been laid out unquestionably in her talk–I flinched time and again as she told stories– but, I tell you this, the lesson was transformed in the person of Selma van der Perre.  “This cannot happen again,” she said, “we must be very aware of such things going on still in our world.”  Her message was clear and serious, but in her capable hands it was uplifting and resilient.  Our lights should all shine so bright.

Thank you, Selma van der Perre.

All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it.  We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.

But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.

“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”  Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Creative Commons licensing

 When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–a uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted.  It was the right sort of house for that:  imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.

I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.

 But then nothing happened.  

Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.

Still, nothing happened.  

After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened.  What a rip off!  I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!?  Not a fair trade off if you ask me.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too, and they have their own agendas.  I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life.  It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life.  What was Christmas like for them?  Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver?  Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage?  Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?

And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area?  Was this a dramatic change, considering this area has always been a source of border disputes?  Was the occupation a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals who must have been haunted by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war?

And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II.  What about those Christmas dinners?  Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark?  Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe?  Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me.  I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided,  like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.

Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either.  I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.

It’s better not to know, I tell myself.

Still, I want a ghost for Christmas.  I can’t shake that feeling.  It’s part of the old house package.

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  -William Faulkner

I had a ghost once, a few years ago.

I know, I know–just hear me out.  This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances.  The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; for that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; at that point, it all makes more sense.  And one more thing–the children aren’t around.  If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.

I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts then).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story tomorrow.  That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.  It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.

Meet me here tomorrow, if you dare, and I will tell you my ghost story.

chistms carol page