Power Struggles

"German troops have attacked our country. . . Our cause is just. The enemy will be crushed. Victory will be ours." (Molotov,  June, 1941, from a loudspeaker broadcast throughout cities of Soviet Union after start of Nazi invasion, known as Operation Barbarossa)

"The army is working . . . do not panic. We are strong .  . . we are ready for everything and we will defeat everyone, because we are Ukraine." (President Zelensky, February, 2022 from a Facebook video post hours after Russia started full attack of Ukraine)

I’ve been reading about Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer perhaps best known for his Leningrad symphony, and I had every intention of blogging about that this week, but the current news changed my direction . . . unfortunately.  Instead, let me share something about my pets.

I have a part lab, part pit-bull, black dog, and a short-haired, domestic grey cat. 

The dog is quite strong and could kill the cat who’s also rather strong, but still much smaller. In fact, when the two first became housemates, I was quite worried. However today, as I watch the dog, watching the cat calmly washing himself after eating his lunch, I’m assured that there is peace in our home. I stroke the dog and commend him on his manners. He cuddles against me with gratitude. The cat, done with his toiletries, tail high, marches off for his spot in the sunshine while the dog now heads to the cat dish, hoping for leftovers.

Mere might does not determine power. Why is there peace between my pet rivals? Why don’t I have to worry about the dog and cat having a war? They’ve learned to respect each other, even as I respect them. True, the dog could scare the cat away and eat all its food, rather than just licking up the leftovers. The dog could harm the cat just because he could. The cat knows this. I know this. The dog knows this. But what point is there in being a bully? 

I don’t know what the dog is really thinking, but he seems to prefer love and respect from me and sometimes even tries to pay that forward towards the cat. (The cat, however, prefers a cooler distance.)  

Like my dog, no one seems to know what Putin is really thinking. But if my dog and my cat can respect each other’s boundaries and live together in one house, why can’t Russia respect Ukraine?

When Gdańsk was Danzig

I’m reading a Second World War book structured through letters between two young cousins. Peter lives in rural Saskatchewan and Ulla lives in the city of Danzig (now known as Gdańsk). I love the contrast—along with the similarities—between the two children. What they share is the innocence of youth along with a common Mennonite culture. I’ve been reading a lot about Mennonites lately. It’s purely coincidence, but probably due to the many Mennonites that live here on the prairies and the many writers and readers amongst them. While my growing up experiences share many cultural aspects with the Mennonites, our family would never identify as such. Always on the outside looking in, that's me. 

What caught my interest, specifically, about Dear Peter, Dear Ulla by BC author Barbara Nickel, was the German setting of Gdańsk (now a Polish city). Any time you visit a place, in person, revisiting it on paper makes for a stronger connection. I spent three days in Gdańsk at the end of my Baltic cycling trip and was enthralled with its history and beauty.
Neptune fountain (mentioned in Nickel's novel

Up until the visit, all I really knew of the city was its setting as the beginning of the end of Soviet communism. It was the Gdańsk shipyards where Lech Walęsa started the Solidarity movement in 1980 for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.  It was a powerful experience to view his former shipyard office.
View of St, Marienkirche /St Mary's
mentioned in Nickel's novel

Now through Barbara Nickel’s book, centered around the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland and the attack on the Polish Post Office, I’m learning more of the beautiful city’s brutal history. 

Gdańsk still is a beautiful city. The old city centre has been meticulously restored. It was a delight to wander down its pedestrian friendly streets, hunting for that perfect piece of amber jewelry, admiring restored buildings, and stepping through century-old doorways. What a statement of pride . . . to rebuild, to remember and to honour the history of a place and its people. Gdańsk is like a piece of amber. Unlike Kaliningrad (former Königsberg)—which under Soviet control after the war, chose to demolish the ruins—Gdańsk has rebuilt and remembered.

Portraits of Polish war heroes
lined the streets

Old doorway leading to old books
in the restored old city of Gdańsk

That’s why I love reading historical books. Fiction like Barbara Nickel’s YA novel, Dear Peter, Dear Ulla, also rebuilds and remembers. Like pieces of amber, books can also carry secrets of time. 

Discovering Schlesien

I'm a bit of a luddite when it comes to technology and yet it’s technology that has been one of my biggest supports throughout this pandemic and a bridge to new worlds. When I take my dog on our cold nightly walk down icy sidewalks in suburban Winnipeg, I need my tech connection. While Striker sniffs out the yellow snow and leaves his mark on the mountainous snowbanks, I listen to podcasts sharing travel tips, discussing novels or pondering history. 

I’m also using podcasts to improve my wobbly German language skills—grateful for this gift of fluency in another language—but quite aware that I need to use it or lose it. 

Which brings me to the latest German novel I just finished reading—Wodka mit Grasgeschmack by Markus Mittmann. The novel is about two adult brothers who travel with their parents back to the former Schlesien in today’s Poland. I first heard about this book on the podcast: Culture to Go where the topics focus on refugees from the Second World War.  

Lommes-CC By-SA 4.0

The Schlesien area was decimated during the final months of the Second World War after Hitler declared Breslau a ‘fortress’ city. All the Germans had to leave after the war and Breslau became Wroclaw, Poland. As Wroclaw, the city has thrived and become a hub of culture. In fact, Wroclaw received the distinguished title of UNESCO City of Literature in 2019. It’s considered one of the best and smartest cities of the world.

Mittmann’s book was also smart—and funny—and so relatable. A family squished into a lemon-yellow VW beetle driving into the past. Isn’t that a great set-up for a novel? I loved it. And I love all the episodes on Culture to Go where I’m connecting, learning and validating my own family stories. The luddite in me has to admit, technology is amazing with so much history only a podcast away. 

About Books, History and Geography

When cycling the Curonian Spit a couple of years ago, I was overwhelmed with its beauty. An ecologically-sensitive area, protected by UNESCO, the Spit’s 98 kilometers long, covered in shifting sand dunes and home to many migrating birds. The Spit, a finger of land extending between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon, is politically divided between Lithuania and Russia, and steeped in history. 

I’d been eager to visit Thomas Mann’s family beach house. The pretty blue cottage has been well maintained over the years. Located in Nida, on the Lithuanian side, it’s shifted, like the sand, from summer family retreat, to convalescent centre for Goring’s elite Luftwaffe officers, to a writing centre/museum for current visitors. 

Cycling break in Preila
While reading All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, the completely engrossing biography by Rebecca Donner about Mildred Harneck and the Red Orchestra resistance movement during the Nazi years, I discovered another connection to the area. It’s in tiny Preila, also on the Lithuanian side of Spit. We’d stopped for lunch in Preila during our cycling trip. According to Donner’s book, Preila was the last place that Mildred and her husband Arvid experienced freedom.

On sand dune near Preila
She was there on September 5, 1942, exactly the same time of year, I visited, almost 80 years later.  The natural beauty of the area hasn’t changed much even after 8 decades. Donner describes how Mildred and Arvid would have embraced the scene. She writes, “The Baltic Sea is cold and majestic, its color a rich purple so dark it is nearly black.”  

The couple, now fleeing for their lives, planned to escape Hitler’s grasp via boat for Sweden the next morning. Instead, they were greeted by the Gestapo.Taken back to Berlin, to the cellar of Gestapo headquarters at Prinz-Albrecht Strasse 8, they were tortured, tried and executed in quick order. Arvid hung in December and Mildred was decapitated in February, 1943. I toured the Gestapo headquarters' site, now a memorial and outdoor museum, after I ended my bike tour, unwittingly following in Mildred's footsteps. 

Former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin

Mildred’s story is all the more engrossing because she was an American and because the consequences of her heroic efforts were smudged away. Why? Because being anti-fascist in Berlin during those years meant being pro-Soviet. Once the Nazis were defeated, the Americans considered anyone pro-Soviet an enemy. Former Nazis were treated better by the western media than pro Communists during the Cold War era. 

February is a good month to remember brave women like Sophie Scholl, Mildred Harnack (and many others, shared via photographs from Gestapo files in the Donner book), who died that February, 1943.  It was a month when the colour red was of blood not of hearts, when it was hate, not love, that seeped into everything. Sophie and Mildred deserve our best efforts to never take freedom and peace for granted. Could I die for a cause? I’m grateful not to be tested. 

All the Frequent Troubles of our Days, a gripping biography written in an engaging, accessible style with short chapters and many photographs. I highly recommend it to readers interested in World War Two history.

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