Passing through Nickelsdorf

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In a world where Syrian refugees are bursting through police cordons in Budapest to board trains to Germany, blogging about oneself, and writing, seems oddly trivial and self-centered. But it can also be overwhelming to embrace every tragedy in the world. Somehow to retain a human spirit we have to retain compassion, rage against war and yet still find beauty and courage to live our own individual (albeit by comparison, hugely privileged) lives.

On Facebook, people have been posting pictures of the drowned young boy who has become the poster child for Syria and refugees. And yet as we all know, in recent times the children of Gaza have been dying and left homeless. For decades there have been droughts, and famines in Africa. What is it that makes us in the ‘West’ suddenly galvanized by the sight of the Syrian diaspora? I wonder if it is because we see ourselves for the first time quite clearly.

These refugees are articulate, well educated people, speaking English, sounding like us – maybe for the first time we can image what it might be like to have to abandon hearth and home because of war. In the past, maybe we’ve felt safe, perhaps thinking – well, that’s Africa (and we might have sent money or shed tears) – but perhaps we haven’t truly identified – that’s them, not us. For a short while we were all desperate on behalf of the stolen school girls in Nigeria, but news filtered in that some had been found and that alleviated our concerns. And after all, what could we do, aside from Facebook solidarity postings?

I sense in the recent Syrian influx to Europe, we are confronted with something that disturbs our comfortable lives more tangibly. Europe is our cultural playground, a tourist mecca. Or, as I heard it described today, listening to Emily Perkins talking to Michele de Kretser – a big museum. Michele’s book ‘Questions of Travel’ explores through fiction the idea of travel as something you choose to do, and the travel that refugees undertake to escape war or politics.

Over the years, we’ve watched endless Hitler reruns on the History channel, people on trains fleeing Germany. We identified because our fathers had been in this war. We read about Mao, Pol Pot and Rwanda, but we identify with Europe and the war that has dominated our culture through books, movies and television.

My own father was on a cattle train in Europe heading to Germany in 1941. Four years later he was part of the 600 mile death march across Europe in sub-zero temperatures away from the advancing Russians. Last night on the news, a TVNZ reporter was in Nickelsdorf, Austria where people were handing out food and clothing to the refugees. I’ve never been there but it features large in my childhood memory. In my father’s soldier’s book, is a smutty piece of doggerel that used to amuse us kids, about travelling through Nickelsdorf when all the men were struck with diarrhoea.

I recently railed against Germany’s treatment of the Greeks. But it is Germany now leading the way showing Europe what to do, offering sanctuary, a home to refugees. Instead of trains leaving Germany, once again they are heading towards Germany, but this time it is asylum they are seeking.

My own small world means that I come into contact through my work as a teacher, with local refugees and migrants. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. As a child of the 50’s and 60’s in small town New Zealand, where life was primarily mono-cultural, I am proud to be part of a more diverse and multi-cultural experience. I know we can easily afford to accommodate more people. But too, it isn’t just as simple as people imagine. We do need an infrastructure to assist people to adjust to a completely different way of life. I imagine many of the refugees now pouring into Europe are looking for a temporary sanctuary and hope one day to return to a peaceful Syria.

And so I began this as the ‘final copy’ believing I would write about the process of writing and working with editors on my third novel. Somehow the triumph of a new novel seems to pale in the face of these much more important issues. But I also believe that it is our responsibility to celebrate our own small lives and cherish our achievements and joys. My third novel is about the Greek Civil War. It is about immigration and the return home. It is about history and now, but a different now from the one I imagined when I began my novel – my story’s ‘now’ is 2007, a time when Greece was full of economic hope and a growing middle-class. How things have changed in a short eight years.

I am posting a copy of the doggerel written by a POW (if you are squeamish about smutty, then do not read on).

Nickelsdorf 002   Nickelsdorf 001

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Right and Left

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Right and Left

I recently attended the launch of ‘Anzac Day, The New Zealand Story – What it is and why it matters’ written by Philippa Werry. Inside this lovely publication, I found this brief but potent quote from Bertrand Russell.

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

Extraordinarily profound and yet how simply stated. How I admire that. The best writers of course, are able to do this. Meanwhile, I blog and find myself making extra long sentences to explain myself. But of course, the very best writing cuts to the heart of things without a great deal of noise.

Right now, I’m working with an editor on my Greek manuscript. It’s been a long time coming. In fact, I started my research back in 2007. Six years on, I am beginning to believe that my novel is ready. Working with an editor is the most amazing thing. Recently Craig Cliff blogged on this very topic.

I see pages of my manuscript with the word ‘tighten’ down the left-hand column, or even more specifically, the words “Do we need this?” Indeed, we frequently do not! Removing the debris I call it. A good editor enables a writer to look better than they really are. It’s fascinating to see where you have gone off piste often to indulge something, to show off, to weave in some vignette that is really irrelevant, but you just can’t help yourself (and often this vignette is not fiction, and frequently it fails).

Oh what bliss, removing the debris. Actually, I’ve just removed one whole character. Just like that. He’s gone. He was a sub-plot that was never working. My readers had already told me this, but no one had suggested killing him off… that is, until my editor came along. Murder your darlings. He was someone else’s fictitious darling actually and I’d rather liked him and I’d invested far too much time in him – and now he’s gone. Perhaps he’s going to have another life some day in another novel. But right now I am so relieved he has gone.

Who is right and who is left? My Dad was on Crete during the Second World War and in Poland as a POW for four years. I am part of who is left. My novel is about the Greek girls (well one fictitious girl actually) who came out to New Zealand in the sixties as part of a Government scheme. This close relationship between the two Governments developed as a result of the New Zealand support for the Greek campaign. My novel explores aspects of the Greek Civil War. It is about who is left.

Today, there have been two bombs in Boston. We’re all shocked. I notice on facebook the many posts and the outpouring of concern. We feel united in the horror. But too, I was reminded by my son, a peace activist living in Seoul, that today, not just in Boston, but in Iraq, many people have been killed in a series of bomb blasts in the past few days. It shouldn’t matter where the bomb blast happens, the horror should be equal. But the human condition is such, that we identify with what we know and who we know. It’s impossible to feel constant outrage and compassion for every act of violence – we would despair each day, and so we choose our sorrows and our outrage.

I’m looking forward to Anzac Day. How odd that I do. But it is now a part of my history. It is my father, it is my childhood. It is full of autumnal memories. A greyish shift frock newly made, my new cinnamon stockings, the parade. My Dolly heels caught in the cracks of the pavement outside the war memorial which was also the cinema and the library. Dad in his shiny brown shoes, wearing his war medals hand-sewn to his suit by Mum.

Yes, he would get pickled. We learned to dread Anzac Day. Dad would disappear to the RSA. He was a flagon man, but on Anzac Day, he drank whisky. Looking back, perhaps he had a right to get pickled. And now he’s gone, and I love Anzac Day, because of him. I share it with my granddaughter who loves to wear the red poppy. I’ve purchased the Book on Anzac Day for her with a dedication from the author – but it will be some time before she truly knows what the red poppy signifies.

From Maleme to Mapua

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I was inspired to think about this seemingly random link after reading a poem. The poem is called “Alive together” and it is by Lisel Mueller. The poem begins thus:
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
The poet goes on to imagine being a woman in a different time, married to different men, the idea of who we are being both random and minutely specific to a multitude of histories. I like this poem and I have recently been reading ‘Crete – The Battle and the Resistance”’ by Anthony Beevor. It is a very good account of a fearsome battle for control of the island in Greece during the Second World War, told from many sides of the story, the Germans, the New Zealanders, the British and the Cretans. My Dad was in the 5th field Regiment, a gunner, in the New Zealand 22nd Battalion defending the airport at Maleme, the point at which strategically the battle was lost, when it should have been won.

The German graveyard at Maleme

The German graveyard at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

Stone crosses on the hillside among the graves at Maleme

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

The graveyard at Maleme of German paratroopers killed in the battle of Crete

If, they say, General Freyberg had not been so hell-bent on the idea of a seaborne invasion… if Colonel Andrew (according to Beevor), “had gone forward before nightfall to observe the coastal trip and the western slopes of Hill 107…” … so many ifs. I imagine too, if they’d all had I phones, perhaps a few texts to and fro with some pictures attached… but then too, it seems Freyberg was very concerned about revealing to the Germans that the Brits had cracked their code, and so I guess I phones can easily be hacked . And too, imagine instead of young men dropping from the sky (like Icarus) in their parachutes, if instead, the Germans had used drones. The account of hand to hand combat between the Germans, local Cretans and the Kiwis is fierce and brutal. It seems that the Geneva convention did not apply as far as the Cretans were concerned. They were civilians defending their own patch. Oddly, the Germans imagined that the Kiwi soldiers would not fire upon them as they descended in their multi-coloured parachutes. But of course they did. And I have it first hand from my Dad, how extraordinary it was, to be firing at such easy targets, but too, how sickening. I read in Beevor’s account, how the gunners were told to aim low at the falling body because of the rapid descent, thus ensuring an accurate hit.

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

New Zealand graves at Suda Bay

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

Suda Bay cemetery where the Kiwi soldiers lie

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But in spite of this, the battle was won by the Germans, although they suffered extraordinary casualties. The paratroopers were young men (the German elite), some as young as sixteen and thousands were slaughtered in the first two days of the battle. So, what brings me to me Mapua? What is my connection? It is really rather random as I mention at the start (but then you see, don’t you, how random all of our histories really are).

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Mapua wharf with the ferry that crosses to my favourite childhood beach, Rabbit Island

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

Ruby Bay

I was reading about the Battle of Crete, perched on the seafront at Ruby Bay (a hop skip and a jump from Mapua where I drank my morning coffee and had these thoughts) and I realised that if the 5th Field Regiment had held the airfield, I may not have existed. The defence of Maleme would have required a further battle – my Dad instead of retreating might have died in the ensuing violence – or so I told myself under the hot Tasman sun. That he survived to be taken POW and then shipped on cattle trains to Poland to spend four years as a POW – not to mention the subsequent 600 mile march in snow at the end of the war … well, that is neither here nor there, because this is what happened and so I know he survived all of this. But too, at each step along the way, there are a multitude of ifs to consider.

And as a result of my father’s war experience, I am fascinated with Greece, with the Battle of Crete, and too, I am ‘alive together with you, and you, and you (my family, my friends, my readers)… and there’s something both thrilling and fateful about this very being alive. If the chance came, would you change your life, be an entirely different person? As a child I used to look at people and try to imagine what it might be like to be them and then be terrified that I had wished too hard and what if I did become them and I didn’t like it and then I couldn’t get me back. Whatever befalls us, we may wish it had not, but do we ever really want not to be ourselves? Perhaps some people do (and here one can imagine a child in the slums of Mumbai). I am currently reading ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ by Katherine Boo. Yes, perhaps if I was atop a rubbish dump, scavenging for a living, I may well be happy for my wish to be granted… but thankfully in my own fortunate life … it is enough to be ‘alive and together’ …
the poem ends thus:

alive with our lively children
who — but for endless ifs —
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

Isn’t it just a grand poem? I have Diana Gilliland Wright of Firesteel to thank for her blog which alerted me to this beautiful poem and of course, if you wish to read the entire poem, click this link to Firesteel.