A place to write things.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Visiting the Wannsee House

On the way to Berlin we stopped by the house at Wannsee, where a meeting was held on 20 January 1942 chaired by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Nazi security services. This meeting has become known as the ‘Wannsee Conference’, but really, it was not a conference at all, if the term implies some process of decision making or a sharing of ideas. The meeting was simply Heydrich’s assertion of control over various German state organisations to facilitate the mass transportation of Jews to specialised killing centres that would become known as the Holocaust. Mass murder had already begun. Wannsee was simply aimed at making the process run more smoothly.

It was one of those almost painfully incongruous days as we pulled up in our bus. The sun shone brightly, reflecting brilliant blue from the lake. The house itself is a tasteful neo-classical villa, bought by the SS after its previous owner was imprisoned for defrauding the Berlin Gasworks. Feet scrunching on the gravel, I heard birds singing and noted the beautifully kept garden bursting into bloom.

The room where the conference was held in 1942 is quite small. I wandered about, reflecting on what one of the delegates in 1942 may have experienced. The Conference was held in January, so they would have arrived in coats, the SS men preening in their immaculate uniforms. Let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of Georg Leibbrandt, something of a Nazi non-entity from the Ministry for the Eastern Occupied Territories with a PhD in theology and an academic interest in Russia. I like to imagine that he felt a little intimidated at Wannsee, especially since he wasn’t a member of the SS, so didn’t get to wear a uniform. Leibbrandt, if his attention had wandered, might have gazed out the window across the lovely garden towards the lake. His eyes might have noticed the delicate stucco mouldings of birds eating berries on the ceiling. Did his mind rebel at some level against discussing such horror amidst such beauty? Or do I only think this because I am here on a summer day with the sun almost painfully bright and colour all around? In 1942 perhaps everything was drab and grey, the winter garden dead, and a freezing wind beating against the closed windows.

Most likely Leibbrandt was looking forward to the breakfast promised in the invitation to the meeting. For that is one of the things we have to take into account when trying to understand these bureaucratic murderers, that the invitation they received promised breakfast after the discussion of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. The German word used was ‘Frühstück’, which means breakfast, although it can mean something more like a light morning snack. In any case, it does appear a little cheap that Heydrich did not offer anything more substantial to follow a meeting that began at midday.

If Leibbrandt’s stomach was rumbling on 20 January 1942, at least he didn’t have long to wait. The meeting itself only took about 90 minutes. Adolf Eichmann, who took the minutes of the meeting, testified in his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 that Heydrich was very pleased with the outcome and sat during the Frühstück enjoying a cognac by the fireplace. Despite Eichmann’s bland and euphemistic official minutes, he also told the court in 1961 that the actual conversation on the day was often direct, with mass shootings and gassing experiments being discussed quite openly.

I gazed at the fireplace, imagining Heydrich sitting there. It must have been a great moment for him, sipping cognac with his legs crossed, one well-polished boot swinging slightly in mid air.

My reflection is interrupted by Gormless Boy, who requires directions.
GB: Sir, can we go outside?
Me: Sure.
GB: How do we get outside?
Me: Well, you could try the door.
GB: Can we use that? That’s the door we came in, so I didn’t know whether it was allowed.
Me: How many doors are there?
GB: ….one?
Me: Yes. So your choices really are either to walk back through it or find a way to teleport, so I reckon use the door.
GB: Oh. OK.

And with that, I add another tiny layer of mean spiritedness to the patina of this elegant, cursed room and head out to the garden myself.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor

At the bunker we are met by our guide – let’s call her Natasha. Natasha is wearing an approximation of a Soviet military uniform, her shoulder-length hair cut with one of the weirdly asymmetrical fringes that seem to be de rigeur in Russia right now. Assisting Natasha is a ‘safety officer’. I missed his name, so let’s call him Boris. Boris conforms so closely to a type I have seen everywhere in the last couple of days that at first I do a double take. He has sandy hair, cut in a slightly trendy but overwhelmingly military style and tight suit. He never smiles, is constantly chewing something, and his job seems to be to follow along behind us to ensure that none of the boys decide to duck off down a corridor or steal some 1960s radio equipment. There are many Borises in Moscow, guarding Matryoshka dolls in tourist shops with grim determination or operating metal detectors at museums. All of them chew constantly, and all of them look like they would rather be beating us to a pulp.

Natasha on the other hand is a bit gorgeous. She leads us down an endless flight of stairs into the bowels of a Cold War missile control bunker. The structure is fascinating – a steel lined set of tunnels designed to withstand nuclear attack and coordinate a missile or bomber strike against the USA. Natasha takes us through the various rooms, including one built as Stalin’s office, although he never used it and died before the bunker was finished. Natasha tells us in her irresistibly throaty accent that even after Stalin’s death nobody was brave enough to use Stalin’s rooms, just in case Stalin had faked his own death as a loyalty test and turned up one day demanding access to his chess set. To complete the atmosphere, the room has been fitted out with 1950s furniture, and a mannequin of Stalin sits behind the desk. The boys take photos. I admire the engineering of the walls. Boris chews and eyes us impassively.

I’m starting to notice that Natasha does love to use the phrase ‘Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor’ a lot, and that I find her enormously attractive every time she does so. This is very apparent in the conference room – sort of the equivalent of the war room in Dr Strangelove. Natasha talks us through how the officers would meet here in the eventuality of Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor breaking out to plan their response, before taking us down to the actual missile control room. In another design feature reminiscent of Dr Strangelove, one wall is covered by an enormous map of the northern hemisphere, while by the opposite wall on a platform stand a couple of control consoles with flashing lights. This is what Natasha has been looking forward to, guiding us through a simulation of the Soviet response to the US launching Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor against the Russian people.

Natasha asks for volunteers, and suddenly two of the boys are sitting at consoles waiting for their orders. A video loop plays, showing Soviet citizens reacting to the news of a US attack. Natasha’s voice becomes loder and more impassioned as she describes the US bombers approaching Moscow and the bunker personnel scrambling to their stations.

As her presentation reaches its climax, it is obvious that whatever pleasure I get from hearing Natasha refer to Verrld Vor Three Nuhcleor is as nothing compared to the pleasure she gets from simulating the launch of waves of nuclear bombers against the USA. The boys turn their keys in unison, missiles are launched against the US, and Natasha congratulates them on successfully defending the Soviet people. It is all very well done, Natasha is great, the boys love it, but I am left feeling uneasy. I ask one of the boys later whether he felt conflicted about pretending to launch missiles that would have resulted in millions of deaths. He thinks I’m just engaging in banter. I don’t push it. I wonder whether Natasha really feels some level of nostalgia for the days of Soviet strength, which she is too young to remember, and how she feels about exhorting boys from the other side of the world to launch a nuhcleor apocalypse.

On the way out I visit the gift shop and excitedly buy a genuine Soviet infantry helmet, pausing only briefly to wonder how I will fit it into my backpack. I can always throw away some clothes. Boris watches me while I try it on, exuding menace and disdain. I emerge into the light, wearing my new helmet to admiring comments from the boys and derision from my colleagues. Natasha turns on her heel (I notice now that she is wearing heels) and walks out of my life forever.

We get back on the bus.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Making Bread

A microfiction of 100 words

Jonas says that making bread is a window onto the soul. You must knead as you live life, he says, with strength and certainty. Neither a bully nor timid with the dough under your hands. Give something of yourself to it, he says, and feel for the moment when it comes alive.

He guided her as she touched, tentative and embarrassed to brush his fingers. With flour and sweat on his cheek he praised her, encouraging more, and laughing hearty at the pout of concentration on her lips.

Jonas knew that he could never love her.