thoughts and comments from Richard White:
Indifference is granular, as we walk deeper into all this, into ourselves, history and the terrain we find fewer explanations and more to make sense of. The heroic carpenter of Winsen who hid the French death march escapees is memorialised as a local hero but in his time he was shunned and considered to be a shitinthenester. Julius’s work has recently surfaced this local memory and proudly told local story, but why so late to memorialise him and why so few did not seize the moment to do the right thing. Silence of shame perhaps. Silence of consent. Silence of complicity…… What do you tell your children, what do the grandchildren ask of their grandparents. I was told stories of heroism and the Blitz. Harder to surface the small acts of resistance.
Winsen: we gathered in the morning at the memorial stone joined by Annete Wienecke and a student, local walker Dieter from the day before and were met again by Julius. Julius set the challenge of further researching the story of the escapees, finding the military records. The Mayor came out of the townhall greeted us again and saw us off.
Walking out through the town passing perhaps the same red rooted houses Esther recalled. Who looked out those windows? What did they see?
A clump of trees close to the site of a shooting of a death marcher, perhaps collapsed or walking too slowly. The trees, maybe saplings then, representing the moment, perhaps embodying it. Later a more recent roadside shrine, the tree scarred, bark viciously torn, bearing witness to car crash and lives destroyed in that recent brief moment of terror. Walking on into the rain. Cold wet penetrating rain. Wind driven cold. Stinging our faces.
We, kitted up for all weathers, stayed dry. Looking out from under hats and hoods and umbrellas. Listening intently to the sounds of the forest. Listening closely to Esther’s recorded testimony and the words of the poets spoken by our children.
Out of the trees into flat open fields wooded paths off to right and left. Dark mud scraped off crop remnants. Piles of mechanically crushed building….what stories in the crushed concrete and bricks. Fabric almost erased and recycled for new purposes. We walk on in the cold and wind whipped drizzle. Across the fields, darkly edged with trees, in the shadows hidden and revealed by its movement, a deer.
Walk without words, thinking about exile and belonging. The rain intensifies, we become aware of our bodies. Feeling the cold, imagining the cold. The need to urinate intensifies, death marchers forced to walk on. I stop to piss in the woods. Such a stop would have cost me my life. Looking out deep into the forest I think of escapees, hunter and hunted and those who stumbled their last and fell and were shot…
The endless road… they would not have known how far it was to go. I thought of refugee children walking with their parents today, what I would say to the question “ Are we nearly there?” Just keep walking. The rain became mist in the distance and the walkers disappeared into it. Cars hissed past. Discarded bones by the road. Walking into our bodies, the terrain walking itself. My attention is drawn to a discarded boot. Tall trees swaying, the roar and hiss of fast passing trucks and buses, a huge tractor towing logs. Pine trees, wind blown aroma. Sounds of the working forest and from the military zone tanks accumulated distant engine roar. A woodpecker ratatat sound like gunshot and I imagine an abandoned body in concentration camp stripes, exhausted, shot dead, slumped in the ditch. Discarded. Straight black wet path, ditch drain alongside. Today only discarded plastic.
At last we stop for hope, we remember Anne Frank and I hear my daughter’s voice, we think about the ideals and principles that sustained Esther. The Bund. Internationalism. In cold drizzle we listen to Paul Robeson signing The Partisans Song and I for one was warmed. With our art we act in solidarity, this 71st anniversary is a platform to connect, as well as feel, now. I tweet and record sound and images. I read that the walk is live on the map. Connections made, resonating….
Into the brooding mist of the dark forest to the historic entrance to the Bergen Belsen camp. A dash across the busy modern road that separates us. Disorderly to the stone that marks the site of the gates. We make our last public intervention, the 10th station, Liberation. Our voices for those silenced. Here Lorna takes a soil sample.
…and that is how the group of walkers entered the Bergen Belsen Memorial, the site of the former death camp. Overwhelming. Looking for remains, for some sense of hard bricks and mortar truth. Out of the huge open space of mass graves and into the woods, here there are the remains of levelled foundations, preserved as clearings, the site of huts. Bernd Horstmann thinks that it is most likely that Esther was taken here, the women’s camp. Here too when she arrived somewhere, barely alive in the cold and the stink and the squalor was Anne Frank and her sister. In memory of Anne Frank and all the others here and world wide who did not make it, we stood in silence and listened to a dear friend and ‘Uncle’ Meyer Bogdanski speak the Kaddish. My sister, Julia, produces a yellow stone from Burton beach, in memory of Pat our mother who died just after Christmas. I sob big body wrenching cries.
Returning to the main field undulating strangely, unnaturally, with what is buried beneath. Concealed. Thousands of bodies and the ashes of more. Sandy soil scooped up to cover and define burial sites but also to bury the remaining watchtowers and barbed wire. As if the buried remains were forcing themselves to the surface. The forest returns with wild boar and wolves, trees planted and self seeded, permitted, managed.
Finally as the light began to fail we were welcomed in to the education centre by Stephanie and Bernd. Welcomed with food and drink. Sharing the story again, exchanging gifts. The book of names from Bernd…only a third of the victims have been named, Esther is there, he showed us and we now play our part in networking the search for names. 100,000 victims still to be named. And at last we connect with Esther via Skype. Mother sees daughter from Belsen 71 years later. A surreal encounter concludes with Esther looking out of the screen, her care home iPad showing only the top of her head and the ceiling of the care home, projected onto the Belsen class room wall. Off camera Esther’s closing remark: “Now thats what I call magic”, reduces the room to uproar, laughter and applause.
Out into the still, cold, dark, night. Warm hugs and farewells with the Belsen staff team. Returning the way we came, changed, the car headlights only illuminate the edge of the forest. No wolves howl.