It took me 52 years to come here, even though since 1989 it would have been logistically an easy trip. I followed the track from my mother's birth place along the paths of the refugees, seeing it all - also the German Concentration Camp Stutthof. I spare you the cruelty, violence and the stories of the collapse of humanity. I deeply regret them, but it would not help to add more "awareness porn" to the online world. We all know our responsibility. And if you feel in doubt, just visit a war cemetary. Here you will meet moments of deep silence and then wonderful people living here cheering you up. And in the end they were the main victims of German invasion and tyranny, before the Nazi agression bounced back. Not even to talk about Russia, and the holocaust. And another thing to remember, when standing where they crossed the ice under heavy civilian losses in 1945: protecting refugees from today's war zones is not charity, but it's our duty.
Wójtowo (Voigtsdorf) is located between Lutry (Lautern) and Reszel (Rösel) in the Polish part of former East Prussia (Ostpreussen). A few plots of land in this small agricultural settlement was enough to be relatively wealthy. And it was not too much to be executed on the spot as land owner when the Red Army moved in, back in 1945. Who knows the truth after all these years only captured by oral history? I was there today for the first time, to see my mother's birthplace. I took many photos that may trigger her memories: the buildings, school, garden and just the fields across the road. She never came back. I also talked to people. There are stories of violence, betrayal, and death, but also those of bravery and humanity. I decided not to write in public about what I heard. It's too easily misunderstood in the rough world of social media and there are radical views on this chapter of history. And honestly, I can't even talk about it without loosing my voice.
All that counts for me today is that I am happy to see my mother's birthplace. Now a wonderful Polish family is living in the house. It is still as a farm. I even saw some Trakehner horses. They maintain it by the means they can earn from the land. That's not easy. It never was.
In the late winter of 1945, the ice on the "Frisches Haff" at the Baltic Sea was not thick enough anymore to carry all carriages and horses. My mother and her family left Eastern Prussia under the pressure of the incoming Russian Army. What happened then, was a story that shaped us for generations. Some went on land Westward, others crossed the thin ice. Too slow to make it off there before sunrise, they became easy targets for the Russian Air Force pilots. Nowhere to hide, they pretended to be dead, lying still on the ice until sunset, watching their neighbours sink and die randomly. They were running from an Army which was seeking to defeat the country which invaded it brutally and merciless before. For those who survived then came hunger, typhoid, the search for their relatives and children, homeless years, hope and despair - and for some the madness never left them. Some families were reunited in the 50s with the return of surviving prisoners of war from Siberia. Others in 1989 when the German wall fell. Many did never see each other again.
Tomorrow I still have a project presentation, and then I am on my way to Gdańsk (Danzig), with an old bilingual map, a field GPS and the few photos, articles, and extracts from birth registers. From there, I will head South-East to a village which has was called Voigtsdorf, close to Rösel. I am looking for the place abandoned by Anton Siegmund and Maria née Gabriel and their children in that late winter of 1945, in Poland and their favorite Café and chocolate maker in Königsberg / Kaliningrad (Russia).
When you walk down the Neroberg into the direction of Wiesbaden, suddenly framed by the forest trees, appears the Russian-Orthodox church. It was built by Herzog Adolf von Nassau in memory of his wife, the Russian Princess Jelisaweta Michailowna, who died at the age of 18 together with their first child while giving birth. It is a very beautiful and exotic building in this region, and also the interior is bright and holds a the tomb of the Princess. I also like it, that they implement minimum standards in apparel for people entering it, not so much for religious reasons, but I think it is a disgrace if you have such a beautiful building littered with excess of "functional wear". Wiesbaden itself and the neighbouring forests, I like a lot. It's an old thermal bath and was developed into a major bathing location under the rule of (the very disputable) Wilhelm II.
Many of the EU GDPR regulations which come into force on May 25th do not apply for personal IT. And of course for systems of corporations and organisations this needs lawyers and auditors to be implemented, Still, as I watched what they were doing, I took this as an opportunity to comb through all my personal services and make sure personal data of third parties is secured, treated compliant and in many cases deleted (!). As a result, I actually did quite a few changes. For example, you do not find a contact form on my website anymore. It actually did collect personal information to understand the person contacting me, a bit better. Also my students will be required only to use University systems for communication, as such messages often contain even quite sensitive personal information (e.g. academic performance). All previous messages of this kind had to be deleted. Further, any email which is not sent on behalf of a company, university, government or has legal relevance will not be stored longer than 30 days. This excludes purely private communication of course. It also means that all social media posts, where third parties were commenting or tagged, have been removed. This website is from now on the leading system, pushing to social media through the system APIs, and there is no direct posting on social media any more, unless in closed groups which have management and oversight. Also from May 25th onwards all incoming emails from generic domains (e.g. Gmail, hotmail, yahoo, qq, etc.) will be purged automatically on a server level without further notice. Non-generic accounts are those, where the ID of the sender has been verified by the domain provider. Being online since the 1980s, I feel all this is quite a change. But a necessary and good one, to build a solid digital environment, which is actually less for play, but more for binding content. The Internet is not just a place for scientists and nerds anymore. So, where do we play next? While servers run to secure your right to be forgotten, I am happy to catch up over an analog chat and a coffee one day soon.
It is nice to be back to Malta for a few days, even though the weather is not significantly better than in Germany. I had friends to come and visit me, and I also caught up with those on the island. I am very sorry, I was not able to see everybody, but I will be back soon.
The little country is in a building boom and for some this causes discontent. It is hard to keep the balance between building up capacity and infrastructure at the same time at such a pace. That's quite normal - everywhere. A risk then often is, that the infrastructure development falls back, or the technology used is dysfunktional because there can be no "money made" with it. I would guess this risk is even higher in Malta, because there are hefty subsidies on public services. A lot of projects I see, are just an expansion, but not a true modernisation. This is a limited strategy in such a small country. Now the developers still have cash, given the rising property prices and extremely low interest rates. Should the coming demand have been hugely overestimated, then specially for the larger developments, the potential bubble would hit the developers and then the banks quite quickly. It's always the same game and not unseen in Malta either. Luckily there is a large proportion of foreign cash coming in, which is not borrowed from local banks. However, this drives up inflation and subsequently labour cost, which is one of the few competitive advantages. Further, even with all creativity to create "opportunities", also the ways of attracting foreigners into Malta are limited. Specially, for those who really want to live, work and spend money here: facing bad infrastructure, outdated and ineffective institutions, political trench battles, low management competence, unskilled workers, and a weak education system. I would be personally not unhappy to see a slower economic growth in Malta, and a better balance. But now, that it made "boom" already, I guess we will just watch how high it flies.
Yes, I am a city dweller in Frankfurt. But the park just beside my habitat is crossed by the Nidda creek, which in its lower part can be easily paddled. So, I got a Nordik Scubi 1 foldable kayak, which design reminds me a bit of the Klepper Aerius, but is much lighter (just 12 kg, as the manufacturer says) and much cheaper. First I was sceptical what this small boat can do for somebody of 1,90 meters height and 84 kg. Today I took it for a first paddle, and it turned out to be the perfect "always in your pocket boat". It took me 30 minutes first assembly, and I found it easy. I am using a 4 piece collapsible paddle of 240 cm, which I was warned could be wobbly, but it's not. And then I got a little trolley from the Chinese man running a shop on Leipzigstrasse and a 22 liter Ortlieb drybag. Pump and drybag fit behind the seat for storage. The trolley can be strapped on top. You can't store anything in the foot room at my body size.
Then off I went. Watch out: the Nidda from Niddapark, has one barrage which requires to take the boat around. Then it is very nice and quiet until before Höchst where the water gets fast two times. But in both cases, follow the current on the deep stretches and all will be fine. I was a bit concerned what will happen when I hit a rock with the light boat. But I did not. Entering the Main river at Höchst, you will pass a few house boats and a floating restaurant. I decided to go upstream until the foot of the Griesheim hydropower plant. There is no strong current, so no problem. Then I turned back, disassembled at Höchst and too the tram way (Line 11) back to Frankfurt. I did not manage to get the pump back into the boat bag in the field, so keep some extra space in your rucksack. Going along the rivers is always a nice and interesting view on city life. And in this case, it does not even feel like a city. The little kayak had a really good start: stable and easy to manoeuver, quick in assembly and collapse, small when packed. I like this boat.
I love the Westerwald forest and the rivers. But for 9 years I had to decent to the Lyceum in the small town of Neuwied. We call it Gynmasium, and it is the traditional school track to prepare you for University following 4 years of primary school. Every day I walked or cycled along the Wied river and then the upstream direction of the Rhine river. It took about an hour to walk one way, and back in the afternoon. The rest of the day I spent "hiding" in the countryside and forest before the next morning I had to decent again - 6 days a week. There was nothing exceptionally wrong with the school, in my view. Even though only a few teachers were good. Sometimes there were retired Nazis making some pocket money to top up their pension, church bred Latin and history teachers, or fluffy 1968 students which had concluded in the shades of the upraises that nothing really matters. We had the first wave of immigrants from Russia, which were usually of German origin and have been deported by Stalin into Siberia. Some of them became dear friends and others got fame for the brutality with which they resolved conflict. Knifes, chains, Nunchaku and even guns were daily toys. Then came the unfortunate, but very smart, Iranians, fleeing the revolution. As I was banned from religious studies, like them, we got along quite well. Neuwied once was famed for the highest German crime rate per capita. It does shape your attitude to what you can expect from people.
As a teenage boy in Neuwied there were just three ways to choose for your life: 1) degenerate to the equilibrium, 2) go to Waffen Walter (the local gun shop) and put a 9 mm Parabellum bullet through your head, or 3) fight your way out. As 2 is always an option, I decided for 3 as a start. Home was also not much of a help either. Neuwied was the anti-model for everything. Then I was drafted into the Army. Next anti-model. And last but not least, let's not forget the church. Acting people. nothing but an anti-model.
Luckily there was short wave radio, first a receiver, then an (illegal) transceiver which connected me with the world. Then there was the school library and a local museum. Once I picked up a copy of the National Geographic Magazine at the train station, an unsold copy and the shop owner sent the title page back to the publisher for refund. But he gave all other pages to me. My conclusion was that no matter which direction you go away from Neuwied, it can only get better. And very luckily, I had excellent Math, Physics, English, Biology and Geography teachers. I owe them a lot. My French teacher was also good. But I did not appreciate it at the time. Communication changed since the short wave time, but still short wave radio remained a symbol of freedom for me. I met a Soviet run-away in the South China Sea, who was just the same. The other symbols of freedom remained also. That maybe the heritage of a refugee family. I think, one day I have to talk to today's refugees to tell them what not to do to their children.
Today, my sister and I decided to go these paths one more time. The beauty of the fields, forests and rivers is unchanged. But the city of Neuwied became an even more depressing place. Where the former bookshop was, now resides a discount store. People are fat and dull. Teenage women are pregnant at the side of a tattoed male creatures. Then the perceived age demographic grows exponentially. Like there is nothing between the young proletarian and grandparents. A bit like a small German version of Manchester, Wolverhampton or Glasgow. Shops are closing. The streets are littered and under construction. The Rhine river, which I love, runs through filth. And I was reminded of the donkey in the Grimm fairy tale Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Bremen Town Musicians) when he convinced his followers to join the journey: "Join me. Something better than death you will find everywhere."
That's my home. Good we were born in a time, we still had the courage to run away from it and hide in the forest.
The week started with a trip to Dresden, where I gave a guest lecture on China and the "One Belt, one Road Initiative" at the Technical University in the Zentrum für Internationale Studien. It was a great pleasure to be back to Dresden and catching up. And I really enjoyed the quality of the students. As I had one day gap between my Dresden assignment and further meetings in Berlin, I decided hop over to Leipzig and stay there over night. I have fond memories of Leipzig from the time of the German-German reunification and heard recently that it would become for creative people, an alternative to Berlin (where the cost of living is rising). I went to the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig, visited some galeries, and talked to a few people. But somehow, I could not confirm what many people say about Leipzig. Sure, my visit was very short and it always depends a lot on the angle how you enter a city. Then in Berlin, of course, it was easy to confirm that the city is "hip". In the start-up scene some people bragged how often they already went bankrupt. It's entertaining, but professionally there is not much to do for me there. The week ended with a meeting and lecture in Mannheim, as well as catching up at the Mannheim University Business School, where I had the chance to see the impressive new facilities on campus.
Astana has a history going back to the Russian Imperial Era. It was then called Aqmoly in Kazakh and Акмолинский приказ (Akmolinsky prikaz) in Russian. But nearly all you can see today has been developed after the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and when Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1998. The development of the city was mainly funded by a special form of tax on the development of the national oil and gas reserves. And Kazakhstan is one of the more than 65 countries participating in the Chinese initiated "One Belt, one Road", also sometimes called "The New Silk Road". There are major ambitions and Kazakh activities often mentioned in this context is Qorğas (Khorgos) or 霍尔果斯 in Chinese. It is a large rail connected dryport and anout 10 km North-East of it a new transnational Kazakh-Chinese city, sometimes called "The Kazakh Dubai". And then, of course for the oil rich country, which has just started to develop major oil fields in the Caspian sea. It is a world of plenty and a region of fast development. This is not driven, but supported by "One Belt, one Road" and of course non-oil-and-gas infrastructure becomes an enabler for the expansion of manufacturing. I enjoyed the trip to Kazakhstan, I met wonderful people, a great spirit, and I will go back.
The Arthouse Cinema in Frankfurt is located at Roßmarkt 7 (take subway to Hauptwache). There is another one in Frankfurt Sachsenhausen, but this is a but further for me, and I really like the Roßmarkt Cinema for the venue and the movies they pick. Quite frequently there are also special events in which the director or producer is invited for a question and answer session. I got myself a rebate card, and found it very easy in the last few weeks to break even, because there is so much to see. The list below is just my start. I am not a cinema critic, but I also wrote a few words how I found the films
- Das stille Klassenzimmer (The silent classroom): excellent
- The Post (Die Verlegerin): kitsch
- Die stille Revolution (The silent revolution): too many platitudes, Jannike Stoehr did a great job in her interview
- Zwei Herren im Anzug (Two men in a suit): excellent
- The Mercy (Vor uns das Meer): trying to make a romantic story of an idiot trying to sail the world
- The Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri: excellent, not what I expected
- Sami blood (Das Mädchen aus dem Norden): interesting
- Drei Tage Quiberon (Three days Quiberon): interesting, but hard to think myself into Romy Schneider's tragedy
- Death of Stalin: so bad that I left the cinema half way through
- Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire): still very good, digitally remastered, and rare chance to see on big screen
Senglea (Isla) is the one of the "Three Cities" which involves the dockyards. This was the part of the Grand Harbour which was the center of British Naval ship maintenance and suffered consequently heavy damage during World War II. A lot if the region was abandoned and people were forced to move to the more rural areas, causing a lot of tension in the Maltese population which sometimes is still funnily present in some respect. Those who remained in the Grand Harbour region, specially in the South, had to live in ruins. The dock yards became a major employer, and rebuilding started. With the independence of Malta from British occupation (some call it "protection") this became the heartland of the Labour Party. Today, I personally think it is one of the most beautiful places on Malta. Sure, there is still a lot to do. But I rather see the potential than the deficits.
There are rarely exhibitions like this in Malta, and I found the Picasso and Miro exhibits an excellent contribution to the Valletta 2018 initiative in which the capital of Malta presents itself as the European Culture Capital. This was possible with the help of the Fondacion MAPFRE and is open until June 30th in the Palace State Rooms. The hanging had to be a bit improvised, as a palace is not an ideal venue, but lighting and presentation are excellent. The ticket also includes a visit of the armoury, which is a bit like an ancient gun shop, for those who like it.
Dead people are very good companions. That's why I like sitting down at the Kalkara Naval Cemetery to read my book. Specially now with mild temperatures, this is very pleasant. The place itself has also some historical relevance, which I am not too interested in. It is one of the Commonwealth War Graves. I always found the term "Commonwealth" rather cynical. I also don't like "Heros" very much, specially when we talk about people who put themselves into service of brutal expansion and invasion of others to serve economic or ideological interest. There are a lot of this kind of Heroes here. But when they are dead, they are fine for me.
When I travel to new places, I always try to visit two venues: a cemetery and a market. They both tell you a lot about the local culture, sometimes much more than the municipal museums. There are many differences in cemeteries: sometimes people are cremated and put into small compartments, and in other places cemeteries are like cities for the dead. They all have in common that they function as a memorial for the deceased. It must be a basic human desire across all cultures, that people want to be remembered. And when you read the tombstones, there is the second commonality: they want to have made sense. The third thing which is important, you can't find on the cemetery, but when you talk to dying people. They want to be forgiven. And that's not so much the forgiveness of a superior being, like a "god". But they want to be forgiven by those who they disappointed. No matter where in the world you are, I think these three things are the same.
I like cemeteries also because they are quiet and somehow a good backdrop to being a bit philosophical. Cemeteries at least show a direction in life,
As few days ago it looked like, we could get a White Easter in Frankfurt. That would have been extremely odd. But temperatures picked up, and the sky is blue again. A good moment to scare away the winter ghosts cycling and walking though the countryside.
Anton rarely talked much. But when he spoke to me, his words were brutal and secretive. He stood above the law, did not respect concepts like governments, and if you wanted to come closer than 3 meters, you needed a visa. He was a one man country, in which he tolerated his family and close allies only. All he was up to, was to defend this country - whatever it takes - absolutely, whatever it takes. He lead his family on the refugee track from Eastern Prussia, to the Soviet Occupied Zone of Germany, then further to West Germany. He wanted to continue to Canada, but then aborted the idea. He lost three children, and fought on the Eastern front. Anton Siegmund was my grandfather. And I believe, he was not what we like to think he was. I think he was worse.
Recently, I made the suggestion to bring my mother to her birth place in Voigsdorf, close to Rösel (now Poland), not far from Kaliningrad (back then Königsberg, now Russia). I received stiff opposition from all my mother's family to my idea, not because of my mother's weak health, but I was told: "It is not what it was". Of course, I respect that and vented the idea that I go myself and take a photo of my mother's birth house. And the response echoed: "It is not, what it was". This made me think, that it may have never been what "it was" in their minds. It is not uncommon for refugees to exaggerate their origin, and not uncommon for Germans to blur their Nazi past.
Anton had gaps, when talking about what he did in Russia. Sometimes, he was making jokes about dead Russian soldiers, and was mocking the wives and loved ones on the photos he found in their rucksacks, when he was searching them for food. He told about loosing his horse, but just being able to grab his rifle from the animal, and that nothing else matters than a gun, ammunition, water and food. And of course, for me as a teenager back then, he was a hero, and independent mind, who knew what is important in life, a rebel and all what the perceived "looser generation" of our parents were not. As a matter of fact, my parent's generation rebuilt this county after my grandparent's generation destroyed it. Then of course, all my aunts echoed the stories of Anton deliberately missing women and children with his gunfire, and being rescued by his Polish workers from the Russian military tribunal because he treated his workers so well. Well, maybe not. I remember that once in a delusion, he asked me to put his household helper in chains, as a punishment for a bad haircut. Anton was handicapend by a bullet wound in the right shoulder. But he was an exceptionally strong man. His stubborness was sometimes interpreted as some kind of wisdom. I think it was dementia which brought him closer to the truth. He told me, that I have to be a good boy, otherwise he will have to stay in hell for the rest of eternity. He made me promise, to get him out of there by being a good person. I promised. Of course I did. I love my grandpa. Anton kept being the undisputed patriarch of the family until his last breath and beyond.
I decided to go this summer in June to the house my mother was born, and try to close the circle of a long story. Anton Siegmund, had a long shadow over two generations. It was a cold shadow, with sharp edges. And it may have rescued his family. But it blocked the sunshine for far too many years.
I was on a short visit to Rome and the first time had an arrangement to jump the line into the Vatican and St. Peter. The public part of the Vatican arts museum feels a bit to me like the British Museum: on the one hand fascinating, on the other both collections are results of centuries of robbery, extortion and blackmail. There is sometimes the argument that these art works have may have been saved from destruction and chaos. This might be true in some cases. But often the chaos itself has been planted by the intrusion itself, may it be colonial or religious agression of the past, proxy wars or the recent history or plain destabilisation of regions to have advantages in trade and keep the Petro Dollar in the game. It might be a long shot from the Vatican to Petro Dollar. But maybe not.
Rome is a wonderful city. It was quite chilly though for this time of the year with strong winds. But culture, flair and interesting little historical excursions compensated for the few initial rain drops. Actually, one of my colleagues long ago graduated in Christian Archaeology and led us, among many other places, to the San Sebastian catacombs in the South of the city, which were very interesting. Flew back through Zurich to Frankfurt for the weekend. I always enjoy the bird's view on the alps on a clear day in winter or early spring.
The pictures below would not be anything special, if taken in Frankfurt during the time December to February. But now, getting off for my morning run on March 18th, this is quite a surprise. It should be spring-ish by now.
Arrived in Frankfurt after about 2 weeks in Bonn. I always enjoy being there, first of all I have very good friends in town, and secondly following its former status as a National capital of Western Germany, it still has a very extravagant cultural budget and very good museums. I was fascinated by the exhibition Bestandsaufnahme Gurlitt - der NS Kunstraub und seine Folgen in the Bundeskunsthalle. It is, but not only, what came to light after in 2012 an old man's flat was raided by the police for suspected tax fraud: one of the largest private art collections in Germany, and some of the works subject to the Nazi's confiscations and plain robbing of art works. Now the art and relevant documents are open to public, so that the rightful owners of stolen art works may claim their rights and the art works to be returned.
Today I explored the German National Library in Frankfurt and found this an excellent place to work. Far better than the Library of Goethe University in Bockenheim, and still easy to reach by bike in less than 15 minutes. I also tried a few coffee places, one of which was the Hoppenworth & Ploch (which was okay, but not great) and Kaffee Rösterei Wissmüller on Leipziger Strasse which may become an alternative "hang out" to Café Laumer.
I spent the last few weeks in Malta and now came to Frankfurt. There are things to prepare here this week. Back in Malta I was giving guest lectures, joined the Malta Photographic Society and got to know a nice little creative network called the Malta Creative Collective which is brining together people from various creative industries. Also, there were some events related to Valletta being the European Capital of Culture 2018. Some individual performances were not too bad. But all over, at least at the moment, this appears to be an uncoordinated melange of procured contributions and "Maltese Humpapa". At least it's lively though. Perhaps it becomes better in the high season. Frankfurt yesterday had it's coldest night of this winter at below minus 10 Degrees Celsius. That's very late, given that by the meteorological calendar spring is at the gate. However, the sky is blue and it is a nice and crisp atmosphere. I also took the chance to finally see Vermeer's Geographer in the Städel Museum, and strolled through the Rubens exhibition hosted there. But Rubens is not so much my thing. Or perhaps it's just because I only arrived from Malta and couldn't appreciate further seeing obese women. I liked his painting of Prometheus though, and recalled one of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's better poems. I also revisit the Jil Sander exhibition in the Museum of Applied Arts, specially to look into the garden design again, which is outstanding. A very nice discovery for me became the Arthouse Movie Theatre at Roßmarkt, where I watched Phantom Threat, and this was an enjoyable break from digging into Bayes Theorem and Marcov Chains for my Saturday Quant lecture in Mannheim.