Monument aux morts de Strasbourg

war-monument-strasbourg

He caught only a glimpse of the monument. You know how it is, traveling as a tourist by bus. If you sit on the right side, whatever you need to see is on the left. About the time the guide mentions something important, the light changes and you zoom off.

But Anand managed a quick look at the monument through an opening in the trees. Known as Le Monument aux morts de Strasbourg, the sculpture by Léon-Ernst Drivier, erected in 1936, sits in the center of Strasbourg’s Place de la République. Our guide mentioned it so quickly, some people missed it.

As we rolled along, the guide added that it was modeled on The Pieta, but in an unusual form. The mother holds the body of not one son, but two: one representing a French soldier and the other a German.

Strasbourg’s geopolitical history is dizzying. This cultured city in a region known as Alsace has bounced so often between the French and the Germans, it’s hard to keep up. Plus, just because the Rhine serves as a stable border today between part of France and Germany, borders are never carved in stone.

All the more poignant, therefore, is the portrayal of the sculpted mother grieving over her sons. Think how often this tragedy has occurred, not just in the wars we call World War I, World War II, or the Franco-Prussian War, and not just here, on the Rhine.

The tour of Strasbourg came towards the end of our voyage down the Rhine. Booked as a “family cruise,” this journey brought together multiple generations. Among the 120 guests on the beautiful Amadeus Silver III were 29 kids! The youngest was about seven, while the older kids were experiencing the trip as glorious gifts upon their high-school graduations.

In the course of such a trip, you do get to know the guests rather well. Anand’s family was delightful. His grandparents exuded such joy, plus they kept us in stitches. Anand’s mom beamed with joy at having her two sons and her parents together, making lifetime memories.

Anand’s younger brother, about 12 years old, was the talkative one, spending his free time playing chess and games of strategy with a group of boys his age. He was clearly one of the leaders.

And Anand? He was the quiet one, the observer. Sixteen years old and a football player, he struck me as a gentle giant. His visible deference to his mom and grandparents, indeed all of the adults on the tour, was endearing.

To my surprise he came to my lectures and our discussion groups. He even offered a few comments. But other than that, he was like many teens his age: hard to read.

The evening after Strasbourg he told me about the poem. He wanted to know if I’d like to see it. Of course I did. He handed me his phone. (Is everything on a phone these days?)

I had to glance quickly at it, because we were due at an event. My eyes widened. “You wrote this after glimpsing the monument?” “Yes,” he said quietly. I asked him if he would send it to me, and he said yes.

We bumped into each other at the Amsterdam airport after leaving the ship, and I reminded him. “OK,” he said, with a smile. I added, “If you do, may I share it with people?” He seemed surprised. “I’ll be sharing it with good people,” I assured him. “People who care about history and the arts. And who care about kids.”

The next day he sent it. He asked only that I put his name on it.

Think of all the kids who, if exposed to the arts, would choose to express themselves in poetry, music, dance, painting, or drama! Don’t tell me that they are “electives.” Don’t even breathe the idea that they are frills or unimportant. Arts like music and poetry have the power to open a young person’s heart, soul, and mind. They are not artificial add-ons. They are expressions of our deepest reflections, ideas, and ideals, no matter what our age.

Here is Anand Ambrosi’s poem (as yet untitled):

All I want are my two little boys back
As I scream, I shout, and I cry.
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

You called on them from your ivory tower.
Sat upon a throne of bones.
The blood of your people surrounds you,
But all you see is the other side’s throne

So you shout and you scream to take their land
As your throne grows with the bones of the dead.
Still you can’t see the cost of this great war
Because the blood hasn’t come to your bed.
I held my two boys’ cold and limp hands.
One fought for France the other for Deutschland.
But underneath they still bleed the same red.

I loved them, I loved them, I loved them.
All you thought of was winning the war
At the cost of my children’s precious lives.
You sent the devil to knock on my door.

All I want are my two little boys back,
As I scream, I shout, and I cry.
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

A war will ne’er solve anything,
When two brothers fight for the other to die.
This, the great folly of war, can’t you see?
When one problem is solved,
In return you get three!
So, consider that war costs more than money
‘Cause you’ve left two holes in my heart.
And it hurts, it hurts, it hurts can’t you see?

To you they were just a pawn piece
I loved them, I loved them, I loved them
I miss their sparkling eyes.
Lives cut too short by needless war.
Gone before I could say goodbye

All I want are my two little boys back
As I scream, I shout, and I cry
How could you, how could you weep over them,
When you sent them off to die?

Image: Richard (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A Family Cruise on the Rhine

swanA swan passed by my window this morning at sunrise. No, it wasn’t a dream. I’m on a river boat serving as Study Leader for a two-week Rhine River cruise from Basel to Amsterdam. The focus for this trip is family.

Of the 130 passengers on the ship, more than a third are children. The family groups range from an 82-year old grandma and her adolescent grandson to multi-generational bundles of relatives coming together from across the US.

I needn’t state that these are very fortunate children. In our opening reception, I used nearly biblical language describing the trip as a blessing for the kids able to participate. Every adult head was nodding in agreement.

Certainly the grandparents on the ship didn’t have such luxury travel growing up. In fact in many cases they are but one generation removed from the bold travelers who abandoned everything and sailed to Ellis Island seeking refuge in the early 20th century.

Some of the adults in the “parent” generation, though, enjoyed some international travel as youths. But even so, they seem as wide-eyed and excited as the kids.

And what about the kids? I feared they’d be privileged children hunched over in classic postures of teenaged boredom. But they aren’t. They’re smiling as broadly as an adolescent can in the presence of family. Plus, the best news of all: by the second day, I noticed a decline in their focus on digital technology. Could it be that castles are more interesting?

“Whose idea was this trip?” I like to ask this question of each family group. Inevitably, it will be a grandparent’s. One granddad told me gruffly, “A year ago, in the middle of my chemo, the Smithsonian catalogue came in the mail and I figured, what else was gonna put me in a better mood? So I told them ‘I’ve signed us all up!’” Based on his subsequent grin, that story has ended happily.

Of course not everyone is in a position to book expensive river cruises in order to build family memories. But the shared experiences all families crave don’t have to take place on a tour. They take place, equally powerfully, around the dinner table or standing at the sink doing dishes together. They abound when father and son puzzle over a recalcitrant lawn mower or big brother and little sister walk the dog. And they bloom with vibrancy every time someone reads out loud to the family. Or starts up a round of Frère Jacques.

Since beginning the Professor Carol adventure, I’ve come to understand better the irreplaceable value of family. I’ve observed countless families who, on a minimal budget, manage to find highly creative methods to counter what, to me, is our biggest societal problem. And, no, it’s not our collapsing standards of education, although that vies for the title.

It’s the collapse of the family, and in particular the extended family. It’s the numbing isolation that so many experience trying to raise their children or care for their aging parents without the support of other family members nearby.

It’s also the break in tradition that results when families are spread across a vast country, or torn apart by the demands of work schedules. Like so many problems, it starts quietly and builds over time, making it difficult to assess just how much damage is done.

Moms and dads need backup. They need someone older to turn to for reinforcement and advice. Kids need extra pairs of loving hands to foster them. They need the open hearts of a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or even older sibling or cousin. Even if you factor in the undeniable challenges of sibling rivalry or strife between some relatives, family relationships are the golden cross-threads that strengthen the weave of the fabric.

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Breisach, Germany

And so my guests will use this journey to weave such a fabric. It’s a joy to watch contented grandparents taking after-dinner walks with their seven-year old grandchild along the Rhine’s leafy shore as the reflection of Breisach Castle sparkles across the water. It’s utterly fun, if a little scary, when the ceiling above my head shakes as teens on the sun deck romp through a hyper-active shuffleboard tournament. “Surely they built the ship strong enough for that, didn’t they?” I find myself asking.

The parents will go to sleep each night of the cruise knowing that their kids have experienced something unforgettable. Maybe it was their first smoked fish for breakfast or a hike in the Black Forest. Or maybe it was the challenge of photographing the dark beauty of a gothic cathedral.

And I’ll do my part to further the educational side of the trip. When I gave my first lecture called “Unraveling the Puzzle of German History,” most of the kids came . . . and stayed! The adults were pleased: they want the kids to take away more than cozy feelings or a taste for new foods. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the engineering history of the Rhine itself, and what the Rhine has meant in the imagination of the artist.

And then I’ll launch my favorite session entitled “Goethe Boot Camp.” Few Americans have a solid knowledge of this German giant. We’ll linger a while with a famous passage from Faust in which the theme is lingering:

When I say to the Moment flying
‘Linger a while – thou art so fair!’ (Verweile doch, du bist so schön)
Then bind me in thy bonds undying.

Here Faust charges Mephisto with what he assumes is an impossible challenge: to bring the jaded professor into a state of ultimate satisfaction that will make him want to stop time and proceed no further. Faust, as it turns out, underestimates Mephisto’s abilities.

Can youngsters grasp such a passage? Their grandparents can. But it doesn’t matter. The kids will remember it, just as they will remember standing with grandma, feeling small beneath the spire of the Cologne Cathedral. And just as they will remember splashing Uncle Ralph in the backyard with the garden hose when they were supposed to be washing the picnic table, or hauling slate tiles to build grandma a path to the birdbath.

Because it’s about building. It’s about building moments that bind us together. It’s about needing each other. Nothing can replace what family offers, whatever the bumps and disappointments may be. And nothing could heal so many of our societal ills as quickly as renewed vitality of the extended family unit. At least, so it seems to me this late afternoon as I await the return of the swans at sunset.

The Trumpeter of Krakow

krakowAfter a surprisingly hot day, we’ve had a big storm here in Krakow. My hotel room lies on the top (4th) floor, tucked under the eaves. Outside my window stretch the rooftops of Old Town and, not far in the distance, the famous tower of St. Mary’s Church.

The church’s fame rests on a number of things, including its spectacular wood-carved altar piece. But more influential in shaping the public character of Krakow happens to be an event that takes place in the church’s tower: the trumpeter.

Yes, the famous “Trumpeter of Krakow.” (Perhaps you’ve seen the children’s book The Trumpeter of Krakow, a fictional work first published in 1928). The 13th-century legend tells of a trumpeter placed on watch to warn the besieged town of approaching Mongol troops. He spotted the enemy and began to play a tune to signal danger. What tune? Well, arguably the one still played today known as Hejnał Mariacki (St. Mary’s Dawn), although it can never be proved.

We sometimes forget that wind and percussion instruments were early warning systems in historical times. The blare of a trumpet or clang of a gong could travel long distances to alert a commander of approaching danger. In this case, the tune played by the long-ago trumpeter was cut short, says the legend, by an arrow to the poor chap’s throat.

Whether true or not, the legend’s power is such that every time, every single time, the tune is sounded from St. Mary’s tower, it is rendered in such a way as to be cut off abruptly, mid-stream, with a kind of trumpet gasp.

Now when I say “every time,” I’m not joking. Because this tune is sounded four times at the top of each hour. First the trumpeter rings the hour on the tower bells. A few seconds pass. Then, if you’re within one or two kilometers of the square, you will hear the strains of the melody.

The trumpeters today play in a specially constructed area that includes a place for a limited number of viewers (tower-climbers) and a resting area for the trumpeters. There are a number of selected musicians who share the 24 hour/365 day shifts. It is a great honor to become one of the trumpeters who opens a window on each side of the tower (north, west, south, east) and plays this tune, once in each direction!

Below, on the square, tourists and even locals stop to listen, applaud, or even cheer. Often they return the brisk wave the trumpeter gives upon completing each strain before snapping the window closed and turning to play in a new direction.

You can see in this video just how it looks from the perspective of the trumpeter. Considering how beautiful Krakow’s massive square is, especially in summer when filled with flower vendors, or during the Christmas Market when snow adds extra radiance, you can imagine that the trumpeters never tire of the spectacle.

But, of course, it is a job. Still, what a job! Can you imagine the job description? “Trumpeter needed to devote years to perpetuating an extraordinary musical and cultural tradition, one with enormous significance both to the people of Krakow and to the Polish nation. Not too many pitches required but intonation must be perfect.” And, for that matter, trumpeters approach this short tune with certain individual differences, as you will here if you sample a second video.

We’re extremely lucky on our Smithsonian Journey’s tours to stay in hotels along Floriansky Street, just off the square. That means I can hear the trumpeter from whatever room I occupy, no matter which tour. Do I tire of it? Never. If I wake in the middle of the night, and it’s the top of the hour, I hear the tune. While getting ready to go down for breakfast at 6, 7, or 8, I hear the tune. Walking around the square, I hear the tune. It’s marvelous.

The rain is really pouring now. But it’s 3 minutes until 9 p.m. and the trumpeter is up there. He’s standing at the window, warming up the mouthpiece. The blast of rain may block out this iteration but in a few hours the storm should pass. The midnight melody should be crystal clear. I’ll be eager to hear it.

No Selfies

Selfie_icon.svgTwice on Sunday I forgot to take a selfie. The first time came during a joyous afternoon reunion here in Latvia with two long-ago SMU students. Both fantastic musicians, these “kids” were members of our orchestra in the early 1990s, a time many refer to as a Golden Age in our newly fashioned Artist Certificate program. They (and others from countries like Russia, France, Czech Republic, China, Bulgaria, and Spain) brought enormous talent, a razor-sharp work ethic, and hearts overflowing with enthusiasm.

Some went on to forge stellar music careers; others moved into innovative jobs outside of music. No matter which avenue their lives took, it is always a tremendous honor to visit with them years later, wherever I may be.

In this case, the three of us spent a leisurely afternoon of reminiscence and rejoicing at a trendy Riga coffee shop. Now, here’s the thing: if we had been teenagers, we’d have taken a selfie — a dozen “selfies.” And I did intend to take at least one picture. But we were so caught up laughing, and recalling persons and events, we simply didn’t think about pictures. Only when I returned to my hotel did it hit me. Gosh, lost opportunity there, right?

The second omission happened earlier that same day. Our Smithsonian group was weaving its way through Riga’s Old Town, taking in the endless architectural delights. Our tour operator (a vibrant Lithuanian woman), was bringing up the rear when she found herself suddenly approached by a dignified man. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit and vest and, perhaps seeing her kind face, had begun to speak with her. I moved back to check things out. A retired Art professor in our group joined me, just in case something interesting was going on.

Within seconds we were drawn into their powerful conversation. I translated as seamlessly as I could for our professor who could barely believe his ears.

This gentleman, in 1940, had enlisted in the Russian army at age thirteen. A Russian born in Riga in 1927, he convinced authorities he was seventeen and got away with it. He then fought against the Germans and survived. He recalled seeing Stalin on multiple occasions while in Moscow. For him, of course, Stalin was the heroic leader who stopped Hitler.

After the war, this man came back to his home country. Latvia was part of the territory traded at Yalta to the Russians and subsumed into the Soviet Union. Folks in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia often say “the Russians liberated us but forgot to go home.” Such dry humor hides their deep bitterness at winning the war, only to be defeated by forty-plus years of disastrous Communism.

Past retirement by the time Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, declared its independence from of the USSR in 1990, this man seemed not to have had had his world turned upside down as did so many younger Latvian Russians. Simply put, persons (Russians) who were high up on the hierarchical ladder during the decades of Communism were suddenly cast down and, in many cases, cast out. If he did experience this, he didn’t mention it.

What he did tell us, though, had to do with a commemoration on May 9th (Victory Day) signed by Putin himself, of which he was very proud. Now at age 90, he was being officially honored as a soldier in the Second World War. He pulled his shoulders back strong and tall when he described the commendation.

As part of his recognition, he was receiving a two-week visit to a spa on the Baltic seacoast in June. It was pretty clear that he hadn’t spent life enjoying resorts. He couldn’t wait for it to begin.

I’ve been privy to such spontaneous conversations with World War II Russian veterans, although fewer as that generation is nearly gone. But my art professor had not heard anything quite like this. As with everyone in the group, he is drinking in reams of information during his first serious tour of the Baltic countries. And he is coming to understand the different heritages, languages, geographical features, and personalities of these three countries united primarily by common misfortune: invasions, occupations, destruction, and rebuilding. This has been the cycle, from pre-history through the Northern Crusades. From Napoleon to World Wars I & II and 40 more years of Communism. That’s it: shared misfortune and a border on the Baltic Sea.

As our group was drifting away from us, we had to say goodbye. He was reluctant to part with us. He was enjoying telling his story. Only after we’d parted did my art professor and I simultaneously clap ourselves on our foreheads: “Yikes, why didn’t we get a picture?” We consoled ourselves that maybe we’d see him near that same courtyard tomorrow.

But we didn’t. That’s the nature of touring. You get only one chance. And, unlike younger people, snapping pictures isn’t always our first instinct. We are more likely to gaze in wonder at the situations we encounter, the persons we meet. We are more geared to savor the moment than to post it to Instagram.

I wish I had both pictures. But actually I do. I have two pictures etched in my memory. The first shows a proud, 90-year old soldier whose eyes blazed as he told his story. The second shows me rejoicing in the presence of two now-grown-up “kids” who chose not to stay in an easier life in the US, but to return and offer their talents and hearts to a stunningly beautiful sea-side country that continues to struggle and rise on the wings of hope and prayer.

Image: Claire Jones, A Selfie Icon (CC BY 3.0)

Walking through Vilnius

The cobblestones are large and uneven. They look like a randomly strewn field of stone bobble-heads. I teeter a bit, carrying bags of Lithuanian honey, chocolate, and bubbly water back to my Bed and Breakfast. Found on Expedia, this modest, squeaky clean hotel lies in the middle of Vilnius’ extensive Old Jewish Quarter.

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Monument to Tsemakh Shabad* by sculptor Romualdas Kvintas

Despite the brilliant sunshine and cool breeze, jet lag washes over me. Maybe that’s why, just for an instant, I seem to see this leafy street as it looked in the 1930s, before the rounding up and exterminating of Vilnius’ Jews. Hitler’s insidious goal was highly successful here: the population of c. 57,000 Jews in this city known as Jerusalem of the North barely measured 2,000 by the end of World War II.

Vilnius’ Jewish Quarter was renown across Europe as a vibrant community—a prominent part of a cultured city dominated by Polish and Yiddish. I closed my eyes and tried to hear the past. I imagined myself as a Vilnius bobe (grandmother), carrying a heavy sack topped by a baguette that would teeter if I lost my footing. Only, I would not have lost my footing. My feet would know each crevice of the cobblestones, because this would have been my home.

At least until Hitler’s madmen set about in summer 1941 to empty this Jewish neighborhood and prepare it to become the Wilno Ghetto, designated for the incarceration of Lithuanian Jews. The goal was to reduce the number of Vilnius’s Jews to zero, a task accomplished first by mass exterminations (21,000), followed by street executions and subsequent starvation of the remaining population of Jews who were corralled into a ghetto stretching across these very streets. And yet even within the horrors of that ghetto, a cultural life was established, including a vibrant theater. Most of those who survived the Wilno Ghetto would later be deported to the death camps, particularly Majdanek. All of that took place here, where I now peacefully walk.

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Vilnius University, Wilczińskiego, 1850

Vilnius has become my third favorite destination in Europe, after my beloved Weimar and the magical city of Krakow. Every political, religious, and cultural influence you can name has crossed through Vilnius. At one point, the Medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, coupled with the Kingdom of Poland, grew to be the biggest power in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea (no small accomplishment). At another time, the late 18th century, it completely disappeared off the map, victim of the brutal partitions of Poland.

In between, Lithuania has been conquered, ravaged, revitalized, and restored so often that one gets dizzy contemplating the timeline. Yet, somehow, it survived. That gene for surviving continues to matter today as the nation entertains new threats, from depopulation (as young people en masse seek better jobs elsewhere) to nervousness about Russia’s potential land-grab ambitions.

Lithuania is arguably Europe’s most religious country, with well-attended churches everywhere, primarily Catholic but also Orthodox and some Protestant. Even more than in Poland, one feels the spirit of traditional Christianity woven into daily life. Of course, on these Smithsonian tours we treat religious sites as historical and cultural landmarks, but after hours I like to wander through Vilnius and find churches open into the evening, populated with local people praying. There’s a particularly dear single-nave Gothic church known as The Chapel of Divine Mercy where candles are always burning before a famous painting of “Christ, The Divine Mercy.” It was painted in 1934 based on the descriptions of Polish St. Faustina Kowalka who had explicit visions of Christ many times in her short life.

No matter how intense our own US history and politics may seem, we have a simple story compared to the Baltic States or Eastern Europe—for that matter, compared to almost anywhere in the world. We look back at nearly 250 years of complexities and turmoil. They look back at centuries, even millennia, of cataclysmic grievances and disasters. I don’t know how one processes that much history.

Still, it all comes down to a worn shoe crossing the cobblestones, doesn’t it? It comes down to each (today peaceful) street punctuated by the voices of children in the adjacent park. It comes down to the faith we continue to have that somehow the massive problems of humanity can, and will, be solved.

My tour begins officially in two hours with a welcome dinner. Then we spend two more days in Vilnius, continue on to Riga, then Tallinn, and end up in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lilacs are in bloom. It’s not as cold as I had feared. And so far, no one’s expectations have been left unfulfilled. It’s all good.

Still, my quiet times are what I cherish. And the moment of being pulled into Vilnius’ Jewish past will stay with me for a long while. But for now, it’s time to grab my list of guests, put on a big smile, and step forward into a job that continues to amaze me.

*Tsemakh Shabad (1864-1935) was a Jewish doctor and political activist in Vilnius.

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clear-day

On a clear day Rise and look around you, Well it was indeed a clear, sunny day. I had just delivered a mid-afternoon talk on the history of Calypso to an audience of fellow-travelers as we steamed across the Caribbean […] Read more.

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Charlemagne

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