Archive | September, 2011

Estonian Snapshots.

24 Sep

My travel buddy, Eric, and I went to Estonia a few years ago. It’s the most northernly of the Baltic states and only a stone’s throw from Russia.
Snapshot 1 — Father Christmas at the end of the Line.
One day in Tallin, Eric suggested riding to the end of the tram line just to see what was there. So we left Tourist-Tallin, heading north-west, right to the tip of a bitterly cold, bleak peninsula. ( We visited in March.) We trundled through drab suburbs of crumbling, concrete apartment blocks largely inhabited by poorer Russians, left stranded by the fall of the Soviet Empire.
At the end of the line we got out and shivered as we looked out on to the grey, choppy Baltic and a rubbish strewn shoreline, criss-crossed by rusty rail tracks. it was a desolate scene. Then we spotted the green, copper roof of a little wooden church. It was clearly Russian Orthodox.
We tentatively knocked on the door, mostly expecting it to be locked. But to our surprise, we were welcomed in by two babushkas in dark coats and headscarves. It was warm and quiet inside. The gloom was illuminated by flickering candles. We sat in a hushed silence, looking at the shining icons, as the old Russian ladies quietly carried on with their cleaning and tidying. We enjoyed the spiritual ambience of the place.
When Eric and I got up to leave, the two ladies tried to communicate with us in fragments of broken English. They then pressed little icons of St Nicholas into our palms. We were in a church dedicated to Father Christmas!
It was one of those magical moments when we were able to glimpse behind the tourist curtain and forget about ticking off sights. We felt the warmth of a connection with real people, momentarily breaking down the barriers of distance, culture and language that normally separated us.

Snapshot 2 — The Nazis were the Good Guys!
The most interesting museum we visited in Estonia was Tallin’s newest — The Museum of the Occupations and the Fight for Freedom. The “occupations” in question were those of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Obviously, many Russians would feel affronted at being compared with the infamous nazis. However, from an Estonian point of view, the Soviet conquerers were equally cruel and oppressive, if not more so, and the Soviet occupation went on for much longer, stretching across five long decades. Photos, artefacts and videos tell the tragic story of Estonia’s suffering during much of the 20th century. On the TV screens we watched the terrible tale of conquest and occupations by 2 of the last century’s cruellest regimes. It literally was a mind-bending experience, as it changed my perception of 20th century World Affairs.
Estonia was re-conquered by the Soviet Union in 1940, in a little known consequence of the cynical Nazi- Soviet pact when Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up eastern Europe between them. The Estonians then suffered mass deportations. Tens of thousands were sent to work and die in labour camps in the frozen wastes of northern Russia. Then there were the disappearances of thousands of people in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Even women and children were sent to the Gulags. Given this horrendous background, it is not surprising that the Germans were initially welcomed as liberators, when they broke their pact with Stalin and drove the Soviets out of the Baltic states as well as Russian Poland. Many Estonians joined the Wehrmacht to fight the common enemy.
Some museum visiters found this revelation very shocking. They could not accept that the nazi Germans could be perceived as the “good guys”. ” Have the Estonians never heard of the Holocaust?” wrote one outraged Finnish visiter. This person clearly found it difficult to empathise with the Estonian position in 1940. Bringing the Holocaust into the frame, a truly terrible event, that took place mainly in the mid-1940’s and in countries outside Estonia, seems to be missing the point. In fact, Estonia did not have many Jews living within its borders and so never featured in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The nearest significant concentration of Jews was in Lithuania, two countries to the south.
This Finnish citizen additionally seems to have forgotten that Finland too fought alongside the Germans against the Soviets, because they also had been conquered by Stalin’s armies. The Finns saw an alliance with the Nazis as their best chance for freedom. It is one of those cases where people want to make history “black and white”, but where it stubbornly persists in remaining “grey”.
The Nazi Germans freed Estonia from Russian domination and at first allowed it some degree of local automony. The Germans initially ruled with a lighter touch and so were welcomed as liberators. It was only later, with the shooting of Communist collaborators ( 75,000 of them!), and the forced conscription into the German army , that life under the nazis became more onerous. What an invidious choice the Estonians had to make in the early 1940’s — Hitler or Stalin?
From an early 21st century, British point of view, it seems shocking that Estonia welcomed the nazis and fought alongside them. However, once one learns of the oppressive background of Soviet rule, not to mention the harsh Czarist rule of the 19th century, then it is not so surprising afterall and is even understandable. It goes against the grain to think of the nazis as the good guys, but in this far-away and forgotten corner of Europe, and for a short period of time, they actually were! This for some, may be an uncomfortable realisation to make.

Snapshot 3 — A Glimpse into the 19th century.
Eric and I took the long distance bus to Tartu, Estonia’s second city. We had hoped to visit the best Ethnographical museum in the country but unfortunately visited on the only day of the year when it was closed — Good Friday! The whole place was like a ghost town with only a couple of cafes remaining open.
We wandered the streets, admiring tha traditional wooden architecture and a very tall brick, Lutheran church. Late in the afternoon we were walking down a quiet backstreet flanked by old wooden dwellings.A small dog came out of a gate and started barking furiously at us, baring its yellow teeth. But we walked on regardless. ( it was a very small dog!) As we approached it lost its nerve and disappeared back through the gate again.
As we passed, we naturally looked in. What met our eyes was like a glimpse back into the 19th century! An old, Orthodox priest in long black robes and with a long, black Rasputin-style beard, was standing on the open porch of his wooden house. Beside him stood his wife in a dark dress down to her ankles. The house was old and rambling. It faced on to a yard/garden full of mud, junk and yapping, mangy dogs. It was a far cry from the modern Scandinavian feel of much of Tallin. This was a throw back to the days of the pre-Revolutionay Empire of Czarist Russia.
We only glanced in briefly, but this fleeting experience was like travelling back into another era.


A History Teacher’s Ramblings About History.

4 Sep

My last post about grief and caring was prompted by the tragic loss of a close friend, C. One conclusion I came to was that C had not completely disappeared, because he would live on in my memory. Although in one sense, C has “passed into history”, a phrase which has a chilling finality about it, in another sense he is still very much around, constantly reactivated by photos, music, places, conversations — in fact, a whole myriad of memory joggers. Memory, one of our most important links with History, not only adds an extra dimension to life but also gets bigger and richer as each year passes.

Imagine living life without memory or in other words: trying to exist without having a personal history. Imagine dragging a giant eraser behind us through life, obliterating our own past and the people in it. No wonder amnesia is seen as such a terrible affliction. My 88 year old dad might constantly lose his glasses or forget where he’s put his car keys, victims of his dodgy short-term memory, but he can use his clear long-term recollections to shine a powerful light on the past. He can transport us to distant eras. He is a time- traveller without the need of a Tardis. When my dad is around, one doesn’t need a history book or a flickering black and white film to find out what it was like: to grow up between the two World Wars,to experience the frightening reality of the Blitz or to learn how people survived on rations in the Age of Austerity. I too have a nugget strewn memory. I had to smile when I learnt about the current fashion for “vintage” weddings. It turns out that “vintage” in this context, means the 1940’s and 50’s, the very time when I was growing-up, having entered the world in 1949. Does this make me “vintage”? If so, does this make my dad “antique”? I wonder whether the wedding guests will be : eating bread and treacle, popping cod-liver oil capsules into their mouths, listening to Lonnie Donegan or Bill Haley, or perhaps even gathering round an open fire to do jig-saws or make proggy-mats. In a way though, despite my slightly mocking tone, I’m pleased that this shows that some of the younger generation are  respecting history and keeping it alive, rather than dismissing it as dead and gone.

Memory and history mean more to us ” oldies” because we have got more of it to draw upon. It’s like drawing water from an ever deepening well. ( The trouble is that advancing age means we dip into the well of memory with an increasingly leaky bucket!)  My young pupils at school often challenged me with the question:” What’s the point of History?” They could not see why they should study people and events that have now passed away. They could not see the relevance of the past to their lives today. How wrong they were but I’ll let them off as they were only 9 to 13. As a History teacher I always had to be ready for that awkward question from a pupil, a parent or an OFSTED inspector. Every good Scheme of Work begins with a vigorous defence of the subject and a justification for its place in the curriculum. So I had it all worked out ( hopefully!) History helps us understand why our world is as it is today. It enables us to learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can hopefully not repeat them ( although we constantly do!) History helps us to appreciate our nation’s heritage. This in turn enhances our sense of identity and feeling of belonging. However these rather abstract ideas only come to be grasped with the passage of time. I wonder just how many of the pupils who scoffed at having to learn about the Romans or the Normans, later spent their leisure time visiting ancient forts, villas, cathedrals or castles? Also, how many of those who moaned about having to study the Tudors or the Victorians, have later settled down to enjoy a costume-drama on the telly or at the cinema? History is not one of the more popular subjects at school and the numbers of students taking it at GCSE have dropped alarmingly. Yet the same subject is a staple of the entertainment and tourist industries, and now, one of its important strands — fashion — is featuring in young couples’ wedding plans. How many times have you seen a “vintage” car or even a horse and carriage transport the bride or groom to the ceremony? It’s ironic that a wedding is supposed to be all about 2 people pledging their FUTURE together, yet it is often celebrated in the trappings and traditions of the PAST!

The power of and importance of History has been recognised in many lands and across many time periods. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung knew the potency of History because they tried to use their powers to obliterate or re-write it. In China and S E Asia, ancestor worship was popular for many centuries and still hangs on today. In Vietnam, I visited old houses ( now semi-museums) where family shrines took pride of place in the people’s living rooms. Decorated with photos and mementoes of the honoured past relatives, they forged a valuable link with these significant people of a family’s past. At first this may seem to be a quaint and ancient tradition of the Far East. However, the same idea is alive and well in the “West” as evidenced by the growing craze for geneology. It’s a thriving interest promoted by such programmes as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Heir Hunters”. The really big spur has been the availability of more and more records through Internet sites such as and Genes Reunited.

Delving into family-history and drawing up family trees has been one of my main interests since retiring. It’s an endless source of fascination. It is great fun solving “history mysteries” and shining a light into the darkness of the past. For a long time I ran away from my family as I was intent on being independent and forging my own identity. But later in life, through reading and discussions, I realized the mistake I had made. I could not move forward until I had ackowledged where I had come from. Every journey has to start somewhere and in the case of life’s journey the start is with one’s family. I could not continue pretending that I had magically morphed out of no-where. I had to go back and reconnect with my parents, siblings, cousins and with earlier ancestors through photos, documents and records. Only this week I was back in my place of birth, visiting my parents, and was absolutely thrilled to discover the 1930’s grave of my maternal Great- Grandparents in a large old churchyard. My delight at the minor miracle of this discovery may seem strange considering I knew that William and Hannah’s bodies had wasted away and I was just looking at an old engraved piece of stone. Yet despite this I felt strangely connected to these 2 people who contributed to my DNA. The discovery reminded me that I was part of something big and awesome. It reinforced my sense of who I am and where I belong. I may think I am unique ( which I am), but I am also half my mum and half my dad, and I’m a quarter of all my grandparents, an eighth of my great Grandparents, and so on. Looks and personality traits are passed down via our genes and we are foolish to try to ignore or deny this fact. Recently I watched Sebastian Coe in the latest series of “Who Do You Think You Are?”  noticing the same bump on the bridge of his nose that was clearly shown on the portraits of his ancestors from the 18th and 19th centuries. I like to think I’m musical. I can play the piano, have enjoyed singing in choirs for the past 20 plus years, have a large CD collection and have attended many gigs and concerts. Surprise, surprise — my Uncle Leslie was a professional singer, my mother, Jessie, sang in 3 choirs at the same time and my maternal grandfather Thomas, was a church organist, choir leader and a composer of hymns. Thomas also played the violin in the cinema to accompany the silent movies of the 20’s. I wonder where my interest came from? Our families link us to the past as well as to the future in a continuous timeline, with talents and traits perculating down through the generations.

Recently, I was quite shocked when 2 young adults told me that they were not really interested in family members who are now deceased and who they had never known. The subject arose when it was claimed that “celebs”on “Who Do You Think?” had to be faking their tears when seemingly getting upset about sad things that had happened to their ancestors. I concede that our so-called “celebrities” can be drama kings or queens and ham up their emotions for effect, but I cannot accept that Bruce Forsythe and J K Rowling were not both genuinely shocked and saddened to discover that their distant ancestors were buried in unmarked, pauper’s graves in neglected cemeteries. Being in the same family opens up the channels of empathy  — the ability to put oneself in another person’s place, even in a bygone era.

I have just finished reading an excellent book called “Stasiland” by Anne Funder. It is about life in the former German Democratic Republic, a communist, totalitarian state which controlled almost every aspect of its citizens lives. It did this through its notorious secret police, the Stasi, the natural heirs of the Nazi’s Gestapo. It was inevitable that some of the stories would be sad and dispiriting. I was challenged about why I wanted to read such a book. This was a good question. I thought to myself: why did I want to depress myself by finding out about horrible events that happened to people of another nation at a time now gone by? Shouldn’t I be indifferent to the lives of these foreign strangers from the past?  The answer soon came to me. Just like a mountaineer is drawn to tackle the Matterhorn or Everest simply ” because they are there”, so a history buff is drawn to find out about past  events simply “because they happened.” Moreover, such events may have important lessons to teach us. Reading “Stasiland”, as with all good pieces of history, provided me with with much food for thought. How would you feel if someone deliberately tried to wipe out your history and also your country’s history? This is what actually happened to tens of thousands of citizens of the former GDR, when the Stasi shredded countless files that they had kept on their own population. When the Communist regime finally collapsed along with its infamous Berlin Wall, the Stasi desperately strove to get rid of all the evidence which implicated them in numerous crimes and abuses against the GDR’s citizens. When all the shredders were burnt out through frantic overuse, the Stasi employess continued to rip the files up by hand. But there were so many incriminating documents that it was impossible to destroy them all. Many survived and many others have been subsequently pieced back together by dedicated teams of puzzle-solvers. Large numbers of East Germans campaigned hard for the right to see their files even though the new authorities of the unified Germany would have been perfectly happy for this unhappy period in the nation’s history to be forgotten. In the same way, many Germans have tried to forget the grossly embarrassing horrors of the Third Reich. Some were happy to forget. However other citizens demanded to see their files. They wanted to find out why they had never got that job or what had really happened to their disappeared relative or colleague. These historical documents were the keys to explaining the puzzling mysteries of their past lives in a now extinct totalitarian regime. Their pasts were part of their lives and they didn’t want the documents that explained important aspects of their pasts to be shredded, destroyed and forgotten. I was fascinated that so many people wanted to rescue their unhappy pasts as represented by the Stasi files. These people did not want to be denied their own histories, event though those histories were often tragic and depressing. It was another reminder to me about how vitally important it is to feel connected. One cannot make sense of one’s own small piece of the jigsaw until one has seen the whole picture, or as much of it as possible.

I have come a long way in this ramble, from the importance of remembering my lost friend, to the challenges of my pupils, and on eventually to the East German people trying to rescue their personal files. This blog may have disintegrated into a shapeless mess. So I now have to rescue it by making connections between its constituent parts. And there we have the unifying theme: CONNECTIONS. Memory and the study of history connect us not only with other people but with other times and other places as well.. They connect us so that we can try to understand and come to terms with the grand scheme of things. These connections may weigh us down and sadden us at times but at other times can bring great satisfaction and joy.

The study of history and the activation of memory is an important way of showing respect for our ancestors, ackowledging and celebrating their existance, and recognising their contributions to our world. It helps and enriches our lives by explaining who we are and where we came from. It makes us feel linked with those who went before; those who created the world and the families that we are now a part of. Some may try to dismiss history as irrelevant and politicians may try to wipe it out or warp it to suit their idealogy, but trying to exist without a historical dimension or perspective is, in my opinion, consigning oneself to a shallow and impoverished existance. What else would you expect a former History teacher  to say?