Dear Reader:

As those of you who have followed my blogs probably guessed, I took a hiatus from posting new adventures.  I was out there living them!  Below, please find impressions of four discoveries—this time on St. Petersburg, Russia, and pearling, horse racing, and falconry as found in the Dubai area.  During my time away from blogging, I also had some powerful encounters with Rome and vicinity that seem worth sharing with you.  As I turn recollections into blogs, I’ll post them.  Like before, what I share was inspired by true events.

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FALCONRY as Experienced on THE ARABIAN GULF

FALCONRY
as
Experienced on
THE ARABIAN GULF

 

“The desert nomad clearly flew his falcons because he wanted to hunt and eat; he did not go hunting because he wanted to see his falcons fly.”

— Mark Allen
     Falconry in Arabia

Falcon

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I first became aware of falconry when I flew from Dubai to Cairo for what would prove to be a fairy-tale encounter with Egypt:  the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel—all by air and in a week.

All Giza Pyramids

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As I settled into my seat just before take-off, I noticed a tall, middle-aged Arab in dishdasha (a white long-sleeved collarless garment), ghutrah (traditional Arab headdress), and black thob (cloakcoming up the aisle to take his place.  There was nothing unusual about that, except that on his arm perched a large, brown hooded falcon.

Mideast-Falconry

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At first I thought that maybe the bird was stuffed, a toy perhaps for a child—Arabs adore children and lavish them with affection which often translates into material gifts—but no, the creature on his arm was fully alive.  Though hooded, it moved its head in the direction of sound and appeared content in the company of its owner.

The man and his falcon took his assigned aisle seat directly across from me where they stayed for the entire flight to Cairo.

Perhaps aware of my covert glances, the man volunteered in perfect British English that he was on his way to Egypt for a falconry hunt, adding that falconry is no longer so much about securing food, as the thrill of the chase.

I asked if the bird might become distraught during the flight—the sounds, the sudden movements of the plane—but the man assured me that a falcon unable to see will sit quietly, that hoods are used whenever a handler wants to have his bird still and at ease, such as in travel or even a visit to the veterinarian.

Indeed, during the entire flight, the bird sat peacefully on its master’s arm—even during the meal service.

Falconry_Day

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Once back in Dubai, I mentioned my falcon encounter to my English friends Nigel and Heather, aficionados of what is often referred to “the sport of kings.”  That inspired an invitation to a falconry hunt with them and their Emirati friend, Qadir, an ardent falconer.  The outing would take place in the late afternoon, when the heat of the day had abated, in the Dubai desert, beyond the oasis of Al-Aweer, about 35 kilometers west of Dubai proper.  “This will give you a taste of the art and practice of Arab hawking,” Nigel gloated.

A prerequisite for falconry is a vast open space which the Dubai desert amply affords.

 

Dubai_desert

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Qadir and his son, Amir, picked us up at Nigel and Heather’s hotel, arriving with two four-wheel drives.  His two hooded falcons rode with us in the forward vehicle.  In the support vehicle, driven by Amir, sat a couple of greyhound dogs (saluqis), trained to run down the prey.  Dasras, a member of Qadir’s household, and for this outing a much-valued extra hand, rode with Amir.

Jovial and talkative, Qadir was clearly pleased to have three new candidates to interest in his passion, which he said, in the eyes of many, is now considered a refined art form.

With a guttural tilt to his English and schoolboy enthusiasm, Qadir defined falconry (sometimes also called “hawking”) as “the art of training falcons, hawks, or eagles to go after game.”  He said that the part of the Arabian Peninsula where falconry thrives extends from the southern part of the Arabian Gulf well into Saudi Arabia.

Falconry reaches back at least 4,000 years—to China where it provided food for its people by letting the bird snare game such as hare and even gazelle.

Gazelle

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This activity eventually spread via the Silk Road to the Middle East where it became an important hunting method of Bedouins, supplementing their diet with meat such as houbara or Macqueen’s bustard, stone curlew, or Arabian hare.

Falcon-houbara

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Within the last hundred years, the motivation to become a falconer shifted from providing meat for the table to that of a social pastime—one that affords the falconer the exhilaration that can come from watching his bird of prey (sometimes also called raptor) chase quarry.

When we asked Qadir what prompted falconry’s shift from a means of providing food to sport, he said it was the introduction of firearms.  But, he noted, the shift had a silver lining:

The world’s addiction to oil brought about an inevitable blending of the outside world with traditional ways.  Settlements of coral houses and palm-frond sheltersgave way to space-age cities. With such radical change, one-time desert dwellers felt a need to preserve aspects of their thousands-of-years-old heritage.  In the 1990s a movement got underway to preserve, restore, and honor Gulf traditions. Falconry became an enshrined link to the Gulf Arabs’ nomadic past, reminding them of their bond with the desert.

Qadir said that because the sport of falconry now thrives in the Arabian Gulf region, the UAE has established a successful breeding program, guaranteeing that this pastime will not eradicate the houbara species.  So honored is the sport of falconry that the UAE even has a falcon hospital, staffed with international specialists.

As for the region’s preferred species of hawking birds, our host said that in the UAE it’s safe to say that the saker and peregrine are generally the raptors of choice.

Saker_Falcon

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to Qadir, “Some consider the gyr x saker cross to be the master of the desert. Traditionally, it was what the Bedouins liked best.”  His favorite falcon is the peregrine-gyrfalcon hybrid.  It’s a flying machine that can dive for prey at 320 kilometers per hour.

Because the region’s extreme summer heat precludes much local breeding, raptors come mainly as migrants from the more moderate climates of eastern Europe and central Asia, while traveling to and from their winter habitats in Africa.  In the fall and spring, the migratory seasons, the Gulf overflows with raptor life.

Historically Bedouins had intricate ways to catch raptors, but Qadir personally secures his hawking birds through professional suppliers.  (During my recent trip to the UAE, I learned that a top peregrine can now cost more than $250,000!)

Qadir did share one traditional way of capturing a bird of prey:

Imagine a man buried in sand with only his head and arm above the surface.  A bush serves as camouflage for the arm, to which a live pigeon is tied.  Attracted to the movements of the pigeon, a falcon swoops down only to have the man throw a cloth over its head, effectively rendering it immobile.

Then comes the taming and training process, but there are professionals who help with that too. “Quite naturally, we have purists who like to do this kind of work themselves, but it requires lots of time,” Qadir told us. The falcons are often released in the spring, when the migratory season ends.  The process begins anew in theautumn with the capture of more falcons.

When we neared our desert destination, Qadir and Amir strapped bags around their shoulders. When I asked what they contained, they replied, “Fresh pieces of meat to reward our falcons after a kill.”

“What’s the actual incentive for these birds to kill?” Heather asked.

“Food,” said Qadir. “A falcon only kills when it’s hungry.” He paused for a moment, then added, “By the way, whatever we kill, we eat for dinner that evening.  Nothing is wasted.”

As we approached Al-Aweer, Qadir slowed his four-wheel drive to just a crawl as if looking for a safe place to park a car.  The sand around this oasis is deep.

Dubai_sand_dunes

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to get stuck, even with a four-wheel vehicle.  He found a sandy, but recently traveled, lane.  Amir parked behind us, promptly releasing the two impatient saluki dogs who were only too eager to explore the terrain.

Then Qadir, Amir, and Dasras gathered together their elaborate paraphernalia––the gloves, the bags, the safety leashes, the list went on and on.  Father and son each took a hooded falcon.  Both falcons had bells attached to their feet—a method that lets falconers track them while they fly freely.  Dasras carried a bag in which to store the game.  The saluqis scampered under foot.  And Heather and I followed behind.

Saluki

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As we marched across crusted sand, often dotted by scrub, I was struck by the serene expanse of desert landscape that the setting sun had bathed to a golden glow.  An afternoon breeze caressed us gently.  It was an exceptional moment, except we were on a hunt that might well take a life.  But again, Qadir reminded us that whatever quarry he captured late that afternoon would be prepared in his kitchen that night.

As we walked along silently, Qadir suddenly paused, sensing prey.  Without a word, he signaled Amir that he should let his peregrine fly first.  With a few deft hand gestures that included removing the falcon’s hood, Amir released the bird from his leathered arm.  It soared high above us, reveling in its freedom.  The falcon circled for some time as if to orient itself and then plunged into a breathtaking dive.  Spotting its prey, it went after it with authority.

Without prompting from their masters, the saluqis mobilized and raced after the quarry, reaching it long before we did.  When we came upon the peregrine, it had caught a hare. Amir rewarded his bird with a piece of fresh meat from his falconry bag.  Dasras gathered up the kill, wrapping it carefully for delivery to the family kitchen that evening.

Qadir and Amir let both their falcons fly two times that afternoon.  Each time they secured their prey.  Each time the falcons were rewarded with fresh meat.  And each time Dasras preserved the falcon’s bounty.

I asked Qadir how many runs a falcon can make in a successful day.  He replied that typically four kills is considered good, but because of our late start that afternoon, two was all he wanted his birds to attempt.  Qadir knew of some birds that killed seven to ten times in one day.  “But then they’re exhausted,” he added, explaining that a traditional Gulf remedy for exhausted falcons is a touch of aspirin dissolved in water.  “That tends to revive them.”

It was now nearly dark and time to head back into Dubai.

Dubai_skyline

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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THE ARABIAN HORSE

THE ARABIAN HORSE

“Drinkers of the Wind”

 

SONY DSC

“To create the horse, God spoke to the south wind:  ‘I will create from you a being which will be a happiness to the good and a misfortune to the bad.  Happiness shall be on its forehead, bounty on its back and joy to its possessor.’”

— Early Arab Expression

From my earlier writings you know that in the 1970s, I spent several years living on the Arabian Peninsula, near Dubai. Once the fabled hub for eastern and western Silk Road traders, today it is the product of an electrifying rise from near-poverty to sophisticated urban giant.

Burj

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On return visits, I’ve always come away full of wonder at the land’s mystery, ancient ways, and daring innovation. Occasionally, I’ve shared bits and pieces of my discoveries with you. On a limited basis, I’ll continue to do that, spotlighting aspects of this region’s rich, five-thousand-year heritage.

Dubai

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I was in Dubai again where my friends from the 1970s, Aziz and Yasmin, introduced me to the much-honored Arabian horse, said to be the oldest breed of horse in the world—revered for its beauty, speed and endurance. Archaeological evidence in that part of the world suggests that horses that resemble modern Arabians date back 4500 years.

Arab tradition goes so far as to say that the first person to actually train horses was Ishmael, the son of Abraham, progenitor of the Arab people. (Abraham is thought to have been born c.2166 BC and died c.1991 BC., so if the above tradition is true, the Arabian horse has enjoyed a long tenure on the Arabian Peninsula.)

Since I had last seen Aziz and Yasmin, they’d taken an interest in Arabian horses, especially the racing component, which includes the Dubai World Cup. Since 2010, this event has carried a purse of USD 10 million.

One evening en route to dinner in downtown Dubai, Aziz and Yasmin drove me past the city’s famous by-invitation-only Zabeel Racing Stables. The 200-acre urban compound houses about 120 horses in training, among them Dubai’s World Cup contenders.

Surrounded by gleaming urban skyscrapers, these state-of-the-art, horse-friendly stables consist of an 1800-meter dirt training track, a 100-meter straight pool, and over 90 fully air conditioned stables plus about 60 outside stables. Aziz said that around six in the morning, visitors could watch these magnificent creatures being exercised for about an hour each, depending on their particular personal training program. I learned that the facilities strive to provide a tranquil environment—even visual stimulation for horses that are likely to become champions. Aziz seemed pleased to say, “Here there is no gambling involved.  Our sport is clean.”

Arabian_Stallion

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since we had time before our dinner reservation, Aziz and Yasmin stopped their car near the stables to let us watch an elegant, though distant, Arabian trotting.

Bedouin_Shepherd

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Aziz offered some historical context, taking us back to the Bedouins (the nomadic wanderers whom I describe in 7 ½ Places of Wonder). In days gone by, they employed this breed of horse as a weapon of war.

At that time, Bedouins liked to patrol their territory on horseback; if they felt threatened, they attacked, exacting goods and money in exchange for safe passage through their land. The Bedouins’ strikes required stealth, but also quick getaways—something the nimble, fleet-of-foot Arabian horse could provide.

While highly effective in desert warfare, the Arabian horse was an animal of luxury; it suggested wealth. Its care and feeding was always a challenge. Were it not for the camel, which carried food and water, the finely bred, mostly coddled Arabian horse would not have survived the harsh desert conditions. (On the subject of water, Aziz said that horses tend to drink eight times the amount of water needed by a camel.)

So prized were Arabian horses that in traditional settings, Bedouins made an effort to feed them before themselves. If a desert camp was short of water and the owner’s children begged for a drink, the master was known to pour the last cupful into a bucket to place before the horse.

While the Arabian is highly versatile, the Bedouins preferred mares over stallions because they were smaller, requiring less food, which, when pasture and water were unavailable, often consisted of nothing more than dates and camel’s milk.

SONY DSC

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mares were also gentler, more agile, and adapted more readily to the hardships and privations of desert life. And, they were quick to learn. For example, they could be taught not to whinny, thereby avoid compromising their owner’s location to potential foes.

To offer protection and shelter to their prized Arabians, Bedouins often allowed them to sleep in their master’s tent. This might explain the pleasure Arabians seem to derive from human companionship and their ability to remember horse friends after years of separation.

As an Arab poet observed:

“Good horses are few, like good friends,
Though they appear many to the inexperienced eye.”

“Arabians are generally small horses,” Aziz pointed out, “standing usually only 14.1 to 15.1 hands tall.” (A horse’s height is calculated in units called hands.  A hand equals 4 inches.)

In color they’re mainly bay, gray, and chestnut, with the bays often having “stockings” on their legs. Aziz and Yasmin both commented on the Arabian’s handsome wedge-shaped head, with wide forehead and large, dark eyes.

Arabian-Head

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The area just below its forehead is called the “dished face”—where the head curves inward.  Its muzzle is small and ends in a pair of large nostrils. My human friends called my attention to the animal’s gracefully arched neck and its silky, high set tail.

Arabian-Tail

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When I asked about the Arabian’s acclaimed capacity for endurance, Aziz speculated that this had something to do with the animal’s large nostrils, which allow large quantities of air to spill into well-sized windpipes and lungs deep inside its chest. He also said that Arabians have lean muscles, not large, bulky ones, allowing them to run long distances without overheating.

As we eventually drove on to dinner at Le Royal Meridien on Al Sufouh Road, Aziz said that the Arabian’s renowned capacity for staying power has made it a natural for the newly rekindled sport: Endurance Racing, especially in Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE.  The UAE is now generally seen as the breeding ground of equestrians engaged in a rapidly expanding discipline: A top-notch endurance race is a two-day contest that can require that the competitor cover a grueling 200 kilometers (125 miles) over rugged desert terrain.

Yasmin, always with a feminist bent, was pleased to tell me that in the UAE a number of traditional cultural barriers are now breaking down. “These days more than 40% of registered endurance riders are women!” In the past it was unimaginable that a woman would ride a horse.

When I asked her if she might eventually become an equestrian herself, she said, “Yes. I’m taking riding lessons.”

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Diving for “White Gold” in the Arabian Gulf

Diving for “White Gold” in the Arabian Gulf 

In the “Dubai” chapter of my book 7 ½ Places of Wonder, I touched on the region’s ancient pearling industry—for centuries an economic lifeline for those who eked out a living on the barren lands along the Arabian Gulf.

Arabian_Desert

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since earliest recorded times, Dubai was a hub for eastern and western Silk Road traders.

As early as A.D.800, Arabian Gulf merchants were trading with India, Ceylon, the East Indies and China in such prized goods as spices, silks, ivory, aromatics, wood, paper, and saddlery.  Additionally, pearls, sometimes called “white gold,” harvested from the Arabian Gulf, were highly valued and a widely traded commodity.

Pearl-Necklace

Photo: Rose Marie Curteman

Dubai-Creek

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dubai attributes its initial fortunes in the pearling industry to the “Creek,” an 8.7-mile inlet from the Arabian Gulf that allowed this then-seemingly-forsaken-community to become a strategic and profitable port of call.

While sandbars tended to form around the entrance of the Creek, obstructing the passage of large oceangoing vessels, they also pacified the tides, creating quiet oyster beds that proved ideal habitats for pearling.

For centuries Dubai’s local men had labored as pearl divers in the quiet oyster beds of the southern Gulf.  From mid-May to mid-September they’d searched for Al Jiwan, the perfect pearl.  But then oil struck.  The pearl-buying merchants found more profit in gold, textiles, or even cigarettes, and the divers found themselves more lucrative jobs in the oil fields. Besides, Japan’s cultured pearl industry offered too much competition.

Pearling made cruel demands on divers.  Typically, owners of pearling boats insisted that their divers plunge into the Gulf’s oyster beds without oxygen tanks.  They were given one-meal-a-day rations of rice and dates, while enduring the ever-present danger of attacks by sharks and jellyfish.  The boat owners took most of the profits.

Jellyfish copy

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Even when I lived among the inhabitants of the southern Arabian Gulf in the 1970s, I heard tales about older, but by then disabled, locals who had survived vicious shark attacks suffered during their diving years.

The pearling industry flourished until the early 1930s when the global economic depression and the Japanese discovery of the cultured pearl killed off the Gulf’s pearling industry.  Ibitissam, a friend from my years in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes wore a rose pink-colored pearl necklace that her then fiancé, now husband, gave her when they were courting.  She refers to it as a “Gift of love, but also as a symbol of the changing times—the Gulf’s rapidly disappearing past.”

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ST. PETERSBURG

ST. PETERSBURG

Sankt Pieter Burkh

Piter 

St. Petersburg is Russian—but it is not Russia.”
— Nicholas II, the last Czar

St-Petersburg

Image: Wikimedia Commons

St. Petersburg exists because of one man—Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias (1682-1725), who on May 27, 1703 founded the city he initially called “Sankt Pieter Burkh,” in honor of his apostolic patron saint.

Peter the Great, by Pieter van der Werff

Image: Wikimedia Commons

By 1712, Peter made his city the capital of the Russian empire, which spanned continents and multiple time zones.  By the time he died in 1725, Peter’s new port city had 40,000 inhabitants and was set to become a major seafaring power like Holland, a country the young tsar admired.

A critical successor to Peter the Great and all he had set into motion was Catherine II (1729-1796).  She had no legitimate right to the throne of Russia, but her ingenious way with people thrust her to power.  The poet Pushkin said about her:  “Her brilliance blinded, her friendliness attracted, and generosity attached.”  The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), with whom Catherine the Great corresponded for years, called her “The Star of the North.”  Many consider the time of Catherine the Great’s rule to have been the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.

Catherine_The_Great

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Catherine the Great is remembered for many innovations, among them the founding of the Hermitage Museum, which was opened for the public in 1852.

Hermitage_Museum

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This museum houses 3.5 million artistic/cultural exhibits in five magnificent buildings, including the iconic 3-story, green-and-white Baroque Winter Palace.

Its only rival is the Louvre in Paris.

Louvre_Pyramid.jpg

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Madonna-by-DaVinci

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It would take about 9 years even to glance at each of the objects on display in the Museum’s thousand rooms.  Among its riches, the Hermitage collection contains forty Rubenses, twenty-five Rembrandts, more than twenty Van Dycks, two of the ten or twelve authenticated paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, along with dozens of paintings by Italian Renaissance geniuses such as Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and Fra Filippo Lippi.

The art that Peter the Great bought for his personal enjoyment while traveling in Europe formed the base of the collection.  Then Catherine the Great and her successors added to Peter’s treasures by acquiring entire private collections from European monarchs, aristocrats, and auctions.  When Nicholas II, the last tsar, ascended the throne in 1894, he inherited the greatest art collection in Europe.

The St. Petersburg area teems with palaces.  One of my favorites is Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, just fifteen miles outside of St. Petersburg.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Once inside Catherine Palace, we seemed to float through an array of stately rooms.  Most dramatic was the Amber Room, sometimes called the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Catherine_Palace_Amber_Room

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It contains amazing quantities of magnificent inlaid amber (dried resin from prehistoric trees) in warm hues: every variation of yellow, ranging from shadowy topaz to vivid lemon.

Under the reign of Friederich I, between 1701 and 1709, this room of singular beauty was created in Berlin for the city’s extravagant Charlottenburg Palace.

Amber_Room_Feature

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In my book 7½ Places of Wonder, I recount the rather charming story of how it fell into Peter the Great’s hands and made its way to St. Petersburg.

By June of 1941, when the German Wehrmacht bulldozed its way across the Soviet Union toward St. Petersburg, the Amber Room had found sanctuary in Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Sela.

Catherine_Palace_Grounds

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The advancing Nazi armies knew that and were determined to reclaim this one-time German art treasure.

As the Wehrmacht neared Tsarskoe Sela, Catherine Palace curators scrambled to spirit its contents to safety, but many prized objects were left behind, among them the Amber Room.  To complicate the crisis, curators who were to secure remaining treasures were unexpectedly reassigned to support municipal defenses.  One recorded in her diary:  “We carry out the work of guards, office workers, cleaners.”

With the Wehrmacht nearly within earshot, the curators decided that their only recourse was to try to mislead the Nazis by hiding the amber panels in situbehind fake walls covered with ordinary wallpaper.  But the Nazis found the panels and within thirty-six hours had dismantled them.  Soon they were shipped to Königsberg in East Prussia and displayed for a time.

Konigsberg

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Then these coveted panels disappeared.  Of the many theories about the disappearance, our Russian guide favored the view that the Amber Room was probably destroyed in 1944, when Königsberg Castle was bombed in Allied air raids.

In the 1980s the Amber Room was reconstructed by Russian craftsmen, using black-and-white photographs and staff recollections.

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STOCKHOLM

Stockholm

“The Northern Star.”
  – Time (July 4, 2011)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

     The Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909), spoke of Stockholm as “a city that floats on water.”  Indeed, Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a country about the size of California, stretches across fourteen islands, draped in greenery and red brick buildings.  In June the water surrounding these islands glitters, the light above gives off a brightness that makes one cry out for shade.  Flowers, birdsong, and mosquitoes abound, while salmon-stocking programs make the inner-city waterways a fisherman’s dream.

Old town Stockholm. Near the palace.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     Gamla Stan (Old Town) rests on one of the small island mentioned above.

     Stockholm’s history began here, around 1250, as an encampment for fishermen and hunters.  This early settlement soon grew into a trading post and fort whose purpose was to cordon off the inland waterways from Baltic Sea interlopers.  By the 17th Century Sweden had mushroomed into one of Europe’s leading naval powers, with territories throughout the Baltic Sea.  For a time Sweden even had a colony in the New World—on the mouth of the Delaware River, where Wilmington stands today—but that was short-lived, soon falling into Dutch hands.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

      To many visitors Gamla Stan is a maze of cobblestone lanes; yellow, orange, and red buildings; and old fortified walls sometimes etched with ancient Viking Runestones, written in Old Norse, listing Swedes who had participated in Viking expeditions.

     While its history reaches far into the past, Stockholm also struck me as a place on the cutting edge of innovation.  The city powers its buses with bio-gas and uses rainwater for irrigation.  In 2010 it was named Europe’s first green capital.  Stockholm aspires to be a fossil-fuel-free city by 2050.  In the interim, it hopes to export this “outside the box” way of thinking to the world, thus also “turning green into gold” as my Swedish friend Maj once said about her country’s ambitions.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     Konserthuset provides the venue each December 10 for the Nobel Prize presentations in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, and literature.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo’s City Hall on the same date.)  This celebration is followed by a banquet in the Blue Hall of Stockholm’s Stadshuset (City Hall), today considered the symbol of the city.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     The Vasa, the ill-fated, top-heavy oak vessel that capsized and sank unexpectedly just 1400 yards into its maiden voyage, on August 10, 1628, killing 50 people.  The pride of the Swedish fleet then languished for more than 300 years on the bottom of Stockholm Harbor in 110 feet of cold, brackish Baltic Sea waters.

     In 1956, a Swedish marine archaeologist’s persistent search led to the discovery of the nearly forgotten warship.  It was painstakingly raised, towed to a dry dock, and restored to 95% of its original form.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Today the reconstructed Vasa, inaugurated in 1990, is Stockholm’s most cherished historical relic and most popular tourist destination.  Historians today value the Vasa (originally designed as a propaganda tool with 64 bronze cannons and 450 men) not only for her status as the planet’s oldest preserved and identified vessel, but also for what it reveals about everyday 17th Century life.

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JERUSALEM – 2

JERUSALEM – 2

Yad Vashem

(Israel’s Official Memorial to the Jewish Victims of the Holocaust)

Photo: Berthold Werner – Public Domain

Photo: Berthold Werner – Public Domain

     While visiting Jerusalem, my traveling companions (Jane and Philip) and I, along with our guide, Dara, taxied to the foot of Mount Herzl, where in 1953 Israel established Yad Vashem, a complex of museums, archives, monuments and sculptures interlocked by a series of walkways designed to commemorate those who died in the Nazi Holocaust.  Separately, we had visited this memorial on previous Holy Lands trips and found it to be a deeply moving experience, but never before had the three of us met a Holocaust survivor.  On this day we would hear a Jewish grandmother—once an Amsterdam friend of Anne Frank, with whom she had spent part of her teen years in a Nazi concentration camp—tell her story.

annefrank

Public Domain from Jewishjournal.com

     We arrived at Yad Vashem early, and used the time before the lecture to reacquaint ourselves with the sprawling campus.  While walking through various outdoor commemorative sites, we came across Janusz Korczak Square, where our eyes locked onto a statue of Dr. Henrik Goldschmidt (better known by his pen name Janusz Korczak), the Polish-Jewish children’s author, humanitarian, pediatrician, and pedagogue.

Yad_Vashem_BW_2-2

Wikimedia Commons

     In this statue Korczak stands in the middle of a group of desolate children, embracing them with strong, outstretched arms, which conveys his powerful resolve to protect the children at any cost.  The bronze sculpture by Boris Saktsier is called Janusz Korczak and the Children and was donated by Mila Brenner and Yakov Meridor.

     Dara gave us some background: In 1940, when the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, the Krochmalna Street orphanage, in which Korczak worked, was ordered into the ghetto.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

      Although offered sanctuary among Warsaw’s Aryans, Korczak refused, saying simply that he would not abandon his children.  Resolutely, he moved into the ghetto with them.  On August 5, 1942, the Nazis raided the ghetto, rounding up the orphans for the grizzly one-way trip to Treblinka, a notorious Nazi death camp.  Again, Korczak was offered a way out, but again, he declined, saying only that he would go where the children went.  For the journey to Treblinka, he dressed the little ones in their finest, and each carried a rucksack, containing a favorite book or toy.

     A legend holds that at the point of deportation, an SS officer recognized Korczak as the author of one of his favorite childhood books and tendered an offer for ‘special treatment’—perhaps at a camp-ghetto like Theresienstadt, where prominent Jews with international reputations were occasionally sent.  Once again Korczak is said to have refused.  With head held high, along with his nearly 200 children, he stepped onto the train and into oblivion.  No one ever heard from him again.  A few children survived, and as adults attended memorials honoring their benefactor.

     Our Yad Vashem guest lecturer, Hannah Pick-Goslar,* (known in Anne Frank’s diary by the German/Dutch name of ‘Lies’ [diminutive of Elisabeth and pronounced LEES]) whospoke fluent but accented English, described growing up in Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

      One day word went around their neighborhood that the Franks had escaped to Switzerland.  A sense of relief swept across those who had not been so lucky—that at least a few of their brethren had reached safety.  Those left behind carried on bravely, until they, too, were herded together by Nazi guards and deported—in the case of our speaker, to Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

     Once in the camp, Hannah learned through the grapevine that Anne Frank was incarcerated there as well.  “This can’t be!” Hannah cried in disbelief.  “She’s in Switzerland.”  But later that night, under intense search light scrutiny, Hannah crept to a predetermined site along a barbed wire fence and saw for herself that her childhood friend, Anne Frank, now an emaciated apparition, was indeed a fellow Bergen Belsen inmate.

     *Hannah-Pick Goslar’s full story is told in the book Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold.

Auschwitz

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

     “How is it that you’re here?” Hannah wailed at the shrunken figure before her.  “We thought you’d escaped to Switzerland.”

     Anne explained that she and her family had gone into hiding, and, as cover, let word go out that they had made their way to safety.

     Anne appeared at death’s door.  Still, wanting to lend a hand—however feeble—to her old friend, now a shell of a human being, Hannah told Anne that over the course of the next day she would scrounge together a few scraps of food and bring them to her on the next night.

     At great personal risk, Hannah once again trekked to the appointed place, and after making voice contact with her friend, Hannah threw a small package of rations over the fence to Anne, hoping that this gesture would somehow prolong her life.  But before Anne could grab the provisions, a stronger prisoner, hovering nearby, snatched them from midair.  On the next night Hannah again made her way to the appointed site.  This time, she successfully threw a few morsels over the fence and into Anne’s hands. From her voice, Hannah could tell that Anne was joyous.  A third reunion was out of the question.  Nazi patrols were relentless; punishments brutal.  Tragically, soon thereafter Hannah heard that Anne had died of typhus.

     Obviously, Hannah survived the ordeal of being reduced to naked subsistence.  Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, survived too.  After the war he helped this teenager make her way to Palestine (eventually Israel), where she was educated and married, building a productive new life.  Now she described her life as that of a devoted grandmother, who occasionally gives public testimonials lest we forget.

Otto Frank. Photo: Annefrank.org

Photo: Annefrank.org

     The afternoon had been harrowing—a tortuous reminder of man’s capacity for hatred, juxtaposed with powerful examples of human goodness.  On the way back to our hotel, I thought about how some people were able to withstand death camp horrors and others, sadly, not.  Were there any kernels of truth in Nietzsche’s famous quote:

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”?

The Viennese psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor E. Frankl thinks there were.

Photo Attribute:  Studentpulse.com

Photo Attribute: Studentpulse.com

     In his acclaimed book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how love became his lifeline.  Specifically, it was the love for his wife that sustained him.  Personally, he had been stripped naked.  He had lost every possession. He was cold, hungry, living with the possibility of death at any moment.  He didn’t even know if his beloved were still alive—they had long ago been separated within the Nazi system of segregation—but through his suffering he came to understand that we can be robbed of everything, except our freedom to choose how we think about a particular situation.

     Frankl’s riches lay in his mind and spirit.  He could still think.  He could still feel.  He could still remember.  He could still love.  And love he did—dreaming, hoping, and praying for an eventual reunion with his beloved.

     Sadly, when he was liberated he learned that his wife had long ago succumbed.  But even in death she had empowered him through the bond of love.

 

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