Trigger warning: this article may contain disturbing pictures.
When reading Melville’s Moby Dick or when looking at the faces of the old Azorean whalers you can see those archaic, old stories made from blood and fight. Man against beast – this tales can be told one million times without losing its fascination.
The hunt for whales, was practiced from the early 19th century until 1984 when it was internationally banned. There are two occasions on which it is still allowed: indigenious hunt (subsistence hunting from traditional societies) and scientific hunt (for scientific research).
Today Denmark, Canada, Russia, St. Vincent and the Grenades practice indigenious hunt. Japan, Island and South Korea practice scientific hunt. Japan & Norway have rejected the moratorium and continue hunting. Of course there is a lot of bribery and intrigues going on on this matter. (But Norway? WTF? Those peaceful nature lovers? I guess I have to revise my image of the Norwegians.)
Today more than 2000 whales are killed every year. Around 1000 by Japanese ships for “scientific reasons”, 600 from Norwegian and Icelandic fishers and around 350 from indigenous people in the US and Russia.
*in the first place people thought it is sperm – therfore the name “spermwhale”
*in reality the 1,5 tons of spermaceti in the head of a spermwhale are used as kind of a radar system for the orientation of the whale
There are some occasions on the Islands where it is possible to learn more about the whaling history of the Azores. We have been to three of them.
The most impressing one for me was the museum in Sao Roque. It is more about the processing of the whales and it is placed on the original “crime scene” where you can still see and even smell the atrocity of the handling of the huge whale cadavers. Same in Horta, but much more in its original state in São Roque. Additionally the great architecture of the museum in Lajes should be mentioned.
Remarkable in those pictures is the ambergris – amber – found in the intestines of sperm whales. There are several theories about the production of it. Sure is, that the hard parts of the whales favorite food (beaks of squids for example) is embedded in it. Some researchers think it is produced because of a metabolic disease, another theory say, that it serves as an antibiotic wound closure for the intestinal wall of the whale.
I always asked myself how the “vigias”, the men who sat in the watchtowers, communicated the position of the whales when having spotted one of them. The map on the picture in the middle shows that they used a system, which divided the area in small squares. I’m still not quite sure, how they used this kind of maps and I would be happy for more details.
On this last picture, you can see one of the ramps where the whales have been pulled out of the sea. As I have understood, most of the Azoreans today still have great respect for the bravery of the whalers, but the compassion and fondness towards the animal clearly wins.
We had the pleasure to stay in this wonderful building for several nights and as it was low season we had it for our own most of the time. The owners carefully restored it and filled it with antiques.
What a feeling to walk through those honorable halls.
When we planned to visit Bohemia I did only think of the region as a great hiking area. When we have finally been there, I became aware of the regions history and it struck me again like it did some years ago.
I wanted to share the photos and what I wrote down when I went to my fathers birthplace in Moravia, a former German speaking area in todays Czech Republic, North of the Austrian border with Austrian culture, food and accent. It’s a very personal history and I try to put it in a general historic frame. But first my history.
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I grew up with some pictures. Some of them were exposed in the living room of my grandparents and countless stories surrounded them. Stories of a house and a farm, a village, animals, teachers, children roaming in the vast forests, in the fields and at the lakes, stories of great celebrations and hard work. Those stories were always accompanied by a nostalgic and distant gaze that appeared quickly but was immediately wiped away.
Also stories of war were told. Of loss and escape. Of hunger and cattle cars overcrowded with humans. And of a homeland that continued in those pictures and stories, but ceased to exist in reality.
Like many other families, my fathers family had to leave Moravia one month after the end of WW2, the place they called home over countless generations. A group of people came to the village, held a gun to the head of a neighbor and told everyone they had to be ready to leave in two hours. My grandmother, 31 yrs at the time, packed up their lives into the stroller of my dad: photos, documents and my grandpas suit – something decent to wear when he came home from war captivity. Then they left their home – accompanied by threads – forever.
Together with my dad (1), my aunt (4), her mother, her sister and her baby and some other relatives, they headed walking to the Austrian border. Fortunately the border was near and they were spared the destiny of many other people from the region, who suffered thirst, hunger, typhoid fever and death on those strictly supervised death walks.
In Austria they were lucky again. A longtime farm labourer of my grandma had married a deceased farmers wife, and they lived in a tiny room at the farm for several month. Then they were collected again and crammed into a train. No one told them where the train would go to and after it started to head to the East, my Grandma said: They are bringing us to Russia. After a long journey they arrived in Germany, in the region where I was born. Where they lived as strangers for a very long time, maybe forever.
I knew all of that, but I did hardly notice it. Maybe because I grew up with it. Maybe because when I was finally there, day to day life had become normal again – at least externally.
Only this gaze which was wiped away quickly and the short silence which was connected with it, could have told me the whole story.
Now I was there. At the only place of my childhood which I have never seen before. I stood on the beautiful place in the middle of the town, which I knew very well from the stitched painting in the living room of my grandparents. A place brimful of memories. I sat in the kitchen in which my grandma feeded my dad and talked to the very gentle people who live there today and knew nothing of the past of there house and their village. I visited the cemetery and found gravestones with my family name on it.
And in an clouded and moonless night, in this area where the villages don’t carry the names anymore which I knew from my childhood stories, during a drive through the misty Moravian forest full of mushrooms, deer and rabbits, I imagined what would have happened, if global politics wouldn’t have intruded into my family history. But this imagination was far to complicated.
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Bohemia and Moravia were once part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. After the Empire ceased to exist (after WW1) the german speaking people who lived there since generations where sawn as intruders. Czech speaking mayors where installed in areas with 98% German speaking people, at schools, Czech was introduced as main language. The Sudetenland was “given” to Hitler in 1938 and he installed the so called “Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren”. Chamberlain and others thought, they would prevent a war with this action. Czechs were now badly treated by the Germans. After war they craved for revenge and their exiled president Edvard Beneš enacted laws especially for the treatment of the German speaking community. “Germans” could be mistreated and killed without fear of consequences and their property could be dispossessed. Until today those laws are effective. The vision was – and not only in this area – to create “pure” nations. An incredible number of European people were relocated by force during and after WW2. For most of them this has been a trauma which is still tangible today.
From a historic viewpoint those acts are quite understandable. No one is as guilty for this outcome as Hitler-Germany is. But I still have so many questions. When I was in the villages surrounding Krásná Lípa in Bohemia I saw all those beautiful more than 100 years old houses which were once owned buy other people who were violently expulsed from their homes after WW2. And I asked myself how it is, to live in a house like this, maybe even in the in furniture of those who left. From whom I only know, that they haven’t gone deliberately. Did they receive a visit from the former house owners in the years after WW2? Are they aware of what happened? What is their view on history?
My grandparents lost their home, there childhood places and maybe even part of their identity. As millions of other people did after war. My questions are also about the psychology of the people who were refugees once and today. And the psychology of the following generations. My psychology. Is there still something of this loss left in me?
When I stood in this place in the middle of the town which I only knew from the stories and pictures of my grandparents, I started crying. I felt, that this is my memory, too.
Built around the 13th century the ruins of the castle of Tolštejn is today a very famous touristic destination. Go there by car or hike from Jiřetín pod Jedlovou (Sankt Georgental).
Old picture of the castle (more history and pictures on Naturwunder in German):
Beth Olamin or Bet Olam is the Hebrew word for cemetery, meaning house of eternity. Unlike Christian cemeteries, the ground where the dead are buried should not be disturbed and graves should not be cleared. This means, that jewish cemeteries from the day of their inauguration, are keeping the memory of every community member for all times and are eternally growing. Eternally growing at least is not true for this sacred ground situated in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. The first burial here was probably in 1586, the last in 1936. Jewish life was nearly extinct from the region before and during WW2.
It’s this history of course which is on my mind when letting the special atmosphere of this place resonate with my small self in this vast forest and fields in the middle of nowhere far outside the village. But as well something more. Eternity is beautiful and visible here and makes me reflect on evanescence and being reclaimed by and becoming eternal nature one time.
Other jewish cemeteries:
Kloster Schöntal is situated picturesquely in Schöntal (“Beautiful Valley”) in Baden-Wurttemberg between Heilbronn and Würzburg. The main structures were built between the 12th and the 17th century, amongst them a baroque abbey and a rococo convent.
Our private wilderness changes its face every week and shows us what nature can do without any influence. Tobias. the apple tree who was just a stick with roots four weeks ago has grown a lot of leaves and a lot of birds come to see us every morning. And Wolfgang the squirrel becomes less and less shy. I guess he likes being photographed. At least he stares at me while I’m taking pictures.