Jews in Latvia


The Jews in Riga

When I was in Latvia last week (that’s a fun sentence to write!) I visited the Jewish Museum. Riga has several monuments and memorials dedicated to the Latvians who died during the 1991 barricades, but there was little reference to the Jews who died during the Nazi occupation. I found directions to the Jewish museum in the guidebook, and set off.

The museum is in a tall building in the Art Nouveau section of the city. The door was locked, and I had to be buzzed inside by a lady in a booth—perhaps even today the Jewish people are unsure of their safety. The museum is in a Jewish Centre, where you can also sign up for Jewish dancing lessons, and language courses.

The displays were all in glass cases (not an attractive museum to visit) but I was given an audio guide in English, which helped. The guide was rather long-winded, and the man speaking was rather pedantic, but there was a fast-forward feature, so I gleaned what I could from his descriptions and muted the other bits (be nice to do this in real-life sometimes). The museum is Jewish, and I guess any museum is likely to have a bias. Whilst what happened to the Jews was unforgiveable and too horrid to properly grasp, I’m not sure if the pre-war Jews were all quite as perfect, fully integrated and wonderful as the museum portrays. It felt a little like when you attend a funeral, and you don’t recognise the person everyone is describing because they sound like a saint but you know they could be an awkward individual when they were alive. Is that right, or should we be more honest? I don’t know. We like our victims/heroes to be perfect and our villains to be completely evil, but life is not like that.  Here is my understanding of the history of Jews in Riga, based on what I saw:

In the early 1900s, the Jews were poor, but rather clever at business. An example was given of a merchant who could initially only afford to employ 3 men, and two years later due to clever business skills he owned 3 factories. However, there were limitations on their social status, and they were only allowed to work in certain areas.

In 1905, during the revolution, there were attempts to suppress Jewish people, and many left the Baltic region at this time.

The Jews were part of society, but they were seen as inferior. Literature shows the Jew as a figure of fun, they are portrayed as slightly dim and generally unhealthy and dishonest. They were laughed at, though not particularly disliked. Jews often appeared in children’s stories as a travelling peddler, a thin man with a big nose, who would try to trick you if you weren’t careful.

In 1918, during the Latvian fight for independence, Jews signed up to fight. The Bolsheviks, known as ‘The Red Terror’ were violent and unfair. In 1919, many Jews joined the army, some as young as 15 years old. The museum had medals, showing the awards Jewish soldiers had received for bravery, though it didn’t state what percentage of Jewish men joined the army.

In 1920, rumours began to spread that the Jews were against the new Latvian nation. There were reports that Jews had refused to fight, that no Jews had joined the army, that they were not truly part of Latvia. The Jews attempted to combat this by publishing their own newspapers, in Russian and German as well as Yiddish. Jewish students set up clubs (fraternities) to balance those that were anti-Semitic. Jewish business flourished in free Latvia, and Jewish people owned banks and businesses (though the anti-Jewish cartoons were still around). The Jews took part in sports, to try and dispel the idea that they were physically weak, and set up competitions and tournaments.

When the Nazi party took control of Germany, people in Latvia boycotted German goods in protest. Many Jewish refugees arrived in Latvia, trying to escape the Nazis.

In 1940, the Soviets entered Latvia. All Jewish societies were closed and some Jews were deported to Siberia. Then the Nazis arrived, and the horrors increased.

In August 1941 a Ghetto was set up in Riga. All Jews were forced to leave their homes and live in the Ghetto. Synagogues were burnt—sometimes when filled with people trapped inside. Propaganda depicted the Jews as weak, ugly, thick and greedy. It was said they refused to be part of society, they hid their wealth, they were the cause of all the troubles. The Nazis tried to turn Latvian citizens against the Jews, and they became outcasts.

By the autumn of 1941, the Ghetto had been emptied of all Jews apart from men deemed strong enough to work. Everyone else had been murdered.

The museum even has films of Jews being shot (after being forced to run into a pit). The Nazis were so sure of their absolute supremacy, that they would never be held to account, that they filmed and photographed the killings.

Somehow, seeing these photographs was harder than seeing the ones when I visited Auschwitz. Perhaps because the people were well-dressed and healthy. I found it more shocking, to see attractive teenaged girls being killed, rather than the gaunt pictures of starving people in the camps—it’s always easier to relate to people who look like the people around us, I suppose. And that is the point—these people were like us. They would have been good people, and not so nice people, and some who were kind and others who were rude, just like us.

One display case showed the passage from Psalm 22, used by Jews to express their agony: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” These are familiar words for Christians, but in the later context of the crucifixion.

In 1943, the Ghetto was emptied of men, when they were sent to the death camps. The Riga ghetto was then divided, and became a stopping place for Jews from other countries who were on their way to the camps in Germany and Poland.

I was interested to read that there had been some Jewish resistance to all this. Some people smuggled weapons into the ghetto, hoping either to escape or to at least die with dignity, defending themselves. There was a big escape attempt from the Riga ghetto, but most escapees were later caught and shot, and 80 other Jews were shot in punishment. However, some Jews did manage to escape from the ghettos, and from the death marches.

One area of the museum was dedicated to people who had helped the Jews during the war. Not everyone believed the propaganda, not everyone sided with the Soviets and the Nazis. Some people were brave enough to risk their own lives, and helped Jews to survive. (Would we be wise enough today, to resist the messages in social media, to be able to discern what is actually true?)

In 1940, it was estimated that there were 95,000 Jews living in Riga. In 1945, it is thought that only 1,000 were still alive.

There is a big memorial, in a forest, in memory of the slain Jews. One day, I hope to visit it. Perhaps by remembering the horrors of the past, we can help to ensure we don’t repeat the same evils today.

I recently read a novel, which examines the idea of national bias, set amidst the more recent conflict between Zionists and Palestinians. I’ll tell you about it on Monday — why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

This is my final blog about Latvia for now. Next time we visit will be in the winter, I’m so looking forward to seeing the city with snow.

Live well today.

Take care,

Love, Anne x

Anne E Thompson has written several novels and writes a regular blog each week. You can follow her blog at:
anneethompson.com

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

A great book to read on holiday, and you can read it for free if you have a kindle! Available from a Kindle near you.

U.S. link here

UK link here

Comparing Riga and Warsaw


Central Market, Riga

I do like a good market, so when we were in Riga last week, we set off to find Central Market. It is slightly beyond the old town, and you walk under some major roads, and through some fairly dodgy-feeling areas, so I’m not sure that I would walk there on my own. It’s probably as safe as places in other cities, but there were an uncomfortable number of young men standing at corners, staring.

The market is in several huge Zeppelin Hangers (which had previously housed Zeppelins). Before you arrive at the main market there is a big market outside, with stalls selling clothes and hardware and flowers.

The inside market is mainly food stalls. We wandered around, staring at gigantic fish, and arrays of flatbreads, and mountains of olives. There were tables, and people bought things to eat there, sipping strong black coffee and discussing politics.

As you leave, you can see the tower of the Academy of Sciences looming above you. This gave me a strange feeling of deja vu, as it’s almost identical to the tower we saw in Warsaw. They even have the same name, as the local people in both cities refer to the towers as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake”. Both were built in the 1950s, both are resented today by local people as being an unwanted reminder of Soviet rule, both are too big and expensive to simply demolish.

We took the lift to the 15th Floor, where there’s an observation deck. I wasn’t hugely reassured when Husband reminded me, as I stepped into the lift, that it was an example of 1950s Soviet engineering; but we didn’t plummet to our deaths. The observation deck sways, but if you don’t mind heights, it’s probably a good place to visit (it costs 5 euros each, so not cheap).

The tower in Riga.

The extremely similar tower that looms above Warsaw.

Actually, there is a lot about Riga that reminds me of Warsaw. Both cities had suffered during the war. Both cities had lost most of their Jews (in 1940, there were an estimated 95,000 Jews living in Riga. In 1945 there were an estimated 1,000 Jews remaining. More about this in a later blog.).

Both cities were heavily bombed during the war, and have rebuilt the old part of their cities, so they are now delightful places to visit, with fine examples of ancient (though rebuilt) architecture. Both cities are still coming to terms with their Soviet past. However, both cities are also welcoming, and people mostly speak excellent English. I enjoyed my visits immensely, they are both worth seeing if you ever have the chance. And of course, both cities have a very good local beer!

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day.

Anne x

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

 

 

Have you read a copy of my travel book?

Amazon Link here

The Tangled History of Riga


The Tangled History of Riga

Riga has loads of churches, loads of scooters — and loads of museums. When I was there last week, I decided to break my usual habit, and visit a couple. Latvia has a tangled past, which lurks behind the decorated facades, and colours how people today view their city. I wanted to learn more, so visited the Barricades Museum, which aims to tell the story of the barricades set up in 1991.

The museum was the first floor of a small building, in the middle of the old town, and was spread across three rooms. There was no cost, but a man sat behind a desk, staring pointedly at the donations pot when people entered.

The first room attempts to give a glimpse of life under Soviet rule. Apparently, the Soviet Union attempted to standardise everything, which meant that everyone owned the same furniture and kitchen appliances. A lot of people moved to Riga (from what was previously Russia) and sometimes several families shared the same space. The museum had a reconstructed kitchen, showing what it was like. Arranged around the room were keyholes, and if you peeped into them you could see scenes from the West. They were awkwardly placed, to show how although people were interested by what was happening in the rest of the world, it was difficult to see the whole picture, they just caught wisps of news.

The other rooms consist mainly of photographs and newsreels and paintings of the 1991 barricades. There is also a van (no idea how they got that up the stairs) and lumps of concrete and hunks of tree trunks around tissue-paper bonfires, enabling the visitor to perch on a bench and imagine they are part of the protest. The rooms are dimly lit—some of them so dark that you can barely see the exhibits, and for a moment you might become confused, and think you are shopping with teenagers in Hollister. I am guessing this is meant to add to the atmosphere, but as in Hollister, I simply found it annoying (I am of the grumpy generation). Of course, it’s possible that they had just run out of lightbulbs.

So what, you might be asking, were the barricades of 1991? I had the same question, and it was not properly answered by the museum (perhaps the full explanation was in one of the dark rooms). I knew that it was a protest against Russian occupation, and that after a call to action on Latvian radio, whole families took to the streets of Riga, and set up barricades around key sites (such as Latvian Radio). However, was it to stop the Soviets invading? –I thought Riga was already under Soviet rule?

The history is as follows: After WW II, Latvia was part of the Soviet Union (previously, it had also belonged to Russia, before the revolution). However, in 1989, Latvia gained its independence, as did the other Baltic states (Lithuania and Estonia). Then, in 1991, Russia, overnight, sent tanks into Estonia, alerting Latvia that their borders were vulnerable. Thus they sent out warnings on Latvia Radio, and told everyone to go into the streets of Riga. The idea was that the Russian army was unlikely to open fire on civilians (because the rest of the world was watching) and so they staged a peaceful protest. Everyone flooded to Riga. Farmers arrived with agricultural trucks, builders placed huge boulders of concrete on the roads, so that vehicles couldn’t get past; whole families—from granny down to babies—camped outside strategic sites (like Latvian Radio) protecting them by their presence. There was some shooting, and a few people were killed (I think 14 people) but it was successful, the Russians left, Latvia remained independent.

However, if you talk to Latvian citizens today, the threat remains very real. A lot of people living in Latvia are Russian, and the fear is that Russia will use this as an excuse to invade again, under the pretext of ‘protecting Russian citizens’. This happened in Cyprus, when Turkey invaded. It could happen at any time, and very quickly—it does not take many hours to get from Russia to Latvia. They hope that by belonging to NATO and being part of Europe, the rest of the world will protect them.

If you visit other key places in Riga, you begin to understand the fear. Another museum is in the old KGB headquarters, so I went to look.

The building is, on the outside, beautiful. Part of the Art Nouveau* section of the city, it has carved figurines, decorations, patterns, and was clearly built by someone rich who wanted a wealthy-looking house. But then I went inside.

The entrance is a small, heavy door on the corner of the building. Inside is a wooden box. This was the only means of (attempted) communication with people who were taken there. Relatives could place requests for information, or letters or packages inside this box, and hope that they were delivered.

The inside of the building was lined with dark veneer, and was dimly lit. There were bars at the windows (placed there after several prisoners had thrown themselves out, preferring suicide to remaining inside). Boards of photographs showed the people who had ‘disappeared’ after entering the building. There was also a film of an elderly lady, explaining her own experiences as a prisoner. What you heard was a description of mental and emotional abuse, how psychologically cruel the system was.

There were also photos of key KGB members, and one featured the famous British spy, Kim Philby.

The prisoners were people who refused to submit to the regime. Religion was outlawed, so although you were allowed to practise your religion, you would be demoted at work, paid less, open to abuse. Many religious leaders were tried in the KGB house before being deported to prisons in the Soviet Union. There were also teachers, journalists, civil servants—anyone who threatened the regime. Western art and culture were deemed to be ideologically harmful, and the people found exploring them were ‘re-educated’. It was not possible to travel outside of the Soviet Union. People simply disappeared, and the only hope of news was through the KGB, as organisations such as the Red Cross were banned. As time went on, even attending a church meant you would lose your job and your children would be excluded from education. Any interest in Latvian history was frowned upon. All written publications were censored.

The museum offered a tour of the cells, and the places where people had been tortured and executed. I declined the offer.

I emerged into sunshine. The sky was blue, the buildings smiled down, all seemed peaceful. I am unable to make sense of the horrors that humans can inflict on each other. Perhaps, now the world is ‘smaller’ and countries are more entwined, we can all help to ensure that small countries are protected from the radicalisation of powerful nations. But I fear it could happen again…

I want to tell you about the Jews in Latvia, but that’s another heavy topic, so tomorrow I will tell you about my visit to the Central Market—that should be a little more cheery!

I hope you stay safe today. Thank you for reading.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

*Art Nouveau is a style of architecture popular in France in the 1890s. It tends to have stylised leaves, vines, flowers etc decorating the building. There is a section of Riga where many buildings follow this style. It should not be confused with art deco, which was popular in 1930s, and tends to be more geometric in style.

Anne E Thompson has written several novels and writes a regular blog each week. You can follow her blog at:
anneethompson.com

 

Exploring Riga Old Town


Exploring Riga Old Town

Husband was working in Riga (Latvia) so I had tagged along for the ride, and we spent the second day exploring the Old Town (clue in the name!) It is full of pretty squares and interesting buildings, and although much of it was rebuilt after the war, they have preserved the historical feel of the city. It’s a nice place to be. We walked through the park which runs alongside the river, and into the pedestrianised zone. We passed Powder Tower (see yesterday’s blog) and saw The Swedish Gate, which is the only remaining gate from the old city wall, and was built below someone’s house — not sure if they were pleased, somewhat inconvenient to have people traipsing below your house I would have thought.

We arrived at St. Jacob’s Cathedral, which has a monument outside to remember the people who died in the 1991 barricades (more about this in a later blog). St. Jacob’s Cathedral is a red brick building, built outside of the original city wall. It has a cupola on the south side, which once held a bell—not to summon people to prayer, but to let them know that an execution was taking place in the city. The bell is no longer there. I am assuming the executions are also a thing of the past.

 

Opposite the cathedral is the Parliament building (some discussion with Husband about Riga’s flag—I can tell you that it’s red with a white stripe down the middle, and he was wrong. Just saying.)

During World War II, the building was the headquarters for the SS officer responsible for killing the Latvian Jews, gays and Roma. Later it was used by the Supreme Soviet of Latvia. This is an example, repeated around the city, of buildings which were built to look pretty, and later used for a variety of horrible things, and have now returned to simply being buildings. Latvia has a tangled history, and there are traces left wherever you go. I wonder if it’s better to not read any guidebooks or visit any museums, and to simply enjoy the beauty of the place in the sunshine and leave the ghosts in the past.

Around the corner from St. Jacob’s Cathedral is a hidden cafe in a courtyard, which claims to be the most romantic cafe in the world (good marketing strategy!) It offers free hugs at the counter (so I’m guessing it’s run by the church). There was also a Christian bookshop, and I bought my mother a scarf. Riga has lots of linen goods and knitted goods, probably because in the winter it’s usually snowy. This is the city to visit if you want to buy a warm hat that your family will mock.

There are three houses, known as The Three Brothers because they each have a distinct architectural style. Two men busk outside, playing music that the locals recognise and sing along to (I saw them there on several occasions). This means everyone has very confusing photographs, as they are of “The Three Brothers” but they show only two men.

Next on our tour was Dome Square. (To be honest, it wasn’t a very good ‘tour’ as it was simply Husband following a route on a map, regularly waving towards interesting buildings and informing me: “There’s a thing!”) Dome Cathedral has a cockerel on the spire, and the building is lower than the square, as they have raised the land since it was built, to stop the area flooding. (Not sure if this means the cathedral now floods instead—hopefully not.) There was a young girl playing a violin outside. She was very young, and played extremely well, and was receiving a lot of money, as almost everyone passing threw something into her violin case. There are a lot of buskers in Riga, many of them young, most of them excellent musicians. It’s rather lovely to wander around, looking at interesting buildings while accompanied by music.

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

Riga has several squares, and many churches/cathedrals. The next square on our tour had a very interesting building: the House of Blackheads—so named because it was a guild for foreign merchants, and their patron was St. Maurice (who was black). I began to realise that many of the buildings, built in the 1500s and 1600s, show how affluent Riga had once been. It was an important trading port, full of rich merchants, and the architecture reflects this. Further from the centre, the buildings were once beautiful, but are now faded, and sometimes derelict, whereas the ones in the centre of the old town have been rebuilt since the war. It must have been a magnificent place a few hundred years ago, and it is still pretty today. You should visit before it becomes too busy. It’s up to you whether you take a guide book and learn about the past, or simply enjoy what you see today.

Tomorrow I will show you some more pretty buildings which have rather nasty history (like the old KGB headquarters)—why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

Hope you have an interesting day.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

Do look at my book: The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary

Travel with me to Zambia, Malta, Brazil, and explore local traditions while seeing the sights. An amusing collection of diaries, in the style of
Bill Bryson meets the Durrells.

Available from an Amazon near you.

UK Link

Riga in the Summer


Riga in the Summer

Riga is the capital city of the little country of Latvia, and I visited it last week, when Husband was working there. I have never visited Latvia before (I am loath to say that I didn’t even know that Latvia was across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, between Estonia and Lithuania—because that makes me look ignorant!)

Latvia has had a chequered history, belonging at different times to Sweden, Germany and Russia, and more recently being part of the Soviet Union. I had no idea what to expect from the city, but “ex-Soviet Union” musters images in my mind of austere buildings and ugly sculptures; so the pretty architecture and sunny parks were a pleasant surprise (I’ll mention the sculptures later…)

We arrived on Friday, and caught a taxi from the airport. A word of warning here: Taxis in Riga have their prices printed on the outside of the rear door, and there is quite a lot of variation in the price/km charged. There doesn’t seem to be any regulated pricing or official taxi rank at the airport. We chose a taxi with a similar price/km to others we could see, and set off. Husband (who notices these things) realised that the price that was showing on the metre, did not tally with the price displayed outside; you need to keep an eye on what you are being charged. (However, whilst this might be useful information, I have no idea what you do with the knowledge. Next time I am in Riga, if the taxi driver has an over-priced metre, I do not feel inclined to confront him and be dumped in an isolated spot with no transport. But at least you’ll know if you’re being ripped-off and can withhold the tip!) Note, we were later informed by the hotel that we had paid an inflated price. The red taxis (Red Cab) and the lime green taxis (Baltic Taxis) are much cheaper, and cost about .70/km (not 1.99/km, which is what we paid). They park slightly further away from the main exit door at the airport.

We were staying in the AC Hotel, which is an easy walk from the old town. It was okay—I’ve stayed in prettier hotels, and the rooms were as tiny as New York hotel rooms (ie they fitted a bed, but not much else). However, at about £80 a night, it compares to staying somewhere like a Premier Inn on price, and it was much nicer than that!

We set off for a walk to the old part of the city (about 15 minute walk). There was a park, complete with a river and bridges, and outside cafes. There were also lots of people on scooters. These can be rented (information according to Husband, so might be rubbish) and are left and found in random places around the city. They whoosh past you at unexpected times, and must, I imagine, be uncomfortable on the cobbled streets, but they were popular. Very popular.

The park also gave us our first taste of Latvian sculptures, which were as bad as I’d feared. They mostly have the whole cubist-looking Soviet Union chunky-art look. Apparently (read the guide book afterwards) many were put up during the Soviet rule, and many of the ones honouring Soviet people have since been removed. But the ones of famous Latvians remain, staring grimly at tourists, reminding us that the city has not always been a happy place. (Apologies if you actually like the style of Soviet sculptures, perhaps it’s an acquired taste. Everyone looks like Stalin to my eyes.) We did see some more pleasing sculptures, but the dominant ones were very ugly.

We found the Freedom Monument (called Milda—not sure if that’s her real name) and a woman was busking. During Soviet rule, there was a large statue of Lenin facing the monument, and people were not allowed to place flowers on the monument. Leaving flowers on monuments seems to be a thing in Latvia.

The main street through the old town is pedestrianised, which was good, as although there are crossings at the other roads, you are supposed to wait for the lights to go green, and they took hours. Latvians are very obedient about this. All the streets seem to be cobbled, which is probably helpful in the winter, when there’s lots of snow, but means you need to leave your heels at home.

We had coffee and beer next to the Powder Tower, which used to hold gunpowder and is now the war museum. Riga has a lot of museums. The outside of this one is interesting, because you can see cannon balls embedded in the walls, from an ancient battle.

Found ‘Cat House’. This was owned by a merchant who was told he couldn’t join one of the guilds, as it was only open to Germans. He placed two cat statues on his roof, with their tails raised, and their bottoms pointing towards the guild! Later, when the guild finally accepted him, he changed the cat’s position, but they are still on the roof. Many of the souvenirs in Riga have cats on them.

We walked back to the hotel, past lots of churches (Riga has a lot of churches) with scooters whizzing past us, watching our footing on the cobbled streets and waiting many hours at the pedestrian lights.

Riga is very pretty, especially when the sun is shining. I will show you more tomorrow–why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?

Thanks for reading.

Take care.

Love, Anne x

anneethompson.com

Thanks for reading.
You can follow my blog at:
anneethompson.com

A laugh-out-loud book about travelling the world with a family. From India to South America, and across most of Europe, this book has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

If you enjoyed this, why not read The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary?

Available from an Amazon near you…free if you have a Kindle. A travel diary to make you smile. Buy your copy today.

UK Amazon link

An Escape Room in Cambridge


For Husband’s birthday, I gave him a voucher for an ‘Escape Room’—you know, those places where you go to be locked into a room, and then you solve various puzzles until you manage to escape (or you fail miserably and they throw you out because your allocated time has finished). I thought it would be fun if we did one as a family.

Of course, the most difficult part was finding a date when all the family could actually meet, but once that was achieved we were fine. Last Saturday we set off for Cambridge. The second most difficult part was trying to find a parking space in Cambridge, but we even managed that eventually.

We started with lunch in an Italian. I know my family have a tendency to ‘debate’ so I envisioned an afternoon listening to them ‘discuss’ the solution to the puzzle. I therefore decided to drink wine for lunch (I did have some lasagne too, but the wine was the bit that mattered.) After lunch there was a further challenge as we attempted to keep Husband with us while we tried to find where to go (he has a tendency to stride ahead, unaware that the rest of the group is unable to cross the road).

I began to relax once we actually arrived at the Escape Room, feeling that the most difficult challenges were over.

The room was not at all what I was expecting. For some reason, I expected a room, set up like a lounge, with sofas (where I could snooze off the wine) and a table of puzzles for my family to argue over. However, we were met at the entrance by an actor who explained the world was about to be hit by a comet, and then shown into a small room which resembled a cupboard, with a locker (locked) and a desk with a computer, and several posters on the walls. We then attempted to save the world.

In case you’ve never done one of these rooms, you’re not actually locked inside (so you can leave to use the loo or if your family becomes too argumentative). There were also several different aspects to the challenge, so people could try to solve one part, without having to collaborate too much with the rest of the group, and there was no necessity to persuade the rest of the group that you knew the solution, you could simply get on with your own bit—which worked rather well for my family. The puzzles were pretty perfect for us—there were some tricky ones, which it took several people to solve, but it was lots of fun. There was, surprisingly, no heated debate at all, and the whole thing was really good fun.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, we did manage to save the world…

We visited the LockHouse Games escape room: link here

Thanks for reading, I hope your week has some fun times too. Next week I’ll tell you about my evening listening to random choirs in the shadow of zombies.
Take care,
Love, Anne x

While we were there, I was able to give the family copies of my latest book: Ploughing Through Rainbows. I wanted to write a happy book, so decided to write about a family on a farm, and as I wanted it to be a funny book, I gave the farmer four sons. However, there are also some gritty issues in the book, as it also shows how the mother, Susan, copes when one of her sons tells her that he is gay. Susan is a Christian, and the book shows her journey as she explores what parenting involves when faced with this news.

Please buy a copy, and tell someone else about it. It’s available from an Amazon near you, as both a Kindle book and a paperback. Links below. Thank you x.

paperback link

kindle link

India link

US link

Auschwitz Birkenau


Auschwitz Birkenau

The second Auschwitz camp was built in 1941, using prisoners from Auschwitz 1 as labourers. The focus had shifted, the prison was no longer viewed as a work camp for people who opposed the regime, it was primarily a death camp. Although there were still other prisoners, mainly gays, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war, the vast majority were Jews.

We drove to Auschwitz II, and parked outside the main gate. This is the image so often seen in films, of the cattle trucks on the railway, driving into the camp, and stopping inside where the prisoners are unloaded. In reality, the railway lines finished at the gateway, and were only extended inside the camp in 1944 (or so I understand from what I have read) because the Nazis were losing the war and were keen to exterminate as many Hungarian Jews as quickly as possible.

The thing that struck me first was the size of the camp. After Auschwitz 1, this was a whole village in size, it was death on an industrial scale.

The trains would draw into the camp, the people (who had travelled in awful conditions for several days) would be unloaded, then made into lines of men and women. A doctor would then look at everyone, deciding who was fit for work, and who was not. Those deemed able to work would leave their belongings on the platform, strip, be shaved, showered in disinfectant, and given a uniform and tattooed with a number.

Those deemed incapable of work—the old, the ill, the very young—would be sent to the ‘bathhouse’. These were the crematoriums at the end of the camp, next to the forest. They consisted of an undressing room, a gas chamber, and a crematorium. We went to have a look, though the buildings have now been demolished.

Now, I have read several books about the holocaust. As a teenager, I read all the books by Corrie Ten Boom, and Sophie’s Choice, and more recently I read Schindler’s Ark, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I therefore knew a lot of facts, but what I was not expecting, was how weirdly civilised the killing seemed. The photographs show people discussing things with the Nazis, everything appears calm, organised. There is no panic—until later, when they were actually inside the gas chambers, when it would be too late. Right until the end, people thought they were simply being processed, and they were not being forced along at gunpoint.

I was shocked by how almost peaceful, some scenes were. For example, the cremating part of the process took hours, so the Nazis did not have the capacity to murder the thousands of arriving Jews immediately. There are photographs of families waiting their turn. There they are, sitting under the trees, grandparents and children, clearly exhausted from their journey, waiting. There seemed to be no resistance, no screaming; people were waiting calmly, looking serene, wondering how long they would have to wait for. The area was surrounded by tall hedges (to hide what was happening from the neighbours) and is bordered by forest—there would I assume have been birds in the trees, in the summer there was grass to sit on; such things seem incompatible with the horrors of what was happening, and that is my point. Auschwitz was not set on the moon, it existed in the midst of life and nature, which somehow makes it worse.

Whereas Auschwitz 1 was very informative, with information and displays, Auschwitz II gave you more idea about how the place would have felt. We saw the brick buildings, which are now beginning to need structural support, crammed with bunks. There were wooden huts—made elsewhere for easy assembly, and designed originally as horse shelters (we saw the rings in the walls for tethering horses). They were designed to shelter 52 horses, they housed 400 people. Many of the huts have disintegrated over time, and all that is left is fields of chimneys, all that remains from their heating system.

We saw the toilets (2 visits per day allowed) and the brick-floored washing area. The hut has since been rebuilt, and today it smells of fresh wood and creosote.

This was a vast camp, with thousands of people crammed together, in terrible conditions. Many people starved to death, or died when working or due to cold. I knew all this before I visited, but to stand next to the electric fence, and stare at row after row of huts, to imagine those people running between them was something no book could explain. Auschwitz today is a quiet place, where larks sing overhead, and people come to remember. I do not know how we make sense of what happened there, when I stare at the photographs of the guards I do not see evil people but I cannot fathom how they could have been part of such horrific actions. Perhaps the problem starts when we begin to see ourselves and those like us, as better than others. If we begin to think some groups of people are less good than us, do they become slightly less human in our eyes? If we think our race, our religion, our career, somehow makes us better than others, then is that the first step along the road we should never travel again? I don’t know, but I pray that we will learn from our mistakes.

Thank you for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

anneethompson.com