30 abril 2007

How a Polish noble survived World War II when other prisoners of war didn't

This is a fascinating book, though for reasons its author may not have entirely intended. Written in 1945-46 but just published in the United States, Michelangelo in Ravensbruck is a memoir of the German and Soviet occupations of Poland -- but it is not the kind of World War II memoir we are used to. The author, who died in 2002 at the age of 104, was a wealthy countess, a professor of art history, a devout Catholic, a fervent anticommunist and a member of the Polish underground. In 1942, she was arrested by the Gestapo, which sent her to a series of prisons and then to Ravensbruck, the women's concentration camp north of Berlin. But because of who she was -- and who she was not -- Karolina Lanckoronska's experience, and the meaning she makes of it, differed in fundamental ways from those of Jewish camp survivors such as Primo Levi and Jean Améry. Her account is as interesting, and as valuable, for what she puts in as for what she leaves out.

Lanckoronska was one very tough dame. In the winter of 1939, shortly after Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a Soviet officer came to arrest her. "Not just now. I haven't time," she told him. "I'm due at the university." Her interrogations by the Gestapo were cat-and-mouse games in which Lanckoronska always came out on top in terms of guts, brains and integrity. "Are you an enemy of the German Reich?" Gestapo chief Hans Kruger, who became her nemesis, demanded. "Yes, obviously," Lanckoronska coolly replied. Deposited in her first Gestapo prison, she sat on her bed, ate a hard-boiled egg and promptly fell into a good, sound sleep -- behavior so preternaturally calm that she terrified her cellmate, who figured the new arrival must be crazy.

Lanckoronska's confidence may have derived, in part, from her aristocratic upbringing -- which is not to say that most of Poland's nobles behaved likewise. Lanckoronska exhibited not only an almost breezy insouciance but, more important, a deep and intuitive understanding of human solidarity. Whenever possible, she tended to the needs of sick prisoners, shared the bulk of her rations (as a special prisoner, she was allowed huge quantities of food), and, most of all, refused the privileges afforded her. In Ravensbruck, she was given a warm apartment, fresh flowers, afternoon tea, walks in the garden and good meals served on porcelain. She despised all this -- indeed, she regarded such privileges as a form of humiliation -- and launched a hunger strike until she was reunited with the other inmates. "I should be treated in the same way as other Polish women prisoners since I, too, was an Untermensch," she insisted. When her campaign succeeded and she was sent back to the filthy, cold, communal barracks, she noted: "With great joy, I once more sewed the number and triangle on to my striped camp uniform and breathed a deep sigh of relief. . . . I was just happy being in the camp."

One can -- indeed must -- admire this; yet words like "joy" and "happy" are a key to the troubling peculiarities of this book. For a variety of reasons -- including her class status, her fluent German and her knowledge of a particular but then-secret Nazi crime -- Lanckoronska's stays in the prisons and the camp were quite different from those of most others (her protectors included the Red Cross, the Italian royal family and Heinrich Himmler). Lanckoronska knows and acknowledges this. But her comparatively mild (I use the term advisedly) treatment rested, too, on the simple but crucial fact that she was not a Jew.

The iconography of Christian martyrdom and Christian valor suffuses this book; how else to understand Lanckoronska's statement that being sent to a concentration camp was "a great honour"? Indeed, for Lanckoronska, Poland's anti-Nazi resistance was in large part a religious movement that evoked "the spirit of the Crusades" and thereby created "a firm link with the Middle Ages" (she regards this as a good thing). She never hints at the possibility that Polish Catholicism's highly vexed relationship to the so-called Jewish question, both before and during the war, may have contributed to the murder of more than two and a half million Polish Jews.

Lanckoronska, however, frames the war as a simple two-way struggle between Polish patriots and German invaders. "The persecution of all Poles aroused in our society . . . complete unity among the Polish people," she writes. This is utter nonsense. Lanckoronska knew -- must have known -- that there were deep divisions between and among Poles, and within the underground itself; that the story of the war was one of craven, sometimes eager collaboration as well as of courageous resistance; and that it was entirely possible, and even commonplace, to be a committed Polish patriot, a brave anti-fascist and a rabid anti-Semite all at once. In Lanckoronska's account, the Nazis' annihilation of European Jewry -- much of which took place in obscure Polish towns with names like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor -- is a fairly unimportant subset of the greater Polish tragedy. Here is the book's description of the aforementioned Kruger: "In 1942, . . . [he] sentenced to death 250 Polish members of the local intelligentsia. Also responsible for the death of more than 10,000 Jews."

Yet those elisions -- that "also" -- are part of what makes this such a compelling glimpse into a vanished world and a vanished mindset. Lanckoronska was part of a prewar Polish culture that has been tossed in the dustbin of history. With its stoic code of aristocratic honor, mythologized patriotism, hatred of Eastern "barbarism" and adoration of the West, her kind will not be seen again. (For good or ill: It is startling to read, for instance, of Lanckoronska's "frenzy of delight" when Germany invades the Soviet Union in 1941.)

In an essay called "At the Mind's Limits," Jean Améry wrote that the mad reality of Auschwitz abolished the intellect: "Thinking . . . nullified itself." For Lanckoronska, the opposite was true: "Intellectual riches," she writes, were the prisoners' "one great source of strength," especially as the war wound down and the killings sped up. (The title of her book refers to the art-history classes she held in Ravensbruck.) Améry was a leftist and a secular Jew; yet his ethos was not really far from Lanckoronska's, for they were both children of Enlightenment humanism. The chasm between their understandings of what the camps did, and of how (or if) one could survive them, is based partly on who they were: Lanckoronska's faith and patriotism, both of which Améry lacked, undoubtedly sustained her. But the difference is based, too, on what was and wasn't done to each of them. Améry, like Lanckoronska, was originally arrested as a member of the resistance, but it was as a Jew that he was marked for slavery and death; Lanckoronska was allowed, at least for long periods, to think and write and read Tacitus and Petrarch. Her book reminds us that war is an individual event, even when it involves millions, and that every victim is particular in her circumstance, her strength and her sorrow.



Monday 30 April 9pm-10pm; rpt midnight-1am; rpt 3am-4am; rpt Wednesday 2 May 10pm-11pm; rpt 1.25am-2.25am; rpt Saturday 5 May 11.05pm-midnight; rpt 2.50am-3.50am (signed)

Roger Davenport takes the title role in The Double Life of Saki, BBC Four's dramatised documentary about the Edwardian short story writer Hector Hugh Munro. Here he explains his enthusiam for this lesser known satirical author and his inspirations for writing the script.

I can't recall quite when or why I first read the work of Hector Hugh Munro, the writer known as Saki. My father, the critic John Davenport, was apt to pass a book to one of his young sons with the words, "I think this will amuse you." It could have been something by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, or Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Anyway, by the time I was 16, I'd read all the Saki short stories. As to why I liked the best of them as much as I do, well, it's his voice. Detached, funny, sometimes cruel; and with something more, that added value that the special writers have. He speaks so directly to you that somehow a quiet friendship is formed.

Moving on some years, I was in a pub with my wife, Joanna McCallum, and the actor Morgan George and his partner Lexi Strauss, and Morgan and I were talking about one of us trying our hand at radio adaptations of Saki. I'd just dramatised some PG Wodehouse for Radio 4 and the idea really appealed. The resulting series, produced for Woman's Hour by Ned Chaillet, renewed my interest in Hector Hugh Munro to the extent that I bought AJ Langguth's fine biography to find out more. Immediately I saw the possibilities of a stage play about this shadowy, teasing figure who finally resolved his inner conflicts by joining up for the biggest conflict of the 20th century.

It's one thing to write a drama while dog-sitting a very patient retriever in Paris, it's quite another to get it staged. However, Jack Langguth approved of the script and spoke of it to Andrew Hutton, who was producing The Double Life of Saki. A few weeks later, Andrew and I were talking about how to present the elusive Hector Munro to a new audience.

If you like the following story, The Reticence of Lady Anne, you'll like Saki. In it, a husband has the idea he may have said something wrong earlier in the day; but, sitting in her arm chair in the evening twilight, his wife is utterly silent on what this might be. An old hand at marriage after many years of it, he rambles on for a minute or two, apologising for his shortcomings, real or imagined. On his eventual departure from the room their cat launches a violent attack on their adored cage bird. "He had cost 27 shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne made no sign of interfering. She had been dead for two hours."

27 abril 2007

In Memoriam: Rostropovich

Hawking prepares for weightless 'bliss' [edited]

For almost four decades, the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has studied black holes, exploding stars and the origins of the universe from the confines of his wheelchair.

Tonight, at around 7pm, the renowned Cambridge professor will experience the weightlessness of space at first hand on a zero gravity trip over the Atlantic.

The 90-minute adventure aboard a converted airliner nicknamed the vomit comet marks the achievement of a lifelong ambition for the cosmologist, who was once told by doctors not to bother finishing his PhD because of advancing motorn neurone disease.

"It will be wonderful," said Professor Hawking, whose best-selling A Brief History of Time popularised the theories of quantum gravity and enlightened the masses about many of the mysteries of the universe.

"For someone like me, whose muscles don't work very well, it will be bliss to be weightless."

The 65-year-old, who has spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair and communicates through a synthesised voicebox, is due to be looked after by a team of four doctors and two nurses on the flight from the space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Centre.

They will attach an oxygen sensor to his earlobe, fix monitors on his arm and chest to check his blood pressure and heart rate during the ascent, and cushion his head with a custom-made restraint. He plans to communicate with them through nods and smiles.

However, unlike many of the other 2,500 commercial passengers who have already experienced weightlessness aboard the plane and vomited the first time it plunged sharply back towards Earth after a steep climb to 32,000ft, Prof Hawking was not expecting to need a sick bag.

"He's very game for it and was grinning from ear to ear when I explained how it would feel," said Peter Diamandis, the founder and chief executive of Zero-G, a Las Vegas company that has offered the adventure to would-be space tourists for $3,750 (£1,875) a ticket since 2004.

The zero gravity effect is produced by the Boeing 727 performing a series of up to 15 parabolas per flight, similar to the peaks and dips of a roller coaster.

Each nosedive, to around 24,000ft, produces 25 to 30 seconds of weightlessness before the plane levels out and climbs again. Passengers are able to float around inside the padded interior of the aircraft in exactly the same way that astronauts do in space.

"Having him weightless for 25 seconds will be a successful mission," Dr Diamandis said. He added that the medical team would evaluate Prof Hawking after the first parabola and see whether he wanted to try any more.

To counter the possible effects of motion sickness, the pilot will level out for a longer period than usual after each dip, giving resistance of 1.5 times the body weight instead of 1.8.

"It's truly an honour to have somebody of Prof Hawking's standing on our most significant zero gravity flight to date," Dr Diamandis added. "He is proving that disabled people, the elderly and children can experience the freedom and mobility of weightlessness, and be joyful.

"For people 1,000 years from now, people who might be living in private space colonies and travelling far beyond Earth, Professor Hawking is a true pioneer."

The flight will be much more than just a white-knuckle thrill for Prof Hawking, who has been described by the Nasa chief, Michael Griffin, as "one of the most imaginatively perceptive scientists of all time".

It is a major step towards his goal of a flight beyond the Earth's atmosphere as a guest of Sir Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin Galactic space tourism company before the end of the decade.

"I'm excited about flying in space some day, and this zero gravity flight is my first step," he said. "I want to encourage public interest in space."

Such exploration, he believes, is the key to securing mankind's future. "I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space," he warned.

"Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."

Steve Kohler, the president of Space Florida, a Nasa partner which has sponsored Prof Hawking's flight, said he expected his adventure would encourage people who thought they were not suited to weightless flight to give it a try.

"I've yet to see anyone return from a zero gravity flight with anything other than a smile on their face," he added.

World's Healthiest Foods

Spain: Olive Oil

Antioxidant-rich olive oil protects against heart disease.
Olive Oil

Japan: Soy

Protein-packed soy is linked to the prevention of cancer and osteoporosis.

Greece: Yogurt

Among yogurt's benefits: enhanced immunity, improved lactose intolerance, and stronger bones.

India: Lentils

Lentils give you protein, cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber, and lots of iron.

Korea: Kimchi

Loaded with key vitamins, kimchi contains healthy bacteria that aids digestion.

24 abril 2007

Pink Floyd: the future

Is there one song you've written that sums up all you ever wanted to say through music?
Roger Waters: Two songs sprang immediately to mind:
«Us and Them» and «Wish You Were Here».

20 abril 2007

Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography 2007

La imagen recoge la solitaria resistencia de una mujer durante un desalojo de colonos israelíes. Además de ser una buena foto de prensa, firmada por Oded Balilty, de AP, la imagen tiene una estructura muy poderosa: una diagonal formada por una columna de policías antidisturbios, una horizontal formada por otros colonos mirando desde una montaña, varias columnas de humo negro y la fuerza que le da el gesto de la mujer que trata de parar a los policías.

La fotografía ha generado de inmediato un debate acerca de si recoge realmente la situación de Oriente Medio.

18 abril 2007

Clipper Tea

The Green ones I have, the Black ones I wish...

16 abril 2007

The Muppets Personality Test ;)

You Are Kermit

Hi, ho! Lovable and friendly, you get along well with everyone you know.
You're a big thinker, and sometimes you over think life's problems.
Don't worry - everyone know's it's not easy being green.
Just remember, time's fun when you're having flies!

300 in Art

Leónidas e as Termópilas, Jacques-Louis David, 1814

E Objectos, também!

Webcedário, sempre ;)