Should history ruin your holiday?

Europe is full of places where people have no idea what happened

February 02, 2023 10:46

The loveliest beaches in the places you’d least expect to find them. That was the headline on a classic newspaper travel piece I read a couple of weeks ago. Here were eight of Europe’s “secret beaches”, strangely unfrequented but calling out to be rediscovered.

It was a nicely-written article with lovely photographs. The author started with a September walk down a four-mile stretch of sand which was almost deserted. How totally absurd, she mused, that so few people should be walking in that place. Beyond a “defensive line of dunes” lay an inviting sea and the writer kicked off her shoes and “padded toward it through ash-fine sand the colour of coconut cream”.

Some of you will have guessed what is coming. It may be that you had distant relatives for whom that ash-fine sand was the last surface they ever walked upon and that roaring sea was the next to last thing they ever heard. For the writer was walking beside the Baltic Sea along the beach at the Latvian town of Liepaja. She notes the tumbled Tsarist-era fortress on the shore and sees it as a romantic ruin. Eighty-one years ago, however, it offered an entertainment venue to German soldiers who came to see the mass executions of Latvia’s Jews.

There were pictures. An electrician working on wiring in the apartment of a German officer based in Liepaja found four rolls of film which he stole, copied and returned. He put the prints in a box and buried them until after the War. In the now-famous grainy black-and-white photographs of women huddled on the beach waiting to be corralled towards the killing trench, you can’t really tell that the sand’s colour is so delightful.

I don’t blame the writer for apparently not knowing any of this. Or maybe she did know and wanted visitors to go to Liepaja and find out its history for themselves almost accidentally and be the more affected by the discovery. I do understand something of the ways of newspapers and I am absolutely certain that the travel desk had not the slightest idea about it. I think they’d rather have recommended a holiday in Chernobyl.

Still, for me it raised a familiar, difficult question, this time rephrased as: at what point can you enjoy the beach again? In large parts of Europe, someone with an education in the Holocaust is continually confronted with associations. It may be a plaque beside the water in Amsterdam telling of the family of five (including Isaac, aged 18 months) who lived in the tall house opposite and who ended as smoke at Sobibor or Belzec. Or it may be a visit to Weimar, a trip to Goethe’s house and then a sudden glimpse of a signpost to Buchenwald.

Or a day by the Berlin lakes and the suggestion of a dip in the water near the pretty suburb of Wannsee.

It seems silly now, but nearly 20 years ago I was writing a series of news features on the newly acceded members of the EU, each of which I visited by train. One leg was the nearly six-hour rail journey between Brno in the Czech Republic and Krakow in Poland. Somehow, I was unprepared for the railway line to broaden out not long before we hit a town called Oswiecim.

I don’t know why I had imagined that Auschwitz was a sequestered, secret place, when in fact it sits on one of the great rail tributaries of central Europe. I was stunned.

This thought takes me back to Kefalonia. One of my daughters knows someone whose family has a holiday place there, so a group of friends often visit the island. I don’t think most of them have heard of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin so won’t know what happened there in September 1943. There is a German translator called Doris Wille who has lived on the Ionian island for many years and who revealed that while the Italian guidebook to Kefalonia contains a reference to the 5,000 Italian soldiers murdered in a mass executions, the German guide book has no such entry.

The Greek author had left it out. How could you drink ouzo overlooking the harbour at Argostoli when you knew how many had been shot there?

Well of course you can and people do. But I have trouble not seeing that past in the present. And, it seems to me, so do the people of Liepaja. I couldn’t dig my toes into that coconut cream-coloured sand at that beach, make castles near that fort, or follow a happily squawking child into that surf. Just too many ghosts.

February 02, 2023 10:46

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