In memory of my grandfather, Harry Langsbury.
I visited Berlin this summer, first time ever and fell immediately in love – what a wonderful city, rich in history, laid back and friendly and multicultural. Mind you i was biased, how could one not fall in love with a city built on the River Spree – a word which to me always means joyous outings, though it can have darker meanings too. The similar sounding word in the Irish language, spraoi, means fun, so the very sound of the word encourages Irish people to party – a Spree boat trip – how wonderful!
Berlin, i am told, is a wonderful city to party and club but that was not part of my visit. Another day, another life perhaps. Now if i had been a visitor in the 1920’s, i’m sure partying would have been on the agenda as the city danced the nights away as if it knew that the good times could not last.
Berlin’s place in history loomed large over my visit but i was wooed by the laid-back friendly people and the incorporation of past and present and, hopefully, the future, into the very fabric of the city. The Berlin Wall of course loomed large too, though it exists more in mind than in concrete in today’s city. Last year I visited another iconic wall, The Great Wall of China, but its significance lies far back in the dim mists of time. The Berlin Wall though; i can remember when it fell, 1989. It’s falling seemed to be a symbol of the world changing, of peace, tolerance and prosperity spreading like a wave over all of Europe and beyond. Many thought, and i was swept along in the euphoria, that it was the beginning of a new time. Even a wall can rise again though.
My grandfather, Harry Langsbury, was an Englishman. I did not know him personally but he affected my life in more ways than he could have known. He fought in the Second World War in the Royal Scots Greys Regiment, firstly in Palestine, where they were mainly involved in policing and then fighting the Vichy French in Syria. A complicated affair. The Royal Scots Greys were a cavalry regiment until July 1941 when their famous grey horses were replaced by tanks, the rather useless Stuart tanks, and they changed from farriers to mechanics, which required some considerable training and must have involved a huge sense of loss. The modern world had arrived.
Then it was off to North Africa and the 8th Army, fighting Rommel and the Panzers until finally, along with their American allies, they defeated the Germans and Italians in northern Tunisia in May 1943. Tunisia, i have visited in the past with thoughts of my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, in my head.
That much i knew in broad outline. In recent years, as anniversaries arrived, i learnt more but it was only this spring that i finally read Alan Moorehead’s famous trilogy of the North African War, ‘The Desert War Trilogy’. Alan Moorehead was an English war reporter and a great writer – he wrote his books while he was surrounded by the war and it tells. He gives great insights into the battle for North Africa and beyond. But of course, he was somewhat biased in his reporting and of his age in some of his opinions.
My grandfather, Harry Langsbury, sent me photographs and a couple of books about his regiment when i was still young. An account of the 8th Army in North Africa and a Report on the Royal Scots Greys’ Association from 1939 – 1945. They travelled with me over the years and, as with many things, it is only in recent times that i properly appreciate them.
Berlin, as well as being an active, vibrant city with a population similar to the whole of Ireland, is a symbol of many things. In Nazi times, it was amongst others, a symbol of denial; denial of oppression, of wrongdoing, of the holocaust, of the inevitability of defeat, of the evils of racism. Today though it is different, or tries to be, it wears its history on its sleeve. Memorials and acknowledgements of past crimes are present. That cannot be easy but is to the eternal credit of those men and women who made sure, and who continue to make sure, that we do not forget, that it is difficult for anyone to forget, the evils we humans are capable of and the crimes that we have committed. We visited a number of these memorials and history became real and the cries of the suffering echoed down the corridors of time.
We started a bright sunny July morning with a visit to the Reichstag, passing through the Brandenburg Tor.
We had booked our time slot but found flexibility and friendliness amongst the staff and, once we had checked in, we were free to enter the building. I had one moment when the cold hand of history touched my shoulder. We did not know precisely where we were going, a group of about twenty-five of us early bird tourists but the German guides smilingly directed us with words we did not understand, into a large shiny steel lift.
That was my moment.
We just went where we were directed.
Moments later we emerged again into the sunshine on the roof of the Reichstag and i relaxed and enjoyed the view of Berlin stretched out before us.
Afterwards, we visited the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism just across the street from the Reichstag. The memorial was only completed and opened in 2012, twenty years after it was officially agreed to establish it and some sixty five years after the war was ended. Even brave Berliners struggle with denial. The Memorial sits in the shade of friendly trees with the Reichstag looming large and the German flag blowing in the wind. This is as it should be.
The Memorial consists of a circular pond, surrounded by engraved cobbles with the names of the concentration camps and, engraved in bronze letters around the edge of the pond, is the poem ‘Auschwitz’ by the Roma poet Santino Spinelli,
a broken heart
out of breath
The Memorial is surrounded by a circular wall of glass information boards with the details of the atrocities engraved in German and English.
The Memorial forms a triangle with the Reichstag, now a symbol of hope, and the Brandenburg Tor, or Gate, a symbol of military victories and defeats, of the fallacy of might. At the moment, impetus lies with the Reichstag; let us hope it stays that way.
And afterwards, we ventured around the corner, to the Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism. Gays and lesbians, like the Roma, the Jews and others have suffered persecution, intolerance and bias from many, not just the Nazis. It is not a unique characteristic of the Nazis to persecute minority groups, though few matched their viciousness. We should all be aware of our behaviour, of our biases and those of our communities and societies.
I too am guilty of denial, specifically, in this context, of my grandfather, Harry Langsbury. We returned to Ireland, my siblings, my Irish father and my English mother, at the beginning of the sixties, to rural south Sligo. I have only one recollection of a direct assault on the English part of my heritage, a friend’s grandfather who had participated in the struggle for Irish freedom from the English and was undoubtedly quite entitled to his strong opinions, though whether he should have expressed them forcibly to a six year old child is another matter. That isolated event only heightened my awareness and appreciation of the open-minded and open hearted approach of the neighbours and locals who welcomed us into the community. But it was still Ireland and England was the enemy of old, the oppressor, stealer of Ireland’s heritage, wealth and freedom, the cruel landlord who caused the Great Famine and sent our people to an early grave or across the seas in search of a future. These were facts and were reflected in our songs and poems, in our stories, our history books, on television, on the radio and in everyday life. My grandfather, Harry Langsbury, was in Windsor, i do not think that i ever mentioned him. An English grandfather was not good, one who fought in the British Army was not good at all. My mother at this stage, having moved to Ireland, occupied a rather grey area. I do not remember anyone ever commenting on her nationality except in a positive way in recognition of how well she was coping on a small farm with a large family.
This is but a sorry memorial but i offer it in recompense to the forgotten, the denied.
After North Africa, the Allies invaded Italy which was in the throes of casting off its fascist ruler only to find itself doubly occupied, to the north by the Germans, to the south by the advancing Allies. Last year, I also had the pleasure of visiting family on the Amalfi coast and the area around Salerno where my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, likely found himself in September 1943. After the breakout from Salerno, the Greys led the advance and were the first troops to enter the city of Naples. Following a few more months of fighting, the regiment then sailed out of Naples in late January 1944 back to Glasgow for some rest and replenishment. The soldiers were given a month’s leave, for many of them it was their first trip home in about five years. I have a vague memory of my mother remarking on this. It must have been a huge event in a young girl’s life, to see her father after so many years.
And then it was back to war and the invasion of Normandy, through France and Belgium and into Holland on 26 September 1944. Finally, on about 01 March 1945, the Greys and my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, crossed into Germany. I wonder what he was feeling as he crossed that border. On April 24 1945 they captured Bremen and then began a rush through Denmark to prevent the Russian troops from advancing too far – a double liberation. On April 30 1945, the regiment reached and took control of Wismar, a German city on the Baltic Sea. Eight hours later, on 01 May 1945, the first Russian soldiers reached the city; two white scout cars, seven male soldiers and one female soldier. The pincer had closed, their job was done. Within a week, the Allies had completed the invasion and Germany had surrendered. Of all this, i know nothing from my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, no photographs, no postcards, time only for war and death and advance after advance.
This summer, we stayed in that part of the city formerly known as East Berlin, just off Friedrickstrasse, and visited Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point in the Berlin Wall where East and West most famously met during the Cold War and i thought of my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, meeting the Russians some seventy years previously in a city to the north. The world has turned a few times since then. Checkpoint Charlie is now primarily a pastiche where tourists gather to get their photographs taken, but it is still a reminder of other times.
Memorials, in the form of white crosses are located along the former route of the Wall, marked now, in the main, by a double row of cobbles in the street, remembering the places where desperate East Germans attempted to cross to the West. The numbers estimated to have been killed varies but a best estimate seems to be about 140. Before the Wall was constructed some 3.5 million East Germans escaped via West Berlin. That was some demand to pent up, some indication of the failure of the political system. Neighbours of mine travelled across to East Berlin in late summer of 1989 and met a young couple who were getting married in November and had received permission to honeymoon in West Berlin. They confided to the Irish couple that they did not intend to return. Of course, by the time their honeymoon would have been over, the Wall was down and they could come and go as they pleased. Such is life.
It was time for us to visit the Wall itself, or rather the 1.3km remaining section at the East Side Gallery, running along the River Spree between Oberbaumbrücke and Ostbahnhof. My Achilles tendons were playing up again, objecting to all the walking, and so we took the U-bahn. This is the longest stretch of the Wall still standing and one side is painted with impressive graffiti which, themselves, have become icons of Berlin. This was one of the examples of how laid-back Berlin and Berliners are, no entry fee, no restrictions, no barriers; just a painted wall along a foot-path. You could sign your name or write a message if you wanted, and quite a few did. It seems such an appropriate way to preserve a symbol of oppression and control; keep a bit of it to remind people but keep it in a way that symbolizes the complete opposite of oppression and control, open, free, relaxed.
The U-bahn is part of an impressive public transport system which includes urban trains, buses of course, some decent cycling infrastructure and, in East Berlin, trams where the rapid motorization of the West had not occurred and the trams still run free. In most cities i’ve been in with subways, people always seem to be in a rush. I put it down to the frequent service, instead of being relaxed knowing another train will be along in a couple of minutes, people rush to get the first one. Not in my experience in Berlin, U-bahn users strolled, confident that the next connection was on its way. Now i did not experience rush-hour in the suburbs – perhaps that is more like the norm with commuters dashing about. In the city centre though, there was no sense of urgency.
Having finished Moorehead’s Trilogy in late spring, i was more aware than ever of my lack of knowledge of the events of the Second World War and so i turned to that master historian and writer, Anthony Beevor and his opus ‘The Second World War’.
With only a couple of chapters left to read before we headed for the airport, the scene was set for my visit to Berlin. The account left me with an overwhelming sense of the tragedy of war, of human conflict, of persecution.
The destruction of civilizations, of cities, of communities and of families, and all the human pain and suffering that they encompass – that is the true story of war and Anthony Beevor addresses them with care and concern. In the Second World War the singular tragic event which has shaped our world was the genocide of the Jewish people across Europe.
Just south from the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. It is like walking through a graveyard with 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights laid out on undulating ground. The different heights made me think of graves where multiple burials have taken place, one body on top of another, as if, we too, were below the ground and the world was inverted.
In the southern corner is an underground memorial, personal details and stories about people and families, handwritten notes, snatches of poetry, family photographs. Heartbreaking details. Family trees have loomed large for both of us this year, reunions, re-acquaintances with long-lost cousins, photographs, stories and legends, tales and adventures, the very grist of life’s mill. Here though, we were looking at death, at the end of the line, of broken lineages and torn photographs. Ordinary families subjected to extraordinary persecution. The contrast with our own families, with what every family should be entitled to, was enormous.
I signed the visitor book with my name and the comment ‘A Witness’ – for that is what we are called to be.
My grandfather’s, Harry Langsbury’s, wartime travels and travails, undoubtedly sponsored my life-long interest in history and lately, in him. As if he expected that, wanted that, considered that an interest in history was something to be cultivated, and wanted to load that dice, he sent me, many many years ago, so long ago it is now part of history itself, a history book, ‘The MacDonald Illustrated Library, History, Civilization From Its Beginnings’, published in 1962.
I remember being more impressed by the pictures than the text but kept it over the years too. It has this to say about the Holocaust, “The Nazis were directly responsible for the death of nearly five million Jews.”
We travelled on in Berlin, south of Checkpoint Charlie to the Jewish Museum. I have never experienced anything like it. Again it brings the personal to the forefront, reminding us again and again that these persecuted and murdered were ordinary families and people, living ordinary lives.
But the Museum contains more; the aptly named Garden of Exile whose foundations are tilted and which contains large concrete columns from which plants grow at the top. The garden is claustrophobic and disorienting. You actually feel sick in there. Irish people, and migrants everywhere would identify with the feeling of the ordinary being so unfamiliar that you feel sick. Such genius.
But there is more to come. At the end of another axis in the Museum is the Memory Void, a large space where some 10,000 round iron plates cut in the shape of faces with open mouths and tearful eyes are scattered on the floor. As you walk across them, though some could not bring themselves to do so, they protest with jarring clanging sounds, like the agonized screams of persecuted peoples. By walking on them, we acknowledge our guilt, our complicity, our failures and our denials.
And then, as an antidote, you could borrow a deckchair and sit outside in the green peaceful garden and contemplate your journey. I remember my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, and the horrors of war he had faced and endured. My mother used to remember that when he arrived home from the war, back to the south of England, he threw his wife and two small daughters out of the house, locked the doors and drew the curtains. They went to stay with a neighbour but my mother used to sneak back and peek in the gap in the curtains. She remembers him lying on the couch, twisting and turning and screaming in pain. I can’t remember whether she said this went on for three days or three weeks but it seemed that they didn’t find it too unusual. Damaged men returning from the war were the norm, not the exception, broken in body, in mind or in both. Then, one day, he got up, drew back the curtains, unlocked the doors, welcomed his family back and got on with his life. One of the lucky ones. I do not know what demons he struggled with for the rest of his life.
The only fitting memorial for my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, and all those who died and suffered is that we never allow such a situation to develop again, that we stand up and be counted while voices can still be heard and long before men and women have to bear arms to right such wrongs.
I wish i was more confident that we are capable of this.
But Berlin offer hope and salves your soul. Visit it, it may just be the centre of civilization today.
And yes, we took that Spree boat trip,
and visited the beautiful gardens and palaces of Sans Soucis in Potsdam,
and i found my favourite place in Berlin;
an artificial beach, right in the city centre, beside Checkpoint Charlie, without a sea, lake or river in sight, but with deckchairs and recliners, art, gentle fast food outlets, peace, freedom and a sublime paradox.
Charlie’s Beach I love you. I wish i could have visited with my grandfather, Harry Langsbury, and we would have sat in the shade and supped coffee and eaten faleffel and talked about life and death, right and wrong. I would recount how i had adopted his regiment’s motto, “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit”, but that is a story for another day. Then I would gently tell him that yes, he engendered me with an interest in history but that his postcards of that old Italian volcano, Vesuvius, had a greater influence and that my chosen career was geology, and we would laugh at life’s little jokes.
But most of all we would talk about hope, about family, about love. I leave the last word to Harry, a postcard from his stopover in Malta to his wife Bess, my grandmother, Nana.
with love my friends,