Chapter 20: Factions in Lwow

For months, people we knew of kept disappearing. It was rarely talked about, and because we had nothing which could be called a social life, we all assumed that they had emigrated or managed to escape. Paul and Ada were friends with several people in the university, and through the engineering department, with lecturers and academics in other colleges. I had met a few of these people on occasion, but whenever I met Ada, she would tell me that one or another of them had gone. Anka had a contact in the police, a Ukrainian who had moved to Lwow in the thirties, and a friend of her brother, who was killed on the Eastern Front in the first days of the war. This policeman had continued to keep in touch with what was happening in the prison, and he told her that large numbers of university staff were rotting in jail, charged with ‘crimes against the revolution’ by the NKVD. They had regular trials, which were held in camera and, he said, always resulted in mass deportation to Siberia or to summary executions in the prison yard. Meanwhile, Lwow University was taken over by Soviet academics. The Ukrainians, who had previously been unable to attend, were invited to study, and there were new Russian language and history departments apparently.

I also heard that a lot of residents of Lwow had been given Soviet citizenship, but they had to swear some kind of alliegence to the communist regime. Those who refused were deported not to Siberia, but into the German occupied area of Poland. The NKVD were also systematically stripping local land-owners of their property, and daylight robbery was common, in which a team of NKVD would come for breakfast to one’s house and leave it empty, like a swarm of locusts in a field of crops. These Bolsheviks were uncouth and unchecked, but they were also going hungry. These were men who had mostly been born in post-revolution Russia and had not known a time when the wealthy controlled the proletariat. They had grown up understanding that everything belonged to the people and should be shared out.  They knew that owning riches was a crime against Russia, but they also knew that riches could be exchanged for food and alcohol, both of which could be consumed without evidence. It was a country, which supposedly cared more about breaking down class barriers than subjugating ethnic minorities, and for that, we had to thank our luck. Jews were not subjugated because they were Jewish, only because they were wealthy. Unfortunately, there was a lot of mischief-making by the NKVD in encouraging the gangs of Polish youths who roamed the streets to attack anyone whom they deemed part of the Polish elite, such as the academics and intellectuals, the Polish politicians, or members of the Jewish wealthy. Ukrainians became the new elite, and we Polish Jews became an underclass. Anka was offered pay in Roubles for doing the same job for which I only received my bowl of gruel, and while she continued to keep Inspector Mikhailov at arm’s length, he insisted that she accept this pay. Indeed, had she not done so, he might have had her arrested as an anti-Soviet conspirator, working for the OUN, which was a Ukrainian independence movement. At least she was able to share a little currency with me. We could no longer use our Zlotys, and what money she received was paid in Roubles. There was no bank or money lender who would change the Polish currency into Roubles, and I was forced to sell my beautiful necklace to pay my way, one pearl at a time.

One night in April, the NKVD brought lorries into the centre of Lwow and loaded them up with anyone who had been involved with the Polish army, and their families, and took them away.  They also took away large numbers of ex-police, who had been in the force before the war and had already lost their jobs to NKVD, but who were nevertheless considered a danger to Soviet rule. A month later, the same process was repeated and this time they took away any wealthy Jews left in the city. Thousands of people were pulled from their beds in the suburbs where Isidor and Ania had been living. My dentist contact was among them, and all the former Jewish Councillors from City Hall. There was terror among the Jewish community about who would be next. Only those, like us, with no money or property were left untouched at this point. A Jewish resistance movement formed, mainly among the younger people, and these activists, who had initially supported the Russians because of their supposed egalitarian and left-wing politics, had now become very defensive, since the Ukrainians in Lwow were being encouraged to anti-Semitism. Gang fights erupted every day in the streets, and boys carried home-made knives with them for self-protection. The leaders in the synagogue were targeted as having helped the Russians last year, and based on the accusation that they had denounced Poles who were involved in their own underground groups in Lwow. Rabbis were tortured in the local prisons, and then executed.  We heard of Polish gangs coming into the Jewish quarter at night and setting fire to the homes of innocent people. I saw young men daubing doors with the anti-Semitic graffiti, and I read in a local paper, which Anka had picked up, a Ukrainian backed paper, that we Jews were supposed to be part of a Judeo-Communist movement, a bunch of ‘Muscovite Imperialists’, and somehow responsible for the treatment of Ukrainians by the NKVD. It was easy to dismiss this as hyperbole and propaganda, but it was having a real effect on our safety. The history we’d always had, as long as I could remember, of division between Polish Jews and Ukrainians, and between us and the Catholics, was becoming a source of danger. But many times, Paul told me to hang on to my home and my work, to knuckle down and suffer the subjugation of the NKVD.

“For God’s sake, Miriam.  Don’t react.  You’re as safe here as you will be anywhere in the city.  You’re already bound to be on the NKVD’s list, since you work in that kitchen, just like I am for having got my job through the Planning Department.  They might be a bunch of thugs, but that’s all they are.  You can see them coming at least. Anything is better than being taken over by the Nazis. Remember that.”

“What do you mean? Are we about to be attacked by Hitler again? Surely he has agreed to keep back as long as Stalin wants Lwow for Russia?”

“All I know is that Hitler isn’t to be trusted when it comes to Germany making deals with other countries, and there’s no love lost between him and Stalin.  We’re powerless to do anything, and one way or another, we’re probably all on an NKVD list for anti-Soviet leanings or on an OUN list for being a Communist, or on a Gestapo list for being a Jew.”

“Who holds the list of good, honest, hardworking human beings?”

I thought Anna and I ought to move out of the Jewish quarter. I considered changing our surname from Wiener to something more Catholic, and living as a gentile. I’d never really felt strongly about my race, let alone my beliefs. All that mattered was survival for me and Anna. On my way to the soup kitchen, I looked in the mirror in the doorway of the old tailor’s shop doorway, cracked and blistered though it was, and I couldn’t see evidence of my origins, thought it is easy to mislead oneself when it suits.

Interrupted

http://www.vevo.com/watch/GB2DY1700007?utm_medium=embed_player&utm_content=song_title&syn_id=4d61b777-8023-4191-9ede-497ed6c24647

The work sometimes runs smoothly on the screen.  The Excel on one side and the Powerpoint on the other. Check data, copy it to a new worksheet, combine it with other data, represent it in a graphic, copy the graphic into the presentation.  Examine its meaning. Write a comment about it. Move on.  The time passes and the work is done.  It’s tiring, concentrating.  I might go to the gym. I might prepare some pottery for a workshop, I might make a coffee or a sandwich. I might check my emails. I might browse my Facebook. I might get punched in the gut, hit between the eyes, overwhelmed with the implications of an article, or a poem, or a video, or an image.  My work is interrupted, my concentration blown.  It has the right of place.  It says what I feel. It takes me up and drops me down. To have that power through communication is awe inspiring.

Goa Del Sol

Lying in the sun on the Caribbean beach it’s hard to imagine the streets of Udaipur, with their bustle and relative poverty, though this too was a tourist’s paradise. Goa is peopled by British sun-seekers and yoga aficionados choosing between Kundalini and Ashtanga based on their suppleness and ability to perform their practice in the  35 degree heat.  The beach at Patnem, to the far south of the province is chosen by older people and yoga-seekers as the most peaceful and laid-back of about twenty resorts.  Talking to a builder from Billericay, who pays his brickies £180 a day in the post-Brexit building bubble, it seems that in one resort he stayed, there were a load of Russian tourists and in another, a continuous moon party for the Club 18-30 crowd. This must be where most of the 250 Tourist Police are based. He and his two mates had made a last minute decision to come to India and as a consequence, he bemoaned the NHS queue for injections and his £550 bill for private services. He’d booked them all into a hotel, run by a Brit in North Goa for new year’s eve, at great expense, paid in full and found when they got there that it had been closed for three years and that they would have to take the last three beds in an eight bedded dormitory in the only hostel in the town which had space. They were also fined £15 each on the spot for riding hired scooters without helmets.  The policeman had apparently been wearing copious amounts of gold jewelry, and had not proffered a receipt.

Beside our sunbeds, outside the Solida Del Sol cafe, which is sandwiched between Namaste Homestay and Nirvana Lodge, two French Canadian tourists lounged for their last few days before taking the two flights to Delhi and then the 14 hour connection to Toronto.  He was heavy-set and tattooed, with nipple rings in both nipples.  She was not, as far as I could see either tattooed or pierced.  They had booked to see India, expecting to travel the length and breadth of the this massive continent of a land, but had been so phased by their arrival into Delhi – nothing changes there then – they had promptly stepped into a travel agent and hired a driver for a 12 day to tour Rajasthan.  They’d had a great trip, much like our own, but in more comfort.

The Kranti yoga centre consists of two huge ‘stages’ made of stone slabs, protected from the sun by huge canopies, and each surrounded by a series of perhaps 20-30 huts, in which retreating yoga-seekers stay for the three or five or more day retreats.  There is no catering, so each must either fast (which is possible, looking at many of them) or go to Namaste or Nirvana or even brave Round Cube, where ambient music and lemon mint tea is order of the day.  They have hammocks outside their huts, and there is plenty of saffron cloth draped around the place.  My drop-in class is not till 10.15 each morning, which is a shame as the morning muesli with fruit, curd and honey is hard to resist, but also hard to perform three legged dog after. The yogis bring their own clean mats and I choose a very soiled but perfectly serviceable one from the centre.  A sari-clad administrator (and definitely not a yogi) collects our 200 Rupee fees (€3), but as there are about 25 westerners dropping in, that’s a healthy income for the centre for the 90 minutes with Sally, the young black London yoga teacher who strides among us and describes the poses in English rather than using their proper names.  What type of yoga are we performing?  I’m fairly sure it isn’t pure Ashtanga, as I’m still alive to describe the experience, so it is really a mish-mash of Hatha and Kundalini and some Vinyasa thrown in.  While we go through the practice, a stray dog stands in front of us on the raised stage and watches.  Each establishment has its own dogs. They lie on the beach in front, or wander within the compounds, looking for scraps.  I saw the Round Cube stray sit beside a customer as she ate her lunch, refusing dry toast scraps, but happily eating them once buttered.  At night, they become tandoori experts, choosing between tables and selecting them on the basis of the occupants’ generosity, and maybe their menu choices, taking scraps.  They are fiercely territorial and never eat from next door’s customers without a riotous and noisy dog-fight.  Last time we were on the sunbeds outside Solida Del Sol, two cows wandered onto the beach and began to eat our clothing.  They are not so territorial it seems.

Goa is truly European in everything except the menus, and even then, the majority of places offer fries instead of rice or naan, and tandoori chicken tikka is probably the number one dish.  The question which keeps raising its ugly head is whether what is here is really good for anyone.  Is it benefiting anyone but the few wealthy local owners, and should one really only partake of the authentic Indian experience on a trip to India, rather than funding this Eastern version of the Costa Del Sol?  What’s the authentic India now though?  To live it, you just have to buy a Chinese mobile – preferably taking several hundred selfies with it every day, drive a Royal Enfield motorbike and learn enough Hindi to hold conversations with the locals and the tourists simultaneously, to ensure that your cut in someone else’s offering is protected when you sell the tourists a manageable version of the India they fear.

Jodpur Sati

The city is sprawling, vibrant and overwhelming.  No more than Ajmer and less than Jaipur but still blanketed in smog and echoing to the call to prayer from its many minarets, and its bustling streets are even more full of animals than people, who flow like rivers through the excrement and rubbish and dust, on foot, and scooters, and bicycles and in tuktuks, and cars or camel pulled carts, always trying to get somewhere without regard for order. Tethered goats rummage in plastic bags for  fruit skins, and bullocks wander aimlessly searching for greenery which doesn’t exist here. The packs of street dogs are fighting or sleeping or feeding their pups, and thousands of people are crowding and milling and selling and joking and begging, and their children are calling us with ‘hallo’ and ‘namaste’  for rupees,  or ask for selfies, and ‘what country?’ to find out who these aliens are who are crazy enough to wander between them. Rats in families or hords beneath the pathways with their open sewers are trying to make some impression on the river of shit they live in and off.

The King’s Retreat guest house, in the shadow of the towering fort, is a strange combination of backpacker’s dive and Moroccan Riad, and would be no retreat for a king in any state of exile. It has a roof terrace restaurant which sells pizzas delivered from the cafe next door and which seem to have some exotic appeal to the hip Indian boys that come to smoke from the hookah and drink the Kingfisher.  Sold in cans, it is billed separately, as the place is clearly not licensed.  And the Kings Retreat is overseen by the Mehrangarh Fort, an immense hilltop sandstone edifice containing all the comforts the 17th century could offer the Maharajas, and all the privacy their wives and daughters in Purdah required, as they sat behind intricately carved stone latticework windows, observing their men in audience with his highness. The audio tour is narrated by an Indian acadamic with 1950’s Queens English and pride to match.

By the main gate is a plaque of hands sculpted in the stone wall, painted red.  Each hand was carved for a maharani whose husband had died.  As the funeral procession passed the plaque, she would impress her palm to the wall, making a print of henna, and  in prayer, with her procession of bearers and maidservants and elephants, she would be led to the maharaja’s pyre, to sit silently as she was engulfed by the flames to be burned alive in an act of Sati.  There are 30 hands in the plaque, and apparently, the last was added in 1847, though for each maharani this commemorates, how many ordinary Hindu women were burned alive, and for how long after the practice was outlawed in 1827?

Across town is Umaid Bhawan Palace, the Last royal palace for the surviving maharaja, with its 347 rooms full of opulent art deco furniture and pre-Raphaelite style paintings by a Polish emigre who escaped WW2 to serve the Man with a Rolls Royce which had an elephant motif on its bonnet. The palace is now a hotel, not the King’s retreat, and B&B is just 45,000 rupees a night (€630)…

It’s a city of contrasts and inequities.

New Year in Jaipur

I’m feeling strangely unexcited by the prospect of a dinner-dance new year celebration in this brash over-rated, impersonal and over-priced hotel in Jaipur.  It was obligatory and by local standards, exorbitant.  For the 6,000 Rupees we had to pay, you could buy 20,000 bunches of bananas, 30,000 litres of bottled water, 12 days full time tuktuk transport with driver… or, more reasonably, feed a local family well for two months.  We could have cancelled the hotel, which would have meant finding somewhere at the last minute, but avoiding the roof terrace drinks and Bollywood dress code and the pounding drum-n-bass disco.  But then how else could we discover what the Jaipurian middle-class is doing?  Since we last set foot in India, two years ago, prices don’t seem to have shot up, but the ratio of taxis to tuktuks and of tuktuks to rickshaws, of motorbikes to bicycles, has risen.  The air is even more full of fumes, the streets even more congested with mayhem, but perhaps fewer kids are running barefoot in the excrement.  The piles of smoking rubbish are topped with rummaging piglets, goats, skinny dogs and scrawny cows, but not humans.  Tens of thousands of Indian youths clambered over the Amber Fort to get their selfies, and the selfie-stick sellers outnumbered the trinket-vendors two to one. The camera-phone is top of everyone’s list this year, and the only shops in town are banksor mobile phone shops. Did these tourists want to know about the fort?  I was investigating the Turkish bathhouse which some eighteenth century Maharajah had had carved from marble and overheard one selfie-taker comment to his friend that it must be a tomb.  The sign on the door was carved in marble, in English and Hindi, but tombs and baths can be easily mistaken, I guess.

The visceral pleasure of being part of the melee in the streets still outweighs the revulsion at their open sewers or the abject poverty which is still here.  It’s thrilling, and it’s exhausting, but at every corner, it’s new. Everyone here is trying everything they can to better themselves and their standards, even though they clearly scramble over one another in the process.

The same guru who is now a TV star in the UK, after reading the palm of Jan Leeming, saw Val for ten minutes in his small office at the back of the jeweler’s shop his family runs, once we’d bought something in the shop. He pulled no punches apparently. Saw everything he could not have known, hit several nails on their heads.  Foretold possible futures, gave advice on work she might take time to carry out on her chakras, and recommended the use of a semi-precious stone in the mantra.  I’m glad I didn’t ask for a consultation, though he didn’t need me there to know who I am. He knows someone in Cork too. An infamous Head Shop operator I used to know.  Small world, I hear.

Sunrise

I wake, and step out into the cool winter air of dawn, and the day is ahead, with its to-ings and fro-ings. Its potential is based on my sense of place in it. I judge my intention to engage or to stand off and watch. For me, this is something that happens momentarily. Shall I feel the day or shall I act it? Will I be buffeted by its pressures and expectations or will I drive through it, choosing a route, seeking a destination? Does it have purpose and structure, or will it drift and eddy? These are tentative questions, not fatalistic fears about the way the world will treat me. You know there are enough of these stacking up. You know how we are dragged by infinite planetary gravitational forces. We’re becoming lunatics under their influence. They are national, global, geopolitical, socio-economic, moral and cognitive, but also insidious, subliminal, irrational and nightmarish. Too much of our time is taken up with holding our orbit in space.

In the morning light, as the sun rises, streaks of vermilion and cerise cut through the slate clouds. It feels like something piercing the amniotic protection, though what would I know about that? The fug lifts on my day. The rays of light disperse through the prism of my wakefulness, colouring the choices.

If feelings have forms, this one is perhaps a sphere with an indent, perhaps it is a partially deflated ball, one that the dog chewed and some air escaped, so that she could hold it in her mouth. Its surface is smooth, but not like vinyl or polypropylene, more like skin. The feeling is warm, not quite blood temperature. It is spongey, rather than encrusted. Liquid-filled. The day ahead reflates it, the sun hardens its surface. The oozing bite-marks form scabs, the ball cools and it is ready to be played, kicked, driven forward.

Karl, Uber and sweaty hands

I’d been browsing online for a high pressure hose system for days. A Christmas gift for a cleanaholic in the family…

I’d been through to a couple of retailers which offered online sales, and asked for prices on the Karcher K140. It was going to be €199 for the basic machine and I really wanted the extension for upstairs windows. I began to notice ads appearing in my Facebook page for Karchers, and for Nilfisk options, but the prices all tended to be higher than I’d first seen on Amazon. No surprises there. I’ve been getting targeted advertising based on my browsing history for a while.

Then I started getting ads for the Karcher K180, which said that I’d need the bigger machine for my bigger property, and that most of my neighbours in Kinsale had the bigger machine. Amazon wanted €250 for the K180, and I didn’t want to pay that much, but as I spent more time looking at the prices for this bigger machine, I stopped getting ads for the K140, and all the main online retailers’ prices on the K180 seemed to go up. Christmas delivery dates were running out and I was getting desperate. Prices kept rising…

Personalised pricing, or price discrimination has begun. We’re getting allocated a price based on our address and demography, and that price is going up or down based on our ability to walk away, or our impatience to buy. Mac users get given higher prices than PC users, and depending on their browsing history, they will be deemed more or less desperate to buy. Outrageous! But hang on, last time I was in Marrakech, in the Souk, I was no more than amused when I refused to buy a rug and walked away, that the shop keeper followed me and offered me a lower price, but when I just had to have that beautiful chess set which had been carved by the little boy with no arms, using his bare feet, the price was non-negotiable.

I’ve heard that soon the technology will sense our emotional state and prices will be adjusted accordingly. The more impatiently you browse, the more the price goes up. Time to start playing online poker, I think.

“Balderdash”, I hear you cry. Surely the price is the price? Surely we’re not becoming part of an Orwellian nightmare where commerce robs from the rich and gives to the poor? Or is it a Marxist utopian dream we’re having?

In Finland, speeding ticket prices are linked to income. Time for a more integrated and open system where “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is applied electronically to equalise social injustice – the fair distribution of wealth. So if I want to buy the Karcher K180, because I live in a fuck-off house, but Joe, who lives in the council estate down the road, in a small terraced house, also wants the K180, because he wants one over on his neighbours, who should pay more for the same machine? Does his mobile phone report on his motives and the fact that his is a ‘luxury’ purchase, while my needs dictate the bigger machine and in my case it is a necessity? Can the algorithms weigh wealth against greed? Can they choose who deserves what? Not yet. But remember, the number one objective of ALL commercial organisations is to maximise return on investment for shareholders.

Your mobile phone has sweat detection sensors, which measure galvanic skin responses to stress or excitement, it can pick up your heartbeat, has motion detectors which can probably tell how often you go to the toilet. As you move around a shop, the phone identifies where you stop, and for how long. The wifi connected packaging on the merchandise (which is already built into high value items) in front of you also reports when it is moved, picked up and examined, and if you keep fiddling with the new sandwich toaster on special offer, and it is something which is also for sale in another shop within the mall, why not offer a ‘special price’ just for you, using a personalised digital display? The advertising boxes which show digital ads in the mall already change depending on the time of day and whether it’s about time you fancied a pizza. In fact, the mobile phone can even detect stomach noises if you’re hungry, apparently, and matching them to your normal feeding patterns and shopping habits would allow the ad to be that perfect pizza you drool over in the takeaway. Why wouldn’t the ads be personalised to suit your own preferences as you pass the ad box? Only that there are some ‘legislative hurdles’ about data privacy to get over, apparently. Uber’s algorithms can tell how low the battery is on your phone, and therefore how desperate you might be to book that cab before your phone dies. They have evidence that people will pay a higher price for the cab in such circumstances…

So do we just wake up and smell the brand of coffee we like? Can we learn to play poker against an algorithm? I think not. So, first rule is leave your mobile phone at home in a lead-lined box when you go shopping, and every so often, buy something you don’t want, or perhaps do someone else’s shopping.

 

Thanks to Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian for poking my unending fascination…