Thursday, May 12, 2022

happy 240th birthday

Every picture tells a story No. 37

Some time last week I came across a photo on twitter claiming to show the earliest born human to have had their photo taken while alive. While I have since found out that there are several claims to this record, the person in question was Conrad Heyer, born in 1749, who had his Daguerrotype portrait taken in 1852 a the age of 103. (He was born in the New World, but his parents hailed from the Rhineland, so I really should find his family tree to compare notes.)

You can kind of see how you achieve this record: get ridiculously old and be around at the time when photography is still a newfangled thing. Logically, any assiduous practicioner of the new technology would consider documenting for future generations things and people that might not be around much longer, so a centenarian fits just fine. The younger people will still be around in a few years time when the prices for the equipment and consumables have settled down a bit (Old Conrad did live to 106 though, so no desperate hurry).

Which then begs the question, do I have any ancestors who were ridiculously old in the mid 19th century and had their photo taken? Well, we can't quite compete with dear old Conrad Heyer, but there is one senior citizen who misses Heyer's record by just three decades.

Christian Gottlieb Weiß, maternal grandfather of the station master of Adamsweiler, was born 12.5.1782. When I looked him up his birthday was just a week away, and falling on a Thursday, so I pushed back the queued entries to celebrate this occasion today. He became a teacher at Hellenthal, Raversbeuren, and finally the village school in Simmern u. Dhaun (not to be confused with the town and former capital city of Simmern, which perished in the Palatinate Succession War and never really recovered after that).

He married Anna Gertrude Keuert from Hellenthal at Kirschseiffen in 1806. They had eight children and more than 16 grandchildren (one of whom married the inn keeper Ferdinand Weirich). One of the daughters emigrated to North America with her husband Friedrich Dick and "a stable full of children" as the 19th century chronicles of the Weiss family note.

In 1852, when he was 70 and getting a bit forgetful, the Prussian government put it to him that he should perhaps retire, and he did in November 1853. He received a decent pension and was able to celebrate his golden wedding anniversary in 1856. His wife died in 1858. So when his portrait was taken in 1866, he was retired, widowed, and a little bit forgetful, but otherwise fine, I guess. He died in December 1867, aged 85.

In the same album (curated by his great-granddaughter Johanna Kauer, oldest of the five daughters of the station master), we find photos from the same sort of time, showing his son in law, Mathias Kauer (* 1813), and his grandson Christoph Gottlieb Kauer. So this may have been a concerted effort, but at this point there is no trace of the women in the family.

Mathias Kauer may well be in second place for the ranking of earliest born person of whom we have a photo. He was the firstborn in his family, so even if there were more photos taken of his siblings, they wouldn't affect his result. Which is why I'm showing him too (although I have used his photo before as I just realised):

Bronze medal may go to Carl Düsselmann from the Krefeld Clan, although he and his twin sister are only 6th/7th in the sibling sequence, so there is every possibility that photos exist of his older siblings. Doesn't matter too much, as for the generation born in the 1840s, it becomes quite commonplace to have portrait photos taken on all sorts of occasions, so no records to be chased there, and by this point the women are also well represented in the photographic archives.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi
  18. five sisters, five decades
  19. happy at home
  20. gone milking
  21. steel workers
  22. field work
  23. what to wear at Porta Westfalica
  24. a classic convertible
  25. at the bottom of the steps
  26. a forester's family
  27. the Kaiser visits Allenburg
  28. teaching the 'deaf-mute'
  29. a guard dog called Schluck
  30. party like it's 1956
  31. the case of the mysterious uncle
  32. three Hedwigs and a baby
  33. a lost generation
  34. lost illusions
  35. pursued by a bear
  36. three daughters
  37. happy 240th birthday

Alternatively, you can use this twitter thread as an illustrated table of contents.

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I have now completed in a first version.

Monday, May 09, 2022

oryx, ibex et al.

It is always nice to have a charismatic species with a memorable name as a mascot for a feature, so the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), the first animal species to come back after having been extinct in the wild, was too good to be missed. Looking at other ungulate conservation efforts on the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, I also took the Nubian ibex on board (are there any other four-letter animals ending on "x" that I missed?), along with some gazelles.

The resulting feature is out now:

Desert revival

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 9, 9 May 2022, Pages R399-R401

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

The Arabian oryx is the first animal species that has recovered to Vulnerable status after having been Extinct in the Wild. It is also remarkable for its specific adaptations to survival in the desert.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

stew and cello

some thoughts on

Cocido y violonchelo

Mercedes Cebrián
Penguin Random House Literatura 2022
available from Blackwells, not sure why they add an English title, as the book is definitely in Spanish!

As some of you may have noticed I’m a sucker for music memoirs, especially if they involve an instrument that I try to play myself, so when I came across a brand-new memoir about the author learning the cello in her forties, that was enough reason for me to order a copy and read it immediately. I was only very slightly worried about the cookery aspect covered in the same tome.

So to summarise her story briefly, Mercedes Cebrián studied piano and singing as a youngster, had some experience of baroque summer schools (as a harpsichord player) then started cello lessons in her late 40s. She spends too much time watching internet videos of child prodigies and at one point spends 600 euros on a good bow. Oh, and she’s a foodie but I won’t count that against her.

The memoir falls into two halves, the first is set in that strangely distant world before Covid and has exactly the right mix of cello and rest of the world for my taste with some musical memories of her childhood and travels. The second half deals with the first Covid year, but strangely a travel to Italy takes up much of the space, and the cello somehow becomes less important. This is also where the foodie things come to the fore.

I found this is really surprising as to me, the times of repeated lockdowns meant I had a lot more time to spend with the cello and play unaccompanied Bach. Maybe that should have been included in the government advice around the world. Stay home and play Bach. (Privilege check: yes I do know that this doesn’t work in a block of flats, our cello would be heard five floors up and five floors down, and in this range there is bound to be somebody who doesn’t like the suites - or my interpretation of them.) So I found the second half slightly less engaging and may have skipped one or two paragraphs that appeared to be only about soup (she styles herself as the anti-Mafalda here).

The scary bit comes near the end [spoiler alert] where she suggests she might be terminating the cello adventure, citing Amundsen who didn’t spend the rest of his life in Antarctica either. Now any room with a cello in it tends to be a lot warmer and welcoming than Antarctica, usually, if only because it would be very bad for the cello if it was exposed to the elements. Also, this kind of thing hurts me because I feel the collective guilt about our family cello (memoir to be finalised soon) which spent more than 40 years not being played at all, and another 30 until it came to be played properly and regularly. That, and the fact that it is such a huge privilege to have a cello and be able to converse with it that I really can’t comprehend why anyone would stop (other than for medical reasons such as arm amputation). It just doesn’t compute. There are definitely more cello pieces that I want to learn than I could conceivably master by the age of 100.

So, well, that may just be my problem but I really enjoyed the first half and got some interesting celloing hints out of it. For instance, I had completely forgotten that a cello adaptation of the famous Boccherini minuet is included in book 3 of Suzuki's cello school. After reading the page where she mentioned the piece, I actually dug it out and played a part of it. Also, there were some performers (eg Anastasia Kobekina) and some works mentioned that I need to check up on.

The book comes with a short bibliography of works mentioned in the text, but there aren’t any of the other cello memoirs in it that I’ve read, so here’s my list:

Thursday, May 05, 2022

three daughters

Every picture tells a story No. 36

Frieda the pianist had a bit of a struggle bringing up three daughters on her own during WW2 and thereafter, as her husband Peter didn't come back. They all manage to put up a brave face in this rare family portrait from 1944:

I'm loving the middle child's perpetual grumpy teenager expression. She did grow out of that eventually.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi
  18. five sisters, five decades
  19. happy at home
  20. gone milking
  21. steel workers
  22. field work
  23. what to wear at Porta Westfalica
  24. a classic convertible
  25. at the bottom of the steps
  26. a forester's family
  27. the Kaiser visits Allenburg
  28. teaching the 'deaf-mute'
  29. a guard dog called Schluck
  30. party like it's 1956
  31. the case of the mysterious uncle
  32. three Hedwigs and a baby
  33. a lost generation
  34. lost illusions
  35. pursued by a bear
  36. three daughters

Alternatively, you can use this twitter thread as an illustrated table of contents.

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I have now completed in a first version.

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

carry on courante

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, 18th month

I'm back in the swing of daily Bach practice, and have recovered the five performance-ready movements listed under 4) and 5) below. Still need to work on the other five listed under 2) and 3). So far I've managed to recover the memory of the second minuet of the second suite, which is a lovely piece but only a small step towards remembering all I had memorised by the end of June last year.

Progress with the Courante from the fourth suite is also slow, so I'll just keep trundling on with that this month as well, hoping that by the end of the month I can at least memorise the majority of it.

1) movements I've studied for a month, then put aside for now (still true)
1.1. Prelude
1.2 Allemande

2) movements memorised in a significant part
3.4 Sarabande (1/3)
4.3. Courante (work in progress)

3) movements memorised in their entirety (once upon a time, but now mostly forgotten)
2.4 Sarabande
2.5 Minuet I&II
2.6 Gigue
3.6. Gigue

4) movements memorised and synchronised with metronome
1.3 Courante

5) movements recorded on video and also performed in public
1.4 Sarabande
1.5 Minuet I&II- VIDEO
1.6 Gigue(ooops, need to upload the video, watch this space!)
3.5 Bourree I&II - VIDEO

The five movements listed under 4) and 5) are currently my performance practice list - I play a set of three on one day and a set of two on the other, and I normally manage not to get lost.

I like to sit on one instrument when I play the other ...

Oh, and in cello-related book news, I'm currently reading Mercedes Cebrian's excellent memoir Cocido y violonchelo. Watch this space for a rave review (probably accompanied by a cello reading list).

Thursday, April 28, 2022

pursued by a bear

Every picture tells a story No. 35

Heinrich the cellist and Maria didn't have a car but they were close friends with a couple who had a VW beetle, and the four of them used this for many joint holiday trips in the 1950s, typically to the Alps and the south of Germany. (That must have been really cosy with four adults in the small car!)

There are many photos taken by one of the quartet showing the three others, but very few showing all four. Here's one taken at Titisee (a lake and town in the Black Forest) with the bonus features of a fake bear and a real dog (presumably the successor to Schluck the German shepherd). Heinrich and Maria appear on the right:

Update 6.5.22: I've been told there is an ancient Hotel Bären in Titisee, maybe the souvenir photo with the eponymous animal comes as part of their service?

A few examples of the trio format:

En route from Wuppertal to Idar Oberstein, Easter 1952. I'm assuming this was the car the friends had before the famous 1950s beetle, looks more like a pre-war model. I can't quite resolve the emblem - it's not like Peter Eberle's 1930s BMW, but a similar vintage and size from a different maker. Funnily enough, I don't have a photo of the beetle which they normally used. There is a photo with a beetle and a fifth person, but the registration plate doesn't make sense, so I'm assuming it's the other person's car.

Herrenchiemsee, near Munich.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi
  18. five sisters, five decades
  19. happy at home
  20. gone milking
  21. steel workers
  22. field work
  23. what to wear at Porta Westfalica
  24. a classic convertible
  25. at the bottom of the steps
  26. a forester's family
  27. the Kaiser visits Allenburg
  28. teaching the 'deaf-mute'
  29. a guard dog called Schluck
  30. party like it's 1956
  31. the case of the mysterious uncle
  32. three Hedwigs and a baby
  33. a lost generation
  34. lost illusions
  35. pursued by a bear

Alternatively, you can use this twitter thread as an illustrated table of contents.

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I have now completed in a first version.

Monday, April 25, 2022

war feeding further crises

In my series on "how to turn hours of doomscrolling into useful research" I bring you my insights on the war in Ukraine, more specifically regarding its impacts on food security. The essential take-home message is, there is no global shortage of grains to feed all of humanity, but the impact of war on market forces and logistics will mean that parts of the global south may be unable to get the food they need and we may face humanitarian crises in various places. The longer version is out now:

Global food security hit by war

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 8, 25 April 2022, Pages R341-R343

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The vast fields of Ukraine provide 30% of the global supply of wheat. The blue skies above cereal fields also inspired the design of the Ukrainian flag, now widely seen in expression of support for the country that has been invaded by Russian troops. (Photo: © Raimond Spekking/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

lost illusions

Every picture tells a story No. 34

Staying on the unpleasant subject of wars, shopkeeper Julius Düsselmann had an adventurous streak in his younger days. Reportedly he wanted to fly zeppelins, which didn't quite work out. In 1904, aged 18, he signed up for the Schutztruppe, the small colonial force serving to uphold German rule in the small number of colonies the Reich had acquired belatedly. Here's Julius, looking wild and barely recognisable, in his Schutztruppe uniform. He signed up as a Reiter (rider) which was the equivalent of a common soldier there - definitely not cavalry, as I have seen photos of Reiter troops riding camels and donkeys.

A colour image of a Reiter's uniform and outfit can be seen here.

He was sent to Deutsch-Südwest Afrika, today's Namibia, as part of the reinforcement troops for the now notorious war against the Herero, which in recent years has been described as a genocide. Essentially, the very small Schutztruppe had been struggling to cope with the Herero uprising, until the government sent out the cruel and ruthless general Lothar von Trotha, who had no qualms about forcing a large part of the tribe into the desert and letting people die there.

I heard that Julius didn't talk about the war, but admitted having witnessed terrible things in his short stay in Africa. He caught a tropical disease, probably typhoid fever, and was sent home in poor health, arriving in Hamburg on 18.3.1905. He needed regular spa treatments at Bad Nauheim until 1914 (which is also the place where he settled after 1945 and lived for the rest of his life).

Apart from this photo, the only other souvenir of Africa is a small ruby he found there (or maybe two), which he had set in gold together with a bit of the surrounding rock. There are two of these, not sure if they are cut from the same rock or separate finds. I have one of the two and it is marked "Abbabis, S.W.Afrika, 22.Januar 1905". Must have felt he had a lucky day in an otherwise rather grim time that surely didn't live up to his hopes of an adventure.

Abbabis was a railway station and the place of a reconvalescence home for members of the Schutztruppe. If Julius was there to reconvalesce from his disease, that means he can't have spent much time in active service. Typhoid fever was reported to affect the Schutztruppe specifically from October 1904 onwards, which would broadly fit with this timing.

Two and a half years after his return he married his cousin Helene Kauer (youngest of the five daughters of the stationmaster of Adamsweiler):

Reportedly she talked him out of plans to emigrate to the USA, so he channelled his spirit of adventure into business instead.

Their shared ancestry is the Imig clan, as both their mothers were from the Imig family in Simmern. Julius's paternal side is the Krefeld clan.

To get a better impression of Julius's war experience, I bought a copy of the novel Morenga by Uwe Timm, which I hear steers very close to the historical documents. (The English translation appears to be out of print. Heck, it's even been made into a film, I just found out.) Am planning to read that soon, watch this space.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi
  18. five sisters, five decades
  19. happy at home
  20. gone milking
  21. steel workers
  22. field work
  23. what to wear at Porta Westfalica
  24. a classic convertible
  25. at the bottom of the steps
  26. a forester's family
  27. the Kaiser visits Allenburg
  28. teaching the 'deaf-mute'
  29. a guard dog called Schluck
  30. party like it's 1956
  31. the case of the mysterious uncle
  32. three Hedwigs and a baby
  33. a lost generation
  34. lost illusions

Alternatively, you can use this twitter thread as an illustrated table of contents.

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I have now completed in a first version.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

a lost generation

Every picture tells a story No. 33

Auguste Faust from the East-Prussian patchwork family kept several postcards from male family members serving in World War I. Some made it back, some didn't. I believe her half-brother Adolf Faust did not come back. Although I have no documentation of his death, I have no evidence of his existence after 1918.

Here's a postcard he sent to Auguste in 1916 (she was 18 then), showing him in the middle of his comrades.

The names written underneath are: Karl Kottwitz, Adolf Faust, Cr. Lange, Reinh.Beutler, Gr. Golan (?). According to the postal stamp, they were serving with the "9. Kavallerie-Div.", but there is an additional stamp reading: "Jäger-Bataillon Graf York [sic] von Wartenburg, 1. Compagnie", which was part of the 37th division. Not sure which to believe, the English Wiki seems to think Graf Yorck unit only existed until 1914, so this may be just a memorial stamp? On the other hand, this German genealogy wiki page suggests it continued to exist 1914-18 but was associated with various other units. Very confusing stuff. In either case, they must have spent 1916 on the Eastern front.

The text provides no interesting information, just greetings to all and hope you are well. By contrast, on a similar postcard sent 26.11.1916:

her brother-in-law Karl Witt (husband of her half-sister Marie Wittke) pointed out that one of his comrades shown was still available, and got him to co-sign the card. His name was Alfred Plenus (Plenus is a Lithuanian name that is found in East Prussia too). I think Karl is second and Alfred third from right in the front row.

Karl Witt sent several such cards and did make it back in one piece, but Alfred wasn't mentioned again.

In other news regarding old photos, read this twitter thread on an old album that got reunited with its family.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi
  18. five sisters, five decades
  19. happy at home
  20. gone milking
  21. steel workers
  22. field work
  23. what to wear at Porta Westfalica
  24. a classic convertible
  25. at the bottom of the steps
  26. a forester's family
  27. the Kaiser visits Allenburg
  28. teaching the 'deaf-mute'
  29. a guard dog called Schluck
  30. party like it's 1956
  31. the case of the mysterious uncle
  32. three Hedwigs and a baby
  33. a lost generation

Alternatively, you can use this twitter thread as an illustrated table of contents.

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I have now completed in a first version.

Monday, April 11, 2022

mummification for all

A hundred years ago, fascination with Ancient Egyptian mummies reached new heights after Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Since then, Egyptian and Inca mummies have been a fixture of specialist research and lay interest alike (NB the Bodleian Library has an exhibition on Tutankhamun opening 13.4.). Recent research suggests that mummification as a burial ritual was more widespread than we knew. It may have been used in Europe in the Neolithic, and the Chinchorro culture on the edge of the Atacama Desert extended the procedure to all members of society, for many centuries.

So, looking beyond the classic pharaohs, I've rounded up some new and recent insights around mummification for my latest feature in Current Biology, which is out now:

Immortalised bodies

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 7, 11 April 2022, Pages R295-R298

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The Chinchorro culture in northern Chile has produced some of the oldest intentionally prepared mummies known. They are also remarkable for extending mummification to all members of their community. (Photo: Pablo Trincado/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Saturday, April 09, 2022

suites à suivre

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, 17th month
(resuming after a 9-month interval from July 2021 to March 2022)

As of the beginning of April, my shoulder has improved to the extent that I can practice Bach suites for one hour, which I think is the amount I need to make meaningful progress. So, here we go again (and the pandemic is still going strong, thanks to the unwavering support of the death eaters in government).

For this month, I am tackling the Courante from the 4th suite. Part of the idea is that I really need to get my head around the geography of Eb major on the cello, because key signatures with 3 flats or more are holding me back in my orchestral adventures (which relaunched last September).

I also really like this Courante, and with its 64 bars it will likely keep me busy for two months.

As usual, I am picking up useful hints and tips from Inbal Segev.

Loving this performance by Emanuelle Bertrand so much that I won't be looking for any other. (Very artsy video, too, involving shadow play and a mirror, which can be a bit confusing when she seems to be playing with the wrong hand.) I also have Inbal Segev's and Rostropovich's recordings on CD.

In terms of the movements I learned until June last year, I can still play 1.3-1.6 and 3.5 from memory. Will take some time to recover the movements I learned from the 2nd suite. I'll resume the list once I have something to add, rather than to substract.

In other Bach-related news:

  • I read Steven Isserlis's companion to the suites, see my review here. While he was writing the book, he also recorded suites 1 and 3 in this lovely cafe performance (he mentions his work on the book in the intro).
  • Now reading: Friedemann Bach by Albert Emil Brachvogel, a novel about JS Bach's oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, alleged to bear very little resemblance to his real life.
  • Spending more time with my other instruments, I'm also looking at a flute adaptation of Bach's partita No. 2 for violin in D minor (I have the entire partita for flute on my revision list, it's kind of the motor that drives me to keep the revision schedule going!).
  • when I have a really ambitious day I also try playing bits of the Brandenburg concerto in F on my alto recorder. A solo adaptation of this happens to be in the big Altblockflöten-Solobuch by Barbara Hintermeier and Birgit Baude. Just give me a few years for that one.
  • I'm now building a twitter thread for the #PlagueYearBachProject, one tweet for each movement tackled.

Friday, April 08, 2022

refugees on the run

some thoughts on

Last train from Kummersdorf
by Leslie Wilson
Faber & Faber 2003

The German place name in the title caught my eye when I came across the book in a charity shop, and further scrutiny revealed that it is loosely based on the author’s family history during World War II, so I read it in the hope of getting a sense of both the places and the family history.

This turned out to be a somewhat misguided expectation. As the characters in the story are refugees on the run in the last days of the war, they have of course lost their homes and large parts of their families. So the thing to learn from it is mostly the dangers of being a refugee (still relevant today), and how to work out who you can trust. And where your next ration of food and drinking water may come from.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the train of the title is a red herring (it becomes immediately obvious the first time Kummersdorf is mentioned). Kummersdorf is in Brandenburg, 25 km south of Berlin, so it’s in that general area that the refugees make their way westwards through forests and deserted villages. One of the refugees came from Sternberg (today’s Torzym, Poland, I assume), one from Berlin, and a family from the Giant Mountains in Silesia. That’s about as much geographic reference as we get, which makes sense as these people are literally lost in the woods.

Wilson explains on her website that she wrote the novel for adults at first, but given that the two main protagonists were teenagers, publishers encouraged her to rewrite it as a book for young readers. Which surely made sense commercially, but I would have liked the choice to read the original version.

The website also has some information on the relevant family history, although without specific names and places. See her pages family background as well as reflections on Last train.

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