Category Archives: chance

“7-3 to the Russians”: Exploring Poland’s wartime legacy.

I have written, a few times now, about my love of those places to which you can pin a distinct and vivid moment from the past. It doesn’t have to be a world-changing or momentous event, as long as the place where it happened still, in some way, carries evocative resonances of that moment in time. When this happens, it helps to bring that past alive. Sometimes such a response might be emotionally ambiguous, even sobering, but standing in a spot where such events took place often makes them easier to understand.

I was expecting a few moments like this during a recent trip to Poland. After all it is a country with a rich and troubled evolution, one that has been forged, shaped and tempered by its geographical position, squeezed as it is between the granite blocks of those two arch-history-making machines: Germany and Russia. I wasn’t to be disappointed. We began our trip in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Warsaw: The National Stadium on the shore of the Vistula.

Warsaw: The National Stadium on the far shore of the Vistula.

Today Warsaw positively demands to be viewed as a modern city. You can see that in the spaceship-like National Stadium which commands the shore of the River Vistula, from where it performs an evening light-show that is visible for miles across the city. You see it too in the shimmering sky-scrapers, with futuristic shapes to rival London and New York. They rise from the financial district, at the edge of streets which once housed the ghetto. In truth, however much they try, even these 21st century marvels struggle to divert your senses from that past for long. It is a past that is cemented deep into Warsaw’s streets and buildings.

It is made visible too in the colossal fortifications which rise up along the shore of the Vistula. They tell of battles fought long before the 20th century’s great conflicts. I remark to our taxi driver that Poland seems to have spent a lot of time at war with its neighbours.

“Yes, the score is currently 7-3 to the Russians I think,” he chuckles.

The Palace of Culture and Science.

The Palace of Culture and Science.

Other streets echo with the music of Chopin, in the place where he spent his formative years. Elsewhere, the architectural power-statement that is the Palace of Culture and Science is a brazen relic of the years that Warsaw spent under the Soviet yoke. Originally dedicated to Joseph Stalin, it is still (for now) Poland’s tallest building and it seems to photo-bomb every view we see beyond the old town.

But it is the reminders of just one period of the city’s history – the years 1939 to 1945 – which dominate here, and for good reason. Whilst other cities have built over their past, Warsaw spent decades after the war reconstructing it, piece by fractured piece. The old market square, the castle and many of the palaces which line the streets of the beautiful old town, were re-assembled from the pieces of rubble that remained. The scale of the devastation wrought in those years is made clear by a 3D simulation that you can view in the Uprising Museum. Think of the scenes of decimation we see on the streets of Syria – broadcast on our TV news channels today; then imagine something worse.  Whole areas of this historic city were razed to dust.


Bullet scarred walls at the Pałac Raczyńskich.

Even despite the rebuilding, some of the physical wounds of conflict remained – like the pockmarked walls of the Pałac Raczyńskich, where 50 men were shot in a street execution in January 1944. The building was later used as a hospital during the uprising. After the battle the Germans murdered the 430 remaining patients, afterwards dousing their bodies with petrol and burning them. There are both scars and ghosts in this place.


The Old Town at night.

The Uprising Museum seems like a good place to start our first full day exploring wartime Warsaw. It is a sprawling, rambling space – spread over three floors of an old industrial building. It tells the story of the uprising of the summer of 1944 largely through the words of those who took part in it, on all sides, and it is chock full of static displays, film and video. We allotted a couple of hours, but it was so jam-packed with exhibits that I’m not sure that a couple of days would have done it justice. It was congested with visitors too (entry was free on the day we visited) and the enormous volume of detail on show was overwhelming. However, the scale of sacrifice that the Varsovians made during those weeks, both to themselves and their city, is made horrifically stark and appallingly clear. When you leave the exhibition and your eyes have adjusted to the shock of the daylight, you encounter a long granite wall spanning the whole length of one end of the museum grounds. It is full of the names of 200,000 or so men, women and children who gave their lives in what was almost certainly, in the end, a futile cause. This makes physical the scale of the sacrifice and, as much as anything else, sets the uprising – and those images and testimonies exhibited inside the building – in context.

Uprising Museum: Memorial Wall.

Uprising Museum: Memorial Wall.

Uprising memorial to the "Nalecz" 1st Storm Battalion of the 'Home' Army.

Uprising memorial to the “Nalecz” 1st Storm Battalion of the ‘Home’ Army.

Modern Poles seem to have mixed feelings about the sacrifice their forbears made. Their pride is evident in the many memorials – ranging in size from poignantly tiny to gloriously huge – dotted throughout the city. They have even commemorated a sewer manhole cover in recognition of the part the underground tunnels played in the rebellion. And yet they also recognise the folly of an enterprise that was doomed to failure from the start without Allied support. As the bloody drama unfolded, the Red Army watched from the far bank of the Vistula, grinning with satisfaction, as their current and future foes decimated each other.

Ghetto boundary marker.

Ghetto boundary marker.

After leaving the Uprising Museum, our party of four went in search of that other comprehension-defying human tragedy that played out on the streets of this great city during that war: the ghetto.

A short walk from the museum we turn into Chłodla, the street which divided the ghetto and over which a bridge was built to allow the Aryan inhabitants of the City to go about their business without contact with their Jewish neighbours. The bridge is long gone, but the cobbles and tramlines which still survive are immediately redolent of that time, running below the modern buildings which overlook them. The ghetto area itself is identified by memorial plaques and by a marker set into the pavement which traces the line of the boundary wall.

Nożyk Synagogue.

Nożyk Synagogue.

Within this boundary, and thanks to one of many helpful locals (and his dog), we find the Nożyk Synagogue, the only survivor of the 400 pre-war Jewish places of worship left in Warsaw. The man also directs us to where we can find a section of the original ghetto wall. It has been left standing as a memorial to the people who perished there.

Everywhere in Warsaw the various stages of its history intermingle. To get to the ghetto wall we must buzz one of the inhabitants of a modern apartment block.  It’s a case of closing your eyes and choosing one of the buttons on the intercom. We choose number 14. After a moment of suspense as we wonder if the person answering had understood our English, they click the front door open without complaint and we funnel through to the back yard where the wall stands. It is overlooked by modern high-rises and the ubiquitous Palace of Culture and Science. A Jewish man wearing a Kippah skullcap joins us and says a prayer. We step back to give him space, knowing that his remembrance is likely to be personal.

Ghetto wall.

Ghetto wall.

I find it difficult to categorise what our visit symbolises. Remembrance? Yes… to a degree, but not to the extent of the Jewish man standing before us. Commemoration? Perhaps… but the commemoration of what exactly? Wanting to understand the unimaginable… wanting to know? Certainly. I have wrestled with these feelings before, on a visit to Auschwitz a couple of years ago. As we leave, we discover that we can access the other side of the wall too, through a yard belonging to the business next door. This time we don’t have to go through the flats to do this.

Pawliak Prison.

Pawliak Prison.

As we move deeper into the streets of the ghetto we arrive at the site of the old Gestapo headquarters – the Pawliak Prison. This place chilled the hearts of Varsovians. Executions were daily occurrences here. The skeleton of an old tree in the courtyard is preserved as a ghostly reminder of what happened in this spot. Its trunk is thickly overlaid with plaques marking the names of those who perished here. Behind it memorial headstones line the boundary wall. As dusk begins to descend it is a grim place to be, even today.

By now it’s too late for us to tour the prison museum and, as the light ebbs away, we decide instead to walk the path of remembrance which loops around the heart of the old ghetto. From here over 300,000 of the 350,000 pre-war population of Warsaw Jews, the largest in Europe, were transported to Treblinka and other death camps. Sobering though the story is, as you cross the wide empty streets that are today lined with bland and unremarkable modern buildings, it’s hard to link this place directly with those grisly events.

Ghetto Remembrance Walk.

Ghetto Remembrance Walk.

Miła 18 Memorial

Miła 18 Memorial

The most moving place is the Miła 18 memorial. It marks the site of the bunker where the final few desperate survivors of the ghetto resistance made their futile last stand. Fifty-one of them died here and they lay here still, their names inscribed on a memorial stone. You feel it in this place… the sadness, the death, the futility. It feels haunted. Maybe that is because it is enclosed in its own space, away from the street? Maybe it is because of the eerie backdrop of a darkening purple-red sky? Maybe it is because it is a grave?

The remembrance walk ends at the brand new POLIN museum, which tells the story of the Jews in Poland and at another of the huge monuments that the Poles do so well.

Miła 18 memorial grave mound.

Miła 18 memorial grave mound.

On the second full day of our trip we leave Warsaw behind and are driven north along endless, straight, Russian-built roads. We cut through the industrial edge of the city and its remote suburbs, over the wide Vistula and into countryside which, surprisingly, resembles a British rural landscape at times. We pass pillboxes hidden in the woods and village memorials (one of them is an old tank) and arrive in East Prussia and the glinting Polish Lake District. The houses here are more rustic, some built of wood, others with thatched roofs. The names of the villages, too, betray their troubled history. Some of them are Polish, others are German, some have both Polish and German names. A few have Lithuanian names. We are two hours from the Lithuanian border and an hour from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast. In amongst all of this we drive past a Tesco superstore.

Four hours into our journey we arrive at our destination, the town of Kętrzyn. It used to be known under the German name of Rastenburg and, according to our driver, some still choose to call it that. It hides a secret in the woods – the Wolf’s Lair.

The Wolf’s Lair is sometimes referred to as Hitler’s bunker in East Prussia. It’s actually a collection of around thirty ‘bunkers’ and other buildings which formed his eastern HQ. It lurks amongst the Görlitz forest, empty and silent apart from the rustling trees, populated only with a few tourists and the odd hooded crow or scuttling squirrel, but it teems with ghosts. Hitler spent around 800 days here during the war, more than he spent at any other single place. It was here that he oversaw his ultimately disastrous Russian campaign; it was here that the most famous attempt on his life was made.

Claus von Stauffenberg (Public Domain).

Claus von Stauffenberg (Public Domain).

The bomb planted by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was detonated, not in one of the large bunkers, but in a barracks buildings used for conferences. It lies close to the entrance to the complex. Today its ruined remains contain only a memorial to Stauffenberg and the 5,000 suspected conspirators who were executed in the wake of the failed plot. Standing here, even though you are familiar with the story, the hackles rise on your back with the thought of what might have been. Those questions resurface. What if the conference had been held in one of the large bunkers instead – where the thick double-layer of would have magnified the blast? What if Stauffenberg had put his case down in another place? What if it hadn’t been moved? What if he’d deployed his second bomb? What if it had succeeded? Would it have made a difference anyway?


Stauffenberg Memorial at the place were the assassination attempt took place.

Martin Bormann's bunker.

Martin Bormann’s bunker.

The whole site now contains only ruined remains. The retreating Germans blew it up in January 1945, a few days before the Russian Army rolled into the forest. Our enthusiastic guide takes us to each building. The larger bunkers have a two to four-metre thick concrete inner shell and a four to five metre outer shell. Inside Hermann Göring’s bunker or Stauffenberg co-conspirator General Erich Fellgiebel’s teleprinter exchange, the structures are, more or less, intact. We are taken through dark, narrow, tunnels into the damp and dripping blackness within. They are oppressive spaces, booby-trapped now with rusty iron rods which protrude from the shattered concrete. It’s almost impossible to believe that some form of daily life existed here, that ordinary people did ordinary things.

Hitler’s bunker, by contrast, has been literally blown apart, one wall stands upright, but the others and the roof too, lie on their side – making it even more difficult to imagine or sense the history that was made here; and yet the past does haunt this place.


Hitler’s bunker.

It also haunts the garages and the mess halls and kitchen, the smashed tea room so loved by Hitler, and the ‘house’ that Göring used adjacent to his bunker. It’s easier to imagine ‘Lilli Marlene’ or ‘The Horst Wessel Song’ echoing around these spaces, as it is to conjure up the sounds of the throbbing engines of swastika decorated armoured vehicles in the garages. There is a poignancy too in the threads of telegraph wires left rusting in the tree-tops, garrotting their hosts, causing the bark to grow like bulbous tumours around them. How many thousands of messages – maybe even orders direct from the Führer, that impacted millions of lives… that caused the deaths hundreds of thousands of people, pulsed through these same wires, I wonder?

Inside Hitler's bunker.

Inside Hitler’s bunker.

Ladder inside Goering's bunker.

Ladder inside Goering’s bunker.

That feeling of unease comes over me again. Is it right to be a tourist in a place like this? I mean, there will be visitors who come here with less benign intentions than me. The sort of people who might see this as a shrine perhaps? But then I realise that this is a castle… isn’t it? Not some crumbling medieval fortress for sure, but no different in the grand scheme of things. It is part citadel, part palace and was ruled by a mad King. Bad things happened here and evil people walked on its pathways and through its tunnels; but so did men and women with better intentions and with ideals that I hope I might have shared, if I were in their shoes. If so, then there is no difference between it and any other place where history was made, other than, perhaps, the depth of the darkness that shrouded it. Now only the shadows of that darkness remain.

Goering's bunker.

Goering’s bunker.

Shattered gun emplacement.

Shattered gun emplacement.

We can and should learn from these places. Learn, that is, of the nuanced shades of light and darkness surrounding even the worst regimes in history; of the good that can still penetrate the darkest places; of how history can be altered in any number of ways in just one split second; of how that altered history can be wrought by sheer luck or chance and of how, in the end, everything becomes shattered and overgrown.

With the sun lowering in the sky, we set off on the road for our four-hour return journey back to Warsaw. As we do so, we pass by a twisted metal post which is almost hidden by the grass at the roadside. Our driver points it out and explains that it was the post upon which once rested the security barrier, next to the guard house, at the entrance to the complex. I wonder whether this was the same barrier that Stauffenberg negotiated his way through on 20 July 1944, as the impact of his explosion was still reverberating through the camp. It makes me think about the courage it must have taken to do what he did. Our exit is quieter. Whereas Stauffenberg might have been nervously pondering his fate as he headed for his plane back to Berlin, we simply head off to the Tesco store in search of a sandwich.


The uprising memorial in Warsaw.

Additional Sources:

The Holocaust Research Project at

The Jewish Virtual Library at

The Jewish Historical Institute at

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944: The History of the Polish Resistance’s Failed Attempt to Liberate Poland’s Capital from Nazi Germany – by Charles River Editors

Wolfsschanze Tourist Guide by Czeslaw Puciato (1997)

(Lucky) Me and the chance of a lifetime…

One of the themes I wanted to build into my novel The Daylight Thief was the starring role that providence plays in our history.  Many of us could readily cite specific examples of this… maybe Alexander_FlemingAlexander Fleming’s accidental encounter with Penicillin… or even the thin dividing line that exists between a failed and a successful world-changing assassination attempt (Napoleon, Hitler or any number of American Presidents and Russian Tsars all had close shaves … whilst others weren’t so lucky). However, in my view, it is the process of evolution through natural selection, illuminated with such clarity by the likes of Darwin and Wallace, that best demonstrates the beneficent catalytic effect that chance plays in our past.

Whilst most of us might recognise this, my sense is that we still largely overlook the role chance plays in our personal evolutionary stories.  In particular we are oblivious its role in forging the relationships which connect us to the generations that came before us and that ultimately formed our DNA… and us. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on… relationships that we sometimes take for granted in the sense that they just happened to ‘be there’.

A_SolomonFirst_Class-_The_Meeting,_and_at_First_Meeting_Loved._Abraham_SolomonJust think about it for a second or two… each of those relationships needed a single moment when two people met each other for the very first time. It might have been a physical encounter, accidental or otherwise, or maybe just eye contact across the proverbial crowded room. Perhaps that single moment happened in an explosive coming together or maybe it simply initiated a chain of outwardly unremarkable events that ultimately forged one of those crucial links in our family tree. In my novel,  Jack and Freda’s first meeting takes place in the benign surroundings of a green meadow and they, presumably like our ancestors, have no inkling of the life-changing consequences that will flow from it.

So is there a common thread prompting these momentous events to happen? I believe that chance is the critical factor, thus demonstrating the Darwinian randomness of our personal histories. I’ll give you an example: My first encounter with my first wife was at work, in the office… whilst attending a union meeting to be precise. Now – I didn’t always attend those meetings by any means and my decision to attend on that day would have depended on a number of factors, such as how busy I was, what was on the meeting agenda – it might even have been Friday afternoon and I fancied a bit of an easy end to the week. As it happens I can’t remember the full details, but the point is that I could just as easily not have attended the meeting. So what would have happened if I had chosen not to go? Well, in blunt terms the likelihood is that we wouldn’t have eventually married and… following that thread to its logical conclusion… neither would my son have been born etc.

“Hold on!”, I hear you say, “What about fate”?

“What about fate”?

“Well fate decrees that you and your first wife would have met anyway in another situation. These things are pre-ordained after all, aren’t they”?

Sorry – but I have to tell you at this point that I do not believe in pre-destination. I do believe, however, that there is something akin to a roll of the dice at play in our genealogy (aka our evolution).

I’ve been tracing my famFamily_treeily history for about 30 years.  To date  I can trace some of my family lines back through 15 generations. Even with my horribly shaky maths I can work out that 15 generations means 65,534 individual people, all of whom must have met a partner along the way. That’s 32,737 separate meetings that had to take place to produce me… and, of course, that does not even come anywhere near scratching the surface.

Calculating the numbers after this point might get a little trickier because research shows that after a period of time the possible number of ancestors you can have tails off and actually starts to shrink. The theory goes that the populations are smaller the further back in time you go and our family lines start to be descended from a smaller pool of ancestors i.e. the same individuals. Even despite this, to work out how many generations it would take to trace my history back to, say, our early African hominid ancestors is well beyond me, let alone how many meetings or individual beings that would add up to. Suffice to say though it will be a staggering, incomprehensible, number; but if any of those first meetings had not happened, then I wouldn’t exist and neither will the generations who would have come after me.

My research, disappointingly, has furnished only sparse specific details about a paltry few of those 32,737 meetings . Where I do know the story, however, the role played by chance is clear, thus:

John_Frederick_Herring_-_The_Harvest_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn 1841 my Great Great Great Grandfather Charles Harriman was labouring on a farm in Sutton Bonington, Leicestershire. Another worker on the farm happened to be a chap called Thomas Gascoigne. Thomas had a sister called Elizabeth. At some point Thomas must have introduced Elizabeth to Charles, because the two of them were married the following year. So what if Charles had gone to work on another farm or he didn’t get on well enough with Thomas to be introduced to his sister?…

In the 1870s my Great Great Grandfather Frederick Henry Williams lived with his mother at 75 Manvers Street in Sneinton near Nottingham. At the same time, directly across the road at 80 Manvers Street, lived my Great Great Grandmother to be, Elizabeth Forbes Nevett. Elizabeth’s father was a shoemaker and Fred was a painter and decorator by trade, so they may have encountered each other from a business perspective, but Fred’s mother and Elizabeth’s father also died within 8 months of each other in 1878 and 1879. It is tempting to believe then that, in this case, a perfect storm of geographical and emotional proximity helped bring Fred and Elizabeth together. Could it have been different if their parents hadn’t died at that particular time?  Of course they may not have ended up living across the street from each other anyway. In any event they were married soon after their parents deaths, in December 1879…


Annie and John Lees

‘Annie’ Parker, my Great Great Grandmother, was born ‘illegitimately’ in the tiny village of Peatling Magna, Leicestershire in 1867. Her mother married a couple of years later and moved away from the village altogether to start a family with her new husband. Annie was left behind and lived with her Grandfather and later with an Aunt in Leicester. In the 1880s, however, and what changed is not clear, Annie moved back into the household of her mother and step-father. At this time they were resident in the Nottinghamshire village of Wilford. It proved to be a life-changing move beyond simple reconciliation with her mother. Whilst there she met John Lees,  a native of Wilford and my Great Great Grandfather, marrying him in 1888. How different it would have been if Annie had stayed in Leicestershire?…

Julia Annie Hawkes 1892

Julia Annie Buckingham aged 12 whilst living at Python Hill Farm

In the late 1890’s, after her widowed mothers second marriage, my maternal Great Grandmother Julia ‘Annie’ Buckingham became the step-daughter to one of Baron Saville of Rufford’s Farm Bailiffs. She lived at Python Hill Farm, Rainworth, Nottinghamshire and later at nearby Inkersall Grange Farm. One of the farm labourer’s working in the fields there just happened to be my Great Grandfather in-waiting, Joseph Hawkes. My imagination pictures the lowly labourer flirting with the bailiff’s step-daughter at a harvest festival dance or holding secret trysts behind the cow sheds. However romantically Hardyesque it might have actually been, Joseph and Julia Annie were married in 1901. It could have been so different though if Annie’s father hadn’t died in 1889. If he hadn’t then she would have remained a ropemaker’s daughter in a village 10 miles away…

Joseph Hawkes own father (also called Joseph), a native of Stow-on-the-Wold , Gloucestershire, only relocated to Nottinghamshire in 1874 upon leaving the army early following ill-health. Despite having never been there before, he chose to take the train to Nottingham directly from his demobilisation rather than return to Stow. It would appear that he did this because his Grandfather had already gone there to seek work in the Nottinghamshire coalfields – I presume that Joseph had the same idea in mind. Joseph senior married my Great Great Grandmother Charlotte Barker in Nottingham the following year, but what if his Grandfather had not made that move first?…

My paternal Great Grandparents, John Henry and Polly Williams, met after a football match in 1897. He played in the game and she served the after-match ham sandwiches. He ate rather more of them than he needed to. The result of the match was that they were married in 1902… but that after-match tea probably wasn’t compulsory and what if he was unable to play in the game for any reason on that particular day?

John Henry & Polly Williams 1937

John Henry and Polly Williams in 1937 with a fish… but it was ham sandwiches that brought them together.

A search for employment, an appointment made at a hiring fair, the ripple effect of decisions made by family members, the consequences of ill-health, choices made about where we live, our sporting predilections and our food preferences. In little more than a century of time, these are just some of the influences that led to forbears of mine coming together and which, in turn, manufactured my existence. These meetings were as much down to chance – or a string of chances – as the spin of a roulette wheel or the consequences that flow from the time and day that you happen to be walking down a particular street or looking in a particular direction. It’s family history equivalent of the movie ‘Sliding Doors’.  This is the essence of my fascination for genealogy and I was keen for it to be one of the backdrops to The Daylight Thief.

How lucky I am – how lucky we all are – that chance has given us a lifetime.