Destinations

Dissonant Heritage: The Ninth Fort of the Kaunas Fortress, Lithuania

TW: This post describes a site of imprisonment, torture, and mass murder. Acts of the first stage of the Final Solution — the complete destruction of the Jewish people — took place here, outside of Kaunas, Lithuania.

The Memorial to the Victims of Nazism at the Ninth Fort
Kaunas, Lithuania

Last fall my lovely friend Bri (of Home Base Belgium) and I trekked around the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, stopping at a number of memorial sites of historical importance throughout the region. One of the research interests closest to my heart, memory work — especially the intentions behind commemorating particular events and how those goals manifest physically in a landscape — intersects across power, memory, and inequality; analyzing not only the atrocities that took place here, but how organizations (including governments) reflect and present these complicated histories is vital to acknowledging the violence and repairing harm. This is certainly true in Lithuania, but particularly at the Ninth Fort, which has been placed among the most horrific sites of the first stage of the Final Solution — along with Babi Yar (Kyiv, Ukraine), Ponary (Vilnius, Lithuania), and Rumbula (Riga, Latvia).

“Here, however, the question of the relationship between official and non-official, social memory also arises: how did the victims’ associations, for example, bias the state’s politics of history with the stories of their suffering? It is therefore important to keep in mind that there are several actors in the field of memory culture – and state and society are developing a fascinating competition and/ or cooperation.”

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2020. “Between Heritage and (Identity) Politics: Dealing with the Signs of Communism in Post-Soviet Lithuania”. National Identities 23:6. 511-530.

Originally built by Tsarist Russia as a series of fortresses around the geopolitically strategic city of Kaunas (also known as Kovno), the Ninth is one of the few remaining forts somewhat still intact (the other being the seventh) of the entire system. Today, the site includes the fort itself with its own museum, the place of mass execution (and later added Holocaust memorial), a new building with a separate museum, and the Soviet-era memorial.

As with many countries occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets, memory work in Lithuania is complicated and intersectional; similarly to the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble, the intention behind the building of the Ninth Fort’s massive monument (one of its kind still standing today) and what it represents and to whom — along with the chosen exhibits located in the site’s two museums –requires a thorough unpacking of not only the recent history of this place, but how events became memorialized here over time.

View from the fort to toward the city of Kaunas
Built by Tsarist Russia, the Ninth Fort was used as a prison, a site for mass murder, and as an NKB place of torture. Its legacy stretches from before WWI to today and across Lithuanian autonomy, Nazi occupation, Soviet rule, and again, independence.

As Russia continues its war in Ukraine — and the recent destruction of Soviet monuments in Baltic public spaces — what do these Soviet memorials in Lithuania represent? Lithuanian or Russian identity? Who ultimately decides what aspect of an occupying nation can be merged into one’s identity?

This is a long (and I hope not meandering) post discussing not only the recent history of Lithuania and events that shaped the Ninth Fort, but also how political actors have used this landscape to develop their own narratives of atrocity and responsibility over time. I hope you’ll power through with me!

An Extremely Brief & Not at All Comprehensive Overview of Lithuanian History:

Similarly to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania’s history is imprinted by occupation. In 1569, the Union of Lublin established the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, which lasted until the Russian Empire annexed a majority of the country (1772 – 1795). Following a series of uprisings against Russian rule, a number of Russification policies were implemented: cultural and educational centers were closed, the use of the Lithuanian language forbidden, and the Lithuanian press was banned; however, these efforts ultimately failed as Lithuanians held onto their heritage, culture, and desire for autonomy through a large network of book smugglers and secret schools. In parts of the Lithuanian-speaking Russian empire, these text bootleggers were known as Knygnešiaĩ (the one who carries the books).

After WWI, the Germans occupied Lithuania and again, forbid the Lithuanian press and restricted rights. However, the elected 20-member Council of Lithuania was formed in 1917 as a first step to proclaim their autonomy from occupying powers. Lithuania — along with its Baltic neighbors — signed its Act of Independence in 1918. Vilnius was taken by Polish forces and Kaunas became the provisional capital. After three wars of independence (against the Bolsheviks, the Bermontians, and Poland), the first meeting of the democratically elected government was held on May 15th, 1920. Six years later, a coup of conservative authoritarians overthrew the government and a new constitution was adopted in 1928 that centralized power, banned opposition, enforced censorship, and eliminated the rights of marginalized groups within the country.

While designed by a Lithuanian architect, the monument at the Ninth Fort is seen as an accomplishment of the Soviet Union. Created to commemorate Soviet citizens killed by the Nazis, at the time there was no specific mention of Jewish people, even as the majority of people killed here was a result of Lithuanian collaboration to carry out the Nazi’s Final solution.

In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which partitioned control of Central and Eastern Europe between the two governments. Originally under the German sphere of influence, Lithuania was transferred to the USSR after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. This change would later “justify” the Soviet occupation of Lithuania beginning on June 15th, 1940. After pressuring the Lithuanians (who attempted to maintain neutrality despite shifting control of their country to foreign powers) to sign the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty, Lithuania was given back Vilnius in exchange for the establishment of five Soviet bases within the country; Estonia and Latvia also signed similar treaties. On June 14th, 1940, the Soviets issued an ultimatum that Lithuania eventually accepted, leading the to occupation of the country’s major cities that summer. A number of staged elections provided “legitimacy” to the narrative that Lithuania willingly joined the USSR. As with most republics occupied by the Soviet Union, Sovietization policies were implemented.

Holocaust memorials at the Ninth Fort that were later added to the memorial. To the right is the mass execution site and remaining fortress walls.

Nazi Occupation:

Just one week before the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia by the Soviet government. These deportations and ultimately, deaths, led to support of the Nazi regime within the country. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and gained control of the country within a week. Many Lithuanians — sparked by anti-Soviet sentiment — supported the Nazi regime as a form of pro-independence. As a result (and as seen as events that later took place at the Ninth Fort), Lithuanians were also complicit in the carrying out of the Final Solution within their country. With the largest Jewish majority of the Baltic countries, most of the Livaks (Lithuanian Jewish community) were murdered in the first five months of Nazi occupation.

The extermination of the Jewish population began almost immediately. A quarter of a million Jewish people lived in Lithuania at the time of Nazi invasion and by the end of WWII, over 95% of the community was murdered, one of the highest rates of genocide in Europe. Collaboration between the Lithuanians and German authorities primarily enabled the scale and effectiveness of their executions; ten Lithuanian police battalions murdered 78,000 people alone. While a number of resistance organizations fought against Nazi control (including many Jewish groups — two uprisings took place at the Ninth Fort alone) it is important to recognize the often-ignored Nazi collaboration that took place in Lithuania.

This plaque was added later to provide context to the mass executions that took place at the Ninth Fort.

Soviet Occupation:

The Soviets regained control of Lithuania in the summer of 1944. While the resistance to the USSR remained strong, it was not enough to stave off occupation. Deportations of Lithuanians continued until 1953; 5-10% of the population was exiled to Siberia (including Jewish people) and an estimated 50,000 people died. More ethnic Lithuanians died during the years of 1945-1953 than in WWII. For many Lithuanians, the western narrative of the Soviet Union “saving” Europe from the Nazis is largely challenged, even as we’ll see this historical revisionism reflected in the Soviet built monuments across the occupied republics following the war.

With the beginnings of glasnost in the Soviet Union, the Sąjūdis was established in 1988, eventually leading to the restoration of Lithuania’s sovereignty as the USSR dissolved. On March 11, 1990, following the the very public 600 km (370 miles) human chain of people across the Baltic states, Lithuania became the first Soviet-occupied country to declare their independence. Restoration of independence was implemented in 1993 and the final Soviet soldiers left the country in August of that year.

Part of the Monument for the Victims of Nazism (“Pain”) overlooking Kaunas.

The Ninth Fort at Kaunas:

The defensive wall of the Ninth Fort

One of the most unique aspects of visiting the Ninth Fort is that so much of the history I just outlined physically took place in this one space; for the Lithuanians, the government and many communities are still attempting to come to terms with the dual legacy of their recent past — both as victims and perpetrators of violence — reflecting, unpacking, and making historical amends. It is undeniable that ethnic Lithuanians suffered greatly during occupation, particularly under Soviet control, but the collaboration with the Nazis to murder most of the Livak population is also undeniable, even if (as we’ll see) this partnership is less represented in comprehensive and just memory work.

In the interest of time and organization, here is a breakdown of the events that took place at the Ninth Fort from its construction to eventual site of memory:

Mass Executions during Nazi Occupation:

During Nazi occupation, the Ninth Fort was chosen in advance as an execution site due to its location near the newly established Jewish ghetto in Kaunas (Vilijampolė or Slobodka in Yiddish). After only three weeks, the site was transformed to a location capable of holding, murdering, and burying thousands of Jewish victims. On October 29th, 1941, the German SS and Lithuanian police murdered 9,200 residents of the Kaunas Ghetto at the Ninth Fort. Just one month later, the first systemic killing of German Jews during the Holocaust took place at the Ninth Fort after trains were rerouted from Riga, Lodz, and Minsk to Kaunas. In total, 45,000 – 50,000 Jewish people were killed in mass executions at the Ninth Fort. Testimonies collected from survivors tell the stories of the intense cruelty suffered by their victims before they were executed.

Soviet exhumation of a mass grave at the Ninth Fort. Many victims were buried alive, then shot.
The burning of the remaining bodies was completed by Jewish prisoners who later escaped.
Source

In 1943, in an effort to conceal the mass executions at the Ninth Fort, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators enacted Aktion 1005 across Nazi-occupied territories, including Lithuania: sixty-four prisoners (sixty were Jewish) were forced to open the mass graves, remove bodies (and their gold teeth and any valuables), and cremate the remains. All escaped with help from the Kaunas ghetto underground, but only twenty-eight managed to find safety. The escape is one act of resistance that took place at the Ninth Fort.

Mass execution and burial site today.

Establishing Commemoration at the Ninth Fort at Kaunas:

One of the large signs at the entrance / exit of the Ninth Fort.

One of the most unique aspects of the Ninth Fort is just how much this landscape physically represents and reflects the history of Lithuania over time. First established as a commemoration site by the Soviet Union, the construction and design here was not accidental; the Soviets intentionally created a memorial space that reflected their narrative.

“From the first days after the Second World War, the Soviets began an active commemoration program. Thousands of military monuments had been erected throughout the Soviet Union. At least one monument stands in almost every bigger village, not to mention small towns or regional centers. Although the first wave of monument construction in Lithuania had reached its peak in the early 1950s, construction of WWII memorial flourished almost throughout the whole Soviet period. As political circumstances changed, fashions changed, old memorial places were renewed and monuments became more sophisticated and diverse.”

Petrulis, Vaidas. 2021. “World War II Monuments in Soviet Lithuania. From Political Symbols to Dissonant Heritage.” Masses are Dying: Ways of Remembrance for Two World Wars from a European Perspective [ed: Herausgegeben von Sigrid Brandt]. 20 – 31. Available here.

Two periods of commemoration took place in Lithuania under Soviet occupation. The first was the decade following the end of WWII — tributes to the victims of the war were established simultaneously with the Soviet Terror as more than 20,000 Lithuanians were killed and nearly 150,000 people were sent to GULAGS — during 1944 – 1953. The second period of commemoration by the state took place from the 1960s-1980s when the role of local architects and designers increased, but under the control of the narrative of the Soviet Union. The memorial at Kaunas is one of, if not the only, surviving monument of its kind.

Memorialization of the Ninth Fort:

The first competition to develop a memorial at the Ninth Fort was held in 1966 and three additional rounds took place until the final project was approved. Sculptor Alfonsas Vincentas Ambraziunas and architects Vytautas Vielius and Gediminas Baravykas worked on the design and its construction until the 32 meter (105 foot) high monument was unveiled in 1984. Located at the start of the “Path of Death”, this monument sits adjacent to the execution site.

The three concrete sculptures known as “Pain” (lowest), “Hope” (middle), and “Liberation” (highest) symbolize the confrontation, fighting, and uprising against evil.

Initially dedicated to the murdered “citizens of the Soviet Union”, the Memorial to the Victims of Nazism was hailed as a triumph when it opened to the public in 1984. However, it is important to note that the “victims of Nazism” here were in fact almost completely Jewish. For a Soviet-built memorial on a WWI-era fort, where thousands of Jewish people not just from Lithuania (including Kaunas) but across Europe were executed by Nazis and Lithuanians, the decision to not specifically name the victims or the perpetrators — calling them merely “Soviet” instead — demonstrates the intent of this memorial.

The Soviet government controlled all WWII memorization projects with the intent to establish a narrative of Soviet greatness — the “liberators” overcoming the evils of Nazism — while also liberating the Lithuanians both from the Nazis and those that fought against the Soviet government. While they may have incorporated aspects of ethnic Lithuanian culture, these monuments were usually associated with the Soviet Union first and foremost.

In the development of the memorialization at the Ninth Fort, we can see how commemoration and narrative have shifted over time (Makhotina, 2020):

  • 1959: First Soviet museum opened with the purpose of illustrating German Nazi atrocities; a “hierarchy” of victims is presented with pro-Soviet prisoners at the top and Jewish people as a just another group.
  • 1984: The new museum is opened and the permanent exhibition shares the same themes: the Lithuanians’ struggle against fascism and the liberation of the country by the Soviet Union. Again, Jewish victims are mentioned, but not as the intended group of racial extermination.
  • 1990: The Ninth Fort transitions to a “double memorial” featuring exhibits on the Soviet Socialist Terror against Lithuanians from 1940 – 1990.
  • Today: Themes of the memorial space are primarily national identity and the genocidal intentions of the Soviets on ethnic Lithuanians, although the mass executions as a part of the Final Solution are discussed.
Remnants of the Fort today. Victims were held here and then marched underneath out to the open field before being executed.

Following the end of Soviet occupation, the narrative of commemoration at the Ninth Fort changed from the somewhat generically labelled genocide of the Great Patriotic War to instead reflect the Stalinist violence committed on ethnic Lithuanians during the period following WWII. As with many formerly Soviet-occupied countries, the victimhood narrative combined with national identity, can also obscure the memorialization of a place. As the focus shifted from merely Nazi genocide to Soviet mass murder, the 1993 – present narrative presented at the Ninth Fort is a combination of Lithuanian national symbolism and the victims of Soviet persecution; this shift from Nazi to Soviet terror suppresses the Lithuanian involvement in the mass execution of the Jewish population. The line between resistance and collaboration is thin and remains an issue in how history is not only represented, but celebrated. Jonas Noreika, for example, was awarded Lithuania’s second highest military medal following independence; he also signed orders pushing the Jewish population into ghettos.

“According to a law passed in April 1991, the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet occupation forces are both classified as ‘genocide against the citizens of Lithuania’. Lithuanians who suffered under the Soviets in 1940-1941 and 1944-1990, especially those who were deported to Siberian camps, are commemorated as victims of genocide… Since 2010 genocide denial, whether ‘Soviet genocide’ or the Holocaust, has been classified as a crime in Lithuania, punishable by up to two years in prison. The juxtaposition of these two historical events makes the coexistence of remembrance cultures inherently problematic. In the country’s national culture of remembrance, Soviet genocide takes top priority.”

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

What remains here is a complicated reflection of Soviet and Lithuanian constructed narratives, both in the physical landscape (monument, exhibits) and what remains unsaid. The struggle to accurately represent dual legacies is not only a Lithuanian issue — a majority of European and Western countries have yet to come to terms with their genocidal and / or colonizing pasts — but is also one reflected here at the Ninth Fort space.

As an American I want to also make clear that many countries, especially the United States, have failed to accurately and justly represent the role of government in the genocide and continued marginalization of communities. Many communities have engaged in their own memory work to push for commemoration at sites of historical importance. The signage at the site of Emmett Till’s murder — and the continued vandalization of the signage — is just one example.

Visiting the Ninth Fort:

Walking up to the memorial

Located 8 km (5 miles) from the city of Kaunas, we briefly stopped at the Ninth Fort on our way from Riga to Vilnius. With less than an hour to wander the large area, Bri and I were unable to visit the two on-site museums and stuck to walking the path along the site.

While many Soviet-era monuments were either destroyed or moved to a different location in post-Soviet countries (Momento Park in Hungary for example), the monument at the Ninth Fort remains in place due to a number of factors, but especially as this is a site of mass burials and therefore moving any such memorials — particularly one as large as this and the disruption it may cause — is an extremely sensitive topic.

Adjacent to the monument is the Holocaust plaque and the site of mass executions of Jewish people here during Nazi occupation.

Visitors can walk the path the victims took through the building to the site of execution; writings and drawings by the prisoners remain on the walls today. Exhibits on Soviet occupation, Lithuanian resistance, and mass deportation are also displayed.

Messages scrawled by Jewish prisoners on a wall inside Fort IX, shortly before their execution.
George Kadish photographed the writings on the walls of the prison after liberation. One message reads: ‘Hirsh Burstein was brought here July 7, 44. We are burning bodies and awaiting death. Brothers, Revenge! We are dying courageously for the people.’ Another inscription reads “Hayat Isaac from Marseille, arrived May 18, 1944.”

Source
An overhead view of the remaining fortress and the monument
Source

We then passed the newer building (closed at the time) and left the memorial site.

The intersection of narratives and power — Soviet, Nazi, German, Lithuanian, Jewish, occupation, perpetrator, independence, resistance, victim — in just 150 years of history in just one location. Our intent in memorializing public spaces matters.

Recently, efforts to come to terms with their complicated past has begun in Lithuania. A number of books researching the role of Lithuanians in the Final Solution have been published. Last year, the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust in Lithuania was commemorated with representatives from Berlin, Vienna, Munich, and Wrocław visiting the Ninth Fort. When we later spent the night in Vilnius. Bri and I saw both individual and organizational efforts to commemorate the suffering of Jewish people in Lithuania.

“According to Aleida Assmann, remembrance in dialogue – a model in which the suffering inflicted on one’s neighbors is assimilated into one’s own national memory – is a future opportunity of European remembrance. A prerequisite to this is overcoming mononational cultures of remembrance aimed at narratives of national victimhood and charged with myths of heroism. This includes recognition and empathy for the other victims of history and the willingness to assess one’s own role as a perpetrator.”

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Special ❤ to Bri for her patience and sharing her photos as I read, as well as my co-worker Marcus for providing one of my sources below ❤

Currently:

Reading: Night of the Living Rez (Morgan Talty)
Watching: Loot (Apple TV+)
Listening: Sounds Like a Cult (All Things Comedy)

Works Cited:

Ben-Naftali, Aya. 2004. “Collaboration and Resistance: The Ninth Fort as a Test Case”. Collaboration and Resistance During the Holocaust: Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (ed: Favid Gaunt). 361-382. Available here.

Bertalius, Mindaugas. 2005. “Cultural Heritage Management: A Case of Kaunas”. The Issue of Protection of Historical Heritage. 146 – 151. Available here.

Davoliute, Violeta. 2018. “Between the Public and the Personal: A New Stage of Holocaust Memory in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Hohenhaus, Peter. 2015. “9th Fort and Monument”. Dark Tourism. Available here.

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2020. “Between Heritage and (Identity) Politics: Dealing with the Signs of Communism in Post-Soviet Lithuania”. National Identities 23:6. 511-530.

Kauno IX Forto Muziejus. 2022. “Concrete Filled Brutalism and Historical Memory that Testifies Brutality” [Online Exhibition]. Kauno IX Forto Muziejus Official Website. Available here.

Kauno IX Forto Murziejus. 2022. “History of the Ninth Fort of Kaunas”. Kauno IX Forto Muziejus Official Website. Available here.

Petrulis, Vaidas. 2021. “World War II Monuments in Soviet Lithuania. From Political Symbols to Dissonant Heritage.” Masses are Dying: Ways of Remembrance for Two World Wars from a European Perspective [ed: Herausgegeben von Sigrid Brandt]. 20 – 31. Available here.

Veliute, Ingrida. 2012. “Kaunas Fortress Historical and Architectural Heritage and Its Animation Possibilities”. Vytautas Magnus University Summary of Doctoral Dissertation, Humanities, Art Studies (03H). 1-52. Available here.

“Behind These Gates Moans the Earth”: The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble, Latvia

TW: This post describes the former Nazi Labor and Internment Camp outside of Riga where thousands were held prisoner and murdered during the occupation of Latvia from 1941 – 1944

While visiting the Baltic countries last fall, my friend Bri (of the lovely Home Base Belgium) and I planned a number of stops at a few memorial sites throughout Latvia and Lithuania. For me, memory work — particularly how and why we as individuals, organizations, and governments choose (or not) to memorialize particular events throughout history — is one of the research interests closest to my heart. I have a nerdy passion for analyzing the historical events (and interpretation) of a place and how the intersectionality of power, memory, intention, and inequality shape the physical memorialization of said landscape.

“As memory workers, we believe that memory about these historic human rights violations is a crucial component of both justice work in the present and imagining more just futures. For us, memory work is not just about remembering the past, but about reckoning with it – that is, establishing facts, acknowledging, apologizing, stopping ongoing violence, and repairing the harm that was done through both material and immaterial forms of reparation.”

Johnson, Dora, Jarrett M. Drake and Michelle Caswell. 2017. “Reflections from the 2016 Mandela Dialogues.” Nelson Mandela Website. Available here.

Built by the occupying Nazi regime, the camp at Salaspils was in use from 1941 – 1944; occupying Soviets built and unveiled the memorial in 1967. Due to the atrocities and human rights violations that occurred here, visiting this site is considered Dark Tourism, which you can read more on all my thoughts and feelings about here (TL;DR be respectful, grateful, and not a selfie-posing jerk).

The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble holds a dual legacy in that curators must factually tell the story of the what occurred here, as well as how the memorialization of such events have been skewed both historically and presently by a number of entities with their own intentions. My goal is to overview the history as well as the politics of memorialization as best as possible and hopefully convey the emotions of visiting such a site.

“Unbroken” sculpture with “Mother” on the left and “Solidarity”, “The Oath”, and “Rot Front” (sometimes referred to as “Red Front”) on the right.
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]

We quietly left Salaspils and I honestly had more questions than answers. Was this memorial built for those that suffered and were killed here? Were the stories of survivors uplifted to reflect the brutality of this solemn space?

An Extremely Brief & Not at All Comprehensive Overview of Latvian History:

While often viewed as one — “The Baltics” — the three countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are very distinct from one another; it wasn’t until the last century that their fates and eventual unity connected them. I won’t get into a ton of Baltic history here (save it for THEE big post!) but a quick overview of Latvia in particular is relevant to how the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble was developed and continues to evolve.

Where are we?

Similar to most countries in eastern and central Europe, the history of Latvia (and therefore how events are memorialized) is complicated and intersectional. After seven centuries under Baltic German rule, Latvia was partitioned between Poland and Sweden, eventually falling under Russian control during the Great Northern War. Indigenous Latvian nationalism grew after the Russian Revolution and Latvia declared itself an independent country on November 18th, 1918; their sovereignty recognized by the Soviet Union and Germany in 1920.

Despite their very distinct culture, history, and language, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia banded together in 1934 to create the Baltic Entente. The independent nations declared neutrality prior to WWII, but the treaty of cooperation wasn’t enough to protect the region from occupation by first the Soviet Union (1940), then Nazi Germany (1941), and again under Soviet control in 1944. The 40+ year occupation by the Soviets also drastically changed the population of Latvia; the influx of Russians and Russian speakers grew from 8.8% in 1935 to 34% in 1989. Latvia, along with Lithuania and Estonia, gained independence in 1991 and followed a similar track “returning to Europe” even if each chose its distinct path while working together. 

“Of the Baltic states, Latvia is the most ‘Baltic’, with two Baltic neighbours, while Estonia usually looks northwards towards Finland, and Lithuania westwards towards Poland. The Latvians, understandably, have always been the greatest proponents of Baltic solidarity.”

Kasekamp, Andres. 2021. “The Baltic States: Three Peas in a Pod?” New Eastern Europe 3: XLVI.

The Salaspils Camp:

Side view of the entrance to the memorial. The Life-Death Wall and Memorial Museum (right) is at the entrance of the Ceremony Site (left) with the Way of Sorrows path around the site.

Nazi Germany completed their military occupation of Latvia on July 10th, 1941. The government immediately began murdering Jewish citizens and detaining (alleged) communists, anyone that had cooperated with the Soviet Union, along with any racially unacceptable group, as well as those who opposed the occupation. As prisons filled up in Riga, the leader of the Einsatzgruppe A sought to build a camp outside of the city for prison labor, thus leaving space in the prisons for the 25,000 Jewish people forced into the city’s ghetto. Reichs – SS Leader and Chief of German Police Heinrich Himmler denied the request to build a “private” concentration camp in occupied land and instead granted approval for an Extended Police Prison and Work Education Camp  (Arbeitserziehungslager und erweitertes Polizeigefängnis, AEL) to be built at Salaspils. Under the Commander of the Security Police and SD in Latvia and not the directive of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate (Inspektion der Konzentrationslager, IKL), the camp was officially an extended police prison and labor site; while not considered a Nazi concentration camp, the circumstances facing those imprisoned there were incredibly harsh and conditions comparable to those in concentration camps.

“Salaspils camp was not a ‘death camp’ in the sense that people were brought there specifically to be exterminated. Salaspils did not have gas chambers, and ‘gassing trucks’ were not sent there for mass murder of inmates. However, for some of the inmates, Salaspils became their place of death, but for many inmates it served, more or less, as a harsh survival experience on the way to concentration camps outside Latvia. If 4000 inmates from the Salaspils camp were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, it can be assumed that, of them, 1500 or more died.”

Neiburgs, Uldis. 2022. “Salaspils Camp. History and Memory.” The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Available here.

After gaining approval, construction started in late 1941 and Latvian workers were quickly replaced with Jewish laborers from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Of the 1,500 – 2,000 Jewish prisoners building the camp, 2 / 3 were killed in Salaspils and most survivors were sent to the Riga ghetto following completion of the site in early 1942. This time was incredibly harsh as Jewish prisoners were not provided shelter or adequate clothing during the winter months of construction.

Nazi propaganda photo of the Salaspils Camp, 1941

Originally an “extended police prison” meant for political prisoners, the purpose of the camp was expanded to meet the changing needs of Nazi Germany, becoming the largest camp in the Baltic region for both civilian prisoners from Latvia and political prisoners of other countries. After filling Salaspils with political prisoners and the “work-avoiders”, space was created to detain members of the Latvian police after being convicted by the court. Those sent to the “forced labor camp” served their sentences and were held for up to 56 days. Beyond the prisoners serving court-ordered sentencing, a number of other groups were imprisoned here, including victims of operations against partisans and those sent for forced labor in Germany. Over six thousand women, children, and men — survivors of a number of operations including Winterzuber and Sommerreise — were brought to Salaspils. The women were deported to Germany to work as forced laborers and children sent to peasant families within Latvia; of the adults sent to Germany, their ultimate fate is unknown as their future was determined by their assigned labor category, Finally, a POW portion of the camp was opened for civilians and refugees that had attempted escape from the frontlines. Salaspils also became a transit location for civilians being sent to labor in Germany from the east; in 1943 many were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. In 1944, as the Red Army closed in on Latvia, the Nazis deported any remaining prisoners to the Stutthof Concentration Camp (near the Free City of Danzig) and burned the entire camp and its records.

While the complete number of those sent, imprisoned, and killed at Salaspils can never be fully known– and I absolutely hate reducing their suffering to merely numeral statistics — the estimate includes:

  • Between 21,855 and 23,035 people were imprisoned here from 1941 – 1944; Around half were political prisoners, “work-avoiders”, and convicted soldiers (including Latvians), while the rest were survivors of military campaigns against civilians in Belorussia, Russia, and Latgale
  • Roughly 11,000 were transit prisoners and of the survivors that returned to Latvia, Belarus, or Russia, complete information is unknown; It is estimated that for 6,000 – 7,000 political prisoners “leads us to believe that the swath of death in concentration camps outside Latvia was quite considerable”
  • From May 1942 – September 1944 an estimated 400 – 500 people died from diseases; 100 – 150 died from violent punishment and extreme working conditions, and 30 were murdered for attempting / planning to escape
  • Several hundred children died from undernourishment and epidemics; There is no evidence that medical experiments were performed here; Roughly 2,700 children from Belarus and Latgale were placed with farmers, foster families, and other child care centers
  • In total, an estimated 3,000 people died at Salaspils; Over 1 / 3 of the deaths included the Jewish prisoners that initially built the camp
Two Roma children held at Salaspils (1943); “Parents shot as partisans” was written on the back of the photo.
[ Source: The Digital Picture Archives of the Federal Archives; Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, Heidelberg, Germany ]

Memorialization of the Salaspils Camp:

Glass Panorama

The planning for a memorial at the Salaspils site started in the late 1950s after commemoration politics shifted to reflect not places of defeat, but rather “symbols of Soviet unity”. An enormous campaign by the Soviet government to build military cemeteries and memorials — particularly in the now Soviet-occupied republics — began. In 1959, a competition for the creation of the Salaspils memorial was held; only seven of the original 20 artists completed the project from start to finish including architects Gunārs Asaris, Oļģerts Ostenbergs, Ivars Strautmanis, Oļegs Zakamennijs and sculptors Ļevs Bukovskis, Oļegs Skarainis un Jānis Zariņš. The site opened in 1967.

The memorial is one of the largest in Europe at over 25 hectares (62 acres) and is a prime example of 1960s Brutalist architecture. The site includes a 110 meter (328 feet) – long walkway at the entrance with the inscription “Aiz šiem vārtien vaid zeme” (“behind these gates moans the earth”), a large square for ceremonies, seven total sculptures (up to 16 meters [52 feet] high), and the continuous playing of a metronome (symbolizing a heartbeat) through loudspeakers across the site, all deep within the Latvian forest.

Metronome and area to place wreaths.

At the time of the completion and opening of the memorial, the Soviet government not only amplified the Nazi atrocities that occurred here, but also propaganda vastly exaggerated the extent of the brutality. They purported (unfounded) claims that over 100,000 were killed at Salaspils, children were used for medical experimentation for German soldiers, and the labeling of Salaspils as a concentration camp or death camp for Jewish populations from across Europe. 

“The attempt of pro-Russian politicians to use the memorial for their own purposes actually compromises the whole idea of ​​commemorating the Salaspils camp, because these people are not interested in historical truth, just as they were not interested in the Soviet regime at the time. Historian Uldis Neiburgs, once admitted to the memorial as a pioneer, recalls that during the Soviet era, the Salaspils Memorial had not so much commemoration as an ideological and propaganda function. The memory of the victims was relegated to the background.”

Sprūde, Viesturs. 2014. “Salaspils memoriālam būtu vajadzīga vēsturiski patiesa ekspozīcija.” [translated] LA.LV. Available here.

Popularity of the “biggest of 23 mass-destruction-camps which were erected by the German fascists on the territory of the occupied Latvia” grew under Soviet disinformation. These greatly exaggerated numbers and inaccuracies were prevalent throughout Soviet occupation and only after Latvian independence in 1991 has research into the events that took place at Salaspils and the intentions behind the memorial been analyzed and published. Many Latvian researchers and media outlets fought against the Soviet myths, claiming these numbers and atrocities were not only vastly exaggerated, but also misrepresented. However, Russian media, academics, and Russian-speaking populations disagree with this research. With the differing perspectives of the many groups attached to Salaspils, a number of “problematic” events take place at the memorial, including activism for pro-Russian politicians campaigning for support; many accuse those attempting to accurately represent historical information as advocates for the neo-Nazi regime.

From this angle, the site of the Children’s Barracks was to the right and behind “Mother”.
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]

“The different groups have different – sometimes conflicting – perceptions of the camp’s history and its Soviet commemoration which have been a point of contention for nearly 30 years now… when the new exhibition was opened in February 2018, the Latvian media praised it as ‘finally showing the truth’, while the Russian media accused curators of belittling the suffering of inmates, making ‘a health resort out of Salaspils’, and concealing the stories of child prisoners.”

Sprūde, Viesturs. 2014. “Salaspils memoriālam būtu vajadzīga vēsturiski patiesa ekspozīcija.” [translated] LA.LV. Available here.

Financial resources are an additional concern for the physical maintenance of the memorial. In 2005, the Russian Federation offered funds to restore the site through the Russian Embassy, which was denied by the Salaspils City Council, declaring their own ownership and responsibility for the site. A new exhibit at the memorial was developed by a number of curators — including the author of the first book on the site, Uldis Neiburgs — in 2017. This was built inside the 100 meter walkway (the “bridge”) at the entrance of Salaspils and included an overview of the history of the camp and memorial. In “A Dual Legacy: Reviewing the New Exhibition at the Former Nazi Camp Salaspils”, Paula Oppermann notes that the memorial has a double purpose in presenting both the history of the events that took place there as well as telling the story of the Soviet misrepresentation and intentions behind building the memorial:

“They aimed to present the form and function of the AEL Salaspils, to tell the history of all prisoners, and to dismantle prominent myths about the camp which were established during the Soviet period…

The result is a rather unequal presentation of the two dimensions: there is a remarkable contrast between the density of facts about the memorial’s designers in the second section of the exhibition and the short and generalising texts in the section that describes the camp’s history. The curators do not depict Salaspils as a ‘health resort’, as some critics have argued. Nonetheless, its function within the Nazi camp system is not sufficiently contextualised, and neither is its role in the Holocaust in Latvia: the exploitation of Jewish forced labourers in the construction of Salaspils was an aspect of genocide.”

Oppermann, Paula. 2018. “A Dual Legacy: Reviewing the New Exhibition at the Former Nazi Camp Salaspils.” Cultures of History. Available here.

The ability to represent this information remains uneven with room to improve, but I would argue it is at least a step in the right direction to both memorialize and accurately represent the atrocities that occurred at Salaspils. While we will never know the exact numbers or suffering of those imprisoned here, the vast propaganda of exaggeration detracts from the purpose of a memory site: representing a historic truth with as much power given to the community of survivors in how they want their experience to be understood and symbolized for future generations.

The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble:

The “bridge”.

A short drive from Riga, Bri and I left early to visit the Salaspils site. We only had a small window of time here but we made the most of our experience. The directions to the actual memorial were spotty and thankfully Bri made a few in-the-moment-decisions to successfully find the location. This isn’t a huge tourist attraction and after turning off the main road, there wasn’t clear signage on how to reach the memorial. We passed over the railroad tracks and into the forest, eventually finding the site.

The plinth marking the history of the camp with scratch marks running from 1941 – 1944 that extends from the entrance to the other side of the wall.

After parking — empty besides the two of us at this early hour — we passed the marker at the lot (a brief description of the site in English, Latvian, German, and Russian) before walking up to the enormous “bridge” at the front of the memorial. Known as the “border between life and death”, the “bridge” holds the new exhibits opened in 2017, although access was closed when we visited.

Bri is TALL and still had clearance under the “bridge”!

After walking under the “bridge”, Bri went straight into the Ceremonial Grounds while I headed left to the Memorial Obelisks to read more about the camp and how it was represented. I am so grateful for such a lovely friend who not only happily made this stop with me, but took pictures of the memorial that I would have missed due to our time constraints.

View immediately after passing the “bridge” into the Ceremonial Grounds where the sculptures are located.

See a map of the space here.

The first thing I noticed after entering the memorial was the metronome. The beating heart is played 24 hours a day through loudspeakers across the entire site. It was a haunting, jarring experience to incorporate sound into the very visible built landscape here. Surrounded by dense forest without wind, the metronome resonates loudly in the stillness of the space.

Information on the history of the camp as the sun started shining.
I made my way back toward the Ceremonial Grounds.
The sculptures truly dominate the space. It’s impossible to convey just how large they are in person. To the right and further back of “Unbroken” is the site of the camp’s former gallows. Farther to the right are where the adult barracks once stood.
“Humiliated” and “Mother” (further back).
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
“Humiliated”
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
“Mother”
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
“Solidarity”, “The Oath”, and “Rot Front” (sometimes referred to as “Red Front”)
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
“Unbroken”
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]
[ 📷: Home Base Belgium ]

As with any event of unimaginable horror with multiple sides, perspectives, and intersecting histories and cultures, I imagine the controversy of the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble will continue to be a source of conflicting positions. Of course not all Latvians feel the same, nor do those of Russian descent, so I hope to not paint these very diverse communities as broad, monolithic groups. However, the push for Latvia to reclaim this memorial space through developing new exhibits and research, while also the costs to maintain the enormous Soviet structures built here to demonstrate the strength of the USSR against not only Nazi Germany, but in the countries they occupied, is commendable. As with many former Soviet-occupied countries, the path to self-determination and sovereignty includes thoroughly unpacking the intention of occupation-era memorial work such as the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble while embracing ideas of transitional justice.

The decision to memorialize a site as horrific as the Salaspils camp also requires reckoning with the Soviet representation of the space — a complicated, continuous, and evolving undertaking — that demands visitors to look beyond just the built landscape.

“The past was never singular, nor will the future be. In order to generate these futures, memory work should be dangerous. It should seek not only to acknowledge past trauma, but to repair it. It should aim to upend hierarchies of power, to distribute resources more equitably, to enable complex forms of self-representation, and to restore the humanity of those for whom it has been denied.”

Johnson, Dora, Jarrett M. Drake and Michelle Caswell. 2017. “Reflections from the 2016 Mandela Dialogues.” Nelson Mandela Website. Available here.

Currently:
Reading: The Nineties (Chuck Klosterman)
Watching: Our Flag Means Death (HBO)
Listening: Make Up the Breakdown (Hot Hot Heat)

Sources:

Atlas Obscura. 2019. “Salaspils Memorial Ensemble.” Atlas Obscura. Available here.

ENG.LSM.LV [Latvian Public Media]. 2017. “Holocaust Memorial Near Salaspils Turns 50”. ENG.LSM.LV. Available here.

Hohenhaus, Peter. 2014. “Salaspils Concentration Camp Memorial”. Dark-Tourism. Available here.

Johnson, Dora, Jarrett M. Drake and Michelle Caswell. 2017. “Reflections from the 2016 Mandela Dialogues.” Nelson Mandela Website. Available here.

Kasekamp, Andres. 2021. “The Baltic States: Three Peas in a Pod?” New Eastern Europe 3:XLVI. 15 – 19.

Oppermann, Paula. 2018. “A Dual Legacy: Reviewing the New Exhibition at the Former Nazi Camp Salaspils”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Salaspilis Memorials. 2022. “Exposition”. Salaspils Memoriāls Official Website. Available here.

Sprūde, Viesturs. 2014. “Salaspils Memoriālam Būtu Vajadzīga Vēsturiski Patiesa Ekspozīcija”. LA.LV. Available here. [In Latvian]

2021 Year in Review: Favorite TV Shows

Another year of mostly staying at home=another year of consuming a ton of television!

Inspired by Emily VanDerWerff over at Vox, I wanted to compile a list of my favorite tv shows of 2021, although focusing more on why I loved them rather than the intense (self-imposed) pressure to put them in rank order.

“So in making my 2021 list, I opted not to try to have a comprehensive survey of “the best” because I’m increasingly convinced that no one person can watch enough television to reasonably say what the best even is. What I watched this year was completely arbitrary. I long ago gave up on trying to ‘keep up with’ TV as a medium, and I really only watched shows in 2021 if I thought I would find them interesting. So consider this list even more idiosyncratic and personal than it normally would be.”

VanDerWerff, Emily. 2021. “The Very Best TV Show of 2021”. Vox. Available here.

VanDerWerff and I share the same favorite show, which I’ll outline below, followed by the rest of the television I really enjoyed last year.

My Favorite Show of 2021: The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime)

I absolutely did not believe that the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Colson Whitehead could be successfully adapted for TV, but I was 100% wrong. This incredible show–somewhat lost to many of the other top shows this year for a number of reasons–is heartbreaking, breathtaking, horrifying, and one of the best miniseries on TV.
Released all at once, the ten episodes are a difficult binge, which is one of the reasons–similarly to When They See Us–it is really hard to watch, especially all at once. Required viewing but know that you’ll need an emotional pick-me-up after each episode. Gorgeous storytelling, acting, music, and directing, this was my favorite show of 2021.

12 Other Shows I Really Loved in Random Order:

High on the Hog (Netflix):

A huge fan of Stephen Satterfield’s podcast (Point of Origin) and magazine (Whetstone) I was so excited to see the Netflix series he created to show the history of how Black food has shaped and influenced American cuisine. All four episodes are great, but I loved The Rice Kingdom, which features the amazing Gabrielle E.W. Carter and Michael Twitty discussing the legacy of African American planting and dishes across the Carolinas.
Favorite Episode: #2 The Rice Kingdom

Station Eleven (HBO):

This adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel post-apocalyptic novel is spectacular. Again, I was skeptical that it could be done, but the writing and acting in this series is one of my favorites of the year. This isn’t a binge-show; you’ll want to take your time both visually and emotionally. I LOVED the graphic novel aspects of Station Eleven too–just gorgeous.
Favorite Episode: #7 Goodbye My Damaged Home

Reservation Dogs (Hulu):

I LOVED this series co-created by Taika Waititi about four teens growing up on an American reservation. The young Native American lead actors are incredible and the show is a breakthrough for being one of the first (if not THE first) to feature Indigenous representation in the acting, writing, and production of the series. Absolutely one of my favorite shows of the year.
Favorite Episode: #6 Hunting

Mare of Easttown (HBO):

I didn’t know I needed a Cheez Whiz eating, Rolling Rock drinking Kate Winslet in my life, but phew Mare of Easttown is one of those shows that I am thankful came out weekly, rather than all at once. An emotional, complicated story of a detective (Winslet) trying to solve a murder in her hometown, the series kept me guessing until the very last episode. Of course, Jean Smart is also spectacular is Mare’s mother. So good.
Favorite Episode: #5 Illusions (sobbing emojis)

Loki (Disney+):

There are so many aspects of this show I adored: Tom Hiddleston, the dramatic soundtrack, the mid-century modern vibe… I loved Loki. While teetering a bit towards the last episodes (Marvel-We-Need-A-Giant-Fight-Scene-Ending) I thought this series was very well done and nice to feature Loki as the begrudgingly anti-hero rather than the villain. I really enjoyed it.
Favorite Episode: #3 Lamentis

Ted Lasso Season 2 (AppleTV+):

Ah, Ted Lasso. The show that gives me hope in humanity again. This season was a little more vulnerable as we learn more about Ted’s struggles, but still holds on to the cheer of season one. Of course Roy Kent is my absolute favorite.
Favorite Episode: #4 Carol of the Bells

The Great Season 2 (Hulu):

I did not think it was possible to top season one of The Great but, as with The Underground Railroad, I stand corrected. Fun, shocking, and delightful, season 2 brings even more of Catherine and Peter, along with probably my favorite supporting cast in all of television.
Favorite episode: #8 Seven Days

Succession Season 3 (HBO):

Grand, overwhelming, a masterpiece of a season, Succession is THE show. Linking destructive family relationships with (even more?) toxic capitalism, Succession is one of the best shows on television, even if you need to shower afterwards. Cousin Greg and Tom are THEE couple of the year.
Favorite Episode: #9 As the Bells Say (tough to choose just one, but this ENDING)

The Other Two Season 2 (HBO):

I loved this sitcom (?) about the two siblings of a Bieber-esque celebrity attempting to find their own place and fame. Molly Shannon plays their mother and is absolutely delightful and charming as only she can be.
Favorite Episode: #9 Chase Drops His First Album

Hacks (HBO):

Huzzah to more Jean Smart! I loved this smart, hilarious comedy, proving 2021 is the year of our Queen Jean.
Favorite Episode: #3 A Gig’s A Gig

Mythic Quest Season 2 (AppleTV+):

We just happened to stumble on the delightful Mythic Quest, binging both seasons over the weekend. The show is (mostly) light, funny, and boasts a plot centering on video games.
Favorite Episode: #7 Peter

WandaVision (Disney+):

The first eight episodes of WandaVision are lovely; how do you not love Wanda and Vision living through the decades, experiencing a life stolen from them? The addition of Kathryn Hahn (FINALLY RECEIVING THE RECOGNITION SHE DESERVES) made this one of my favorites of the year. Of course they had to go all Marvel at the end, which I found annoying as the rest of the series is soooo great and has an emotional center lacking in most Marvel productions.
Favorite Episode: #1 Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

Special mention: Never Have I Ever Season 2 (Netflix), Why Are You Like This (Netflix), Only Murders in the Building (Hiulu), Landscapers (HBO), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+), Dopesick (Disney+), The Shrink Next Door (AppleTV+), and For All Mankind Season 2 (AppleTV+).

Still sobbing at this absolutely perfect episode (Mythic Quest)

Currently:
Reading: Recitatif (Toni Morrison)
Watching: Pam & Tommy (Hulu)
Listening: American Prodigies (Blue Wire)

2021 Year in Review: Favorite Books

My favorite hobby–and thankfully one of my responsibilities as a librarian technician–is researching and reading allthebooks. This year I wanted to share a few different reflections of my overall favorite books of 2021, although you can skip to the bottom of the post for my list of top reads.

Last year I started using StoryGraph as a way to track my reading. An alternative to Amazon’s (ack) Goodreads, the program was founded by Nadia Odunayo to organize your books, develop data and statistics on your reading, and provide tailored recommendations. I completely understand if you’re anti-tracking your reading–it can be another way to pressure yourself to reach a certain goal and can feel commodify-y of your hobbies (double ack)–but I personally like the data aspect of the app.

I also wanted to include a list inspired by my favorite book podcast, The Stacks, hosted by Traci Thomas. She always asks her guests a questionnaire of favorites / recommendations and I thought it would be a fun way to reflect on my own reading from last year.

A quick caveat: I’m only including books published in 2021 in my top list for the year. But I read SO MANY older books that were amazing as well.

My Reading Statistics:

2021 at a Glance:

The Stacks 2021 Questionnaire:

Two Books You Love:

I can’t say enough great things about this book. Collective memory and
how we choose to memorialize history is one of my favorite subjects.
I was sobbing as I read the chapter on Angola.
His research is incredibly thorough and the writing is intentional and descriptive.

One Book You Hate:

Here’s the thing: if I hate the book, I just won’t finish it. There
are a few that I was feeling “meh” about as I read them, but I still
gained something from the author’s work.

Last Great Book Someone Recommended to Me:

Recommended on The Stacks and it’s incredible.

Book I Love to Recommend:

I sent so many excerpts to friends. So good. Language is important!

Book That Made Me Laugh:

Eric’s bizarre and hilarious book of awesome recipes. I felt like I was watching an episode of Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job — spaghett!

Book That Made Me Cry:

Talk about emotional damage. I’m still not over it.

Book That Made Me Angry:

A combination of pure anger and justification for how duped I’ve felt as I’ve struggled to pay off student loans that only increase each year. #theamericandream eh?

Book That I Felt I Learned A Lot:

I really loved learning more about alternatives to our current (in)justice system.

Book I’m Embarrassed I Still Haven’t Read:

On my list for next year! I somehow ran out of time and this came out early in the year when I was in a bit of a reading slump.

Book I’m Proud to Have Read:

A Russian Literature class in a book! Loved this challenging read that made me feel like I was back in school (without the extra loans).

A Book People Would Be Surprised to Know I Love:

Historical fiction centering on aviation? I surprisingly loved this
book (recommended by the podcast Nerdette)

Book I Would Assign in High School:

I read this in just a few hours! A powerful book on the untold stories of
enslaved women fighting for freedom. A great example of how important
graphic novels are in nonfiction
. Read more graphic novels!

A Book I Would Like to See Turned Into a Movie of TV Show:

This would be an incredible series (as long as its not adapted by the
writers of Game of Thrones)
.

Book That I Would Require the Current President to Read:

An analysis of how the legacy of racism and inequality hurt all Americans and the economy. We are more than a zero-sum game (I hope).

My Favorite Books of 2021:

Cookbooks:

5. Foodheim: A Culinary Adventure (Eric Warheim)
4. Provecho: 100 Vegan Mexican Recipes to Celebrate Culture (Edgar Castrejón)
3. Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora (Bryant Terry)
2. Amber + Rye: A Baltic Food Journey (Zuza Zak)
1. New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian (Freddie Bitsoie and James O. Fraioli)

Fiction:

10. Libertie (Kaitlyn Greenidge)
9. Milk, Blood, Heat (Dantiel W. Moniz)
8. Harlem Shuffle (Colson Whitehead)
7. Red Island House (Andrea Lee)
6. The Gilded Ones (Namina Forna)
5. Honey Girl (Morgan Rogers)
4. The Sentence (Louise Erdrich)
3. Yolk (Mary H.K. Choi)
2. Under the Whispering Door (TJ Klune)
1. Great Circle (Maggie Shipstead)

Nonfiction:

10. Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir (Ashley C. Ford)
9. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (George Saunders)
8. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (Nikole Hannah-Jones)
7. Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (Derecka Purnell)
6. The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe (Josh Mitchell)
5. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone (Heather McGhee)
4. Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism (Amanda Montell)
3. Wake: The Hidden History of Women Led Slave Revolts (Rebecca Hall)
2. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Patrick Radden Keefe)
1. How the Word is Passed (Clint Smith)

Currently:
Reading: Goliath (Tochi Onyebuchi)
Watching: Euphoria Season 2 (HBO)
Listening: …And I Return to Nothingness (Lorna Shore)

2021 Year in Review: AllThe[Travel]Things

Riga, Latvia
📷: Bri

Oh 2021. A year filled with uncertainty and also–almost bewilderingly at times–hope. After moving from Hungary to Germany in late 2020, we spent the majority of the new year in lockdown (or some version of it) until the summer. Thankful for these protective measures even if it meant being a little bored at times–both things can be true after all–and making any kind of new destination a special treat.

Tallinn, Estonia

Similar to 2020, a majority of our planned adventures were eventually cancelled. A combination of Covid unpredictability, health and safety concerns, along with the occasional geo-political strife created a new intentionality when it came to booking any travel; we knew that most likely we wouldn’t go and that was fine. So I included a little of our around-the-neighborhood-adventures in this post.

This year, restrictions and precautions became just another aspect of booking travel. Double checking the rules, making sure documents were up to date, bringing the correct masks, and remaining flexible as regulations change (sometimes in the middle of your trip) are just part of reality right now. And I’m so thankful for it. If it means being extra cautious for a giant plate of latkes and applesauce, your girl is down.

Travel in a pandemic is very much a #firstworldproblem and I am grateful for every occasional (safe) journey outside of my town.

Making the trip from Ohio to South Carolina.

Wandering around Germany, nearby France, visiting the United States for the first time in a few years (seeing friends and fam), and planning a dream trip to the Baltics (how many years in the making?!) with a good friend made 2021 such a special travel year for me.

Wedding fun ❤
Seeing an old friend in Helsinki!
📷: Bri
Taking the ferry from Helsinki to Estonia! Check out Home Base Belgium for all of Bri’s amazing travel blogs — she’s much more updated and together than me!

I’m so thankful for the ability and privilege to see new places and to be able to do so safely.

Riga, Latvia
📷: Bri

This year was also incredibly special as I had the opportunity to really explore topics close to my heart: the ideas of collective memory, how we choose (or not) to memorialize the past, the culture surrounding historical narratives in different places, and how this shifts and changes over time. From the sea islands off the coast of the Carolinas to monuments in the borderlands of the Baltic states, I’m so thankful to not only physically see and experience these sites, but also for the folks who patiently provided me the space to to do so.

I wanted to provide a warning that this post also includes photos and descriptions of memorials and historical sites referencing genocide and war. Be kind to yourself and what you can take on ❤

Channeling my inner 2006 Kirsten Dunst
📷: Bri

Here is my 2021 Travel Year in Review:

ALLTHE[ATHOME]THINGS:

View from our back porch (winter 2021)
View from our back porch (fall 2021)
We have so many lovely trails near our house and I’m lucky to have that space available to me to walk with the dogs.
Making new friends

Along with the occasional bizarre holiday display in the main square of our village:

This apparently Donny Darko-inspired Easter setup thoroughly terrified all of us, but especially Arya Tonks, who was absolutely not having this one bit.

ALLTHE[NEWPLACE]THINGS:

Bernkastel-Kues, Germany:

We were only able to see a few holiday markets in Germany but the ones we visited were breathtaking! This magical little town looks like it belongs in a snow globe.

Bluemont, Virginia:

Able to see this gorgeous and brilliant lady get married!
Plus meet up with a bunch of old friends and a chance to see this beautiful view ❤

Cochem, Germany:

Cochem during the fall is so moody–I loved seeing this small town on the Moselle River. The castle that looms above is actually not original–French King Louis XIV destroyed the first castle here and it was rebuilt in the 1800s.

Colmar, France:

Colmar is famous for its six Christmas markets. We traveled here the first weekend the markets opened, enjoying glühwein and potato pancakes.

Helsinki, Finland:

View of the Helsinki neighborhood of Töölö from the top of the Temppeliaukio Church.

Riga, Latvia:

Riga is breathtakingly beautiful. This photo was taken from the Stalinist Palace of Science, one of the tallest buildings in the city.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany:

Our first travel destination of 2021! What a gorgeous town and is one of the prettiest in Germany.

St. Helena Island, United States:

I finally had the opportunity to wander the breathtaking island of St. Helena, located off the coast of South Carolina.

Strasbourg, France:

We spent a weekend in the lovely town of Strasbourg, where we also saw a Mos Def (!!) show.

Tallinn, Estonia:

I have been dreaming of visiting Tallinn since my bachelor’s essay on Estonian national identity. I still can’t believe I was here! This view of the city is from the Kohtuotsa platform in Old Town, also known as the home of the famous seagull Steven.

Vilnius, Lithuania:

We had such a wonderful time wandering the streets of Vilnius. This particular part of the city included these lights with translations of a number of different terms.

ALLTHE[MEMORIAL]THINGS:

Avenue of Oaks, St. Helena Island (United States):

While not technically a “memorial”–often listed as a “fun” tourist attraction near Beaufort–for me, the Avenue of Oaks on St. Helena is a space for reflection and remembrance. Once the road into Coffin Point Plantation, a forced labor camp that held over 200 enslaved people before their owners fled during the Civil War, the original 1100 acres has now been subdivided and residential homes line the Avenue of Oaks leading up to the former plantation house.

Coffin Point Praise House, St. Helena Island (United States):

Located near the Avenue of Oaks, the Coffin Point Praise House was built on the former forced labor camp of the Coffin Point Plantation. Just 3 m (10 feet) by 4.5 meters (15 feet), praise houses for the enslaved and their descendants were purposefully created tiny out of fear of allowing large groups of people to meet in one location; intentions for structures were completely different for owners and enslaved people as seen in this building and the Chapel of Ease.
The name “Praise House” is thought to be derived from the Gullah / Geechee term “pray’s house” and while originally used as a space for singing and worship, these structures also became the heart of rural communities. The Coffin Point Praise House was built in 1900 and remains an important site for many on St. Helena, including the Gullah / Geechee community. It is only one of three that remain on the island.

Chapel of Ease, St. Helena Island (United States):

Built in the 1700s for plantation owners on the island to attend religious services, the Chapel of Ease was used as a space for northern teachers and missionaries to educate and train newly-freed formerly enslaved people following the end of the Civil War. In 1868, a forest fire burned the chapel down, leaving the ruins we see today (including the oyster shells and lime used to build the walls).

Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai (Lithuania):

Visiting Lithuania’s Kryžių Kalnas (Hill of Crosses) was one of the most eerie and unusual wanderings I’ve had the opportunity to experience. Shockingly, we had the space to ourselves! While the origins of the Hill of Crosses varies based on legend and lore, the hill consists of more than 100,000 crucifixes and other religious icons; the space remains a pilgrimage for many.
First mentioned in 1850–but legend holds that the Hill of Crosses is much older than that–as a memorial for surviving relatives of victims fighting against the occupying Russian government (the Russians stifled Lithuanian identity and honoring the dead); cross-making is a part of the cultural heritage of Lithuania and a way to unite the people. Another legend holds that an apparition of the Virgin Mary instructed believers to cover the space in holy icons.
Banned during Soviet occupation, in 1961, the entire site was burned to the ground and was then destroyed another four separate times as locals continued to rebuild the memorial at night. Since gaining independence in 1991, Lithuanians are now openly able to visit the site and today is a tourist destination (although very much off the beaten path). However, the cultural practice of cross-making is in danger of losing its significance as fewer young Lithuanians learn the act.

Hubbard House, Ashtabula (United States):

Just ten minutes from where I went to high school, the Hubbard House Underground Railroad Museum is located right next to Lake Erie and was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Already heavily involved in abolitionist work, William Hubbard and his family moved to now-Ashtabula from New York, where he and his brothers founded the Ashtabula Sentinel, an abolitionist newspaper. This house helped many enslaved people and their families escape to Canada, although there is no written account of the number of people that used this stop on the Underground Railroad. Built in late 1840, the house was nearly demolished in 1979, but was rescued from destruction and has slowly been restored. It is now open to tours hosted by volunteers.

Museum of the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust in Latvia (Latvia):

Opened in 2010 and close to the border of the original Jewish Ghetto in Riga, this indoor and outdoor museum includes incredible displays, permanent exhibits (a recreation of an apartment and train car), along with this space of hundreds of lanterns sharing stories of the some of the 70,000 Latvian Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust.

Ninth Fort, Kaunas (Lithuania):

The Ninth Fort near Kaunas, Lithuania has a complicated and horrific history as the land changed hands between political powers. Constructed as the last part of the Kaunas Fortress complex built to protect the Russian Empire’s western border–independent Lithuania was “absorbed” into Russia in the late 1800s–the Ninth Gate was completed on the eve of WWI. From 1940-1941, the Soviets used this space to house political prisoners before being sent to Gulag forced labor camps. During Nazi occupation, an estimated 50,000 Jewish people were murdered and buried here as a part of the Kaunas Massacre. Above is the site of the mass execution and burial place, located behind the fort’s structure. The “Fort of Death” was liquidated in 1944 and after WWII, the Soviets used the Ninth Fort as a prison.
Unveiled in 1984, the Ninth Fort Memorial stands at 32 m (105 feet) tall and commemorates the mass burial place of the Jewish victims of the Nazis buried in the field here. We were so lucky to stop by the space and essentially have the area to ourselves.

Rabbi Meir Garden, Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Germany):

Built in memory of Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, the garden is located next to the old Jewish dance hall that was constructed in 1400, burned down during a bombing in 1945, and reconstructed. The garden includes these Jewish headstones (discovered in 1914) that are now embedded into one wall, as well as a memorial plaque to the last Jewish families driven out from the city between 1933-1938.
In 1938, the town was declared “free of Jews” and the last remaining 17 members of the community were expelled from Rothenburg. It is estimated that none of the Jewish families that once lived here returned after the war and less than ten Jewish people live here today.

Salaspils Memorial Ensemble, Riga (Latvia):

The former Nazi labor camp outside of Riga is now a memorial to the victims of the murders that took place here. We were able to visit in the early morning and had the entire complex to ourselves. Truly a humbling and eerie moment with space for reflection.
The entrance to the camp includes the inscription “behind these gates moans the earth”.
A work camp consisting of mostly Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonians, an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 women, men, and children died here. These enormous Soviet statues were built in 1967 and is one of Europe’s largest monument complexes; the area includes a number of memorials, displays, and even loudspeakers continuously playing a metronome as a symbol of a heartbeat.
Similar to many Soviet memorials, the history and how it is represented at Salaspils remains under constant dispute and debate.

Sibelius Monument, Helsinki (Finland):

Unveiled in 1967, the Sibelius Monument was created by Finnish artist Ella Hiltunen and is dedicated to the Finnish composer Jena Sibelius.
One of the prettiest and most interesting sculptures I’ve seen in person! My friend Bri and I had an absolutely glorious day in Helsinki, walking through the parks and wandering through the city’s sites.

Sojourner Truth Memorial Marker, Akron (United States):

Born enslaved in 1897, Sojourner Truth escaped to freedom in 1826 and became one of the most famous American feminists and abolitionists. In 1851, Truth gave the famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech overlooking the vista of the Little Cuyahoga River in Akron, Ohio. While debate still goes on as to whether Truth actually said those words at the Women’s Conference, it remains one of the most iconic speeches on freedom and equal rights for women in US history. The site of her speech was originally the Old Stone Church on High Street; today the plaque is mounted outside of a building owned by the United Way.

Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports (Lithuania):

The extremely controversial Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was constructed by the Soviet Union in 1971 on top of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the capital city of Lithuania. Absolutely enormous, the arena held over 4,000 people and was constructed on the Piramónt cemetery, a space dating back to the late 1400s. After the occupying Russians closed the cemetery in 1831, the Soviet government destroyed the cemetery from 1949-1950 when a stadium was built here.
The arena was also the site of the Inaugural Congress of Sąjūdis, which led to Lithuanian independence. In 2004, the center closed as it was deemed unsafe for spectators and today, many markers ask visitors to respect the solemn space and remnants of Jewish headstones lines the walkway. In 2021, plans to build a new convention center on top of the area were scrapped due to Covid-19 and concerns over tourism.

Walls That Remember, Vilnius (Lithuania):

Developed by Lina Šlipavičiūtė-Černiauskienė in the capital city of Vilnius, the intent of the Walls to Remember project is to bring to life the once-bustling former Jewish quarter and a way to “bring back” the inhabitants of the city through imagery. As we walked through Vilnius, I saw a couple of drawings throughout the neighborhood with QR codes. These drawings, based on meticulous archival research, are based off of real photos of people who once lived here at the heart of Jewish life in the city. The artist “chose to use the modern language of graffiti in order to bring history closer to today’s people and youths”. In 2019, the project was vandalized with anti-Semitic icons.

ALLTHE[BOOK]THINGS:

Bookstore in Helsinki, Finland
Wandering a bookstore in Tallinn, Estonia
📷: Bri

Elizabeth’s, Akron (United States):

Absolutely love Rachel Cargle’s Bookshop & Writing Centre

Central Library Oodi, Helsinki (Finland):

The breathtaking Oodi library in Helsinki is all the heart emojis and what dreams are made of for how you’d want your library space to look and feel. Oodi invites patrons to “meet friends, create art, read, and relax” and includes spaces to read, workstations, studies, event space, an urban workshop, and a number of other services.
Intentionally designed as an inclusive space with representation and input from the community of Helsinki, the library is a beautiful building with gorgeous views of the city and outdoor space. Swoon.

Rahva Raamat, Tallinn (Estonia):

Estonia’s largest bookstore and a literary landmark, Rahva Raamat is absolutely adorable, with engaging displays and an incredible greeting card collection.

National Library of Latvia, Riga (Latvia):

Known as the Castle of Light, the National Library of Latvia was formed just one year after the Republic of Latvia gained independence in 1918. During WWII, Germany invaded Latvia, occupying Riga from 1941-1944 and renamed the library as to separate the space from an independent Latvia. In 1945, under Soviet occupation, the institution was named the State Library of the Latvian SSR; the Soviets removed certain literature that was designated as “dangerous” and could only be accessed with a special permit. In 2008, construction began on the new library (pictured here) and incudes 13 floors. A number of selected holdings were carried from the old building to the new by a human chain when the facility was opened in 2014.

St. Helena Public Library (United States):

The St. Helena Branch Library is one of South Carolina’s prettiest libraries, located near the historic Penn Center and features this super interesting and informative room on Gullah / Geechee culture and history.

National and University Library, Strasbourg (France):

Opened in 1895, the library holds 3,000,000 volumes and is France’s second largest collection.

ALLTHE[CASTLE]THINGS:

Burg Eltz, Wierschem (Germany):

So the fifth season in Germany is definitely fog. We thought we’d miss the crowds by visiting the absolutely breathtaking Berg Eltz at the beginning of the fall, only to be thwarted by the thick autumn fog. I couldn’t stop laughing at our luck. Lesson learned!
Here is what the castle looks like during the summer months!
📷: Home Base Belgium

Burg Frauenburg (Germany):

The ruins of Burg Frauenburg are a nice little hike near our house and I was lucky enough to have the entire space to myself. The home of Loretta Sponheim, who paid for the castle’s construction with ransom money received from holding the Elector Baldwin of Luxembourg, Archbishop of Trier captive. A young widow facing poverty and conflict, Loretta successfully negotiated the release of the influential and powerful Baldwin, ensured the succession of her regency to her son, and then retired here before her death in 1346.

Burg Frankenstein, Palatinate (Germany):

For my Lockdown Birthday, I ordered my very own multilayer strawberry shortcake then visited the Frankenstein Castle ruins nearby. Not THOSE Frankenstein ruins, but still a nice walk abound the village’s church, ruins, and cemetery, the medieval castle is named for the local House of Frankenstein and was constructed first as a defensive tower around 1100. During the German Peasant’s War, the castle was destroyed in 1560, but was still used for military purposes.

Kadriorg Palace, Tallinn (Estonia):

Built for Catherine the Great by Peter the Great, this cupcake-vibes palace was built from 1718 – 1725 and currently houses the Kadriorg Art Museum.

Burg Lichtenberg, Thallichtenberg (Germany):

The largest castle ruin in Germany, Burg Lichtenberg is just a five minute drive from our house. Built around 1200, the castle (and the town of Kusel) were burnt down by French revolutionary troops in 1794. Under French occupation, the castle was plundered a number of times before a fire in 1799 destroyed a majority of the castle. Burg Lichtenberg fell into disrepair until 1895 when it was placed under protection as a historical monument before undergoing renovations in 1971.

❤ ❤ ❤

2022 Vibes

Currently:

Reading: Olga Dies Dreaming (Xochitl Gonzalez)
Listening: Neon Bible (Arcade Fire)
Watching: Ozark Season 4 (Netflix)

Wandering an Abandoned Soviet City: Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary

Szentkirályszabadja’s theater

Located near Veszprém and close to Lake Balaton is the abandoned city of Szentkirályszabadja (pronunciation here). About a 45 minute drive from our house, my friends and I visited “Hungary’s Chornobyl” on a sunny afternoon in 2020. One of many abandoned Soviet sites in the country, the largest ghost town in Hungary was a once-bustling city that included schools, a theater, pubs, hotels, and restaurants. There was no major catalyst or harrowing event that took place here; Szentkirályszabadja was simply and gradually abandoned by its inhabitants leading up to the fall of the USSR.

One of the most interesting aspects of living in eastern Europe–and especially Hungary–is seeing many of the then- Soviet sites during occupation (or maybe its just me as a Russian Studies nerd). There were a few locations close to our home that I attempted–and sometimes succeeded to find–in our four years there. The Hajmáskér Barracks, Fort Monostor, and the State Defense Authority (ÁVH)’s gulag in Recsk are upcoming posts.

Near Szentkirályszabadja is the “Little Moscow” nuclear storage site located in the densely wooded area of Urkut. The base included a sawmill, tea shop, general store, and even a cabbage fermenter; the nuclear warheads were transported to Urkut by truck and housed underground. Now uninhabited, there are two roads leading into the location that once included bunkers for Soviet soldiers and storage for nuclear weapons. Driving through Urkut, you would never know that the USSR hid warheads and stationed troops in the deep forests of western Hungary, but here we are!

My friends and I drove to the overgrown base in Urkut and found the still-guarded entrance; while I love a good light trespassing adventure, breaking into a former underground nuclear weapons storage site was a bit too much even for me; we stuck to wandering around the streets of Szentkirályszabadja instead.

However, there are a couple of great sites (here and here) of first-hand observations detailing all of the former Soviet sites in Hungary, including a great overview of Urkut if you’re interested in learning and seeing more of the former operations here.

An overview of Szentkirályszabadja from the sky. You can see Lake Balaton in the far left.
Source

A research caveat: finding information on a now-abandoned, somewhat secret Soviet base and city in rural Hungary is–as you can imagine–a little difficult. The research compiled here is mostly derived from on-the-ground folks and older US documents (the CIA’s Warsaw Pact Forces Opposite NATO is a good one). This post is a combination of found research on Szentkirályszabadja and my own observations walking the city.

Where are we?

Located about 10 km from Lake Balaton is the airfield of Szentkirályszabadja. Near the airfield is both the Hungarian village of Szentkirályszabadja–still inhabited today–and the abandoned Soviet city of the same name. Prior to Soviet occupation, this area was used as an airbase with a training academy; you can still see a number of deteriorating buildings made of stone that stand in stark opposition to the massive Soviet structures of the 1980s. The Soviets decided to build an all-inclusive city for the soldiers stationed here (mainly Russian and Ukrainian) and their families beginning in the 1960s.

You can also see the abandoned hangars at the airport but we stuck to walking the city. The airport is technically still in use (although no aircrafts fly through here) and we didn’t want to be in anyone’s way.
Source

The entrance to the abandoned city is one long road–NOT a path through a field as we originally thought lol–without signage or any visible markers. Szentkirályszabadja was a Pripyat-style city meant to meet the needs of those who lived here without having to leave the area. Unlike Pripyat, there was no nuclear meltdown; residents simply slowly evacuated the city as it became clear that the Soviet Union was collapsing.

During the Cold War the base and airfield were used for major helicopter operations and roughly 6 – 8 thousand people lived here. At the time (and honestly today as well) Szentkirályszabadja was a pretty isolated location and not much was known about the base or its inhabitants, beyond that they were Soviet soldiers and their families. Similar to Ukraine’s Pripyat–marketed as a “city of the future”–Szentkirályszabadja and its amenities were considered a luxury for the standards at the time. In addition to the theater, schools, pubs, and restaurants, the city also included five blocks of flats, sports fields, a meat processing plant and farms, a post office, grocery store, and wine cellar.

The dismantling of the base was slow and secret; combat equipment including missiles were taken apart and driven through the dense woods to avoid satellite detection. The Soviets officially withdrew from Hungary in 1989 and Szentkirályszabadja was completely abandoned. In 1996, looting of anything of value (including building supplies) took place and not much of Soviet life (beyond the physical structures) remains here today.

Following the end of Soviet occupation, the Hungarians closed a number of military sites, including the airfield in Szentkirályszabadja (a watchtower remains so technically its an operational airfield, but flights are not landing and taking off from here). From what research I can find, the helicopters used here were moved to the nearby Pápa Air Base, a location with its own unique history. The now NATO reserve base was used by Germans and Hungarians during WWII–the largest air base of the Royal Hungarian Air Force at the time–then as a Soviet fighter base from 1945-1961, and the home regiment of the Hungarian People’s Army’s Air Force 47th Fighter Regiment in 1961; one of the MiG-21F aircraft is on display at a roundabout in Pápa.

Today, there is controversy over who “owns” Szentkirályszabadja; currently the area on either side of the ghost town is used by a privately owned transportation company. While we wandered the streets large semis drove past us from one side to the other. For folks who work here, the trip through a deserted and deteriorating city is just part of the commute.

Szentkirályszabadja:

Barracks and flats used by the Soviet families stationed here.
While no Hungarian soldiers were stationed at Szentkirályszabadja, many traded items like tobacco and color TVs with the Soviets. Locals were not allowed on base but many Hungarians were hired to help at the schools and other positions within the city. Entrance in and out of Szentkirályszabadja was highly controlled.
The only people allowed off base were a selected few officers and their families. This is why Szentkirályszabadja included so many amenities that were uncommon to find in most Soviet cities / bases.
The old guard at the entrance to the base.
An example of potentially some of the older Hungarian buildings that were most likely built prior to Soviet occupation. These are probably from the 1930s when there was a small training operation on site.
The old theater
View from the theater

While a little tricky to find, Szentkirályszabadja was such an amazing site to walk through. We mainly stayed on the paved streets and looked from a comfortable distance as many of the buildings are on the brink or in some state of collapse. As we walked the streets of the abandoned city, a number of large trucks drove through on their way to I can only presume transport their goods to their destination. Like many sites in Hungary, this juxtaposition of old and new is always interesting to experience.

Currently:
Reading: The Sum of Us (Heather McGhee)
Watching: The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+)
Listening: Films to be Buried With (Brett Goldstein)

Sources:

Atlas Obscura. 2021. “Soviet Ghost Town”. Atlas Obscura. Available here.

Carlo R. 2020. “The Red Army in Hungary – Airbases, Bunkers and Ghost Towns”. Sightraider. Available here.

Fechter, Agnes. 2021. “Abandoned Soviet Barracks in Szentkirályszabadja”. Totally Lost EU. Available here.

Herczeg, Mark. 2012. “Soviet Nuclear Charges Were Stored Here.” Index HU. Available here.

KG. 2019. “This is not Chernobyl, This is Szentkirályszabadja.” Index HU. Available here.

Kovács, Attila. 2019. “Ghost Town, Szentkirályszabadja – The ‘Hungarian Chernobyl'”. Napi Kinscek Tarhaza. Available here.

Simon, Jeffrey. 2003. Hungary and NATO: Problems in Civil-Military Relations. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: USA.

“War Never Again”: Westerplatte, Poland

During our days at nearby Gdańsk, Poland, we visited Westerplatte [pronunciation in German and Polish here –phonetically sounds like “Ves-ter-plat-a” with a hard t and soft a vowels in Polish], a short drive from the city. The Battle for Westerplatte took place here on September 1st, 1939 — one of many during the Battle of the Border– and the first stage of the German invasion of Poland.

Inside of the ruins of the Polish barracks and guardhouses attacked by German aircraft on September 1st, 1939. The seven-day siege of the garrison became a symbol of Polish resistance as the dozens of Polish soldiers were able to hold against thousands of Germans for a week.
Nearby is the incredibly large (and spectacularly SO SOVIET) monument gifted to the memorial site by the occupying USSR in 1966.

Where are we?

We were lucky enough to visit during the 50 year anniversary. A short 15 minute drive from the city, the site is located in a wooded area near the coast with walkable ruins, a museum, informational sites, and a memorial.
Located in the Bay of Gdańsk, the peninsula of Westerplatte has a history of changing borders and control, similar to much of Poland (I overviewed the history of the region here if you’re interested!). I’m focusing this post on the site right before and during the start of WWII as this is the main memorial here today.
While much of Poland was re-established as an independent nation following the end of WWI, nearby Gdańsk was named the Free City of Danzig and under control of the United Nations, not Poland or Germany. At the time a large proportion of the city’s population was ethnically German and as a result leaned heavily toward the newly-formed Nazi party.
In 1921, the League of Nations allowed the establishment of an ammunition depot near Danzig by the Polish government and Westerplatte was confirmed as the location for the Polish site in 1925. Located extremely close to the Free City of Danzig’s port — a pier connected the newly organized Westerplatte to the mainland — the Polish segment of the area was distinguished by a brick wall. In 1926, a year after construction the depot was completed, the Polish garrison of 88 men became operational under the caveat that they were not allowed to build fortifications.
In 1933 the League of Nations allowed the Polish government to strengthen their garrison and authorized additional troops be moved to Westerplatte. With the increasing discussions by the German government to redraw borders with Poland and secret talks between the Polish government and France on a potential war with Germany, it is no surprise that the Battle of Westerplatte became the first battle of WWII.
The Polish government began building crude fortifications at Westerplatte–five small guardhouses in the forest and barracks with trenches and barricades–and in 1939 rising tensions forced the small site to be placed on high alert.
On September 1st, 1939 at 4:47 am, the German SMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. Although not initially successful, the German marines attacked the Poles on foot, running into an ambush of Polish soldiers. A small unit of Danzig police also joined the fight (on the side of the Germans) resulting in two Polish casualties; Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek was the first to die at the Battle of Westerplatte and potentially of WWII.
On the first day of the Battle of Westerplatte, the Polish garrison lost four men while the Germans had sixteen deaths and over a hundred and twenty were wounded. Concluding that they severely underestimated the defenses established by the Polish soldiers, the Germans used heavy naval and field artillery, along with air raids over the following days. On September 2nd a five bomber dropped 26.5 tons (58,000 pounds) of bombs. These efforts destroyed the Polish mortars, Guardhouse V, their only radio, and most of their food supply.
While there was talk of surrender (particularly by their leader), the remaining Polish troops under Major Henryk Sucharski decided to hold out against the Germans. On September 6th, the Germans attempted to probe the Poles by sending a burning train toward them (!!!) and their oil cistern but, after the terrified driver decoupled early, the train instead set fire to the woods that were providing cover to the Polish soldiers. A second train attack also failed and the Germans suffered a large number of deaths.
Sucharski wanted to surrender for a second time on September 6th. The German Army was now at Warsaw and the garrison at Westerplatte was low on supplies. The following day, the Germans opened intense fire, destroying guardhouses. The Polish surrendered on September 7th. Initially, so impressed with their defense, the Germans allowed Sucharski to keep his szabia (Polish saber) while under imprisonment, although it was later taken away.
Over 3,000 Germans were involved in the Battle of Westerplatte; they lost 300 men while the Poles had 15 casualties and 40 of their men were injured. While imprisoned, Sergeant Kazimierz Rasiński–a Polish wireless operator–was murdered by the Germans after a violent interrogation over his refusal to release radio codes. Adolf Hitler visited Westerplatte on September 21st.
Sucharski remains a controversial character for historians. While initially seen as a hero, many accounts from the 1990s detail that his officers swore not to confess that he was actually shell-shocked for most of the Battle of Westerplatte and had a breakdown on the second day of the siege. The Germans also discovered a grave of four Polish soldiers executed by their own compatriots for desertion when they took control of the garrison.
The Battle of Westerplatte was a symbol of great pride for the Polish resistance; Polish Radio continuously broadcasted  “Westerplatte broni się jeszcze” (“Westerplatte fights on”) in 1939.
The Nazis strategically used Westerplatte in their war against the Soviet Union until they were evacuated in 1945 during the Vistula-Oder Offensive. Today the site includes the remaining buildings of the garrison, historical markers, and the Westerplatte Monument.

Westerplatte Monument / Monument to the Defenders of the Coast:

Also located on the site is the Westerplatte Monument, an enormous structure located on the coast of the area. Construction of the memorial was started by the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom while Poland was under Soviet occupation. 236 blocks of granite from southwest Poland were brought to Gdańsk by the Soviets from 1964-1966 to pay tribute to the Polish resistance to the Germans. The 22 meter (72 feet) tall artificial mound was built from sediment collected during the redevelopment of the port.
View from the top of the mound.
The “Nigdy Więcej Wojny” (“Never Again War”) sign at the memorial.
Source

The short trip up to Westerplatte is worth your time if you find yourself in Gdańsk! We spent the afternoon here before returning to the city for gelato.

❤ ❤

Gulf of Gdańsk

Currently:
Reading: Under the Whispering Door (TJ Klune)
Watching: Dopesick (Hulu)
Listening: Slow Burn Season 6 (Slate)

“The World is my Imagination”: Gdańsk, Poland

Gdańsk, Poland

I absolutely can not believe it has been TWO years since we visited Poland’s northern city of Gdańsk. Two. Years. How is time so slow yet going by so quickly? A post for another day.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts of my struggle to publish anything travel related last year and now in 2021; thank you for bearing with my absence as I’m continuing to work through those thoughts / feelings.

View of the city from the other side of the Motława River. Gdańsk includes the largest medieval port crane in Europe.

In 2019 we traveled to Warsaw and Gdańsk with our friends–Heather and Chris–and spent a little over a week wandering around Poland. The country was commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII and both cities included a number of memorials decorated in flowers, candles, and the Kotwica anchor, a symbol of the Polish Resistance and Warsaw Uprising.

Created as a symbol for the Polish struggle for independence, the PW of the anchor means “Pomścimy Wawer(“We shall avenge Wawer”) in reference to the Wawer massacre of 1939, one of the first massacres of Polish civilians by the Germans occupying the country.

Luckily for us, we also happened to visit Gdańsk during the St. Dominic’s Fair, one of the largest and oldest events in Europe; the fair was started in 1260! The 1000+ stalls of vendors and food, art, clothing, and other treasures line the city’s streets for over two weeks at the end of July.

Remember this is pre-Covid times!

We took the train up from Warsaw (highly recommend–get that 1st class ticket only around 30 euro) to spend a few days in the lovely Baltic city of Gdańsk. There’s a lot to see, plus the sweetest streets and coffee shops.

I’ll be discussing a couple of tough topics related to WWII in this post so please read–and feel free to skip–anything that you might not be able to handle mentally or emotionally at the moment ❤

Where are we?

Located in northern Poland on the Baltic coast, Gdańsk is the country’s main seaport and sits on the Gdańsk Bay, connecting to the Motława River, a branch of the Vistula. The city is named for another branch of the Motława, the Gdania, and was first recorded as a settlement in 997. A city (and country) with a history of complex borders and complicated history, my hope here is to provide a little context as to the how the area of Gdańsk became the unique city it is today.

I loved this quote from Timothy O’Grady:

“The first important event took place on September 1, 1939, when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein maneuvered into the Vistula River and began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, just northwest of the city. These were the earliest shots of World War II. After a monthlong blitz, Poland was subjugated and the war was well underway. The second happened at Gdańsk’s Lenin shipyards on August 31, 1980, when the Polish Communist government recognized the free trade union Solidarity, the first independent labor union in a country belonging to the Soviet bloc. Lech Wałęsa signed with a giant pen wrapped in an image of fellow Pole Pope John Paul II. It was the beginning of the end. After a bloodless decade-long revolution, Wałęsa became president of a free Poland. Two events, catastrophic and hopeful, the twin axes between which the country expanded and contracted at the behest of its voracious neighbors, like the bellows of an accordion.

These and other epochal episodes in Gdańsk happened mainly because of where it is, at the point where the Vistula enters the Baltic Sea. Ringed by Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, it was the gateway to the grain fields, forests, and cities at the heart of the European continent. The city took a cut of everything moving in and out, and became immensely rich. It was, in the region, the pivot point for the Hanseatic League, the merchant confederation that linked all of northern Europe from the 13th century until the mid-1800s. In its heyday, the city hosted more trade than even London. Magnificent town houses went up in the Dutch Renaissance style, festooned with reliefs and murals. Gdańsk built superlatives in several categories: largest medieval crane and mill, largest amber altar, most accurate clock, largest brick church (it could fit more than 20,000 parishioners). Frederick the Great said that whoever controlled Gdańsk would be ‘more master of Poland than any king reigning there.’ Napoleon called it ‘the key to everything.’

O’Grady, Timothy. 2021. “In the In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant.” Conde Nast Traveler.
Gdańsk is a member of the Trójmiasto (Tricity), a group of cities in northern Poland. While independent from each other and with their own unique history, Gydnia, Gdańsk, and Sopot are along the Baltic Sea coast and are connected easily by public transport with only 20 km (12.4 miles) between the three cities.
Poland’s first ruler, Duke Mieszko I, achieved control of the Bay of Gdańsk in the 980s and 997 is commonly accepted as the year the city was officially founded (although a number of Slavic tribes lived here prior to their unification by Mierszko I following his conversion to Christianity in 960). While humans lived in nearby Sopot for thousands of years–including constructing a fort around the 7th and 11th centuries–the first written mention of the settlement wasn’t recorded until the 1200s. Just a friendly reminder that people existed here before the written record!
In 1308, Gdańsk fell under the rule of the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights, a Central European medieval crusader state originally established in Prussia, until 1454. After becoming part of Poland again, the city was known as a cultural center and as a hub for trade, with a large population of Polish, Jewish, German, and Dutch inhabitants.
In 1734, Tsar Peter the Great captured the area, completely destroying nearby Gdynia and almost all of Sopot. Austria, Russia, and Prussia partitioned Poland in 1772, and Gdańsk was declared part of Prussia. The city was renamed Danzig and began to decline due to the now-limited access to trade. The second partition of Poland took place in 1793, then a third in 1795; Poland was completely wiped from the map and Polish independence ended for over a century. After yet another partition and the influence of Napoleon–including greater transportation between the three cities and elsewhere–Danzig and the area was absorbed into the German Empire in 1871.
Following the defeat of the German army after WWI, Poland regained independence, leaving Danzig at the middle of a struggle for control between the two countries. Now with a population 98% German (but Germany was unable to provide for them after the war) and fear of the-now Bolshevik Russians influencing Poland, the newly-created League of Nations declared the area as the the Free City of Danzig on November 15th, 1920. Zoppot (present-day Sopot) was absorbed into The Free City of Danzig but Gdynia was placed into the Polish Corridor through the Treaty of Versailles. A thin, narrow strip of land, this corridor provided the country of Poland access to Baltic Sea.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party gained control of the government of the Free City of Danzig (although considered semi-autonomous, a majority of the senate had Nazi allegiance). Tensions escalated between the Germans and Poland; on September 1st, 1939, WWII began when Nazi Germany attacked the Polish military post at Westerplatte and Polish Post Office in Danzig. In June 1941, Hitler rescinded the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, invaded eastern Poland, and used the country as its primary space for genocide and murder. Polish and Jewish people were declared “subhuman” by the Nazis and those who were not able to flee were victims of discrimination, abuse, and extermination. Over six million Poles, including three million of Jewish descent, were killed. The Red Army took control of Danzig on March 30th, 1945, although most of the city was now in ruins.
The Soviets, “Sovietized” Poland from 1945-on. Most cities in Poland were renamed their original Polish names, including Gdańsk, and during the 1950s and 1960s the enormous task of rebuilding the city took place. In the 1980s, after an 18 day sit-in, the first free trade union in the Soviet Bloc was created to meet the 21 demands of shipyard strikers, led by Lech Wałęsa at the Gdańsk shipyards. Known as the strike that “set Poland on fire”, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and this union (membership peaked at 1/3 of the working-age population by 1981) is one of the central influences that lead to Polish independence in 1991. The Solidarność (solidarity) movement in Poland helped Wałęsa become the first democratically-elected, post-communist President.
Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Now one of the top tourist destinations in Poland, Gdańsk is also known for its its unique position as a port city, although the current resurgence of xenophobia and anti-democratic actions threaten the once-admired diversity.

“’I walk in this wonderful place and think that through any laws of probability it has no right to exist,’ [scholar Jerzy] Limon told me. ‘Gdańsk is a kind of miniature of a united Europe. The city has always attracted different nationalities, different religions. Yet it’s also been a mutinous city. Changes started here. We had a bloodless revolution that set an example. This has alienated some people, but it draws in many more.’”

O’Grady, Timothy. 2021. “In the In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant.” Conde Nast Traveler.

Sites:

Brama Mariacka (St. Mary’s Gate):

One of the prettiest views of Mariacka in Old Town is through St. Mary’s Gate.
First mentioned in 1484 and built later in the 15th century, the gate was nearly destroyed in 1945.
During 1959-1960 the Gate was painstakingly rebuilt by  K. Macura and is now home to the Archeological Museum.

Wielka Zbrojownia (Great Armoury):

Built between 1600 and 1609, Wielka Zbrojownia (the Great Armoury) is a gorgeous building located on the city walls and one of my favorite places in Gdańsk. During WWII, the building was badly damaged and was completely rebuilt following the war.

Main Town Hall:

Built in the late 1300s, the Main Town Hall served as the seat for the city authorities and saw a number of visits by Polish kings.
Nearly destroyed during WWII, the Main Town Hall was rebuilt after the war and is now home to the Gdańsk History Museum.
Located on the Royal Route, it is the second highest building in the city (after St. Mary’s Basilica).

 Dwór Artusa (Artus Court):

Built from 1348-1350, the building is located in the main square and was known as the meeting place for merchants, as well as a symbol of social life. Dwór Artusa is derived from the legend of King Arthur’s representation of gallantry.

Mariacka Street:

Located between St. Mary’s Gate and St. Mary’s Basilica, Ulica Mariacka (Mariacka Street) is one of the prettiest streets in Poland. As with many sites in the city, it was completely rebuilt after WWII based on photographs of the area prior to the war. You can see the entrance of the street from St. Mary’s Gate here and then St. Mary’s Basilica below.

Kanal Raduni (Radunia Canal):

Originally developed in 1338, the canal was built by the Teutonic Knights from 1348-1356. The channel was used primarily to provide drinking water to the inhabitants of the city and today is a scenic backdrop for a wandering stroll through Gdańsk.

Bazylika Mariacka (Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin):

One of the largest brick churches in the world, Bazylika Mariacka can hold up to 25,000 people and was completed in 1502. During the period of martial law meant to squash Solidarność in the 1980s, many members of the movement took refuge here.

Museum of the Polish Post:

One of the defining characteristics of the Free City of Danzig was the creation of its own postal network, including the Post Office established in 1920 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Originally a German military hospital with several buildings, the “Gdańsk 1” building was the primary Polish post office in the area.
In 1939, as tensions grew between Germany and Poland, the official and volunteer members of the Polish Post Office in Danzig were told to prepare for potential violence; on September 1st, 1939, the staff defended the building from a surprise SS attack. This siege took place at the same time as at the Battle of Westerplatte and the start of WWII. All but four Polish defenders were executed.
Roughly sixty workers fought the German SS for over 15 hours until the building was attacked with flame-throwers. A month after the siege, the Polish workers that survived the attack were executed by the Nazis as illegal combatants.
The execution of the 57 workers was documented by the Nazis and these photographs were used to create the powerful memorial located in the garden of the still-functioning post office.
We first read about the defense of the Polish Post Office at Westerplatte so stumbling on this outdoor memorial was a truly powerful experience.
The Monument to the Defenders of the Polish Post Office was commissioned in 1979 and was designed by sculptor Wincenty Kućma of Kraków.

One site I wanted to visit but unfortunately ran out of time to see is the controversial Museum of the Second World War. You can read more about the decisions on how to present Poland’s position in history here.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Pierogi Making Class:

While in Gdańsk for Chris’s birthday, we booked a pierogi making class with the incredible Judyta of Samo Dobro. We shopped for ingredients with Judyta at the local food market of Hala Targowa before making pierogi and chłodnik (cold beet soup) in her mother’s kitchen, then eating our creations in her library/dining room.
Our version of chłodnik was vegan (coconut milk instead of cream) and was absolutely delicious. Her mom is a retired Polish literature teacher so we were lucky to hear her stories about class and Polish writers we should know.

Pierogarnia Stary Młyn:

One of Chris’s favorite chain of perogi restaurants across Poland is Pierogarnia Stary Młyn, a menu that includes deep fried dumplings, bigos, and potato pancakes.

Street Food:

One of the best aspects of being in the city for the St. Dominic’s Fair is the great food! We visited the Zaika truck while out and about and it was such a lovely lunch.

Paulo Gelateria:

This ice cream from Paulo Gelateria was out.of.control. Perfect for a hot summer day.

Pyra Bar:

A restaurant focused on the best ingredient in the world–potatoes!

Klaster Pub:

Unfortunately now permanently closed, Klaster Pub was a cute, chill spot for drinks and listening to Beyoncé. With the classic “parents’ den from the 1970s vibes”, great playlist, and affordable drinks, how can you go wrong?

Z Innej Parafii:

Translated to “From Another Parish” this cocktail spot had an adorable indoor space plus a gorgeous view of the city.

Cafe Lamus:

Again with the 70s aesthetic! A great place for local beer and a fun spot to hang out, Cafe Lamus is located just across from the local food market where we shopped for our cooking class ingredients.
(Photo via Tripadvisor)

Cafe Szafa:

Gdańsk is truly one of my favorite pub cities. Cafe Szafa is so fun–just my aesthetic obvs–and even has a secret Narnia room you have to find when you visit. With a description of “murky and a little bit shabby” how can you not stop by? There’s also a great kebab stand next door for your walk-home-snack, perfect for this spot as the opening hours are 3pm-PAIN.
Photo Credit here.

Coffee Shops:

Drukarnia Cafe:

Love this intentional coffee shop on Mariacka ❤

Cafe Józef K.:

With its gorgeous view of the Armoury and fun interior, Café Józef K. (named after the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial) was one of my favorite coffee spots in the city.


❤ Ashlyn

Mariacka Street
❤ ❤
swiat jest moim wyobrażeniem (the world is my imagination)
My absolute favorite spot in the city.


Currently:


Reading: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (Jason Stanford, Bryan Burrough, Chis Tomlinson)
Watching: Reservation Dogs (Hulu)
Listening: Scene on Radio Season 5: The Repair (The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University & PRX)

A Flood of Toxic Red Sludge: The Hungarian Villages of Kolontár & Devecser 10 Years Later

Memorial in Devecser, Hungary (2020).

You may have seen the red trees of Hungary on one of those “these look fake, but are real!” image galleries; at least that’s how I first discovered the Ajka red flood that tore through the Hungarian countryside in 2010. The disaster received a ton of press due to the shockingly visible impact of the waste on the landscape–trees, buildings, cars, essentially everything in the path of the 1–2 m (3–7 ft) high wave was marked with a deep red line–but I was curious as to how these spaces looked ten years later when the impacts were largely absent from the public eye and the crimson streaks had faded.

Palíndromo Mészáros. 2010. “The Line”. Designboom. Available here.

After moving to Hungary in 2016, I began researching the areas affected by one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the European Union. I realized that the severed MAL reservoir that caused the flood of toxic waste was possibly a mere 30 minutes from our new town and I wanted to find these spaces to understand more about the environmental injustices that impacted the communities here; ten people died, over a hundred injured, and even more were displaced in the small rural villages of Kolontár and Devecser.

Flashbacks to my days as a Geography undergrad student wandering around Charleston and the outlying areas recording field notes, as well as researching the origins of the food sourced by the College of Charleston for my graduate thesis–where I creeped on so.many.buildings over Google Maps / Street View trying to understand what took place inside.

Memorial in Kolontár, Hungary (2020)

This journey to see the village of Kolontár and the trees of Devecser was not a simple one; even after poring over maps in Google, outdated blogposts, and exhausting Street View, my friend and I eventually decided to literally drive around the villages and research the areas on foot to discover more of what took place here ten years ago.

BBC News. 2010. “Villagers Despair in Hungary’s Red Wasteland.” BBC News. Available here.

As always, remember that environmental disasters are not merely environmental; this toxic wave didn’t just occur in isolation — but was caused by human action. Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt (MAL), the alumina company that owned the dam that breached into the nearby villages, owned 4% of the world’s alumina market at the time (and refused responsibility). The rural villages in the path of the sludge are poorer communities and at the time dependent on agriculture or employment at the plant to survive. While fined 472 million Euros in environmental damages, the impacts of the MAL industrial waste remain both in the landscape (levels of toxicity are still considered dangerous) and socially, as survivors of the red flood continue to struggle with the financial, mental, and emotional impacts of the disaster.

“’These people are billionaires, and they couldn’t care less about the rest of us,’ said Fuchs, who was the first to launch a lawsuit seeking damages. ‘Enough is enough. Innocent people die while they live happily ever after?!'”

Marton Dunai. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.

This environmental injustice is compounded by the anti-Roma sentiment in the country, particularly evident in Devecser, where one third of the village’s population is of Romani descent. A marginalized group in Europe–especially Eastern Europe–about 800,000 Romani people live in Hungary, a country with a population of 10 million. Historically discriminated against and frequently the target of hate crimes, Roma groups are disproportionally poorer, with less access to education and healthcare as their Hungarian neighbors.

“Devecser, then, serves as microcosm. It was like any other Hungarian town in Veszprem County before the great wave struck, a valley with deep agricultural traditions, in recent years wounded by crumbling job prospects. Locals also nursed antipathy for the Roma concentrated near the town center. That downtown is also home to what is known as a ‘black’ high school – meaning, ‘white’ Hungarians send their kids to school in larger cities nearby. Left behind, the Romanies are effectively segregated.”

Michael J. Jordan. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.

This post is divided into two parts:

  • I’ll start with an overview of the location, the disaster, the impact of the red sludge on the villages in its path, as well as updates since 2010.
  • The second half of the post is my own geographic fieldwork in the area ten years after the disaster (May 2020).

Where are we?

BBC News. 2010. “Hungary Battles to Stem Torrent of Toxic Sludge.” BBC News. Available here.

The small towns of Kolontár and Devecser are loctated in Veszprém County, Hungary. West of Budapest and north of the country’s largest lake–Lake Balaton–these villages are near the city of Ajka. The MAL Alumina Production and Trading Company is located just outside of Ajka, in between the city and roughly 10 km (6 miles) from Kolontár.

Train tracks running from Kolontár (2020)

The Flood: “Everything is gone, everything we had.”

On October 4th, 2010 at 12:25pm CEST, the northwest corner of the number 10 containment pond reservoir of the MAL alumina plant collapsed, resulting in the release of over a million cubic meters of toxic, highly corrosive sludge. The wave of highly alkaline red “mud”–the waste product of refining bauxite into alumina, a form of aluminum oxide–destroyed everything in its path, flooding the villages of Kolontár, Devecser, and Somlóvásárhely. The movement of the flood was so powerful that it physically transported cars and vans in the village of Devecser.

The red hue of the sludge is caused by Iron(III) oxide. 30 million tons of waste is estimated to be stored here in open air ponds–an outdated measure to secure waste for this type of facility.
Corner of the number 10 containment pond in 2010.
Alan Taylor. 2011. “A Flood of Red Sludge, One Year Later.” The Atlantic. Available here.
The number 10 containment pond today (via Google Maps–I was unable to take a picture or walk near this portion of the plant).

The sludge contains a combination “of solid impurities, heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt and lead,
and the processing chemicals” (Toth, 144). A study by Greenpeace found levels of chromium, arsenic, and mercury in the waste, although the Hungarian government stated that the liquid was not poisonous for people or the environment. Much of the human injures caused by the breach included severe chemical burns from the high pH of the waste; more than 100 people were injured, ten died (cause of death estimated to be drowning), and the flood killed all large number of marine, plant, and wildlife surrounding the nearby Marcal and Torna rivers. At the time of the flood, Tibor Dodson, a spokesperson for the Hungarian Disaster Management Agency, stated: “The Marcal River is dead.”

A photo on display at the Kolontár Mud Disaster Memorial Site (Kolontári Iszapkatasztrófa Emlékhely).

The 1–2 m (3–7 ft) high wave dyed everything in its path–leaving a trail of red throughout the countryside and villages. Over 250 homes, 800 people, and over one thousand hectares of land were affected.

“Still in pain from the death a few years earlier of their son, who had been hit by a train, the Juhaszes saw their home destroyed, watched Dora suffer severe internal burns after ingesting toxic sludge, and had to endure another death in the family when Angyalka, who was barely a toddler, drowned in it.

‘Our family is cursed,’ Mrs. Jushasz said, tears streaking her cheeks. ‘Tragedy follows us everywhere.”

Dimiter Kenarov. 2011. “Recalculating ‘Normal’ in Hungarian Disaster Zone.” Pulitzer Center. Available here.

As the wave started to reach (and eventually met) the Danube, large amounts of gypsum and chemical fertilizers were added to the Marcal and Torna rivers in an attempt to contain the chemicals from reaching other countries; the hundreds of tons of plaster and acetic acid successfully lowered the acidity of the water. Unlike the Marcal, where all fish were killed after the sludge entered the stream, the levels were low enough to be considered safe when merging with the Danube. While contained-ish in rural western Hungary, concerns were raised about the effects of breathing in these chemicals as the sludge dried and turned to dust; this could potentially reach other locations by wind. MAL resumed operations just ten days after the flood and implemented the newer “dry” technology that creates a red dust from the waste–rather than storing the sludge in an open air reservoir–that is then released into the atmosphere, furthering the concerns over respiratory issues as these new containment holds were also uncovered.

The Aftermath: “I was twice reborn last year… it is impossible to forget. But go elsewhere? I’ve never lived anywhere else. Where else would I go?” 

The memorial in Kolontár.

One of the largest employers in the area, MAL took over the alumna plant in 1995; the facility was originally established in 1943 and the handover to MAL was part of a mass privatization effort by the Hungarian government in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In an effort to maximize profit, the company continued to produce large amounts of sludge with little implementation of technological advances (although many existed in the field), had minimal efforts to reduce the amount of waste created by their operations, and did not comply with its own standards of disposal.

In 2003, MAL reached an agreement with the government to change the waste created by their operations to “non-hazardous” and therefore, under less strict regulation. Despite satellite images of the reservoir indicating movement each year, the fact that MAL was not required to include a safety barrier to control movement of the sludge, and readings on October 3rd showing warning signs of collapse, the company was not obligated to pay the victims of the breach; their liability insurance was not required to cover the spill of toxic waste from the plant into the nearby villages. An article published by the newspaper Nepszabadsag stated that at least twenty plant workers testified to police that they notified management of leaks but were told to keep quiet about the issue.

A photo on display at the Kolontár memorial. You can see the same area today (2020).
Kolontár in 2020. Once at the center of Kolontár, the Catholic church is now at the very edge of village as two entire streets were wiped out by the flood. A new plaque was added to the WWII memorial at the foot of the church in 2011 that reads: “Remembering the human and natural toll of negligence and greed. 4 October 2010.”

On September 16th. MAL was fined 135 billion Forint (389 million Euro), a fine four times the cost of the estimated cleanup of the area (115 million Euro). On October 12th, the Hungarian government passed a law through Parliament allowing the government to nationalize the company; they took over MAL the next day. Hungary’s state secretary for the environment, Zolton Illes, noted before the seizure that, “the Hungarian government will support all the activities of the company, will stand behind this company, to keep its 6,000 workplaces in that region, and also to keep this alumina processing activity”. Also on this date, the director of MAL–Zoltán Bakonyi–along with several other employees, were arrested and charged with “criminal negligence leading to a public catastrophe”.

Cleanup and construction from the flood cost the Hungarian government (and the country’s taxpayers) over $166 million (2011). 112 new houses were built across the three towns and many of the remaining 300 families displaced by the disaster chose to purchase used homes (125) or cash compensation (80). In total, over 53,000 truckloads of sludge was removed from the nearby fields between the villages.

“His mother, living just down the road, drowned in the flood. Her body was found days later in a fishing pond belonging to another of her sons, Jozsef.
Jozsef Fuchs’ Kolontár home was spared in the flood, but he lost much of his livelihood. The still-high toxicity of the pond water makes it unsuitable for fish farming and since the woods surrounding the pond were either destroyed by the sludge or cut down during the cleanup efforts, its attractiveness for weekend anglers has all but disappeared.
‘No one wants to come fishing here anymore,’ said Jozsef Fuchs, 58. ‘I have no use for the pond. It was beautiful, but now it could just as well be a desert… I was born in one of the houses that was demolished and my mother’s body was found at the end of my fishing pond,’ Fuchs said. ‘I want to stay here and I’m probably going to die here. But in the meantime, I still need to make a living.'”

The Associated Press. 2011. “Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed by Toxic Waste.” Deseret News. Available here.

In 2013, a Hungarian court ordered MAL to liquidate. However, the company remains the owner of the storage facility near Ajka (although not as area of containment today as the waste has changed to the more technologically advanced drying method). In 2016, Bakonyi and fourteen other employees were acquitted of all charges. On December 13th, 2019, a higher court reversed the decision of the lower court, sentencing the former CEO to four years in prison, as well as the former technical director of the company to a three year sentence.

10 Years Later

For context: A map I created using a NASA image of the flood and listing the areas we saw.

Where to start? Devecser and the Search for the Red Trees

The red trees of Hungary today (2020).

Our search for the red trees of Hungary began in Devecser. As noted above, while the flood is commonly known as the Ajka red mud disaster, this designation is due to the location of the plant, an area right outside the city of Ajka. After researching the impact of the sludge on the nearby villages–and scouring old blog posts and Google Maps Street View–I guessed that most likely the trees we were searching for would be somewhere in Devecser, as much of Kolontár was completely destroyed by the flood. The trees from the pictures of the disaster were also in a heavily wooded area, which looking at a map of the path of the red sludge, was a type of landscape closer to Devecser’s.

A blogger noted that red trees were located near a playground. Searching through images uploaded to Google Maps, I saw that a red-ish tree was located in a large park near the castle in 2017. Armed with a starting point and potential location, my friend and I parked at the gas station at one side of the park and walked the entire length toward the town’s castle.

We thought we noticed some red in these tree trunks, but nothing like the photos from 2010. Were we in the right place? Devecser’s homes were also absent of the tell-tale sign of the sludge–the red marker along the walls of the houses.

After making our way through the park toward the entrance of the castle, we stumbled on a memorial shrouded by trees. If we weren’t here specifically searching for impacts of the red mud we could have missed the painting and its significance altogether.

An informational display is located on the other side–near the entrance to the castle–but again, we would have missed it without traveling to this large park for this specific purpose. The display noted that the tree trunks were cleaned by volunteers and college students and the topsoil in the area was also replaced. The park was completely redone in the summer of 2014; over 140,000 plants were planted, including 176 trees that replaced the “felled” ones.

The Esterházy Castle in Devecser
A late 2020 travel post shows that we were in fact, in the right part of the village. The Esterházy Park was highly damaged by the red sludge of 2010 (source).

Okay–Let’s Drive to Ajka!

The Magyar Alumínium Termelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt site today (2020).

Thankful for a fellow adventuring friend always down for a good investigational hunt, Heather and I then decided to drive up to the city of Ajka, less than 10 kilometers from Devecser. We guessed that the containment reservoir may still be intact, as we had discovered a number of structures still standing in Hungary even after disaster–we just wandered around the nearby Soviet Ghost Town of Szentkirályszabadja after all–and found what we thought may be MAL’s reservoir.

The road next to the number 10 containment reservoir (2020). This was as close as I could reach the site; the waste reservoir is 50-60 meters high (164 – 200 feet) and the flood reached Kolontár in five minutes.

We parked and I wandered closer–the height of this structure meant it HAD to be the number ten containment reservoir right? I snapped a few pictures but with signs everywhere stating “TILOS” (forbidden!) I didn’t push my luck. Workers were moving sediment and other materials so I also didn’t want to disturb them. This activity was also confirmed by visitors to the location in 2015.

Let’s Just See What We Find in Kolontár:

We then turned around in Ajka and drove back toward Devecser. As we passed the enormous structure again, we guessed that this had to be the MAL reservoir–geographically it made sense–but without signage we couldn’t be 100% sure. Like the park, this area underwent a massive overhaul of environmental mitigation.

Without a real plan in Kolontár, we chose to just drive around the small village. I knew that two streets were destroyed by the sludge, so we kept our eyes out for new houses that may have been built to replace them. Maybe this is it? we kept asking each other. We saw a church peeking through the treetops and Heather decided to drive in that direction.

Kolontári Iszapkatasztrófa Emlékhely

From the road we saw the memorial to the Ajka red sludge disaster. Located diagonally from the church, this memorial sits next to the train tracks and is entirely alone in its surroundings. This house was completely destroyed by red sludge and is now a memorial to the lives destroyed by the flood.

Remnants of the distinctive line we had been searching for all day.
The interior of the house includes a gallery but also many aspects of the home remain exactly how it was on October 4th, 2010.
A photo gallery of the street during the time of the flood.

We walked toward the train tracks, across the Torna and over a bridge.

Zsolt Pados gave his life trying to rescue people from the other side of the creekbank. His body was found five hundred meters from the bridge. An older woman and two young children (ages 1 and 3) were also killed here.
I edited this map to show just how drastically this landscape has changed. You can see the location of the bridge we crossed and what this space looks like now compared to 2010, particularly the area next to the church and the train tracks.
View from the tracks toward Ajka. For reference, the church and memorial are to the right.
(source)

We quietly left Kolontár, still in awe that we stumbled upon this memorial, a preserved lunchtime snapshot of October 4th in the Hungarian countryside.

Recovery & Future Concerns:

While Devecser has made commitments and sustainable energy progress, many survivors of the red sludge note that they have yet to receive settlements and many of the newer houses have a number of construction issues. The disaster caused a drop in home values and many cannot afford to move elsewhere. The main sources of income for this area have disintegrated along with the flood; the MAL facility is now closed and a ban on selling produce here was implemented. The population of both villages has dropped and many residents state they still suffer from the effects of the disaster both physically and mentally. The Hungarian government has instructed survivors to use the courts for retribution and many have pursued that route.

“’Healing is so complex,’ Tili said. ‘Those who lost loved ones will never forget. But those who did not have mostly got past the memories by now. We have had a psychotherapist on the scene for a year. Lots of people have visited her.'”

Dunai, Marton. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.

Now that the visible aspects of the disaster have faded, how will the injustices suffered by the survivors be mended? Previously available jobs are now non-existent. Lower property values and less population overall make owning a business difficult. The increasingly growing sentiment against the historically marginalized Roma communities further compounds the injustices faced by the survivors of the Ajka red sludge. The amount of anti-Roma rhetoric has only increased since the 2010 disaster. In 2012, nearly 1,000 white supremacists marched through the small village, throwing rocks into the homes of Romani residents, and shouting: “You are going to die here”. After a number of Roma families re-located to Devecser after the flood, a dispute between families ignited the march. The same mayor who promised sustainable energy also stated that “what happened to some [of the Roma population during the Ajka red flood] was in their best interest”.

“Anyone calling it ‘golden sludge,’ I’d be happy to change places with them,’ Horvath [his wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body] says. ‘Let them stand in it three-four hours and experience the same pain. We’ll have scars the rest of our lives. People already see our brown skin; now they’ll see spots and think we have an exotic disease, too.'”

Michael J. Jordan. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.

Although Covid-19 hit the country hard (at one time in 2021 Hungary had the highest death rate in the world) with lower access to healthcare, greater likelihood to live in communal spaces (often without running water) and distrust toward the Hungarian government due to their anti-Roma sentiments in the past, Romani populations were ravaged by the virus: “Just about every family got it. …People you see riding their bikes one week are in hospital the next and you order flowers for their funerals the third.

In addition to localized concerns, many fear that the Ajka red sludge is just one of a ticking time-bomb of future problems in Eastern Europe; many warn that without proper waste disposal (and the funds to do so) there could easily be a number of events similar to the Ajka alumna disaster in the future. The WWF estimates the number of potential sites could be in the hundreds:

“Experts identify inadequate enforcement of inadequate regulations as a key issue in a string of spills in the area, of which two most serious were the Hungary mud disaster and an earlier cyanide spill from a tailings dam in Romania. ‘Our society expects that the facilities still in use are being exploited correctly and safety procedures are being observed. In reality this is not the case’, said Daniel Popov, a toxics expert from the CEE Bankwatch Network in Bulgaria.”

World Widlife Fund. 2011. “Little action apparent on toxic tailings six months after Hungary red mud disaster.” WWF Online. Available here.

“I believe the only positive development of the spill is to draw attention to the importance of such environmental ‘time-bombs’ hidden in the backyard of former communist countries.   It is crucial that better environmental inspection standards are implemented by authorities to prevent similar disasters in the future.” — Dr. Szabolcs Lengyel

Currently:
Reading: Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (David Roberston)
Watching: Loki (Disney+)
Listening: Un(re)solved (Frontline PBS)

Works Cited:
The Associated Press. 2011. “Hungary Rebuilds Towns Destroyed by Toxic Waste.” Deseret News. Available here.
BBC News. 2020. “Hungary Battles to Stem Torrent of Toxic Sludge.” BBC News. Available here.
Cain, Phil. 2012. “Hungary Nationalists Whip Up Anti-Roma Feelings.” BBC News. Available here.
ClientEarth Communications. 2020. “Two Recent Judgements in Hungary Clarify the Environmental Liability Regime.” ClientEarth. Available here.
Dunai, Marton. 2011. “Hungary Villages Heal Slowly from Red Sludge Spill.” Reuters. Available here.
Environmental Justice Atlas. 2014. “Red Mud Disaster Kolontár-Devecser, Hungary.” Environmental Justice Atlas. Available here.
Jordan, Michael K. 2011. “Roma in the Red Sludge.” The Mantle. Available here.
Kátai-Urbán, Lajos and Zoltán Cséplı. 2010. “Disaster in the Ajka Red Sludge Reservoir.” The Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents: The Hague, Available here.
Lengyei, Szabolcs. 2010. “Hungarian Red Sludge Spill — Three Weeks Later.” The Freshwater Blog. Available here.
Moseman, Andrew. 2010. “Hungary’s Toxic Spill Reaches the Danube, but River May Escape Harm.” Discover. Available here.
Reuters. 2010. “Red Sludge Company to Resume Production.” Radio France Internationale. Available here.
Reuters. 2021. “‘Falling Like Flies’: Hungary’s Roma Community Plead for Covid-19 Help.” VOA News. Available here.
Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 2010. “Hungary’s Red Sludge Spill: The Media and the Eco-Disaster.” Yale Environment 360 (Yale School of Environment). Available here.
Taylor, Allen. 2011. “A Flood of Red Sludge, One Year Later.” The Atlantic. Available here.
Thorpe, Nick. 2010. “Toxic Sludge Carpets Homes in Hungary.” BBC News. Available here.
Toth, Janos I. 2013. “Key Actors of the Red Sludge Disaster in Hungary.” in Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse. Routledge: 2013. Available here.
Turi, David, Jozsef Pusztai, and Istvan Nyari. 2013. “Causes and Cir Causes and Circumstances of Red Mud Reservoir Failure In 2010 at MAL Zrt Factory Site in Ajka, Hungary.” International Conference on Case Histories in Geotechnical Engineering (2013). Available here.
World Wide Fund for Nature. 2011. “Little Action Apparent on Toxic Tailings Six Months after Hungary Red Mud Disaster.” World Wide Fund for Nature. Available here.

A gallery of photos can be seen here and here.