Thursday, 4 September 2014

What happened to great grandpa Morris?

Ever since I was young I have always heard the story about great grandpa Morris Hirsch, the father of my grandfather on my mothers side.  I don't think the telling has ever been the same twice, and in reality I don't think anyone ever really gave it a great deal of thought.  The salient facts of the case is that great grandpa Morris was one of the people the Great War took from the world when he was a Hungarian soldier.

And here is the rest of what we think we know.

The Hirsch family is a long line of stubborn, difficult people who didn't always get along with others (or themselves for that matter) and didn't always do the right thing.  For example, my grandfathers grandfather (or grandfathers grandfather, we don't seem to have anything straight), died in prison after an illustrious career as a counterfeiter.  I can't say that currency debasement is the typical family trade.  Most of the time, the Hirsch-folk end up becoming engineers.  This is probably the result of what must be a specific strain of mild autism - Hirschpergers if you will.

This photograph is of Morris and his Family.
Morris is the fellow who looks exactly like someone
about to be sent in to the First World War.  Pay
special attention to the little elf next to his left knee.
My grandfather Milton (aka Munno, or "little elf", hee hee) was originally from the Timisoara metropolitan area, which even though is now part of Romania, didn't stop him from being a Hungarian.  That's just how it works.  He disliked his father, the eponymous Morris.  To put it plainly, Morris was a middle-man.  He would go to the outskirts of the city to buy up grain cheap from the farmers and sell it dear to the market.  While not necessarily the most exciting of occupations, it served well enough to put his children on the path to the Gymnasium, and might have done so had his death not beggared his survivors and turned them in to immigrants.  Morris always taught his children that the whole world wrong was wrong, and the only ones who were right where the Hirschs.  In truth, none of his other children liked him very much either and they all thought he was rather dim.

This was all as well as in 1915, Morris was drafted into the Army reserves where he served working in a Hospital, well away from the front lines and practically inundated with the very white sheets that his remotely deployed colleagues pined for so very dearly.  He was known to read while walking, an apparently biological trait as his great grandson inherited the exact same aptitude.  While I'm always careful when crossing streets, apparently Morris wasn't very careful when crossing officers.  There was a teenaged, German speaking officer which he walked past without saluting, or in other versions, refused to salute, which seems the most likely scenario.  It doesn't really do to be a Jew serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army to not play the game, especially as they tended to be quite keen on enforcing iron discipline.  In this case, discipline meant being sent right off with one of his cousins to the Russian front, one of the many places you didn't want to be in 1915 (although apparently it might have been Italy - but let's just say it was Russia, because that had to be a lot more miserable).

Here is when portrayal of events becomes most diverging.  There are two very distinct ways in which Morris was said to have been killed.  The first way was a heroic death, one worth perhaps of King Albert himself.  In this version of events, the cousin is wounded and Morris was killed trying to bring him back to the trench, saving his life.

Unfortunately, I prefer to believe the other variation of the story, which seems to be a lot more likely given what I know of the stubbornness of Hirschs (and every once in a while, even myself).

Morris and his cousin, alas, were captured by the Russians.  This is not the ideal outcome for being a participant in the Great War, but neither is it the worst, after all, it's not yet the Second World War.  A contemplative man might have thought about their situation and realized that it was a mistake to play arrogant with an obviously well connected superior officer of the juvenile variety.  Best not to tempt fate and take your chances in a Russian prison camp, and go on living with your cousin and comrades in arms.  But that's not the outcome he chose.  In the words of my grandpa Milton, he "made a false move"... yeah, just like they used to do in the old gangster movies... or tried to escape.  Whatever it was he did induced a Russian to shoot him.  I've even heard that he would not be outdone by any normal fool who was capable of making two fatally bad life choices and may have tried to crawl away afterward.  *sigh* A Russians work is never done.  He was finally done in at the end of a bayonet.

The results was that my grandfather would not make it to gymnasium and would instead have to leave Hungary at the age of 15, build a railway across France and learn to play chess on steamer steaming for the US.  Instead of engineering, he would become a fitter.  He hated being a fitter, but he was good at it, enough so that he was fitting stars and starlets at Sax 5th Ave.  While leaving Hungary meant he lost the opportunity to die at the hands of the Nazis in World War Two, it did gave him the opportunity to open up his own shop in Long Beach, New York and raise a family where he was mostly loved by his children and certainly adored by his grandchildren.

For me, the story of Morris Hirsch is a personal cautionary tale.  I must always be aware of my surroundings, and always salute teen-age officers, because there is always just a little bit of Morris in me.  Also, Morris died at the age of 41, the same age that I am now.  Depending on how things go in the Ukraine, there's still time for me to be killed by a Russian.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The fortress city of Namur

One of the excellent views from the citadel of Namur.
I have long delayed documenting one of the cities I visited on August 14th.  Like Liege, in the 19th century the city of Namur was reinforced by a ring of fortresses in order to prevent armies from marching through Belgium on their way to other conquests.  Overall, at least nowadays, Namur is a smaller and somewhat ore picturesque city than Liege and seems more dominated by its central citadel and surrounding hills.

I obviously visited a bit early on the schedule as the siege of Namur began on the 20th of August, which also happened to be the day that Brussels was occupied by Germany.  I chose to be in Brussels for the 20th, and so instead went early.  This siege only lasted until the 25th, as the Belgian army was already in retreat and the French army had already been defeated in nearby Charleroi.  In this battle, the Germans had been merciful to their troops and did not order infantry attacks until the Belgian defenses had been significantly reduced.  As a result the Belgians suffered for more casualties than the Germans, whose losses were negligible in comparison.

In addition to directions to the ring of forts around the city,
there are also directions to something called "Parlemerde".
The citadel in the center is actually very old, going as far back as the Romans.  It sits atop a big hill that has been carved out by the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers.  The main bastion is cut off from the rest of the hill by a big chasm, which I don't know if it is natural or man made.  I ascended from the river confluence along its imposing walls.

The citadel had a few permanent information plaques added to it, including an interesting set of directions pointing you to the location of the forts surrounding the city.

There was a small exhibit in the citadel detailing the attack on the fort.  It was not extravagant, just a handful of information signs posted in a small clearing.  It contained many interesting photos from Namur during the war, and pictures of documents details communiques from both the Belgian and German governments to the city.  It also contained an abundance of information, all of it carefully encoded in French.  By this time, my French language skills improved... or more precisely, my lack from French language skills diminished, so I was able to surprisingly get the gist of what it was saying.  I have not seen anything written about it on line, but unless I'm mistaken (and it's likely I am) there were a few very severe hits on the citadel itself by German artillery.  Again, this illustrates how much better Germany performed against Namur than Liege, keeping in mind that Liege was utterly defeated.

From a series of metal pieces installed in a one of the
citadel tunnels.
There was also a few artwork installations around the top, plus a nice (and rather pricy) cafe where I was able to sit for coffee and be a tourist for a time before returning to my car and from there to Liege again for the commemoration of Fort Loncin.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The real Europe

I've been using rather heroic language to describe the Belgium of 1914, elevating King Albert I to heroic status and at times over simplifying the underlying political currents of the early 20th century.  The truth about the world at the time is far more complicated, and while it's easy to pick favorites, it doesn't mean that the First World War was a true battle between good and evil.

Likewise, it can sometimes be a little easy to vilify German... and there were certainly times when warranted, but it's important to remember that all these European states existed in a context of their own design for centuries before the eruption of these enormous world wars.

The truth is that Belgium operated as a pre-war European nation just as all the other nations had.  While Belgium was in a position at the outbreak of the Great War to stand on higher moral principle, it has never been by any means a charity.  It was part of a political system of national self interest which I have argued dates back to Roman nobility and diplomacy.  While it's right and true that we honor the innocents massacred by Germany in Belgium during the war, including those killed in the first months under the pretext of fighting armed civilian resistance, and those that died from Germany's harsh economic starvation of the country, Germany was not the sole actor responsible for what happened.

Nor is Germany the only source of European cruelty.  In fact, I believe that the culmination of European savagery, the Second World War and the Holocaust, need not have only happened in Germany.  Under the right circumstances most European countries might have evolved a similar set of ideas and acted the same way.  The history of the Soviet Union can attest to my belief.

The most well known of Belgium's colonies was in the Congo, and is well renowned for it's brutality.  Before it was annexed in 1908, the Congo was considered the property of King Alberts predecessor and uncle, King Leopold II.  The harsh and extractive rule of Leopold leaves a death toll behind that dwarfs the one inflicted upon Belgium by 1914 Germany, and each one of those African victims are as people worthy of remembrance as much as any European.  I write more of the Belgian victims only because they were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be in the center of a greater political upheaval.

Credit should be given to King Albert I for his attempts to reform Belgian policy in the Congo, as he is known for doing, but in these particular efforts, he was merely trying to improve what was most fundamentally an evil, global institution which we as the world have yet to recover from.

The European system of Imperialism would be in its death throws for decades yet, and would even outlive King Albert himself who died while (presumably heroically) mountaineering in 1934.  19th century European Imperialism was birthed from the aging system of Monarchial power games which again Albert was a central part of, for it's also worth remembering that the most powerful ruling class in Europe at the time were related to one another.  Even King Alberts arch enemy, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, were distant cousins.

All of us live and act in worlds not of our own defining, and under constant change and evolution.  Within these confines we are given our specific gifts, talents and opportunities.  One hopes that each person chooses to act in a way that elevates them above the prevailing standard of conduct, which in all times has always had need of improvement.  Within the realistic context which I have described, I believe in the instance of the Belgian conflict with Germany in 1914, King Albert I and Belgium meets did rise to meet that specific challenge.  But it did not mean they would again in the next conflict, nor does it mean they do in this era.  Acts of virtue must be renewed again for each new age.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The road home

I returned home to California yesterday after a very long silence on the blog.  I wanted to have updated more frequently but in my last few locations I've either been very busy or had poor access to the internet.  So while this concludes my trip, I still have a few more things to post and show.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

On the subject of massacres

One hundred years ago from this last Saturday, August 23rd, Germany committed the largest massacre of Belgian citizens during the outbreak of the war.  The city of Dinant fell to Germany after several days of fierce resistance by the French and Belgians.  674 civilians, which included women and children, were executed in response to perceived attacks on German soldiers trying to repair a bridge over the Meuse.

I think that this is a significant event because it was acts like these which galvanized the populations of Germany's opponents against them.  Since the staggering civilian deaths of the Second World War and beyond, 674 people may seem relatively small, and was certainly not the largest to have ever occurred in Belgium before.  But this was only the largest act in a series of attacks which killed thousands of innocents in the first months of the war.  It's important because it demonstrates the impact that moral and immoral actions can have on opposing sides of a conflict, violent and non-violent.

The executions themselves were conducted in an arbitrary fashion which varied from town to town.  Typically occupants were divided by category, usually sex and put on opposites sides of the town square.  Then a selection was made... every 10th person, usually from the men's side, or every 5th, etc.  As one of the moral motivations for participation in the war, particularly for Britain, a language of propaganda was developed around these killings.  People referred to "Poor Belgium" as part of the justification for intervention.

The massacres hold a special interest for me.  I spent a good six years of my life working with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, collecting and analyzing large scale human rights events.  It is crimes against civilians such as those that occurred at such a large scale during the Second World War that caused me to want to work with such an organization.

I'm also staying in Paris at the moment, and have visited with some folks who are also interested in this sort of thing, specifically executions committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.  I'm very bless to know such people, and one day I hope that all there is left to do is these kinds of commemorative trips.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Feline friends of the trenches

It wouldn't be the internet without lots of pictures of cats.  While it's difficult to find much lightness around the trenches, I none the less find it a little comforting that there were some creatures around that provided occasional, if not somewhat distant companionship for the occupants.

Here's a collection of photos of cats in the service during the Great War.  I would like to draw particular attention to Pitouchi, a belgian cat:

"Pitouchi" (photo below) was born in the trenches. His mother was killed when he was a kitten, and he was adopted and nursed to health by Lt. Lekeux of the Belgian army. 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Germany and Britain collide

One hundred years ago today, 18 days after the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) finally engaged the Germany's First Army at the Belgian city of Mons.