A massive ice sheet covered much of northern Europe just as Greenland is covered today. As climate warmed about 12,000 years ago, the ice sheet retreated leaving a large puddle of water behind that we now call the Baltic Sea. It is a shallow estuary, only about 55 meters deep on average, that separates Finland from Sweden in the north while Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany form its southern reaches with Denmark and Sweden filling in the western borders of this sea in the north. The history of all these 9 countries is shaped by the trade, travel, and turmoil that the tide-less Baltic Sea provided for well over 1500 years.
Traveling by car, train, and ferry the last 10 days, I visited colleagues, family, and friends in an area shaped by ancient ice sheets, medieval trade, piracy, and modern conflict. I visited the city of my birth, Lübeck, to meet a Danish friend who developed radar systems to penetrate Greenland’s ice in the 50ies; I visited Germany’s center of polar research in Bremerhaven to connect with colleagues to plan future work in Greenland; I visited Roskilde where Danish kings and queens are buried for almost 1000 years. I am writing these lines from my parents present home in Neustadt, Holstein, a small, charming town on the shores of the Baltic with a working harbor filled with small yachts, fishing boats, and navy cutters.
Bicycling along the wooden boardwalk just outside town, I find a sign telling me to step off my bicycle and walk past a cemetery which is really a plain mass grave. Much to the despair of my mother, I ignore the order and slowly pedal along her side, as she walks her bike. It takes me several days to understand what took place on these crowded beaches in 1945:
A small flotilla of ships served as a floating concentration camp during the last days of the Second World War in May of 1945. Besides several small submarines, patrol boats, and mine sweepers, the former luxury liner Cap Arcona anchored within 2-3 miles off the beach to serve as a coffin for well over 7000 men and women. Their German guards had disabled life boats and fire-fighting equipment with orders not to let any of the inmates fall into enemy hands. Tragically, the British Royal Air Force launched an attack on this flotilla on May-3, 1945 that sank several ships turning the Cap Arcona into a fireball that killed most aboard. While information on “Displaced Persons” aboard the ships was passed by the Red Cross to British Forces the day before, this information did not reach the pilots or their commanders in time to call off this last and most tragic raid.
Neustadt in Holstein also has a small Jewish cemetery where several young women with beautiful names such as Mia Bucholz, Sara Kaiser, Lina Goldblatt, Lea Straszmann, Hani Jamberger, Erzsebet Kirschblum, and 18-year old Lydia Loewenberg rest. They survived the years of abuse, forced marches, and the bombing. They died after liberation far from home due to starvation, typhus, and constant suffering at the hands of their German guards.
How to best honor and remember those who perished? Is it proper to bicycle, swim, and camp next to a mass grave? Is it right to ignore posted signs? How to combine the dignity and serenity of past victims of war and murder with today’s beach life and family leisure of the living? I know of many beaches around the Baltic Sea that saw past atrocity and tragedy. Perhaps more important than definite answers to difficult questions is to keep asking them in new ways. We live today, we must know what happened before, but this knowledge is best served by making new and better histories today, I feel. And this is exactly what is happening now in Neustadt in Holstein and, hopefully, around much of the free and open Baltic Sea:
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