World War Two
Soviet forces captured the Polish city of Warsaw today in 1945.
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It’s a balmy seven degrees in London today so it would be pretty chilly on the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral in Westminster. Good thing that there is a lot to think about.
A convoy of British fire trucks will take to the streets to mark the 70th anniversary of the “darkest day” of the London Blitz; when German forces dropped 10, 000 incendiary bombs on the city, starting 1500 fires and adding to the already tragic loss of thousands of lives.
Hundreds of people are expected to gather around the city to remember a very significant day in the nation’s history.
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Italy joins the Allied forces and declares war on Germany today in 1943.
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In August 1939 a Jewish woman named Ilse decided to flee Nazi Germany. In the wake of Kristalnacht, the previous November’s violent anti-Jewish pogrom, the writing was on the wall for the Berlin resident.
After years of state-sanctioned persecution, including the removal of her citizenship, immediate emigration was now the only feasible option. Still, this was a difficult decision. Her highly assimilated, secular family had lived in Central Europe for centuries. They considered themselves German. Indeed, some had fought for that country during World War One.
Shortly afterwards Ilse found sanctuary in wartime London, seemingly paying a bribe to one of those pesky people smugglers (i.e. a Gestapo officer) to exit the barbarism engulfing the continent. Somewhat perversely, on account of a German accent, Britons viewed her ilk suspiciously. At war’s end, Ilse made her way to Australia with her young son – ironically as ‘ten pound poms’ – eventually settling in Melbourne, home to the largest proportion of Holocaust survivors in the world.
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Today in 1945 the Soviet Army liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Southern Poland.
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I remember the jokes. They were usually about one of two things: hardship or fear.
It’s been strange, this week, to reflect that most people will never know, as I did (albeit as a visitor) what it was really like in the old Soviet Bloc. But the jokes used to tell the story.
An American dog, a Polish dog and a Russian dog are talking. The American dog says “Where I live it’s good. You bark loudly enough, and they give you meat”. The Polish dog says” What’s meat?” The Russian dog says “What’s bark?”
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Just a few years ago I ended up in Warsaw on a business trip to Poland where my former boss Eric Dodd had been invited to talk to top government officials about reforms to Poland’s embryonic private health system.
As a journo and an amateur student of history, I was astonished to learn that our hotel in Warsaw was located on what was previously the Jewish Ghetto in World War II from which tends of thousands were shipped to their deaths.
And just a matter of a few hours drive away was the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Jews and gypsies were imprisoned in the most horrific conditions and slaughtered in the gas chambers.
An old newspaper can work like a telescope into the past, the details sharp but the whole picture a little shaky and blurred, and the newspaper on my wall is like that. It’s the front of the Melbourne Argus for Sunday, September the third, 1939, and it contains only one story, told in a series of blaring headlines.
BRITAIN AT WAR
DECLARED AT 8.20 P.M.
‘OUR CONSCIENCE CLEAR’ – MR CHAMBERLAIN
A DECLARATION THAT A STATE OF WAR EXISTED BETWEEN BRITAIN AND GERMANY WAS MADE BY THE PRIME MINISTER, MR CHAMBERLAIN, TO THE NATION FROM NO. 10 DOWNING STREET TO-NIGHT.
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In the town of Caen, in Normandy, is one of the most remarkable museums I’ve ever visited.
I went there in 1994, the week of the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, and what I remember most clearly about the Memorial de Caen – the Caen Peace Museum – is the long spiral ramp down which you must walk to enter it.
You can read about it here: or if your French is up to it, take a virtual tour here: but nothing will really reproduce the experience of walking in person down the spiral of history that led to world war and genocide.
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