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Navid Kermani

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Between Germany and Russia is a region strewn with monuments to the horrors of war, genocide and disaster - the bloodlands where the murderous regimes of Hitler and Stalin unleashed the violence that scarred the twentieth century and shaped so much of the world we know today. In September 2016 the German-Iranian writer Navid Kermani set out to discover this land and to travel Along the Trenches that are now re-emerging in Europe, from his home in Cologne through eastern Germany to the Baltics, and from there south to the Caucasus and to Isfahan in Iran, the home of his parents. This beautifully written travel diary, enlivened by conversations with the people Kermani meets along the way, brings to life the tragic history of these troubled lands and shows how this history leaves its traces in the present. It will be of great interest to anyone concerned with current affairs and with the events that have shaped, and continue to shape, the world in which we live today.

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Front Matter


First Day: Schwerin

Second Day: From Berlin to Wrocław

Third Day: Auschwitz

Fourth Day: Cracow

Fifth Day: From Cracow to Warsaw

Sixth Day: Warsaw

Seventh Day: Warsaw

Eighth Day: From Warsaw to Masuria

Ninth Day: Kaunas

Tenth Day: Vilnius and Vicinity

Eleventh Day: Via Paneriai to Minsk

Twelfth Day: Minsk and Khatyn

Thirteenth Day: Into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Fourteenth Day: Kurapaty and Minsk

Fifteenth Day: Into the Exclusion Zone East of Krasnapolle

Sixteenth Day: From Minsk to Kiev

Seventeenth Day: Kiev

Eighteenth Day: From Kiev to Dnipro

Nineteenth Day: To the Front in Donbas

Twentieth Day: Via Mariupol to the Black Sea

Twenty-First Day: Along the Black Sea to Odessa

Twenty-Second Day: Odessa

Twenty-Third Day: Leaving Odessa by Air

Twenty-Fourth Day: Via Moscow to Simferopol

Twenty-Fifth Day: Via Bakhchisaray to Sevastopol

Twenty-Sixth Day: Along the Crimean Coast

Twenty-Seventh Day: From Crimea to the Russian Mainland

Twenty-Eighth Day: To Krasnodar

Twenty-Ninth Day: From Krasnodar to Grozny

Thirtieth Day: Grozny

Thirty-First Day: In the Chechen Mountains

Thirty-Second Day: From Grozny to Tbilisi

Thirty-Third Day: Tbilisi

Thirty-Fourth Day: Tbilisi

Thirty-Fifth Day: To Gori and the Georgian–Ossetian Ceasefire Line

Thirty-Sixth Day: From Tbilisi to Kakheti

Thirty-Seventh Day: From Kakheti to Azerbaijan

Thirty-Eighth Day: Along the Azeri–Armenian Ceasefire Line

Thirty-Ninth Day: By Night Train to Baku

Fortieth Day: Baku

Forty-First Day: Baku and Qobustan

Forty-Second Day: Leaving Baku by Air

Forty-Third Day: Yerevan

Forty-Fourth Day: Yerevan

Forty-Fifth Day: To Lake Sevan and on to Nagorno-Karabakh

Forty-sixth Day: Through Nagorno-Karabakh

Forty-Seventh Day: To the Armenian–Azeri Ceasefire Line and on to Iran

Forty-Eighth Day: Via Jolfa to Tabriz

Forty-Ninth Day: Via Ahmadabad to Alamout Castle

Fiftieth Day: To the Caspian Sea and on to Tehran

Fifty-First Day: Tehran

Fifty-Second Day: Tehran

Fifty-Third Day: Tehran

Fifty-Fourth Day: Flying out of Tehran

Visiting Family in Isfahan

The Journey Begins




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First published in German as Entlang den Gräben © Verlag C. H. Beck oHG, Münich 2018. All rights reserved.

This English edition © Polity Press, 2020

The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institute.

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3558-3

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: Kermani, Navid, 1967- author.Title: Along the trenches : a journey through Eastern Europe to Isfahan / Navid Kermani.Other titles: Entlang den Graben. EnglishDescription: Cambridge, UK : Polity Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references.Identifiers: LCCN 2019003897 (print) | LCCN 2019018326 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509535583 (Epub) | ISBN 9781509535569 | ISBN 9781509535569(hardback) | ISBN 9781509535576(pbk.)Subjects: LCSH: Kermani, Navid, 1967---Travel--Europe, Eastern. | Kermani, Navid, 1967---Travel--Former Soviet republics. | Kermani, Navid, 1967---Travel--Iran. | Kermani, Navid, 1967---Family. | Europe, Eastern--Description and travel. | Former Soviet republics--Description and travel. | Iran--Description and travel.Classification: LCC PT2711.E75 (ebook) | LCC PT2711.E75 E5813 2019 (print) | DDC 838/.9203--dc23LC record available at

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website:


Every day I walk through my neighbourhood behind the railway station. I hear some Arabic here, some Polish there, something Balkan-sounding to the left; Turkish, obviously; occasionally Persian, which makes me prick up my ears; I hear French spoken by Africans; Asian languages; also German, spoken in every accent and every quality, by blonds as well as by Asians, Blacks and Orientals. It is not always an unalloyed pleasure – the tramps, the many black imitation-leather jackets (or maybe they’re real leather; what do I know?), my God, the gold front teeth of the black-haired women with their long, colourful skirts and their babies carried in slings, a second child led by the hand and a third running ahead, the young people hanging around, the drug addicts and the deranged who live in a home in Unter Krahnenbäumen – a street name referring to some long forgotten ‘crane booms’; to round it off a few Muslims with suspiciously long beards. This is a reality that extends well beyond the area behind Cologne’s railway station. In every city in Western Europe you can probably find the same mixture of Turkish greengrocers, Chinese supermarkets, Iranian specialities sold by a shopkeeper who used to be a director for Iranian state television before the revolution, traditional and self-service bakeries, rows of phone shops and Internet cafés – Iran, 19 cents a minute; Turkey, 9; Bangladesh, 24; the cheap hotels, sex shops, bridal shops, dives; tearooms and coffeehouses for Turks, Albanians, Africans; Turkish places that do or don’t sell alcohol, chic restaurants and shabby ones, Thai massage studios, bookmakers that do or don’t sell alcohol, import–export businesses, and here and there an antediluvian shop offering housewares or rubber stamps; on the main road the refugee shelter where the Roma have taken out the windowpanes to put satellite dishes in the open windows, and in the middle of it all, every winter, a shock troop of elderly gentlemen in blue or red uniforms with tricorn hats and rapiers, a band of Indians or a horde of half-naked Huns – the carnival societies, devotedly practising for their Pancake Day festivities from Epiphany on. What do merchants live on who all offer the same twenty batteries for one euro fifty in their oversized shops? Certainly not on the batteries, considering one after another of the old, well-respected specialist retailers can no longer afford the rising rents. International understanding takes place, with oom-pah and tata-ra-ta, at the beginning and at the end of the neighbourhood, where Cologne’s most experienced whores stand at four long bars singing with fat Germans and with drunken Turks, always with the windows open. These are the new inner cities, and the one behind the Cologne railway station is far less aggressive than others – no, it’s idyllic beyond these or any other words. They are pure, nothing less. They have nothing to do with the history of the cities where they develop, although they cannot efface that history either – certainly not the 2,000-year history of Cologne. As if they wanted to restore Cologne to its name’s etymological meaning, they are like colonies of foreigners, but of many different foreigners who are also foreign to one another as they sit between the blinds of their carrels in the Internet cafés or stand in groups in front of the call shops. I often wonder if they scrambled down an embankment into a boat one night near Tangier, a boat that neither sank nor got intercepted – walking success stories all of them, even if they’re still sharing a room with four other people and afraid of the police? Iran, 19 cents a minute; Turkey, 9; Bangladesh, 24. These are not the margins of society. They surge out from the centre of town. It is the margins that still have the look of homogeneity. There the city is divided by income; in the centre, everything is jumbled together. I walk through the neighbourhood; I hear some Arabic here, some Polish there, something Balkan-sounding to the left; Turkish, obviously; occasionally Persian, which makes me prick up my ears; also French spoken by Africans, Asian languages, and German, spoken in every accent and every quality. I don’t understand half of it, and I mean half. And of the half I do understand, I usually understand only half again, because it’s already slipped away behind the window or into a shop, it’s poorly enunciated or too far away, I walked by too fast or the speakers were walking past me. I finish the sentences in my head, or I guess how they began; I imagine stories set, not across the Rhine in Deutz or during the Second World War, but in provincial Chinese cities, at Nigerian universities, in boats, freight containers and departure lounges where hearts race.

From the novel Dein Name

First Day: Schwerin

‘Are there really no problems at all?’ I ask the woman who directs the Sunday school for Syrian children in the concrete high-rise housing estate.

‘No,’ the woman answers, ‘nothing serious.’ Once in a while an unfriendly word about her headscarf, she says, but nothing worth mentioning compared to what her family went through in Syria, in the war. The child she is carrying in her womb will be born in peace.

Ghadia Ranah is forty years old and was already a teacher before she left Syria. Now she is responsible for 136 Syrian children who practise their Arabic every weekend in Dreesch, Schwerin’s largest housing estate, to stay connected with their home country. The children I question on the playground of the community centre during the break have no intention of going back, however. I can hardly believe how well they already master German; they’ve been here just eight, nine months and they already inflect their verbs in the subjunctive, as required for hypothetical clauses, to explain what their day-to-day life would look like if they still lived in Syria: no school, no playing outdoors, the fear of bombs, tanks, fighters. Here in Germany, everyone is nice to them.

In September 2016, my trip barely begun, my expectations are already being challenged: my idea was to talk to the refugees themselves before hearing in the afternoon how Germany’s new anti-immigration party, the AfD, talks about them. Naturally I assumed I would find them in God knows what horrible circumstances; as a West German, after all, I had pictured the formerly communist East as punishment in itself for any refugee: xenophobic neighbours, overstrained bureaucracies, isolation, possibly assaults. What I actually encounter are cheerful helpers, industrious refugees, playing children – as if the ‘welcome society’ were showing me its image video in the middle of the high-rise housing estate.

Word has got around among the Syrians, one of the volunteer Arabic teachers explains, that conditions in Schwerin are particularly advantageous for refugees. Come again? Yes, here you get your papers after two, three months, and you can work, maybe not in the profession you’ve learned, not as a chemist or an engineer, but as an interpreter for a social-welfare organization perhaps, or on a building site. Besides, the teacher explains, with so many flats vacant in the estate, the refugees aren’t housed in shelters, the language courses aren’t overcrowded, and there are no queues at the government offices. Soon the association the Syrians have founded will be offering free Arabic classes to interested neighbours; they’ve also been helping in the allotment gardens to show their gratitude.

It’s not as easy as all that with the neighbours, says Claus Oellerking, who was a school head himself earlier in life, and is a co-founder of the refugees’ aid association in Dreesch. The Syrians are very unusual, he says: middle class, highly motivated, good education, so they adapt much faster than the problem cases, of which there are some too of course among the refugees, especially if the influx is completely uncontrolled because there are no official ways to flee. On the one hand, most of the original residents of the estate once left their homes themselves, whether on expulsion from Germany’s eastern territories after the war or as ethnic Germans ‘returning’ from the former Soviet Union, or as workers who moved to Schwerin when the factories were built in the 1970s. Accordingly, the willingness to help is widespread, especially among the older residents – in the beginning, the refugees hardly knew what to do with all the gifts they received. At the same time, Oellerking continues, many Germans here have the feeling they’ve been left behind: the sudden unemployment when the heavy industries shut down after unification, a meagre pension or benefit, the disproportionately high numbers of single households and people over forty, not enough children; add to that the welfare-state mentality left over from East Germany – and now hundreds of Syrians are moving into the estate, young men and, most of all, young families who, after having been lucky enough to escape with their lives, are determined to make something of them, and who are perhaps a bit more hot-blooded, have different customs, speak a different language, and also wear headscarves. Obviously that produces rejection, although mostly in private. There is hardly any violence in Dreesch, according to Oellerking, whatever the newspapers may say about a so-called flash point; not even graffiti or playground vandalism. But whether anyone will come to Arabic classes, or even just to an international barbecue – Oellerking has his doubts.

I ask about the allotment gardeners. Yes, that was good fun, Mr Oellerking immediately recalls, fun and at the same time a bit sad. Like so many other aspects of life here, the allotments are in gradual decline; the old gardening enthusiasts die, not enough new ones take it up, so that the allotment fees go up, which in turn keeps young families from taking one on – a vicious circle. Worse still, the sense of community is slipping away, the solidarity. It used to be that you only had to hang up a notice and the neighbours would be on hand at the appointed time and pitch in. But now, the steering committee put out an appeal to make the garden of an unwell pensioner shipshape – and except for only one allotment gardener, an AfD member to boot, only the Syrian refugees turned out, who have been seizing every opportunity to make themselves useful in Dreesch ever since the assaults by other migrants against merrymakers in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, 2015. The man from AfD looked glum, then he made some frenzied phone calls to find German helpers, but the German allotment gardeners don’t help each other any more. Certainly the ailing pensioner was pleased to have the Syrians’ help, Oellerking recounts; getting the leaves raked and the branches pruned was the main thing.

Crossing the flower-bedecked city centre, where every historic brick seems to have been carefully restored, I pass the AfD’s billboards warning of the ‘destruction of Germany’. I have barely stepped inside the wood-panelled banquet room of the restaurant Lindengarten, where the party has invited citizens to ‘coffee and cake on the topic of pensions’, when I hear a woman complaining that German girls are being ‘desecrated’. They’re off to a good start, I think as I begin to look around. About fifty, maybe sixty people are standing in the room or sitting at the tables, which have been pushed towards the two side walls, as if to leave room for dancing in the middle. There’s nothing unusual about the people, no insignia, no shaved heads, no high boots; their ages are well mixed. One young woman, the only one wearing a German traditional costume, looks somewhat lost. As I sit down at one of the tables, I too am served coffee and cake.

First, the candidates for directly elected seats in the state parliament of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania introduce themselves, each in turn giving assurances that they are ordinary citizens. The one who acts the most housewifely is the blonde lady who until recently was running an escort agency for an Arab clientele, as everyone in the room no doubt knows, since she has been dropped for that reason from the party’s list of candidates for proportional seats. But she has nonetheless prevailed as the candidate for her district’s direct seat, and she now smiles down from the posters in Dreesch, in her historic dress or astride a splendid horse – perhaps an Arabian. The speaker, Andreas Kalbitz, the vice-chairman of AfD’s parliamentary group in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg, is counted among the right wing of the party; he is an alumnus of the nationalist student fraternities; the fake-news media say he also has connections to a right-wing extremist group. Myself, I made his acquaintance earlier by telephone when we arranged to meet in Schwerin: at that time he seemed – sorry, dear leftist friends, but I have to write it – not the least bit aggressive.

In his speech, Kalbitz emphasizes again and again that of course we have to make distinctions – but then no distinctions are forthcoming, only the next blanket statement about the establishment parties, the media and the asylum seekers. The illustrative examples too are strictly limited to just one side of reality: the housing estate in his district that was renovated for the refugees while the Germans go on living in their dilapidated flats; the annual shortfall of 200 million euros to bring Eastern pensions up to Western levels, while 90 billion are allocated for the asylum madness; the 12,000-euro pension paid to a broadcasting director and the helplessness of the authorities to deal with fare-dodging refugees, who are now given free passes in Berlin while pensioners and the unemployed have to pay for their discounted tickets. And so on: the parallel societies, Islamic justices of the peace, our German women who are afraid to go out at night – but naturally we must make distinctions. The premise of every argument is pensions: everyone, no matter what their political inclination, wants to live out their old age with dignity. And the unvarying conclusion is that someone else is getting the money that you will lack in your old age. Frankly, that seems a little too facile to me; the audience don’t look that simple at all.

Only during the question-and-answer session do I realize what is going to bring the new party its 20 per cent in the state elections: not what they say, but what the people who come here are at last allowed to say. Everyone in the Lindengarten has their worries: for one, it’s his pension; for another, it’s the private health insurance that he daren’t cancel at his age; for a third it’s the foreigners in the streets, and besides that it’s the high fees for the allotment garden; and all of them read the same best-sellers that warn against Islam. It’s not hate, it is fear that speaks through their words – fear that they are the losers in their own country and that everything is going to come crashing down on them just as it did after the fall of East Germany. This group is not the neo-Nazi NPD; a skinhead would look more out of place and probably be more unwelcome than a black-haired person like me. These people really are ordinary citizens with ordinary jobs or insufficient pensions, at least those I get a chance to talk to after the programme: tradesmen and contractors, computer technicians, even a former OSCE election observer with international experience; an older gentleman who gave the Pirate Party a chance last time out and, with his long beard, looks more like a hippie. At the outside, Andreas Kalbitz has something of – no, not a Nazi – but with his little wire-rimmed spectacles, his blond moustache and his rousing diction, more something of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. And that Germany, the old Germany that was nationalist but not driven to its doom by Adolf Hitler, is perhaps the best point of reference for a Burschenschafter, an alumnus of the German student fraternities with their nationalist traditions – back when all was right with the world.

‘We want everything to stay how it is,’ says a young man in hiking trousers, who is as friendly and as curious as all the others who come over to talk to me after the event, without my having to approach them. ‘You can want whatever you like,’ I reply, ‘and you can fight for your ideas – but so can I; you don’t have priority over me.’ His jaw drops: this point – the fact that a man whose parents are immigrants has the same rights as an indigenous person – doesn’t make sense to him. It does to the gentleman who used to work for the OSCE, of course, and immediately a discussion breaks out among the AfD supporters themselves. Even the right to political asylum now has its defenders, and there are repeated reminders that Germany needs an immigration law; it says so in the party’s platform, after all. Only the events of autumn 2015 – when Chancellor Merkel opened the borders to refugees languishing in Hungary and further south – the chaos, that’s not right, they’re all unanimous, as is Mr Oellerking of Schwerin Refugee Aid. It goes without saying that none of them, apparently, has ever talked to a refugee, much less visited the Sunday school, nearby though it is. But, fair enough, who of my own ‘left-red-green scruffy sixties Germany’, as the AfD leader called it, ever goes to talk with members of his party?

As the room empties, I sit down at Kalbitz’s table: he is exhausted, the heat, the many campaign appearances, and now getting a cold from the flight in; he would rather be spending a sunny Sunday with his family, his three children, he says, but the people’s passiveness troubles him, the resignation, the low election turnout. The AfD is leading people back into politics, giving them a voice; as believers in democracy we should all be glad of that, don’t I agree? In that case, I ask, doesn’t it strike him as absurd when the AfD’s billboards announce that Deutschland is threatened with destruction? After all, we in Germany know what destruction means, and, in case we do forget, we can look at the pictures coming from Syria and Iraq. But here in the picturesque city centre of Schwerin, in the wood-panelled banquet room – the destruction of Germany? To be honest, I can’t think of any country that is much safer, more prosperous and more free – Sweden, maybe, or Norway.

He didn’t make up the slogan, Kalbitz says, and besides it expresses only a concern, not a factual occurrence. Really? I ask. Yes, of course, Kalbitz assures me, a concern, not a fact, and then, in conversation, he actually does begin to make, one after another, the distinctions that he announced but didn’t deliver in his speech. Suddenly there is not just that New Year’s Eve, but the real victims of persecution who obviously have a right to asylum; not just the terrorist attacks but also the many well-integrated Muslims. In the end, all of his fellow AfD members’ most provocative claims have been cleared away – from the concern that Germans wouldn’t want the national football team’s Black player Jérôme Boateng as a neighbour to the demand that Germany’s borders be defended with firearms – and the only unique selling point that remains, more or less, is the call to prohibit minarets, although Kalbitz can’t quite explain to me how people are supposed to identify with a new country if they can’t naturalize their religion too.

This is exactly what the AfD has often been accused of: its representatives provoke an outcry only to claim afterwards that they didn’t mean it that way. Thus the limits of outrage are gradually pushed back. But, as I sit facing him, I really couldn’t say whether the real Andreas Kalbitz is the one who mocked refugee helpers like Claus Oellerking in his speech as ‘plush-toy throwers’ or the one who would have no qualms about a vice-chancellor of Turkish descent, as long as he was well integrated – his objections to the Green Party’s Cem Özdemir are purely on political grounds. Recently a few Croatian businessmen told him they approved in principle of everything the AfD advocates but couldn’t support the party because it is opposed to foreigners. Somehow, Kalbitz says, he can understand how they got that impression – which is completely wrong, mind! – and he wishes me a pleasant journey.

Second Day: From Berlin to Wrocław

On the roof of East Berlin’s famous theatre in Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the Volksbühne, three giant letters glow red: OST, ‘East’. This alone is a statement – more; it is meant as a protest – in the reunified Berlin, perhaps even in united Europe: EAST. Many of the theatre’s major productions of the past two decades – physically exhausting productions because of their length alone, five, six, seven hours – have been adaptations of Russian novels, and its series of discussion events was at first titled ‘Capitalism & Depression’, and later ‘Politics & Crime’. The city government has just decided to make Germany’s most important dramatic theatre into a multimedia venue of the international festival circuit in which the primary language will be English. No doubt the topic of refugees will come up.

The taxi towards Berlin’s main railway station takes me past a plastic cube that is bigger than any other building along Unter den Linden – the cathedral, the university, the opera, the Brandenburg Gate. It is still hard to believe that behind these plastic sheets the façade of the Prussian royal palace, the residence of the Hohenzollern kings and emperors, is being reconstructed brick by brick, as if history could be reversed. ‘Do Bigger Things’ commands the advertisement that covers the whole front of the building site. Did the ad agency choose that poster deliberately? The image is nothing less than subversive: a landscape framed in the screen of a smartphone, a stylus resting on it, about to retouch reality. Soon an imitation of Prussian imperial splendour, of all things, is to become a museum of international scope, a showcase for the cultures of the world, and no one knows how that’s supposed to work. One floor has already been reappropriated for a better celebration of Berlin’s local history. All that’s needed now is to restore the gold cross on top of the palace, rising like a flag out of the colonial collections – the cross initially intended, after the failed revolution of 1848, to demonstrate the divine right of kings – then the cosmopolitan mask would be completely torn away.

In front of the Reichstag, whose cupola was also replaced after the fall of the Berlin Wall – but not with a reactionary reconstruction – I get out of the taxi. Because I’m a few minutes early, I roll my suitcase not to the right towards the station but left, to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Although I think the central site is right for the memorial, and its dimensions too, I find the walk-in landscape of concrete prisms awkward because it tries to create an empathy that can never be. Now I approach the memorial from the north for the first time, and I am surprised to see how the steles rise to form a greyish-black hill of gravestones, the trees of Tiergarten behind it becoming a cemetery garden, the surrounding office buildings metamorphosing into administrative tracts whose lines and colours coincide with those of the concrete cubes, the Brandenburg Gate suddenly a portal through which no one walked voluntarily. The sight, transforming the atrocity into an abstraction, since it is beyond imagining, leaves me reconciled with the memorial for a few minutes. But then I walk in between the steles and am immediately bewildered once more. The taller they get, the more remote the city, the more lost I feel, the angrier I am at the gimmick. The pronounced unevenness of the ground, apparently intended to simulate the faltering life force of the victims, yet to me the most trivial impediment imaginable, even with my wheeled suitcase, strikes me as impudent. The safety railings where stairs lead down to underground doors marked ‘Emergency Exit’ make a more honest impression than that.

Are the eastbound trains always this empty? I am embarrassed to admit it, but I have never been to Poland before. Born and raised deep in the west of Germany, we always looked towards France, Italy, the United States; we knew even the Middle East better than the east of our own country. Now the train is crossing the Oder, which seems to be a real river still, not built up and channelled; the banks are left to themselves. Not thirty seconds into Poland, the East already looks as unspoiled as in Andrzej Stasiuk’s books. But naturally the concrete-slab housing estates appear right away, thirty seconds later. 9

In Poznań I almost miss my connecting train to Wrocław because, in spite of all my travel experience, I can’t find my platform, and I don’t understand what anyone says to me when I show them my ticket. And then, too, I pull up short at the bakery in the station: if there is anything I would have thought was typically German, it’s the whole-grain bread, and now I realize that the Poles, or at least those in Poznań, bake their bread just as dark, and Germany’s culinary culture belongs more to the east than to the west of Europe, and still less to the south, which never entered German cuisine before the past few decades. Although the Germans amongst themselves perceive a division between North and South, along the imaginary line delimiting the range of the Bavarian white sausage, in fact the European continent is historically divided between East and West along a border separating brown bread and white. Before the world wars, Germany was naturally classed with Poland, Bohemia and Hungary as belonging to Central Europe, and German intellectuals were quick to explain what distinguished their country from the West. When I finally find a seat in the train, I am surprised to find it completely full, even the first-class carriage, as if the Poles travelled only inside their own country.

In Wrocław, still called Breslau in German, the historian Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, director of the Willy Brandt Centre, explains that the more recent ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl is far more popular in Poland than the idol of my West German peace-movement generation. True, Brandt recognized the Oder–Neisse border between East Germany and Poland, but later he failed to support the anti-communist opposition, and during his visit to Poland in 1985 he refused to meet with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Wałęsa. If I were to ask around on the square in front of the synagogue, where we are sitting at one of the cafés, hardly anyone would be able to place Chancellor Brandt’s name, and the people around here are educated. Hardly anyone in Poland heard about Brandt’s kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970, Ruchniewicz notes: the photo was printed only once in a Jewish newspaper, and after that it was published only in retouched or cropped versions – a Brandt with no knees.

And more elementary facts that you don’t realize if you grew up a few kilometres further west: every inhabitant of Wrocław, without exception, has what Germany is currently calling a ‘migration background’, and the entire population of the city was replaced in 1945, all 600,000 German inhabitants expelled – more, to be exact, because Silesia had been thought of as Germany’s air-raid shelter, and many refugees from further west lived in Breslau at that time. The Jews were expelled twice – no, three times: first by the Germans, who jammed them into trains going to Auschwitz, Theresienstadt or Majdanek; then the few Jews who had survived in Breslau were expelled after the war as Germans; and finally those who had been resettled in the city along with other Poles were expelled as Jews once more. We know this only vaguely, since our history lessons in school referred to the territories that are no longer German ashamedly, if at all. But in Poland, too, Ruchniewicz points out, the remembrance of the country’s past is only hazy and sees Poles exclusively as victims. Especially since the new, conservative government avoids any word about the expulsion of the Jews, not to mention that of the Germans.

I try to imagine how the Poles arrived in Wrocław, most of them after having been expelled themselves from what is now Ukraine; how they entered the homes the Germans had abandoned in haste, opening the wardrobes and the drawers; how the shoemaker kept an eye out for a cobbler’s shop, the doctor searched for a suitable surgery; in the schools the drawings of the previous classes still hung perhaps, the caretaker’s work coat, the headmaster’s hat, with a German label inside it – and if it happened to fit the new head? One would think it impossible for life to go on if a city loses all its inhabitants, and with the inhabitants its history, and then a few decades later it looks as if no other people had ever lived in Wrocław.

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz recounts how German expellees once drove up in his wife’s village near Bystrzyca Kłodzka, formerly Habelschwerdt, an extended family, or maybe more than one family, in a bus. The insistent German grandmother was dragged back by her daughters each time she asked about property prices and was finally pushed back into the bus. After a little tour, the bus stopped again in front of Ruchniewicz’s in-laws’ house. Someone handed a little present out of the door beside the driver, a packet of coffee, before the bus drove away. ‘It was an odd feeling,’ says the director of the Willy Brandt Centre, ‘a very strange feeling: should we have given them something too, we wondered – but what for?’

In the evening, as I send Andreas Kalbitz an e-mail to thank him for the friendly reception, I close with a greeting – a cheeky one I admit, but sometimes our fingers are faster than our brains – ‘from Breslau, where not cosmopolitanism but nationalism has reduced the German population to zero’.

Third Day: Auschwitz

The procedure that makes me fully German, with no ifs, ands or buts, takes less than a second. Because of the high number of visitors, I can visit Auschwitz only in a group, have to register in advance, ideally online, and must choose a language: English, Polish, German, et cetera. The system is not much different from that of an airport: the visitors, most of them with backpacks, short trousers or other indications that they are just passing through, hold up a bar code to check in, receive a sticker indicating their language, and go through a security check fifteen minutes before their tour begins. In a narrow waiting room they spread out along insufficient benches until their group is called. After holding my ticket under one more scanner, I am standing, from one step to the next, in the concentration camp, facing the barracks, the guard towers, the fences that all of us have seen in photos, reports, documentaries.

The groups have already sorted themselves, although the guides are not here yet. While the young Israelis are – or am I only imagining this? – somewhat louder and more self-assured, the Germans – no, I am not imagining it – huddle silently against the wall of the visitor centre. And then I stick the sticker on my chest bearing a single word in black and white: Deutsch, ‘German’. It is that, this act, the legend on my chest from then on like a confession: German. Yes, I am one of them, not by descent, blond hair, Aryan blood or any such nonsense, but simply by my language, and hence my culture. I go to my group and wait, also silent, for our guide. Each group in turn lines up for a bizarre photo in the gateway surmounted by the motto Arbeit macht frei. Only our group is ashamed.

The three-hour tour is designed so that the horror escalates continuously, from the bunkhouses to the various sites of execution by hanging or firing squad, torture chambers, laboratories for experiments on humans, to the gas chambers, whose walls show the scratches of fingernails. When the gas chamber was opened again after twenty minutes, the guide explains through the wireless headsets that all the visitors are wearing, the bodies were often entangled – as if the living had embraced one another one last time, I think. In fact, there must be nothing more lonely, even in that tangle, than the death struggle, and the bodies lashed out uncontrollably in all directions in pain, panic and grief. But that too is only a surmise, for anyone who survived Auschwitz did not look into that deepest black. The Jewish workers who entered the chamber after each gassing waded through blood, urine and faeces. They pulled the corpses apart and laid them on their backs to remove the gold crowns from their teeth, which the German Reich saw as its property. Many jaws were clenched so tightly that opening their mouths was hard physical work, requiring tools – as if the last act of the dying had been to resolve to keep silent. The idea that no more poems could ever be written after Auschwitz has so often been misunderstood, ridiculed, dismissed; yet Adorno himself was a vigorous defender of avant-garde poetry after the war. In the gas chamber, the statement takes on a natural self-evidence, not as a proscription, but as the expression of an immediate feeling: how can civilization go on at all after such a thing; what is the good of it? What can a human being say, having seen this work of human beings? My jaw clenches too. And just when we think we have begun to grasp the dimensions of the camp, a bus takes us a couple of kilometres further to Birkenau, the second Auschwitz camp, which is simply immense. Himmler wanted to make Auschwitz a model of a kind of slave economy, an imposing sight for visitors; it had at least the appearance of a labour camp, of order and function. But Birkenau was obviously a death factory.

The different groups cross paths again and again, but in spite of the many visitors there is almost never a wait in front of the various buildings. Auschwitz has long since taken its place among Europe’s top sightseeing destinations and offers the obligatory spots for selfies. Of course I constantly have a feeling of impropriety, yet I can’t think of any other way to channel the masses of people through the camp. There cannot be a proper way of presenting to tourists the industrial annihilation of human life. I would like to break away from the group, to be alone and take off the headset, helpful as our guide’s explanations are. But everyone has to maintain order to some extent so that it doesn’t break down. And we do want Auschwitz to be seen by as many people as possible.

At the very back of the Birkenau death camp, I find the Israeli groups gathered in an assembly, several hundred young people in white T-shirts, with accompanying adults, on a terrace. Broad-shouldered security guards, probably flown in with them, make sure no onlooker comes too close. Individual members of the group stand up in front of a wall-sized flag of Israel to sing or recite. They close with a group prayer.

As the young people are on their way to the exit, I strike up a conversation with some of them. The trip lasts eight days and takes them to the major sites of the extermination of the European Jews. It is not mandatory, but it is subsidized, and most Israelis take it around the end of their schooling.

‘And does it change something for you?’ I ask somewhat awkwardly.

‘Of course it changes something,’ a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl answers. ‘Before, the Holocaust was just another thing we read about in school. To be honest, it didn’t interest me any more than algebra. But here it becomes real to us.’ The first three, four days were almost a normal school trip; she didn’t really get what it was all about. But then at some point it clicked, and she understood where her roots are, and how few of her ancestors survived, and what a salvation Israel is. ‘I understand what it means to be a Jew, to be an Israeli; I really wasn’t even conscious of it before.’

When the young people ask me in turn what Auschwitz has changed for me, I tell them about my sticker bearing just one word: ‘German’. It is hard for them to believe that I feel guilty the moment I stick it on – or, perhaps, not guilty, but a member of the perpetrators’ group, not the victims. I try to explain to them what Willy Brandt’s kneeling in Warsaw meant to me, although I have to explain first who Willy Brandt was. To carry the burden of history, to sink to his knees under its weight, was a matter not of personal guilt – Brandt had fought against Hitler – but of responsibility for the country he happened to live in.

Auschwitz, one of the young people interjects, obligates every human being, no matter what country they belong to. He is still more surprised when I mention that my parents are not even German. The murders in Auschwitz were committed in German, I answer; all the orders posted on the walls, all the commands and all the duty rosters exhibited in the display cases here, even the instructions on the chemicals stacked in front of the gas chambers, are in German. Anyone who speaks this language, especially a writer who lives with it, makes his living by it, instinctively falls silent when he reads the posters of the camp commandants: Ihr seid hier in einem deutschen Konzentrationslager, ‘You are in a German concentration camp …’. And he understands why none of the present-day signposts is in German. A German in Auschwitz will never be an uninvolved visitor. To myself, I add that the sentence about the poetry that can never be written after Auschwitz has another meaning, a special meaning, for that literature which is written in the language of the perpetrators: I read in Primo Levi that it was a matter of survival for the prisoners to know German so that they could understand the rules, the barked commands and abstruse decrees straight away. ‘It is no exaggeration to say that it was their ignorance of these languages [German and Polish] which caused the very high mortality rate of the Greeks, the French and the Italians in the concentration camp,’ Levi writes. ‘And it was not easy to guess, for example that the hail of punches and kicks which had suddenly knocked you to the ground was due to the fact that the buttons on your jacket numbered four, or six, instead of five, or that you had been seen in bed, in the middle of winter, with a hat on your head.’1

The young people ask why they haven’t seen a single German school group. The time of year, the distance – there will be some reason, I answer. If even to them, the young Israelis, Auschwitz was just something they read about in school, they can imagine how it is in German schools, especially since so many young people today come from other countries. That makes it all the easier, of course, not to see Auschwitz as a part of one’s own history.

I think back to my visit to Schwerin, to the optimistic refugees and the alarmed citizens: if there was anything specifically German about the ‘core culture’ that is invoked every few years as a standard for the integration of Germany’s immigrants, it would not be human rights, equality, secularism and so forth, because all these values are European, if not universal. It would be Germany’s consciousness of its guilt, which Germany has gradually learned, and ritually rehearsed – but what the nationalist idea wants to abolish is precisely this achievement, which neither France nor the United States but only the Federal Republic of Germany can claim, alongside recycling and good automobiles. Conversely, though, those who oppose a nationalistic conception of the ‘nation’ must not set narrow ethnic limits on historic responsibility. If they want to be integrated, the Syrians, or at least their children, who have already mastered the German subjunctive, will also have to bear the burden of being German. In Auschwitz, if not before, they will feel that burden the moment they step outside the visitors’ centre.

Fourth Day: Cracow

An exhibit in the Cracow Museum of Contemporary Art, which occupies what was once the site of Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, shows the photograph of a friendly-looking and very pretty young visitor laughing gaily by the fence of the Birkenau death camp. The shadow of the barbed wire lies across her face.

The photo was the subject of a local scandal: the Jewish community demanded its removal. Yet it shows a situation that can be observed every day in Birkenau: visitors smiling into the camera in front of the fence, the guard towers or the railway cars, sometimes taking the photographs themselves. When a woman buoyantly and confidently displays her beauty in Birkenau today, is it a triumph over barbarism or a mockery of the victims of that barbarism? As if in defence, the catalogue emphasizes that the young woman in the photograph is a Jew – but does the propriety of smiling before the fence of the concentration camp depend on one’s ethnic group? The catalogue also reproduces images from a 1999 video in which people, old and young, dance and cavort naked in the gas chamber. That time, the protest was not just local. Although, or because, the images are almost unbearable, they etch themselves into my memory, something video art rarely achieves.

The Schindler museum, which tries in three dimensions to elicit empathy with the forced labourers, has me bolting for the door after twenty minutes. In a colourless grey-beige room decked out as a mine, visitors walk on original gravel. I imagine some take off their shoes to feel the victims’ travail. Outside the museum grounds, taxi drivers advertise an excursion with posters: ‘Auschwitz Salt Mine Cheap!’

You can read how beautiful Cracow is in a travel guide, or more strikingly in the poems of Adam Zagajewski, the most famous of this city’s many poets. The backdrop of Renaissance, baroque, Art Nouveau and neo-Gothic architecture has escaped all damage from the war and the communist wrecking ball. And yet it seems to me, the longer I meander through the city centre, to be only a backdrop, a backdrop containing the same ‘Coffee Shops’, ‘Quality Hamburgers’ and branches of the established fashion chains as Seville, Pisa or Avignon, the same pedestrian zones and separate rubbish and recycling bins, an identical selection of restaurants with a sprinkling of ‘Local Food’, the same cycle hire stations and wheeled boards with handlebars on them rolling helmeted tourists through the alleyways, the same football jerseys – Real, Barcelona, Bayern, Manchester – worn by children from every European country. Even the itinerant artists’ pop songs, arias and magic tricks are the same everywhere in Europe. An ordinary urban life, on the other hand, with shop window displays addressing the locals, with tradespeople, businesspeople or hurried passers-by, is not to be found in the leisure parks which many European city centres have become: instead there is ‘Carrefour Express’ with exactly the same provisions as in any Spanish seaside town; there are the notorious bare-chested, beer-drinking young Englishmen – how uncanny that they are able to be in Seville, Pisa and Avignon at the same time.

Passing an inconspicuous church, I hear a female choir and open the door. There are nuns in white habits, not as old as elsewhere in Europe, scattered among the pews, each one by herself and yet all of them together. Seen from behind, they look all the same – after all, their clothes are a kind of uniform. The scene, which I had not anticipated – although I might have expected it in Poland, if anywhere in the world – perhaps the scene seems so odd to me because the day-to-day life of the convent is the starkest possible contrast to the polyglot entertainments that dominate the environment outside. For a moment, the nuns’ daily routine strikes me as more individual than the lifestyle in any ‘Organic Café’.

As in every city where no Jews survived, the Jewish quarter of Cracow is particularly trendy. Perhaps kosher dining 60 kilometres from Auschwitz is also a kind of empathy, only with the illusion of a happy ending. The Hebrew letters are accompanied here by most of the signs indicating ‘Vegan Cuisine’ and ‘Free Wi-Fi’. Even the cigarette adverts extol the ‘Feel Good’ lifestyle: low in harmful substances, multilingual, and easy on the conscience. In this ‘Easy Jet’ world that is making the cities as interchangeable as the beach resorts already are, no one has anything against gays, the disabled, Blacks, the headscarves of the Arab tourists, whose men wear the same Bermuda shorts as all the tourists in the world; everyone communicates in English; the baby-changing rooms are labelled for both sexes, and the visit to the Schindler museum is followed by a smoothie, enjoyed while simultaneously surfing the wide world of the web. No wonder Europe has made some people’s homes feel strange to them.

But Cracow, the poet Adam Zagajewski counters, has benefited enormously from Europe, and especially from tourism and the subsidies from Brussels. The city used to be black with the toxic soot of the steel mills, black with the coal heaped in front of the buildings every autumn and washed onto the pavements with every rain, the Vistula, too, black with dirt. And it was not only the streets that were sombre: under communism the city stiffened ‘in a weary grimace’, as one of Zagajewski’s books phrases it, ‘in the catatonic stupor of a patient in the psychiatric ward who awaits the end of the world while clad in his blue-striped pajamas.’2

Adam Zagajewski, the poet of protest against the dictatorship in the years after 1968, was banned from publishing and emigrated first to Paris and later to the United States. In his poems, essays and diaries, he uncovered a kind of European consciousness, an empire of the mind, carefree and multilingual in its disregard for national borders, free of ideological compulsions in its view of the inevitably bloody past. Today, over seventy years old and translated into many languages, he doesn’t want to leave Cracow again, yet he is horrified by the new nationalist-religionist government which, like the communist regime, obscures the society’s real problems under an ideological veil: nation, church, family, tradition. The government would align the whole culture with patriotism, funding only patriotic plays, patriotic films, patriotic museums. The result, of course, is unspeakable kitsch.

‘Being against communism was something,’ he sighs over lunch in one of the old, now genteel literary cafés. ‘It wasn’t just risky, it was also intellectually worthwhile. You were taking on a whole edifice of ideas.’ But the new right offers only fragments of a world view, he continues. The nation is not enough to make a political platform; after all, it is different everywhere you look, so that the Polish emigrants in Great Britain, for example, are victims of the same rhetoric that is used to inflame opinion against immigration in Poland – with, of course, the ridiculous twist that there are hardly any immigrants in Poland. ‘And then a Catholic nationalism to boot: it’s a contradiction in terms. This kind of thinking makes a heretic of the pope himself!’

The renationalization has many causes, Zagajewski says: there is the poorer population who have no share in the growing wealth of the middle and upper classes; there is the longing for community brought about by the atomization of the liberal system. At the same time, very old conflicts are still active, conflicts that date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the landed aristocracy wore Sarmatian robes in rebellion against the French fashion. Today the cut of one’s coat is no longer an issue, says Zagajewski; no one in Poland wants to dress in Middle Eastern clothes, least of all the nationalists, who are obsessed on the contrary with warning against the East; but the fear of losing the substance of ‘Polishness’ to modernization and Western influence is already rampant.

‘And what is that substance?’

‘Well,’ Zagajewski sighs, ‘it’s a popular Catholicism in combination with pierogi and borscht; not much more than that, really.’

I have often wondered, although without thinking any further about it, at the fact that so many Poles have the typically Persian name Dariusz. Only during my preparations for this journey did I realize that the Sarmatians constantly referred to in Polish Romanticism are an Iranian ethnic group who settled in Crimea long before the Greeks, and who were thought to have migrated northwards from there. In reality, it was mainly Turkish-speaking Tatars and Mongols who spread throughout Eastern Europe from the Black Sea, and only from the twelfth or thirteenth century. While the Muscovites hid from the Mongols in the forests of the north, Poland was open to the oriental influences. Thus the division of the society into herby, or clans, could have its origins in nomadism, just as the relations between Polish lords and foreign merchants’ colonies mirror the coexistence of Iranians and Greeks on the Black Sea coast. Sarmatia was a traditional, mythic term associated with the lifestyle of the old Polish aristocracy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Rzeczpospolita, to explain its fundamental difference from Western culture – hence the men’s robes in old portraits, the Middle Eastern pomp, the richly ornamented weapons, the bushy hair and moustaches; hence the Persian names. Sarmatianism was meant to express superiority, not inferiority. To enlightened Western rulers and philosophers, however, Sarmatia stood for backwardness, anarchy, intrigue and irrationality.

The revival of Sarmatianism in the nineteenth century was largely the work of the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. In the decades that followed, whenever Germanization threatened to get out of hand under the influence of the Habsburg Empire and the German cultural canon, literature went back to glorifying the old Polish aristocratic culture, and the Sarmatian robes repulsed the fashions of Paris and Vienna. Do those who want to lead Poland back to its roots today still remember that their ancestors placed those roots in Iran – even though it was a mythical country they had in mind? Today many Poles see the election of past Polish kings by a mass assembly of aristocrats as a precursor of the parliamentary system: proof of their country’s Western identity and inherent difference from Russian despotism. In reality, the custom, now constitutionally established in the form of the Sejm, arose in the late sixteenth century and was modelled after the Kurultai, the assembly in which Tatar nobles and tribal chiefs elected a new khan. The last mayor of Lviv to be appointed by Vienna, who bore the beautiful German name Franz Kröbl, underscored his Polish identity by having himself buried in Middle Eastern robes. Nothing could be further from the mind of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing PiS party.

‘No, no one remembers the Sarmatians any more,’ Adam Zagajewski confirms, stirring his coffee, which … well, even a Jarosław Kaczyński knows where coffee comes from.

After the national-religious party won the elections, Zagajewski wrote another protest poem, his first in many years, satirical, angry, caustic, advising the new government to execute some movie directors and to set up penal camps, which ‘should be lenient, so as not to provoke the UN’.3 For a moment he was an activist again, drawing the nationalists’ ire, becoming a hero of the pro-European movement. Since then, however, Zagajewski has abstained from political remarks. You can’t be constantly fighting against the bigotry, the narrow-mindedness, the fear, he says; it would make you silly in the long run. What you need to do is to show – in the society, in the culture, in books, in day-to-day relations – that openness has value, is fun, is beautiful, that it is more advantageous than withdrawal. Europe can’t be saved by boredom.