Sue Brooks reviews Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast by Paul Scraton, our Book of the Month for June.
Anyone familiar with the website Under a Grey Sky and the magazine Elsewhere will know Paul Scraton’s fascination with Heimat, the German word so expressive of longing and belonging – a yearning for a homeland to which there is a deep connection. That sense of loss and separation which is often the result of exile, seeking asylum or simply living elsewhere. It conjures melancholy, forever associated with the spell which is cast over the reader who opens a book by W.G. Sebald. And indeed over this reader turning the first few pages of Ghosts on the Shore. The grainy black and white photograph, the swastika in the white circle flying high on the flagpole, the visit to the National Gallery in Berlin to see the painting by Caspar David Friedrich The Monk by the Sea. Viewing the image of the painting online, letting it sink into my unconscious and contemplating the other monk-like figure on the book cover. Not one figure but two, emerging from the mist or cloud, or the sea itself: the suggestion these were two of an infinite number walking away – always away – towards disappearance without trace. In The Emigrants, Sebald introduces Dr Henry Selwyn with the words And the last remnants memory destroys. They have stayed with me, ghostly companions of my own imagining, throughout this powerful and deeply moving story of the Baltic coast.
As an Englishman living in Berlin for 16 years, Paul Scraton has visited the Baltic frequently with his partner, Katrin. She describes Stralsund, close to the island of Rugen, as her Heimat of the heart, a place of happy memories of growing up as a child in the GDR. Her father too, has mainly good memories of those years. He has no interest in thinking otherwise…Paul Scraton worries he has gone too far in asking questions that could be disturbing. He recalls reading about the 80% who get by under totalitarian regimes, those who do the best they can for their families and feel they have survived relatively unscathed. Memory and forgetting.
The Baltic, says Jan Morris, is the most ominous and eerie of Europe’s waters. Paul Scraton travels there in the winter months. He sees snow-covered beaches and shuttered holiday accommodation. Winter had arrived in Kuhlingsborn and it felt eternal. The mood builds up layer upon layer. He looks out onto the shallow waters of the sea and remembers – re-members – the 4,000 concentration camp survivors who drowned on May 3rd 1945 when the RAF bombed the Cap Arcona, and the 9,000 Prussian refugees who went down on the Wilhelm Gustloff, torpedoed by the Russians on Jan 30th 1945. He reads Crabwalk, Gunter Grass’ account of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the largest death toll of the sinking of a single ship in maritime history, but scarcely acknowledged in post-war Germany. The deaths of civilians, as in the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg – the 80% who get by as best they can: ordinary people who don’t make it to the history books. Grist for the mill of Nationalist movements in the 1990s, and in Paul Scraton’s personal experience, in contemporary Berlin.
We need to ask ourselves: how did it happen.
He looks hard. He doesn’t want to miss anything – a line on the sand, a yet-to-be demolished building from the GDR days, the name plate on a doorbell illuminated by a weak bulb. BARTHELS. Of all the ghosts that haunt this story, Barthels brought me closest to tears. Taking his model from Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s Nobel-Prize-for-Literature-winning novel about Lubeck, Paul Scraton creates his own fictional tale of the decline of a family – three generations of the Barthels, covering the years before, during and after the Nazi regime. So little said, so many small decisions made and the unimaginable consequences. So much loneliness and despair. It ends with the telling of the Vineta legend – the lost Atlantis of the Baltic, the once prosperous city which fell into perversion and depravity and was overwhelmed by the sea. Towns crumble into the sea. The Baltic remains. Indifferent to human history.
When he reaches Golm, close to the Polish border, through which any E.U. citizen can now travel freely, he visits the hill where thousands of bodies have been buried, the majority in mass graves. No one knows how many were killed by Allied bombs in March 1945 – estimates vary from five to twenty three thousand. As so often on these trips North, I found my imagination failing me. How could it not? And all the time, the traces are being removed. There are now more millionaires per capita in the peninsula Fischland-Darss-Zingst than anywhere else in Germany. A visitor to Swinoujscie will soon be able to journey directly from the nineteenth to the twenty first century with very little remaining from the years in between.
Writers tell a different story, especially in the interface between travel, memoir, the natural world and fiction. What we know, what we read, and also what we discover. Knowing and reading, as we all do, of the thousands drowned in recent years in another sea and other thousands moving North, seeking refuge, carrying Heimat in a different language.
The last line of Gunter Grass’ Crabwalk…It doesn’t end. Never will it end.
The last line of Ghosts on the Shore…Those ghosts are indeed our responsibility, and they will live on in our memories of this place and others and the stories we choose to tell.
The words of W.G. Sebald which haunt me still…And the last remnants memory destroys.
I urge you to read this book.
Ghosts on the Shore is published in paperback by Influx Press. Buy a copy here from the Caught by the River shop.