Mystery Photos of Fenestrelle Sword Dancers

Dear Readers,

I write to you today with a mystery. Specifically I have two  mystery photos that I would appreciate any help in identifying. I spent the beginning of July in London doing lots of social dancing (ahh, how I have missed it!) and doing research in the archives of the Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. During this time I came across two photos of the Fenestrelle Sword Dancers that stood out. 
These pictures are interesting for a couple reasons. The main thing that sticks out are the costumes. In 1935, the Fenestrelle team went to England for a International Folk Dance Festival that included teams from several countries. For this event the government of Italy required that their costumes be in the Italian national colors and thus the kit was changed to more or less the current form:

These obviously different costumes and I would love to know if these were the standard kit. The photos must have been printed (and I am guessing taken) between 1930 and 1945, based on the brand of paper, and the address of the company stamped on the back, but very little other information is given. I also assume they were taken in Italy, as it is an Italian company that printed them. If anyone has any information or leads as to date, location, situation or if these were the standard costumes pre-1935 that would be great!

The second question is simply, what is the top photograph of? It is not a particular figure in the dance (though it resembles the lift of the harlequin) and is in a very strange, semi-posed form. No one is looking at the camera, but there is a gap in the circle towards the photographer. Theories welcome.

The two historical photos were reproduced courtesy English Folk Dance & Song Society and I would like to thank the librarians there who were extremely helpful in helping me find texts and photos, even looking through uncatalogued archives in search of sword dances! You guys are the best!

 

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From Papa Stor to Grenoside: A Gathering of Britain’s Traditional Sword Dance Groups

After spending a few extra days in Padstow after the May Day celebrations, I took the train to London (playing banjo and trading songs with a fellow on the train), where I stayed in a rather unfortunate hostel. Luckily, I was only there for about 6 hours, as I got up ridiculously early to take two trains and two buses up to Newcastle, where I stayed over with one of the Kingsmen, unwound, and got to talk about my trip so far. As I mentioned in the last post, I am starting to feel like I can put bits and pieces of this experience together in more interesting ways, and so it was nice to have a moment to just relax and think about it. The moment didn’t last particularly long as the next day I met up with some dancers from Snark Rapper and drove down to Goathland for the first gathering of every traditional hilt-and-point sword dance team left in the UK.

To clarify, these are not reconstructed teams, but groups that have been dancing their village dance, so to speak, and are continuing to do so. In the UK there are only six left: Handsworth Longsword, Flamborough Longsword, Goathland Plough Stots, Grenoside Longsword, High Spen Blue Diamonds Rapper, and The Papa Stor Sword Dancers. This last team I was particularly interested to visit, as they are from the Shetland Islands, and this was one of the first times they have ever performed on the mainland.

We arrived and set up our tents on the cricket pitch before the first dances. I had visited the village of Goathland (famous for its steam railway featured in the Harry Potter movies, its spray painted sheep sheep which have a right to free grazing all around town, and for being in some UK TV show called Heartbeat) when I was dancing with my rapper team Beside the Point at the Sword Spectacular in 2004.

This is what happend to me last time I came to Goathland. I believe I am about to be revived by a virgin’s kiss.

It is a rather small village and the two performance venues were outside the small row of shops and in the parking lot of the garage, which had taken the name of the garage in the TV show Heartbeat. I wanted to mostly follow Papa Stor and so went to the Garage for the first stand of the day, where they were dancing with Grenoside.

I was astonished by just how different it was to every other rendition of the dance I had seen when performed by other groups. The performance started with a series of speeches to introduce the seven dancers, who represent the Seven Champions of Christendom, the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Wales. Interestingly for a dance originating in Shetland, the captain of the dance is St. George, not St. Andrew. All the dancers are introduced and then each is called forward to dance, with sword arched over his head.

I say arched as the swords are made from flexible steel that’s slightly less flexible than typical rapper swords. They also have colored hilts that correspond with the colors of each dancer’s baldric, a new idea which was introduced by the current leader, George Peterson. George, who is now nearly 80, plays fiddle for the group along with a younger woman.The dance itself is performed slowly and solemnly, and everyone involved in it emphasized that it is supposed to be a dignified and solemn dance, and dancers shouldn’t be smiling during the performance. I have usually seen the dance done running or jogging, while they did it walking. The flexible swords allow the dancers to move closer together at times, and during over-the-sword figures, the swords are arched down to the ground.

After the first performances were over I cornered George and we got to talk for a while about his experiences growing up dancing, and collecting various bits of folk culture from Papa Stor. He first learned the dance at 16 and has been instrumental in maintaining the tradition. Since Papa Stor only has 10 people currently living on it, the dancers are now drawn from local schools off the island. Today the dance is going strong, and has a youth team as well. On dancer told me he thought that around 40 people from the community were involved in the sword dancing, which represents a very strong interest in maintaining the dance. One interesting tidbit is that when learning or practicing the dance, the group always refers to the positions by the name of the Saint, not by a numbering system, which I think is cool! The dance is particularly interesting as it is so and far away from the sword dancing from the Yorkshire or Northumberland areas,. George believes that the dance most likely came to Shetland with the servant of an English lord who had a residence in the area and created a sword dance from experiences seeing Yorkshire longsword. It is certainly a topic for more investigation and I am particularly intrigued that, while it has a sword lock (a particularly English figure) many figures that more closely resemble continental sword dances.

The Goathland Plough Stots organized the weekend and put on a fine performance. They have several dances that use six (or occasionally eight) dancers who dance with inflexible metal swords and dress in blue and pink, which represent the old political parties of Torys and Whigs. In January they still celebrate Plough Monday by taking the Plough around the village and performing the sword dance. They also have a strong youth tradition and were able to field three teams simultaneously during the weekend!

It was time for lunch, and all the groups ate together and socialized for a bit before resuming dancing. For the next stand I continued to follow Papa Stor, and saw the team from Grenoside as well. I had seen them a few times before, and they didn’t dissapoint.

Grenoside certainly is up there for cool costumes! It also has the distinction of dancing with swords from 1933 which were given to them by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which had adopted the sword lock as their logo. Grenoside performs on Boxing day with the captain singing a song and being beheaded in quick order! While it may date back to 1750 or earlier, the earliest written record of the Grenoside sword dance is 1895.

The Handsworth Sword Dancers dance in big rubber boots and strange looking caps with eight dancers. They also dance on Boxing Day, although if that is a Sunday they will postpone until Monday. (I forgot to say in my last post on Padstow May Day that postponing Sunday May Days to Monday is also the custom) Interestingly enough, the dance was able to continue through WWII (unlike many others) as the dancers were all working with steel or mining, which were deemed essential industries, and thus not called to serve in the military. Both Grenoside and Handsworth face uncertain futures, as they have yet to be successful involving younger people in the dances. I hope that both teams will be able to recruit youth into the dance and will continue to thrive.

On the other hand, the Flamborough team has a flourishing youth team, who performed at the weekend alongside their older counterparts. There have been kids teams off and on as far back as 1934, and children helped keep the dance alive during the world wars. The distinctive kit of the team is the navy blue ganseys (sweaters) used by fishermen of the village and grey caps (for adults) or red hats (children) The sword are made from wood, and there is certain speculation that they may have originally been derived from a tool used to repair fishing nets.

While the adult team is all male, the youth section of the Flamborough sword dancers (and the Goathland sword team for that mater!) includes girls. While at first I assumed that this was a recent development, it actually has an older basis in tradition, as a “Girl Guides” team kept the dance going from about 1928-1938!

Photo by: Richard Traves

That night there was a big party, complete with dancing, singing, jamming, food, drink, and general merrymaking! George Patterson received the Gold Badge from EFDSS (Equivelent to CDSS’s Lifetime Achievement Award) in a wonderful ceremony. There was even a mini concert by Eliza Carthy, who grew up playing for the Goathland Plough Stots and still comes and plays for them! We stayed up far to late singing bawdy songs before finally going back and shivering through the night (Frost? In May? WHY??) in our tents.

I had breakfast at the Goathland Inn the next day with some of the members of Snark Rapper, the only non-traditional team to be invited to the weekend.

Even if they aren’t traditional they certainly are a lot of fun, and contributed in songs what they lacked in history. As the High Spen Blue Diamonds were unfortunately unable to perform at the weekend, they contributed the rapper for the event.We had a May pole performance by the school children of Goathland which was great. The men had dug a big hole for the pole and they performed around 5 different patterns of dances, which was impressive!  I think it is so cool how this type of dance pops up in so many different countries and cultures!

I also got to try out the Papa Stor sword dance after convincing one of the dancers to teach a bit! It definitely is a different feeling dancing with the flexible swords.

After a bit more dancing it was time to head down to Beck Hole, a hamlet of Goathland with the smallest pub you can imagine! Obviously, Snark insisted upon dancing in it, which was entertaining to say the least, as the dancers had to step up onto chairs and other obstacles as they did a moving ring! Beck Hole is also a place with fond memories of 2004, as GMMS and Sallyport joined forces to make “The World’s Biggest Sword Lock” I am on the far left with the hair that looks like my hair.

This time around was lots of fun too, but unfortunately we had to rush back home to Newcastle for a big party at the Cumberland Arms, where the Kingsmen were performing. I said my farewells and with that I was heading back to Newcastle! Ahm gannin back te the toon agyen!

Edit (June 2014): John Atkinson, the Honorary Secretary of the Goathland Plough Stots was the driving force behind the weekend, which was held as a wish of the late Michael Atkinson MBE, who was the team president and dance with the Plough Stots  for 70 years. Bravo to the team for putting together such an amazing weekend!

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Oss Oss! Wee Oss! May Day in Padstow

As I have fallen behind again, it is time for that lovely invention: The Slideshow Post! This one was not on sword dancing, but I have always dreamed of going to Padstow for May Day, and I had a few extra days before my next commitment, so to Padstow I went!

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Here is a video of part of the Night Song: (at around 25 seconds youtube does something strange and it gets static. Hopefully this will be fixed…) 

I stayed for a few extra days in Padstow and was glad I did, as on the second day of may they have another celebration where everyone gets dressed up in costume (this year was pirate themed) and sings songs around all the pubs in a roving party of Merrymakers! I particularly liked this song that was all about Padstow on the second day of May, once it has quieted down from the craziness of May Day.

I thought it was interesting to compare Padstow May Day with Wren Day in Dingle, Ireland. There are also horses that are stabled in different pubs around town and people get dressed up in their own colors and march through the street making music.

The Oss looks different to the Hobby horse from Dingle, but there certainly are similarities!

Ok, that’s all for now! Next time I’ll be writing about the first gathering of all traditional UK Hilt-and-Point sword teams in history, including the Papa Stor sword dancers from the Shetlands! Exciting stuff!

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International Sword Spectacular In Germany

After a brief jaunt through Croatia and Bosnia I returned back to Germany to the town of Balingen, just south of Stuttgart, for an International Sword Dance Festival. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of information, I had not much of an idea where it was. I convinced an off-duty bus driver (Banjo music + young daughter=helpful parent) to take me to the headquarters of the organization that was putting on the festival, a few miles outside the center. Upon arriving there I discovered that in fact the performance was happening back where I started, and that the youth hostel where I could stay was closing in ten minutes! Luckily a Croatian man who was waiting for his parents to arrive offered me a lift, and I checked into the youth hostel, grabbed all my gear and sprinted to the performance hall. I missed the (German) introductions, but managed to make it there in time for the performances! The event was split into three days; Friday and Sunday had showcases and Saturday was to be a free day of sightseeing and socializing. To make it easy I will just be describing all the groups together and not splitting them into two separate days.

From Basque Country came the group Andra Mari, led by a man that I had actually met in Arrate in September! He recognized me when I came backstage and introduced me to the leaders of the German team, for which I was grateful. They performed a few dances, including the set of stick and sword dances from Iurreta which I had seen last year. It was a very different experience seeing the dance done on a stage and watching it in its natural environment, but they were great performers and I enjoyed the dancing greatly.

Less familiar to me were the two groups from Korcula, a Croatian island just north of where I saw sword dancing on Lastovo. First up was Kumpanija Pupnat, led by a flag spinner and carrying swords in elaborately decorated scabbards.

The dance is one of six Kumpanijas that are performed in different Korčulan towns and is a combination of linked dancing with mock combat style. It starts with the group of dancers marching around the space, lead by a man twirling the croatian flag. They go on to unsheath their swords in a line as a leader dances in front of the group. There is a weaving figure and a few tunnels in zig-zag formation, all directed by the leader who separates from the group at times. It is particularly interesting as it is the only sword dance that I have seen which incorporates mock combat elements such as a challenges and two sides advancing at each other while staying in hilt and point formation. It uses a variety of steps that change throughout the dance. 

The second group from Korčula was the Moreška, who perform in the town of Korčula and are probably the most well known of the different teams. The dance is not hilt and point, but tells the common story of fighting between the Moors (depicted in black) and the Christians (in red). In this version, Bula (the young girl) is captured by Moro (the king of the Moors). She is in love with the Osman, the red king, who enters and tries to take her. This results in a battle between the two sides, with the red dancers acting as the aggressors and black dancers presenting a defending and sometimes cowardly pose. Each dancer carries two short metal swords with a small diamond-shaped bulge at the point. There are several figures and rounds, and the group sometimes performs shortened versions of the dance by removing a few. In the end the black army is slain, or at least defeated, and Bula and Osman walk off together followed by the two armies.

I had a nice reunion with some old friends from the sword dance team in Fenestrelle who had been invited to the weekend. They performed their dance quite well and I thought it was one of the dances that really translated well to the stage.

I liked getting to have a reunion; this trip is great because I am always meeting new people and seeing new things, but it certainly can get tiring. I won’t describe the dance with much detail, but feel free to check out my original post on Fenestrelle!

Next up: Uberlinger. This is the oldest continuously performed sword dance that we have documented, going back to at least 1646! In it’s current form the dancers are dressed in 18th centure garb and carry swords at their sides in scabbards. It has some similarities in choreography to the Bagnasco sword dance, with weaving figures and arches down and up.  The dance’s most unusual feature is the Hansel, a devil-like character dressed in rags and brandishing a long whip. According to legend, during the 30-years war, the men of Uberlinger were preparing for battle (against the Swedish, if my historical memory serves) and all went to church before the fight. All, that is to say, except for one. Needless to say, they all survived except for this man, Hansel. With whip in hand he struck a rather terrifying figure, particularly with stage lighting, but some brave children were not intimidated and managed to go say hi anyway!

The dance ended with the women who had been by the sidelines coming out and the whole group doing a set of social dances together. The other German group was the Frommern team who had organized the event. This was a reconstructed dance that was primarily taken from this etching:

This picture is from about 400 years ago in Nuremberg, and is commonly cited in sword dance literature and reconstructions. However, there is one element that I have never seen performed, which is the two platforms of swords with men clashing swords between them that is seen at the top of the picture. The Frommern team was the first group that I have seen to include this, and in spectacular fashion!

There were two hilarious fools and some great dancing as well as speeches and sword clashing on top of the stars. It is worth noting that these were proper locks, not just loose stars, and could be held up and displayed. They were made in an uneven fashion, so that they had rays instead of points. It was quite the dramatic effect!

Moving on to Belgium, we had three of the four teams from the group Lange Wapper (the children’s group couldn’t come) which was founded by one of the greatest sword dance researchers and scholars, Renaat van Craenenbroeck who passed away a few years ago. He was the main choreographer behind the original men’s dance and probably the most knowledgeable person about continental sword dancing. 

It is a wonderful dance, both inovative and rooted in tradition at the same time and I had a great time learning some of it from the dancers. I actually had met some of the dancers at the 2004 Sword Spectacular in Whitby, England and taught them rapper dancing during some of the spare time. I mentioned this and was told that that was one of the things that inspired the women to write a dance of their own, inspired by rapper and longsword.

The final dance was written for the older men to dance when they weren’t able to do the original dance any more (as you can see, it can take a toll on the knees!) It was danced in huge wooden clogs and the leader had bellpads on his shins.

I had a lot of fun with the Belgians during the weekend and even got to do a rapper refresher course (with scarves) during one of the late-night parties!  I really hope to visit the team in the future, but it probably won’t be on this trip. Which sort of leads me to one of the questions I have been pondering: How am I planning on continuing this research after my Watson Fellowship ends? I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I am fairly certain that I want to keep visiting these groups, studying and learning. I think that returning to places will be a very different feeling and I will be able to get a whole new perspective on the dances, cultures and customs.

The final sword group was an extra special treat, the Durmberger sword dancers from Austria. Traditionally the dance of salt miners (the region, near Salzburg, was famous for salt production) it is only performed every four years, and this was one of the first times it had ever been performed outside of that schedule. It is a really interesting dance and each figure is named after a situation or activity in mining. They used props such as a ladder, which the capitan would climb and then slide down, and would form various tableaus before returning to a circling chorus. They also included a double high circle, which is one of the most amazing figures I have seen!

Aside from all of the amazing sword dancing, the weekend was full of socializing, sight-seeing, social dancing and music making. We visited a nearby castle with the Basques and Croatians where we got a tour in slidey slippers and capes and had lunch overlooking the whole countryside.

Every night there was a big dinner and everyone played music from their home country and taught some dances. I played banjo and got to dance zwiefachers, so I was a happy dancer! With so many talented musicians it was always a lively scene until the wee hours. I got to meet and interview lots of the dancers and came away from the weekend with immense satisfaction. Almost as pleased with myself as this fellow!

Posted in Basque Country, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Sword Dance | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In the News: Georgrit 2012 in Traunstein

This is a video made by the TV station from the town of Traunstein with some footage of the dance and even a brief interview with the resident American (yours truly!) If you don’t speak German you might want to just watch the first thirty seconds and then skip to 3:35.

Posted in Germany, In the News, Sword Dance | 1 Comment

Sword Dance in Traunstein: 16 Dancers and 397 Horses

I rehearsed with the Traunstein Schwerttanz group every Friday evening for the month of March. We would meet and run through the dance once or twice before talking it over and then going out to the local pub to get pretzels, beer and multicolored hardboiled eggs. During the week I took the oppertunity to visit other cities, but I’ll try to write a post on that later!  What is really exciting is the dancing! On the day after Easter (St. George’s day) we met in the early morning to get into costume for the day. I had helped organize the costumes a few days earlier, each position has a very specific outfit that aligns with other colors during the figures of the dance, a nuance that I didn’t realize until we were actually dancing. Half the dancers are in blue and white, while the other half are split into either green or black on yellow. The kit consists of leather shoes, long socks, trousers with stripes, a ruffled shirt, a striped jacket and a large hat that is worn hanging over the back by a cord. On the head we wear a leather cap and laurel wreath. There are more pretzels and beer and we grab our swords and go to meet with the Landsknechte, also known as Lanzknechte (as they are carrying lances), these are more historical knights that will make up the other half of the non-mounted Georgirit procession.

The dance was first performed in 1926 for a town celebration after a local pharmesist had found a reference to sword dancing in the town archives from 1530! He assembled a team of people to create different parts of the dance; one for music, another for costumes, a third for the song, and another for choreography. One story that I love is that the choreographer was trying to test out certain movements and couldn’t do it alone. Who did he recruit to test such figures as “single fencing?” Why, his 10 year old daughter of course! With umbrellas! What the neighbors thought, we will never know! We had some last minute preparations (tying flowers to the ends of our swords) and then got into formation to get ready to march to the center of town for our first dance of the day. I handed off my cameras to various friends from the town and we were ready to go!

We walked in two lines down the center of the street while the captain (dressed in red) walked in the center, and the Winters (two boys pictured above) caused general mayhem,  hitting the bystanders with the rope whips, doing gymnastics, and having a competition to see which one of them could knock the hats off the most policemen. We arrived in the town center and paused for a few moments to wait for the church bell to strike 9:30. The clock chimed and the brass band struck up its tune. The Herold walked onto the stage, followed by the captain, winters, flag swingers and finally the sword dancers. 

The flag swingers, carrying the flags of Traunstein (Green, gold, and black triband) and Bavaria (Quartered blue and white checkered with lion rampant) performed at the beginning and end of the performance. the whole procession made a circuit of the raised wooden platform with the music. The sword dancers lined up along the back edge while the Herold, captain and winters moved to the front, flanked by the flag swingers. The Captain gave a signal and we all raised the swords in salute, cried “Vivat!” and through the flowers from our swords into the crowd! The Herold then read a speech about St. George, God, the sword dancers and the day. Then the  middle dancers step aside, leaving room for the Herold and flag swingers to exit the stage. It was time for the dance to begin!

The end of "Single Exercise." Dancers are honoring the sword.

The dance is one of the most varied of all the dances I have seen, including common figures such as various tunnels, circles, sequential arches, weaving patterens and a sword lock lift (known interestingly as both the “star” and the “rose”) as well as more unique figures such as the “Mill” (or wheel), “sword swinging”,  and single (and group) “fencing.” The dance starts with a song and then dancers form a long line circling. The music is in 4/4 and the footwork is a high marching step followed by two quick steps. While I was learning the figures dancers emphasized that despite the overt militaristic nature of the sword dance, they were “Dancers, not soldiers. We don’t march; we dance!”

The dance has a loose choreographic narrative of the Winter being captured by the sword dancers and the Spring. Several times one or both the Winters are encircled by swords, sometimes above them, other times about their necks. Each time they manage to escape death at the last moment, usually by a feat of gymnastic ability! As I mentioned above, the costumes are organized so that dancers will match up in their actions throughout the dance. The whole group is roughly organized into the “Greats” and “Smalls” and each person has a partner of the other set. These groups often do matching movements separately. For figures that involve the whole group, the groups will often be opposite each other, such as weaving circles in opposite directions or the figure below, with Greats in the center  pointing in and Smalls on the outside pointing out.

The dance culminates in the Winters being trapped by the whole group of dancers, and they finally kneel down and “die.” The Greats form a star (which, while woven, cannot properly be called a lock) and the Spring is raised aloft and spun around while holding his sword above his head. The Smalls stay on the outside, saluting the Spring.

The dancers circle around the stage another time before forming the starting line, leaving the Spring triumphant over Winter. Upon returning to place, each dancer swings his sword down in front of him, driving it into the stage. We had a funny incident where one dancer’s sword hit spot on a crack and ended up going most of the way through the floor! The flag wavers and Herold come out and there is another speech before we all circle a final time and walk down the stairs and off the platform. 

At this point we join up with the main parade of Georgirit, which is actually a “horse pilgrimage” to the little church of Ettendorf (via George St. no less!) This procession was no less colorful or exciting! Indeed, knights in shining armor were practically a dime a dozen!

We marched once around the town to the cheers of the inhabitants and then walked up to the church, a few kilometers outside the center. The shoes, made out of leather and shaped rather strangely were not the most comfortable things I have every experienced. Legs hurt the next day! Anyway, we made it up and had a pause for food while the horses got blessed by the priest.

I took the opportunity to check out some of the horses that had been all dressed up for the occasion. Some of these horses were simply enormous. Others pulled carts filled with ompapa playing brass bands or local officials (my host mother was riding in one!) Usually the sword dancers also get blessed by the priest, but since it had snowed the day before (Easter!) the ground was muddy and the organizers didn’t want to destroy the old leather shoes we were wearing. After the horses were all holy again, the parade started back down into town, with the sword dancers once again towards the front!

In town we had some food and I got interviewed for a short movie the town was making about the day. Then we went to take the group photo, with a special guest!

Yes, that is a statue of the Pope, who was born in Traunstein! The sword dancers have been invited to perform at his birthday in August, which I sadly will not be able to attend as I have to be at the Watson Fellow Conference. Pity, it would be pretty amazing to be able to say I performed sword dancing for the Pope! Now it was time for our second dance.

We danced again, and then it was all over! Thank you to all the wonderful sword dancers who taught me the dancing and are generally awesome people! Hope to see you soon!

Posted in Germany, Sword Dance | 2 Comments

Jewish Holocaust Victims Buried Under Crosses

In the final days of WWII, SS officers massacred 61 Jewish prisoners near the Bavarian town of Surberg. Today, a twenty-foot tall cross towers over their memorial, and their graves are marked by small wooden crosses. While a more Jewish memorial was planned, it met with resistance from local residents who insisted that a cross was the fitting symbol for a grave. Today the small model for the proposed monument has been added, along with the Star of David at the base of the cross, but the crosses remain. I visited this cemetery the day after the sword dance in Traunstein and found this dissonance to be uncomfortable. Here is the story:

It is early May of 1945, and the Third Reich has all but collapsed. Poland has been recaptured in January by Russian troops, who discover the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau and the remains of over 1 million victims. Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive has failed with the Battle of the Bulge, and the Germans are now waging a purely defensive war that all know will be lost. As the Allies approach the concentration camps of Buchenwald, SS officers force prisoners on a death march, fleeing the camp.

Prisoners die along the way as they are forced south.  On reaching Surberg, SS guards get word of American forces approaching from the south. Fearing that the atrocities that took place in the camp will be revealed, they gun down 61 (While most sources cite this number, a plaque in the cemetery reads 66) mostly Jewish prisoners in the woods, fling down their weapons and flee as civilians. Five days later, Hitler is dead and the Allies celebrate VE day.

Buchenwald, where the victims started, had been liberated several weeks before.

Picture of Buchenwald at liberation: The motto translates "To each, his own." While usually we interpret this as "each person can do what they want," the SS interpreted it as "To each person (who is of the master race) should go what is owed to them."

There is a large chunk of history that I don’t know here, and I don’t want to make any statements or claims that are incorrect. This is what I have been told. The victims were moved from the woods and buried in a small circular plot of land by the village with a wall around it.

Small crosses marked the graves and a large cross is erected in the center of the circle on a cement platform. At some point it was pointed out that it didn’t make sense that Jewish victims were being memorialized by the symbol of a different religion. A Jewish organization (I believe in Salzburg, Austria) proposed to take down the cross and erect a more fitting memorial. The community refused, saying that the cross wasn’t a Christian symbol, simply one of death and remembrance. A cross was the proper symbol for a graveyard and they didn’t want it to be changed. There was a fight over this issue, but those who wanted the cross won out, and it has stayed. The model for the proposed monument was added at the side of the path, and two Jewish stars were added to the base of the cross at opposing sides.

The victims remain buried under Christian crosses around the perimeter of the wall. The model, a Hanukkah lamp of iron surrounded by the figures of humans, is adorned with a few pebbles, a Jewish tradition of remembrance. 

While talking to the local who showed me the monument, he expressed his sadness that the cross had been allowed to remain, “It is impossible to explain to a visitor why these Jews are being represented by a cross. It doesn’t make sense.” To me this felt like a further violation of these victims. None of these people would have said that a cross is a general symbol for death. It strikes me similarly to the Mormon Church baptizing holocaust victims without consent. Part of the problem is that there are very few Jews in the area to argue this point, as Salzburg (the nearest Jewish community) is over the border. The people of the town have to take care of the monument, but should this give them the right to erect a symbol contrary to the beliefs of the people murdered?

I don’t believe so.

I don’t know what the aim of this article is. I don’t know enough about the local situation to feel I can pass judgement. I don’t know if the Jewish community in Salzburg has accepted this since the initial fight. I do know that it feels uncomfortable. It doesn’t seem like the right thing. And maybe it should change.

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