food / travel

Across Siberia, Across Time

An online series of photographs brings the writer back to his first great journey, via the Trans-Siberia rail, from his native Yugoslavia to post-Mao China.

A train on the Trans-Siberian Railway
A train on the Trans-Siberian Railway
Andrej Mrevlje

Life is full of wonderful little coincidences. But perhaps there is a better word for this: flukes. I learned the word only last week, through an article that some readers might recall from the previous newsletter. The universe of Internet flukes looks something like this:

I clicked on this link because I was attracted by the cover photo.

I went through all the portraits, taken by the photographer David Monteleone for the New Yorker. And the subjects’ expressions made me travel back in time. The faces slowly became familiar, emerging from my distant memory. Then I read the stories below them. The photos were taken along the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs from Moscow to the Far East in Russia. Actually, after four days of travel from Moscow heading east, the Trans-Siberian Railway splits in two: One line, the main Russian track at Chita, turns towards Vladivostok. The other, the so-called Chinese Trans-Siberian, passes Irkutsk and ends in Beijing.

The restaurant in the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express Photo: Simon Plelow

I took the latter route more than three decades before these photos were taken. At the time, there were almost no passengers on that train. Luckily my traveling companion was experienced and adept at some trick around currency exchange in the Soviet capital, so we were able to afford first class tickets for the ride. (Many Europeans traveled to Moscow in those days, in order to take advantage of currency dealings and cheaper ruble-paid flights to get to distant places like Cuba, India, and Sri Lanka…) Our first class cabin came with a shower, armchairs, and seemingly endless free waffles and tea, the latter served in a silver samovar. It was the best train I ever took. There was also a huge, empty restaurant car, where, for most of the ride, we could only get lukewarm Siberian borsch.

We were young Yugoslavian kids then, en route to studying in China. In most of the stations where the train stopped for a long period of time, I got off the train and posted a letter or two, which I had written on my German portable typewriter – which, I liked to believe, my late father had confiscated from the Nazis. I wandered around, curious about every detail, observing faces that became less blond and more Asian with every passing station. It was my first big trip to Asia, and it was phenomenal. It opened up the world to me, including, later on, the notion of the Great Game and all that followed. At that time, I did not know yet that this was geopolitics.

I also read travel books, like The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, who traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad some years before me. Somehow, this idol from my youth was never mentioned by Masha Gessen, who wrote the New Yorker companion piece to David Monteleone’s photography. Gessen, a writer in Moscow, probably couldn’t read Paul Theroux during Soviet rule. That was a privilege for us revisionists, as Beijing called Yugoslavians at that time. Or was it because, for both trips, Theroux took the train in the opposite direction from Monteleone and I?

The Trans-Siberian train in the sunset Photo: Bernt Rostad

As my train rushed towards China, my life started to change completely. Post-Maoist China greeted us with endless choice of food in the dining car and a young, beautiful female PLA soldier with long braids and a large smile. After I read that New Yorker piece her smile and all the other faces along the Trans-Siberian Railway jumped out from my memory. I am sorry that I did not own a camera at that time. There were no smart phones either. And judging from Monteleone’s portraits, the world of the Trans-Siberian Railroad still hasn’t been globalized – it was a world standing still. Perhaps this was the reason I had to move, to travel further. Before I finally landed where I am now. At Yonder.

Postscript: According to what I hear and read, my former idol, Paul Theroux, now divides his life between the West Coast and Cape Cod, where he grows tomatoes. I love it. I could talk about tomatoes for days.

This article was first published at Yonder.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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