Archive for January 2015

Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 – Quotes from Auschwitz Survivors in British Newspapers   Leave a comment

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From The Independent, 26 January:

Tadeusz Smerczysnski, now 91, remembers the day he heard strains of an aria from the opera Tosca coming from a camp barrack room. The SS just went in and shot him – just for singing. He was the star tenor in the Brussels opera. His entire family had been gassed that morning, he said.

Tadeusz’s other memories are no less distressing. He still sees ditches in the camp piled high with burning bodies, as he did during the 1944 Nazi attempt to exterminate all Hungarian Jews who had arrived en masse. The Crematorium couldn’t keep up, so they burnt bodies in the open. 

From The Daily Mirror, 27 January:

005Witnesses to the worst crime scene in human history are dying on us, which is even more reason to ensure the testimonies of men like 88-year-old David Wisnia are never forgotten. In late December 1941, the Nazis rounded up David’s family in the Warsaw ghetto and shot to death his father, mother and younger brother. With the help of friends the fourteen-year-old escaped to a Jewish ghetto in Nowy Dwor Mazowiecki, but in 1942 he was captured and transported with 1,500 Jews to Auschwitz. The SS selected David and 570 other young men to be labourers. The rest, almost a thousand women, children and elderly, were instantly executed. Of those 570 young men, only eight survived. At first his job was to build the Birkenau gas chambers and remove the corpses of his fellow inmates who had been shot or hanged. Because of his fine singing voice and fluent German, he was chosen as the camp’s entertainer, singing at concerts for the SS. His voice saved his life…

I003n January 1945, shortly before the Russians reached Auschwitz, he was evacuated on one of the infamous death marches, where tens of thousands died of hypothermia or starvation. He eventually made it to Dachau. Two months later he escaped while being transported to another camp. 

From The Guardian, 27 January:

006Irene Fogel Weiss was born in 1930 in Bótrágy, a small town in Czechoslovakia, with approximately a thousand farming families, including about ten Jewish families. When she was eight, Czechoslovakia broke apart and her area became part of Hungary. That was when our problems started because the Hungarians were allied with the Nazis. It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights. My father’s lumber business was confiscated and given to a non-Jew. Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools, so right away we had no choice but to concentrate on trying not to bring attention to ourselves.

We couldn’t ride the trains and had to wear the yellow star. It was a free-for-all. With no law to protect us, it was common for Jews to get beaten up or thrown off the train… 

Hungary didn’t give up its Jewish population until it was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1944. The very first task the German government gave the Hungarians was to round up Jewish families and deport them to Auschwitz. There was a huge rush to take half a million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz and it was completed in just six weeks, in 147 cattle trucks. So in the spring of 1944 my family – my parents and six children, the oldest of whom was seventeen,… found ourselves in the Munkács ghetto… from there being taken on cattle-carts to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland…

The reality of where we were struck home fairly quickly. I was stationed near crematorium number 4, and we witnessed the columns of unsuspecting women and children entering the gate of the crematorium; they would have been dead within half an hour. When the Hungarian Jews arrived, they had the gas chambers going day and night.

Mordechai Ronen was born in Dej, Transylvania, in what is now Romania, with a population of about fifteen thousand in 1933, a quarter of whom were Jewish. He was the youngest of five, speaking Yiddish within the community and Hungarian and Romanian outside. His father was a merchant, a travelling salesman. 

I don’t remember any overt anti-Semitism, just my parents warning me to be inside before dark, “lest some Christian kids decide they don’t like the look of your sidelocks and pivk on you.” I just thought my parents were being over-protective. We had no daily paper, nor radio or phone, so the only news we got of the second world war was from newcomers to the town. 

The change started at the end of 1942-43, when people began expressing their anger toward us, especially our Hungarian neighbours. We’d hear, “Zsidók menjetek ki! Gyerünk haza!” (“Jews get out of here! Go home!”). I was in the synagogue singing when a rock shattered the stained-glass window. The rabbi tried to convince us it was just some drunk, but, even as a ten-year-old, I knew better… But by 1943 we started getting clearer signs. My father’s beard was shaved by some locals, who grabbed him. I stopped going to school. Then I wasn’t allowed out at all. One day the Hungarian gendarmes came to our house and ransacked it. 

In 1944, the Nazis ordered all Jews living outside Budapest to be rounded up and placed into ghettos… In the spring 1944 we were part of a contingent of 7,500 Jews who were coralled into a ghetto in the Bungur forest. We had to wear the stars of David… Two weeks into our ghetto life, we were sent to Auschwitz… I saw some soldiers toss a baby into the air and shoot it just for fun and from then on I had no doubt what awaited us here…

We were liberated by Americans and Canadians in Gunskirchen… Somehow I managed to meet up with my brothers, David and Shuli. We had no desire to return to Dej, to the people who had betrayed us.

002Susan Pollock (Zsuzsanna Blau) was born in Felsőgőd, Hungary, in 1930. She now lives in London: From the moment I arrived in Auschwitz with my mother and brother in May 1944, the terror of it invaded my whole being. My mother was taken away and I learned only later that she had been gassed… my father too. My whole world was turned upside down by the brutality of it.

We had not in any way understood what had been going on, only later recognising all the sources and streams which led to the Holocaust. In my small Hungarian village, information had been restricted… We were told by the authorities that we were being resettled, which is why I took my sewing machine with me! 

The process of losing hope was a very gradual one. We were transported in cattle trucks in which many babies and children suffocated, in what turned out was the last transport of Hungarians… I vaguely recall the death march to Bergen-Belsen. I was so weak by then. The conditions were appalling, and they put us in a barracks. I remember crawling out of it… Our British liberators were amazing – they were heroes for me in the real sense of the word.   

Posted January 29, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

This Week in Hungarian History: 26th-31st January 1945   1 comment


On 27 January 1945, two days after KGB Deputy-Commissioner received a report that his orders for the arrest of Raoul Wallenberg had been carried out, a temporary executive committee made an announcement in Budapest on behalf of the Royal Swedish Embassy. It addressed all holders of Swedish passports: “Seeing that all persons of Jewish origin are now citizens enjoying equal rights, activity has come to a natural end.” It wished those previously protected much good fortune and success for the future. However, although the fifty-one day battle for Budapest was at an end, the SS had still not surrendered and Vilmos Bondor drew an accurate picture of the chaos which reigned in the capital:

In the capital chaos reigned. Russian deserters formed gangs of bandits and plundered. The pockets of SS did the same. The newly-appointed Hungarian authorities looked on helplessly. They lacked manpower and experience. Police appointments were made from among the comrades, and those with any expertise were soon in prison.

In any case, the police were not allowed to touch the Russian soldiers, who were therefore allowed to continue to do as they pleased. The German and Arrow Cross terror had been ended, but the survivors were soon experiencing the beginnings of a new tyranny, the first waves of Stalinist dictatorship.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most momentous event in twentieth century Hungarian history was taking place in occupied, and now liberated Poland – the liberation of Auschwitz. However, the liberation of Auschwitz was not given much attention in the international press at the time, as we might expect from a perspective of seventy years later. As Laurence Rees has pointed out in this month’s BBC History Magazine, both Pravda and The Jewish Chronicle reported the story at the beginning of February, but the use of Zykon B was already known about from the Majdanek camp six months before. For many Soviet troops, Auschwitz was just another of the countless examples of Nazi brutality. Pravda ‘explained’ what had happened there asthe logical conclusion of capitalism – a giant factory for murdering the workers themselves when they were no longer useful. From this point onwards, there was an ideological line drawn between the communist and capitalist worlds over the historical significance of Auschwitz. The Soviets sought to reduce the emphasis on Jewish suffering, often referring to the six million murdered only as “victims of fascism”.

In Hungary, it was impossible to research, write about, or even commemorate the Holocaust for the next forty years. I was astounded to discover that when our bilingual team went to interview the villagers of Apostag in 1990, this was the first time the villagers had spoken about the events of April 1944, when sixty Jewish families had been removed and then deported. Even in post-Communist Hungary they were somewhat reticent to denounce neighbours and local police chiefs who played the major role in this (they didn’t see a single German soldier or SS man). This evidence has now been supported many times over by the Steven Spielberg Voices of the Shoah project and in the detailed testimonies published for Holocaust Memorial Day, and in newspapers like The Guardian this year, the seventieth anniversary of the liberation. Three of the five ‘witnesses’ quoted extensively there were Hungarian, one from rural Hungary itself and the other two from territories occupied by Hungary in Czechoslovakia and Romania. All three testify to the fact that persecution of the Jewish communities by the Hungarian authorities began long before the Germans occupied Hungary on 19 March, leading to the mass deportations to Auschwitz. They also support the earlier evidence that the deportations, carried out by the use of cattle trucks, the conditions of which led to many deaths before the victims left Hungary, were almost exclusively the work of the Hungarian Gendarmerie.

Perhaps this is why the current Hungarian government is not as keen to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 as it is to commemorate the occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944. In fact, the ‘occupation’ was small-scale, as agreed the previous day between Hitler and Regent Horthy, who remained in power for a further seven months, making his government legally responsible for the deportations of over half a million Hungarian Jews. The choice of the 19 March for Hungary’s ‘Commemoration of the Victims of German Occupation’ allows the current state to avoid making an apology for the war crimes of the Horthy regime, and to argue that the Hungarian nation as a whole was the victim of Nazi aggression, thus re-writing history for a second time, substituting a nationalist hyper-text for a communist one.

Posted January 28, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

This Week in British History: 18-25 January 1914   Leave a comment


The first Zeppelin air raid on Great Britain took place on 19-20 January. Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn were hit by Zeppelins L3 and L4 respectively. Four people were killed as the airships went about their missions untroubled by defensive measures. It was virtually impossible to find them in the dark and the two aircraft that did venture up both had engine failures and crash landings. One of the crew ended up thrown into a ditch full of freezing water. Several bombs fell on the royal estate at Sandringham and one of the craters was converted into a duck pond.

The White Feather

Henry Joseph Wilding, a bombardier of the Royal Field Artillery, was charged with causing grievous bodily harm to Arthur Houghton by striking him with fist at High Street, Finchley, on Sunday night. He is said to be the holder of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. According to the evidence someone put a white feather on Wilding’s hat and he said it was Houghton and struck him, knocking his head against a wall.

The Times, 19 January

Being handed a white feather was a sign of being regarded as a coward; many men who were wounded or on leave were given them by women and on occasions ex-servicemen would immediately attempt to rejoin the army. Badges were issued to soldiers who had been honourably discharged and also to civilians on vital war service, to prevent feathers being presented.

Posted January 19, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

This Week in 1990: Civil War in Azerbaijan   Leave a comment


President Gorbachev arrived back in Moscow from Vilnius to face another end-of-Cold War crisis on 15 January. Ethnic rioting and civil war had broken out in Azerbaijan. The Muslims there were concerned that the largely Armenian Christian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was rebelling against their rule and manoeuvring for independence from Moscow. There were riots near the Iranian border and the Azerbaijanis mobilised. Gorbachev sent troops: in the subsequent fighting hundreds of Azerbaijanis, perhaps as many as a thousand, were killed.

Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantham Press.

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Posted January 14, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

This Week in 1945 in Budapest, Berlin, Moscow and Debrecen: 13-19 January.   Leave a comment

001On 13 January 1945, the Soviet Red Army’s advance into Budapest had reached the middle of the fashionable main arterial boulevard known as Andrássy út, and the parallel Benczúr utca. An ambitious Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenburg, who had been working with the Red Cross to protect the remaining Jews in the capital from the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross paramilitaries, was talking of making contact with Marshal Malinovski, the general in charge of the advance, as soon as possible. He went behind the Russian lines with a military escort, a major and his Hungarian helper, Vilmos Langfelder. The same day, in Berlin, a telegraphic summary informed Adolf Eichmann, now in Berlin, that the Swedish Ambassador in Budapest, Danielsson, had gone into hiding and that Wallenburg had been placed under German protection.

By this stage, Eichmann was more and more a burden to the upper echelons of the SS. The collapse of Nazi power was accelerating, and every initiative of the German military leadership was a failure. The inner circle of high-ranking officers clung to their blind faith that the wonder-weapons Hitler had promised could soon be put into action. Others were hoping for a split to emerge between the Allies at any moment, and a third group was already making plans to escape before Germany’s ruin was made total. Fantasists talked of a separate peace, spreading the myth that the West would in no way permit or tolerate Stalin and the Red Army penetrating deep into central Europe.  Several of them blamed the series of nightmares on Eichmann’s fanatical genocidal activities. He was personally aware, as were the other Nazi leaders, that he was near the top of the Allies’ lists of war criminals, and they kept their distance from him as catastrophe loomed.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Domokos Szent-Iványi was preparing to leave Moscow for Debrecen. His skills as a diplomat and a linguist had been needed in the Russian capital, but the Soviet-backed Provisional Government in Debrecen, and especially comrades Gerő and Rákosi, were getting nervous about what he was doing on his extended sojourn there. Both governments decided that he should return to Hungary, so he left Moscow on 13th, arriving in Debrecen five days later. When he left Moscow, the Hungarian Armistice Delegation were still in the city, having arrived during his stay there.  Back in Debrecen, Szent-Iványi made friends with the Speaker of the House, or President of the Diet, and the leader of the Smallholders’ Party, Ferenc Nagy, among others. After making official calls on Premier Miklós and the Cabinet Ministers, he had a meeting with Géza Teleki and Gábor Faragho in the home of the Presbyterian Bishop Imre Révész. The Hungarian Independence Movement members in Debrecen found themselves in an almost impossible situation. Power was essentially in the hands of the Soviet Secret Service, the NKVD, and their mouthpieces Gerő, Rákosi, and a few others, and that power was steadily growing.

Meanwhile, on 14 January, Wallenberg appeared in a Russian car, saying that he had transferred his effects and a briefcase containing 222,000 pengő to his flat in Zugló, a suburb of Pest. However, the address he gave turned out to be completely unknown, so that it’s possible that he had already been taken captive by the NKVD and was being held at the first Soviet interrogation centre in the Széchenyi Baths building, making contact with high-ranking officers. On the morning of the 16th or 17th (statements differ), Wallenberg caused a stir by appearing at the international ghetto, at the Swedish embassy office. With him were a Russian lieutenant colonel and Langfelder. At Wallenberg’s request the car called at the Swedish Embassy offices, the protected houses, before the car moved off in the direction of Gödöllő. During the journey he said that the Russians had treated him excellently. General Chernyshev, commander of the Pest parts of the city that had been taken, had agreed to his request to go to Debrecen. The escort consisted of three soldiers on motorcycles with side cars, one of them a captain. The Swede joked to one of the helpers in German that he didn’t know whether they were there to defend him or to keep an eye on him. I don’t know whether I’m a guest or a prisoner, he added with a laugh. This was the last anyone saw of Wallenberg in Budapest.

On 16th, before Wallenberg’s putative departure for Debrecen, the quarter where the ‘protected houses’ was liberated. On 17th, German and Hungarian troops withdrew from Pest into Buda, and the Germans blew up the five bridges across the Danube that linked the two halves of the city. Within Buda, especially around the central fortress which was defended by SS troops, the fighting became intense. The morning of the 18th brought the other tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest release from the Arrow Cross and Nazi terror, from mining and from air-raids. Advancing house-to-house, often from cellar-to-cellar, the Soviet forces reached the end of the central ghetto. They demolished the wooden gates and the pallisades in several places. Outside the Dohány utca synagogue, heaps of corpses lay in the streets, frozen hard. Burials began at once in the garden of the synagogue, with 2,281 bodies buried in twenty-four common graves. Forty-five men and women had been shot.

Pest was secured by the Red Army by the end of the day. With Wallenberg’s departure for Debrecen the Swedish humanitarian action was considered finished and the head of the office prepared a final report. In it he listed the in detail the Swedish protected and maintained offices, officials’ flats and the protected houses. He put the number of persons provided with passes and other documents at four thousand, the number of Hungarian colleagues as two hundred, and the total of their family members at four hundred. He reckoned the number supplied with Swedish Red Cross letters of protection as 2,500. He started to close the inventories and wind up the activity.


Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013), The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books.

Szabolcs Szíta (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina Books.

Posted January 14, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

The first secularists: Puritans, Separatists and Baptists   Leave a comment

Andrew James

January 2015 Preface:

I first published this blogpost in April 2012, but have decided to re-publish it because of the number of times I have heard ‘secularism’ as a term misused over the last few days, mainly in response to the tragic events in Paris. ‘Experts’ have been called in to talk about ‘lycité’, and have pointed out that although there is a strict separation of state and church in France, the Catholic church still has a special status in terms of state funding, recognition in ceremonial events and the celebration of ‘holidays’ – not just Christmas and Easter, but also ‘Toussaint’ (‘All Saints’ – a two week school holiday) and ‘Shrovetide’ (‘La Jour des chandleurs!), among others. If France were truly a secular country, they have pointed out, equal preference in funding, ceremonial and celebrations would be given to the main protestant church and to Judaism and Islam. Eid…

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Posted January 14, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

Mandela and The Movement: Apartheid and Reconciliation   Leave a comment

Reblogged for 25th Anniversary of Mandela’s release…

Andrew James


The BBC’s ‘veteran’ international correspondent, John Simpson, turns seventy next year. He is one of only two people on earth who were on hand to witness each of the following events of 1989-90: the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the violent overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania and the release of Nelson Mandela. Between them, and the transition of power in the Soviet Union which took place in the following year, resulting in its final disintegration, these events have changed the individual lives of a majority of the human race. After Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, The African National Congress was warned by the senior Soviet diplomat in Lusaka in 1988 that it could no longer Moscow’s unconditional support. The Soviet agenda had switched from the expensive policies of confrontation…

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Posted January 8, 2015 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

Ringing in the Changes: New Year, New Decade, New Hope: 1-14 January 1990   Leave a comment


On New Year’s Day 1990, the ancient bells of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square rang out for the first time in many years. The changes they rang reverberated throughout the Soviet Union – ringing out the old, ringing in the new. Ten days later, from 11 to 13 January, Mikhail Gorbachev was in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, where the previous month, the Communist Party had voted to declare the country independent from Moscow. The three Baltic republics; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been added to the Soviet Union only comparatively recently, as a result of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which had ceded control of them to Stalin without their knowledge or consent, thereby clearing the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the division of that country between the two powers. Stalin had been determined to establish a buffer zone of client states on his western border, including the three Baltic states.

However, the three states and their peoples had never willingly accepted the loss of their independence, which they had held since the defeat of Russia in the First World War. Neither had the United States ever recognised Soviet rule over the Baltics. Yet if Gorbachev gave in to Lithuania’s demand, he would be crossing a red line for many Soviet leaders and citizens, which they felt could only result in the disintegration of the USSR. Gorbachev began to look for a compromise strategy, while at the same time insisting on the preservation of the Union.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie visited him in Victor Verster Prison at Paarl, on 8 January, and said that she believed he would be free within weeks. Mandela told her to start making arrangements for his early release. A month later the news was confirmed with the release of the photograph below.


The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man   3 comments

Although Twelfth Night is no longer as important as it once was in Britain and elsewhere, Epiphany is still marked in the calendar as the day after Christmas when we think about the visit of the three travellers, the ‘wise men’ who made, as T S Eliot wrote in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi‘, ‘such a long journey at the worst time of the year’.

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pu...

Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), a modernist who pushed for revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1900-1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another Story which is not so well-known tells us that, as is quite possible, there were more than three travellers, and that a fourth set out but failed to follow the star to reach Bethlehem in time to greet the infant Jesus. The original story, by the Nineteenth-century American writer Henry Van Dyke, is quite long, so, in my lessons this week, I start with the re-telling of it by Susan Summers, a Worcestershire teacher, in her recently published and beautifully illustrated book, The Greatest Gift (Bristol: Barefoot Books, 1997: and then summarise the rest of the story in a form which, I hope, is accessible to second language learners at pre-intermediate level and above (it has been tested with adults and adolescents already). Whether or not you’re a teacher or formal learner, I hope you will enjoy the story and find it useful as well as inspiring…

Cover of "The Story of the Other Wise Man...

Cover of The Story of the Other Wise Man

Long ago in the city of Ecbatana, high among the mountains of Persia (in what today we call Iran), there lived a man named Artaban. From a tower at the end of his beautiful garden Artaban used to study the secrets of nature, especially the secrets of the night sky…One night, he and three of his friends, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, noticed a new star rising, which shone more brightly than any they had ever seen. They knew that this star signified the birth of a great teacher and they agreed to follow the star and ‘pay homage’ (or ‘worship’) to the child.





Artaban made preparations for a long journey, taking with him a ruby, a sapphire and a pearl to give to the ‘King of Kings’. He was to meet his companions far to the East by the Temple of the Seven Spheres in Babylon. But on the way, he stopped to help a dying man and so arrived late at the temple. His friends had already departed, and desperate to see the new-born king, Artaban had to set off across the desert alone. So he returned to Babylon, where he sold his glittering sapphire and his beloved (but very tired) horse Vasda in exchange for a ‘caravan’ of camels. Then he set out across the desert.


Like his three friends, Artaban had read the prophecies and studied the stars, so he knew that this ‘Son of David’ would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. As he came near to the town, he had to crouch down in the ditch by the Roman road as a troop of soldiers came galloping along with swords drawn. He followed them into a nearby village, and was startled to hear the cries of young children and their parents, all in great pain and distress. The soldiers were everywhere, breaking down doors and bringing from the houses the very young babies and infants, one and two years old.


As Artaban sheltered in a doorway and could hear the sound of crying from inside the house. He pushed his way past the door and saw the frightened mother screening something with her body. She had hidden her child from the soldiers and was afraid they might return. Artaban comforted her and when later a soldier did look in, Artaban stood in front of the mother with his arms raised. Not wishing to risk his own life in a struggle with a man, the soldier left and soon they could hear the sound of retreating troops. The mother had saved her boy but was still very upset by the damage done to her poor home by the soldiers’ search for him. Again, Artaban comforted her, this time by giving her the ruby which was to have been part of his gift for the Christ-child of Bethlehem. With this she had the money to build a new home and a new life for her son.


When Artaban reached Bethlehem, he found his way to Joseph‘s family home, but was told that Joseph, Mary and the baby had left shortly after his friends had visited, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The family was on their way to Gaza and the Via Maris, the Great ‘Sea Road’ to Egypt. Joseph had been warned in a dream of the danger from Herod, as had his friends, who had also set off in the opposite direction from Jerusalem, intending to return to Babylon via the Great Road to the North, via Damascus and Nineveh, to avoid Herod and his soldiers. Although Jesus’ refugee family had left behind the gifts of Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, fearing what might happen if they were caught carrying them in Gaza, Artaban decided he would take the pearl with him in the hope that it may be of some use to them on their return to Galilee, as Joseph’s family told him they did not intend to return to Bethlehem until Herod was dead, though they wouldn’t tell him exactly where the family would be living. In any case, the pearl was small enough to be carefully hidden in the babe’s ‘swaddling clothes’. So, Artaban thanked Joseph’s family, hoping to catch up with the refugees on the road south to Egypt and then turn northwards after his friends. However, he could not find the family in Gaza, and though he followed the road all the way to the Nile, there was no sign of them anywhere in Egypt.


Artaban returned to Palestine and searched for the boy king everywhere during the next thirty years, and always hoped to meet him one day and present him with the pearl. Towards the end of his search in Galilee, he began to hear many stories of Jesus’ actions and sayings, but somehow never caught up with him. Then, after thirty-three years had passed, he heard that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Passover, with his disciples. He hurried to catch up with the crowds from Galilee, but when he finally arrived in Jerusalem the feast was already happening and there were crowds everywhere. He heard that Jesus had been tried and condemned to death. Could he get to see him just once, perhaps with the aid of the precious pearl?


On the Friday of Passover, just before the Jewish Sabbath, he pushed his way through the crowds towards the street where the condemned criminals carried their crosses up to a hill shaped like a skull, ‘Calvary’. Artaban passed through a crowded square where he found a young child being sold as a slave to pay for his family’s debts. He stood by a heartbroken woman whose boy was just then being offered for sale. As the bidding went on, the woman became more and more distressed. Just as the sale was being made, Artaban stepped forward and gave the mother the pearl with which to buy back her son. Now he had no gift left for Jesus.


When he reached the Way of the Cross, Jesus was just passing. There was a great crowd and many people were leaning out of windows to get a better view of this ‘King of the Jews’ passing by in the narrow street below. From a balcony above Artaban saw a tile fall down, straight towards the head of the young boy he had just saved from slavery. He pushed the boy aside, and the tile hit his head instead. As he fell, dying, Jesus turned to him at that moment and, with a look which told Artaban that his story of sacrifice was known, said ‘as you have given to others, so you have given to me.

Epiphany: Out of the Orient   2 comments

My favourite Epiphany carol is ‘Falan-Tiding’ (‘Out of the Orient Crystal Skies’), not the modern five-part choral setting popular in the US, but using the simple tune of the Tyrolean carol ‘Ihr Hirten, atehet alle auf’. Last year at this time, in The Daily Telegraph, the choirmaster of Canterbury Cathedral, David Flood, chose it as his ‘most unfairly neglected’ carol. According to ‘the Oxford Book of Carols‘ it dates from about 1610. Interestingly, it starts with Matthew’s wise men and ends with Luke’s shepherds, which is truer to the narrative, since the Magi would have had to have left their homes weeks if not months before the birth, given the distance between Tehran and Jerusalem. We often put their story second, because they arrived after ‘the shepherds there about’, who only had to leave their tents and flocks on Bethlehem Down and run down the hillside, ‘singing all even in a rout, “Falan-tiding-dido!” ‘ The poetic and archaic English fits the simple tune beautifully to illustrate the nativity narrative perfectly:

002‘Out of the orient crystal skies

A blazing star did shine,

Showing the place where poorly lies

A blesséd babe divine,

Born of a maid of royal blood

Who Mary hight by name,

A sacred rose which once did bud

By grace of heavenly flame.

This shining star three kings did guide

Even from the furthest East,

To Bethlehem where it betide

This blessed babe did rest,

Laid in a silly* manger poor,

Betwixt an ox and ass,

Whom these three kings did all adore

As God’s high pleasure was.’


Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Uffizi Gallery, Florence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The verb ‘adore’ gives us the other phrase to describe ‘Epiphany’, ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which is the subject of a ‘magical’ piece of orchestral music by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), from his ‘Trittico botticelliano’ of 1927, so called because it was inspired by three paintings by the Florentine Renaissance master in the Uffizi Gallery there. The central ‘panel’ is ‘L’aderazione dei Magi’, one of four surviving treatments by Botticelli of this subject, showing the presentation of the gifts by the Magi to the new-born Jesus among a crowd of onlookers. In transposing this scene into music, Respighi hinted at the Renaissance period by including the Advent antiphons of ‘Veni, Veni, Immanuel’, taking us back to the beginning of the Christmas period, and reminding us that, not only did the wise men set off weeks before the birth, but that they too recognised the importance of the child’s birth in the context of the Jewish scriptures. They were not simply astrologers, but Zoroastrians who found their wisdom from different traditions and sources, both terrestrial and celestial, occidental and oriental. To indicate this ‘blending’, Respighi blends the Latinate plainchants with occasional oriental melodic inflections. The ‘Moderato’ section then represents the Journey of the Magi, with a trudging two-bar repeated pattern in the strings and an oriental oboe melody. Other wind instruments, together with strings, suggest the presentation of the three gifts and the piece is then completed with the adoration suggested by a simple melody played by a bassoon, a lullaby for the Christ child, drawing on the bagpipe tunes played in Rome and other Italian villages during Advent. The oboe takes up the tune, merging it with a reprise of the opening Sicilian melody.

So, whether in music, picture or poetry, the Epiphany narrative has proved to be the most enduringly inspirational of all the Advent and Christmas stories set down by the gospel-writers. Its message of a ‘new dispensation’ in the form of a humble human birth is what gives it so many dimensions in time and space.

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