I have previously remarked on the lack of melodic complexity of German children’s song. But sometimes those simple-minded melodies create ironies that are powerful in their brutality. A short and popular children’s song – a nursery rhyme really – has the following lyrics “Maybug, fly. Father’s in the war. Mother’s in Pomerania. Pomerania burned down. Maybug, fly.” One brutal reality, written for the voices of little children.
I came across “Meine 960 Tage im Reichsgau Wartheland” (My 960 days in the Reichsgau of Wielkopolska) by Erik Thomson in 2002, when I was doing some research into my grandfather’s past. In it, my grandfather is mentioned once, briefly, towards the end. He’s referred to as the “HWH, the Kreisleiter of Wielun, tall as a tree”. I became fascinated by the book, a humble, self-published affair. After a long preamble it becomes a diligent documentation of running a (presumably confiscated) farm in occupied Poland from 1944 to 1945. It goes over, in loving detail, the different crops he experimented with and how they fared. From potatoes to rape seed, sunflowers, flax to serradella to kok-sagis, a dandelion producing a latex-like substance. He also documents his successes in raising pigs and horses.
‘Wartheland’ – a national socialist administrative region that included today’s Wielskopolska and the Łódź area – is where millions of Poles were forced to leave toward the East, where large ghettos such as Łódź existed up to 1944, and large extermination camps such as Chelmno. Millions of people were starved, worked to death and murdered not very far from the rural idyll of the Gallwiese estate that Thomson farmed with such devotion and care.
Erik Thomson may well not have known all that much. His obsessive focus on tracking the success and yield of his farming experiments were far more important to him than the war and destruction raging around him. There is comfort in focusing on your own life. On metrics and numbers you can control. I do so understand the draw of that narrow field of vision, on the quantifiable, on just putting one foot ahead of the other. And yet, by so obsessively measuring and optimizing the numbers relating to our own lives we are in danger of being blind to everything else? This is a question I ask myself, with some guilt.