After a long conversation about horrors, the writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus finally breaks down. He is a lively and robust man who is accustomed to dealing with terrible things, but something inside him has broken. When he’s asked to explain his grandfather’s role in the Nazi regime and the mass murder of Jews, he turns pale and his blue eyes tear up. “My grandfather, Otto Kraus, was part of the Baltic German minority in Latvia. Reinhard Heydrich recruited him for the SD [Sicherheitsdienst], the SS agency that served as an intelligence service and was central to the Holocaust. In 1941, he participated in the invasion of the USSR as a member of Einsatzgruppen A, one of the roving execution squads that followed the troops and killed mainly Jews. He later became the head of the SD in Riga. He rose to the rank of Sturmbannführer, an SS major. He was personally involved in at least two mass executions.” In his novel The Bastard Factory, Chris Kraus recreates one of those horrific episodes. The main character is based heavily on Kraus’s grandfather, and the novel faithfully follows his journey as an SS major.
In the book, on a summer day on the outskirts of Riga, the SS and their Latvian henchmen give a group of Jews the “special treatment.” The scene closely resembles one of the massacres perpetrated in the Bikernieki (Bickern) forest, the main site of Latvia’s massacres (out of a population of 90,000 Jews, 70,000 were murdered). They are forced to undress next to a ditch and then shot in groups. Kraus writes: “Executing someone at point-blank range often means that the victims’ brain matter and blood splashes in all directions, and it did. Skull shards flew like shrapnel to where I was standing, 20 meters away. There was screaming, blood soaked the ground and the air smelled of wet iron mixed with cold sweat, excrement and urine.” The scene continues as the main character approaches to shoot a young woman and peers into the pit with his Luger in hand: “In the midst of that jumble of bodies I discerned some feet that kept shaking. It was a girl whose skull cap had been blown off and landed beside her. She was looking at me with wide eyes, still hugging her baby, who seemed intact, just asleep […] Before I couldn’t hold back the vomit any longer, I fired my pistol at them both.”
The passage offers a glimpse into the world in which Otto Kraus (in the novel, Konstantin Koja Solm) moved, and the legacy with which his descendants grapple. “Finding out my grandfather’s story was horrible, very disturbing,” a distraught Chris Kraus explains. “I loved my grandfather.” In 1985, as a student, he became interested in the stories Otto Kraus told him. “He talked about shootings, but he never said precise words; he used terms like ‘special treatment,’ and you could think that they did something else, like going into the forest to chop wood. But then I read a book about General Vlasov [the Russian defector who commanded Nazi troops], and it contained details about my grandfather and his connection to mass murder. It was horrifying. Nobody in my family knew about it. So, I went to the archives to look for information and to find out what had happened.”
A dark legacy
He uncovered the whole truth, but none of his family members wanted to believe him, except his cousin Sigrid Kraus, a publisher. “I wrote an essay, Das Kalte Blut [or, Cold Blood], based on my research; it was published in 2014 in a small print run and meant for my family and our circle. I recounted everything to show that I wasn’t making things up and to demonstrate how incompatible everything was with my family’s memory. It didn’t help…Throughout Germany, it’s like the Nazis came down from Mars: most people say that their grandparents were excellent people, anti-Nazis, and that Hitler, Himmler and four psychopaths were to blame for everything.”
The Kraus family’s dark heritage isn’t limited to Chris’s grandfather. “[Otto’s] two brothers also belonged to the SS and were part of the killing squads, it’s an extraordinary case…madness. The elder brother, Hans, was even more involved in the atrocities, while the younger one, Lorenz, was a wartime correspondent for the SS; he was a gifted artist and drew anti-Semitic pictures.”
How does Chris Kraus bear such a heavy burden? He thinks for a long time before answering. “It’s hard to explain. I try to understand, to investigate what really happened, it’s very difficult. I try to set things right with the truth. Of all of Otto’s children and grandchildren, it has fallen to me to do it. I don’t want to be a passive accomplice, I won’t accept silence, even if the process is unpleasant for me.” Did you ever confront your grandfather with the truth? “No, never; he died in 1989, and I didn’t know his real story until 10 years later.” Would you have liked to have talked to him about it? “Yes, but he commanded so much respect… I don’t know if I would have dared, and I was the one who got along best with my grandfather. The others reproach me and say that he can no longer defend himself. To them, he was a good man, period. The truth is that he died without having to account for his crimes, like so many other SS elites, because Germany didn’t dare to bring them to justice.” Where is he buried? In Latvia? “In Nuremberg; how ironic,” Chris Kraus laughs bitterly. “Although that city came to symbolize Nazi punishment after the war, it was once very anti-Semitic and quite fond of my grandfather, and of Hitler.”
The Bastard Factory turns Otto Kraus’s life into a nearly 1,000-page novel. He participated in secret SS missions, such as the Zeppelin operation to kill Russian leader Joseph Stalin (where he met Otto Skorzeny, famous for his daring military actions, including the rescue of Benito Mussolini). Then Otto became an agent for the CIA, the Federal Republic of Germany’s new intelligence service, Org-BND, and even the KGB and the Mossad. “It’s a fictionalization of his story, based on years of research and the essay I wrote for my family.” Chris recounts the origins of the Krauses (in the novel, the Solms), their life in Latvia and the increasing involvement of Koja and his older brother Hub in the Nazi apparatus. The novel opens in 1974 in a Munich hospital. Hospitalized with a bullet wound, the main character tells his life story to the person in the next bed, an innocent, well-meaning, Buddhist, stoner hippie who can’t believe what he’s hearing.
Otto Kraus informs more than one of the novel’s characters. “Both Koja and Hub reflect aspects of my grandfather. The older one is more brutal and the younger one is seemingly more sensitive and introspective, but you like him less and less. They both have evil in them. Hub at least has a coherent stance, but Koja has that personality of agents and spies who lack core convictions and navigate a universe of falsehood and lies like a fish in water. Ambiguity is the most disturbing element in the novel.”
Given its subject, The Bastard Factory has a surprising sense of humor – Koja’s irony; the Black lover who sings Horst Wessel; the ban on playing Monopoly because it’s “a Jewish game”; the harelipped SS officer; Himmler’s car stopping to let toads cross the road; the main character’s circumcision so he can go undercover in postwar Israel as a Hebrew teacher named Himmelreich. “I’ve been harshly criticized in Germany [because of the novel’s humor]. I knew that it would happen. Actually, I think the humor makes the story even more unbearable.”
The novel also tells a love story. “The terrible thing is that Nazis like my grandfather were people. I didn’t want to depict them as demons but rather as human beings in an inhuman regime. In Germany, people prefer to see the Nazis as monsters who were nothing like the rest of the population… humor and love are incompatible with demonizing them, which is why it’s so disturbing.” Can’t it be seen as a form of justification? “No, they are stylistic devices, to help people understand that the human abysses I’m describing are not fiction. The key theme is morality, the character’s amorality. He is despicable; humor and love draw him closer to us, but they do not excuse him. We cannot distance ourselves from evil, which is part of the human condition. My grandfather was capable of loving and being loved. How could a person I knew and loved be like that in another context? I wanted to make that experience accessible to readers. It could happen to all of us.”
Kraus also portrays the world of intelligence services in which his grandfather moved following the war. The novel includes the stories of General Gehlen, Otto John, Isser Harel, the hunt for Eichmann… “It’s all true, the events during the war and after. When I discovered that my grandfather was also a spy…how do you reconcile that with the importance that my family has always attached to honesty?”
The Bastard Factory has much in common with Jonathan Littell’s great novel The Kindly Ones. The latter is also narrated by a Nazi criminal, and it describes the atrocities in detail. “I consider the comparison a compliment. It’s an extraordinary book; I loved it. We did our research at the same time: during the 15 years that I was researching information about my grandfather, we visited the same archives and consulted the same documents, I saw his name. [Littell’s] perspective is also that of the executioner. His main character, Max Aue, is a member of the SD and part of the Einsatzgruppen. But Littell worked more on the eroticism than the horror. It’s a very literary book, with…all its homoerotic and perverse fantasies. It was an inspiration, but I take a different, harsher approach.”
In Kraus’s novel, the main characters’ relationship also includes many perverse and scatological elements: Koja and Ev, his adopted sister and romantic interest, are influenced by sharing a potty as children; there’s masturbation as well. “It’s true, but I do that seeking the primitive, the elemental. There’s also excrement, and blood, and the process of turning people into corpses in acts of mass murder. My grandfather saw all that. He smelled the excrement, the blood and the fear of the people who were murdered. What did he think then? How did he handle that experience? Some of my grandfather’s comrades confessed that they enjoyed killing. Others said something that I find grotesque: they participated in the killings, yes, but in a charitable way, to avoid the unnecessary suffering of the victims.”
Unko Museum: Tokyo opens first poop museum to explore a taboo topic among Japanese youth | Culture
Among the many synonyms for excrement that exist in the Japanese language, the founders of the Tokyo Unko Museum chose the most candid one, unko, to name an irreverent space designed for female Instagram users. “My goal was for poop to stop being a taboo subject for young girls,” explains its creator, Masaru Kobayashi.
With Japanese influencers in mind, Kobayashi filled the museum’s rooms with toilets and poop-shaped pieces in shades of turquoise, fuchsia and lemon yellow. The colors follow the palette of the Japanese kawaii aesthetic, which combines the cutesy and the grotesque. Kobayashi explains that, far from being a cultural fad, kawaii is a natural extension of traditional Japanese culture. “At the pinnacle of world-famous kawaii culture is poop, a fragile material that disappears down the drain shortly after being brought into this world,” reads a sign at the museum entrance.
To revive the scatological enthusiasm of childhood, visitors are welcomed into a room equipped with nine colorful toilets, whose arrangement evokes the communal toilets of ancient Rome. A museum guide invites them to sit down, clench their fists and, after counting one-two-three, imagine that they are releasing a symbolic dump. When they get up, they find in their respective receptacles pieces of plastic poop, which resemble the poop emoji in striking pastel colors.
There are neon signs with the word poop written in 16 languages. A tearoom serves huge cakes topped with golden feces. Another room features colorful droppings that move when stroked like furry animals. Video games include flying poops. On small toilet-shaped blackboards hung on the wall, visitors are invited to make their own poop drawings.
Although there is a Japanese term for museum, Kobayashi chose the English “museum” to describe a thematic venue whose sole function is to create entertaining environments. Instagram is full of photographs of absurd and witty scenes from the exhibits: couples play-acting, sitting on separate toilets, young parents with blue poop on their heads, or the typical tourist photo featuring a huge illuminated poop. Kobayashi confesses that at first he feared that the unusual concept would be rejected. He felt better when older people started to visit, many of whom saw a generational change in the fact that young girls were openly talking about poop.
In the past three years, Kobayashi has created six such museums across Japan. He has received invitations to open another in Singapore and is in talks with several Asian countries where the subject of human poop lacks the taboo it has historically had in the West.
Classics authors in Japanese literature, such as Natsume Soseki, coined memorable phrases about poop’s “physiological pleasures,” and Junichiro Tanizaki devoted a long passage from his well-known essay Praise of the Shadow to the traditional toilet set in the middle of a garden, which is where “poets of all times have found abundant material for their haikus.”
Many Japanese children learn to write the complicated characters of their language with a series of popular books called Poop Exercises, which contain more than 3,000 humorous phrases related to the subject. For 17 years, Toto, which manufactures high-tech toilets, has held a poetry contest inspired by the subject in the senryu style, which consiss of a short humorous poem and is a relative of the haiku.
For Kobayashi, the evolution of the museum’s audience is apparent in their gradual migration from Instagram to TikTok. His intention, he says, is to continue creating playful spaces that provide moments of relaxation to contrast with typically Japanese solemnity. His next project is a railway museum where, unlike the rigorous Japanese rail schedules, no trains arrive on time.
The medieval monks who forged a nobleman’s will to appropriate a valuable church | Culture
The monks of the San Pedro de Cardeña monastery, in Spain’s Burgos province, had long had their eye on the Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco church in Segovia. But the substantial inheritance that the Count of Castile, Asur Fernández, and his wife Guntroda, bequeathed them made no mention of this Romanesque church surrounded by beautiful vineyards.
Such was the ambition of the monastery to own the church that two hundred years after the death of the Count, they forged the parchment on which his will was written. Their only mistake was an omission to remove all the copies of the authentic will. Now, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the University of Burgos have been able to demonstrate that the fraudulent document, considered until now to be the oldest of those kept in the Historical Nobility Archive in Toledo, is in fact a forgery from the 12th century, and not from the year 943, as it claims.
The document faked by the monks – officially known as OSUNA, CP.37, D.9 – is a parchment on which round Visigothic script records a donation from the Count of Castile to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. Until now, the document was thought to be somewhat unique as hardly any original documents from the 10th century survive in Castilian Spanish. However, research has shown that it was actually drawn up two centuries later.
The research, to be made public shortly in the Medieval Studies Annual Report, has revealed which procedures were employed to doctor the will, as well as the motives that led the monks to do so. The forgers based their work on an authentic document stipulating a donation from the Count, inserting elements that were not in the original, in order to use it as evidence in potential lawsuits, two of which were subsequently filed and won by the monks.
The analysis of the document, carried out by Sonia Serna from the University of Burgos, has exposed anomalies both in its preparation and its writing. Serna explains that the scribe was accustomed to working with the 12th century Carolinian script, and made an effort to imitate the round Visigothic script typical of 10th century Castile. But anachronistic features crept into his work, such as the use of the Carolinian system of abbreviations and the adoption of anomalous solutions to abbreviate some words, elements that would not have existed in the 10th century. All the same, the forgery proved effective enough to win two court cases.
The forged document included a clause that ceded the church to the Burgos monastery
The original document used by the monk as a model for his forgery was lost. However, a copy survived in the collection of charters, known as Becerro Gótico de Cardeña and kept in the Zabálburu Library in Madrid. By comparing both texts, Julio Escalona from the CSIC History Institute verified that the monk copied the wording and appearance of the authentic will, but inserted a clause assigning the church of Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco to the monastery of San Pedro.
In 1175, the church of Santa María de las Cuevas was the subject of litigation between the monastery of San Pedro and the councils of Peñafiel and Castrillo de Duero. The Burgos monastery finally won by presenting the false parchment document and getting two monks to testify its authenticity. According to the experts, that document was the will filed in the Toledo archive, whose anomalous paleographic features are consistent with an elaboration in the second half of the 12th century, taking the original as a model.
“Its value does not lie in the anecdotal fact of its being or not being the oldest document in the archive [as was believed until now], but in showing how technical skills and moral and religious authority combined in this case to build a credible truth, capable of triumphing in a judicial scenario,” states the CSIC and University of Burgos study. “Ultimately, it reminds us that to fully understand any historical period, it is essential to understand how each period rewrites and manipulates its past.”
The monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, where the forgery was made, was completely plundered by the Napoleonic troops during the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. The monks fled in terror and had to abandon all the treasures they had been guarding for centuries. One of the desecrated tombs was that of El Cid – or Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, with Napoleon’s soldiers selling off his weapons and remains throughout Europe. They even made engravings reflecting the plundering of the tomb of the legendary warrior. Today, a plaque states that although the remains of the Castilian hero are no longer here, his horse is buried in the monastery’s garden, though this may be no more than a myth.
Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022
After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.
While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.
Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.
Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.
One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.
Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.
This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.
When? Until January 6th
Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.
While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.
Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.
As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.
This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.
When? Until January 8th
Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.
Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.
Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.
This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.
As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.
When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)
People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.
Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.
Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.
Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.
On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.
When? December 7th until January 8th
Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.
It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.
This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.
When? Until December 18th
Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.
Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.
At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.
In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.
This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.
Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.
When? Until December 26th
Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.
This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.
Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.
Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).
When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.
The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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