Bells, birds and little hearts

Raul Dias | Updated on November 13, 2020

On a wing and a prayer: When diagnosed with leukaemia caused by radiation from the atomic bomb explosion of 1945, 10-year-old Sadako Sasaki decided to make 1,000 paper cranes - ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Here’s a trio of monuments dedicated to childhood — both lost and found

Decades ago, a wise one close to me had prophesied that this day would come. “One day, you are going to mourn the loss of your childhood!” — I, a precocious 13-going-on-30, was warned.

This, after I was caught doing something no child of 13 should indulge in. With the insufferable insouciance of an approaching adolescence as my ally, I cast aside that prophecy like a pair of smelly socks. But now I grieve. And it took a pandemic to put it all into perspective.

I long for the days of childhood when I feared little that plagues the adult me today. The health of loved ones, work-related stress and, most of all, that big, dark question mark looming over our collective, uncertain future.

So today, as India celebrates Children’s Day, I have decided to take a detour from my worldly worries. And go back to three places around the world which, in some way or form, have helped me recoup my lost childhood as I visited each of them at different points in my life as a travel writer.

Peals of peace

Lying on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria’s unremarkable capital, the Business Park suburb with its monoliths of glass and steel seems like an unlikely place to find a monument honouring children. But in 1979, when the Kambanite Park was established, the area was nothing more than a grassy woodland with abundant wildlife gambolling about at the base of the Vitosha mountain.

The year 1979 was also declared by the United Nations as the International Year of the Child. As part of the International Children’s Assembly’s ‘Flag of Peace’ events held across the world, Bulgaria decided to up the ante and construct its very own monument to commemorate it. Named after the Bulgarian word for bells, the monument’s main bell tower is composed of four 37-m vertical concrete pylons that meet at the top to form a hollow sphere symbolising the Earth, with its seven bells representing the seven continents.

But what makes it the largest percussion instrument in Europe are the 133 bells sent in by countries around the world to reaffirm their commitment towards the betterment of the lives of children. These are arranged in four semi-circles around the base of the main bell tower and range in shape, size and even age.

While Bulgaria’s bell weighs in at a whopping 1,300 kg, in honour of the 1,300th anniversary of the country’s birth as a nation in AD 681, the oldest bell dates back to the 11th century. Each bell is emblazoned with a message of peace from the children of that particular nation.

Soaring high

I travel way back in time to my childhood and find myself sitting in my fifth-grade origami crafts class, willing my chubby fingers to fashion a sheet of red marble paper into a crane bird. That year, my school was among the chosen few from India called upon to send in a couple of hundred such origami paper cranes to Hiroshima, Japan. To add to Sadako Sasaki’s collection. Housed in a dozen or so glass cabinets, our paper cranes would form part of the thousands of others sent in every year by children around the world to Hiroshima’s Children’s Peace Memorial, we were told.

It would be a good 23 years later in 2012, on my first trip to Hiroshima, that I would finally understand the underlying message of Sasaki’s story and of the memorial. When at age 10 she developed leukaemia — believed to have been as a result of the radiation from the atomic bomb’s explosion — Sasaki decided to do something that she believed would help her recover. She embarked on a mission to fold 1,000 paper cranes (the bird is an emblem of longevity and happiness in Japanese culture). Sadly, Sasaki passed away in 1955, falling a few hundred paper cranes short of her target.

The memorial, as it stands today, was built in 1958 and is located in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, flanked by the glass cabinets filled with colourful paper cranes. It depicts Sasaki standing atop the structure, holding a wire crane above her head. On the left and right of her are suspended bronze statues of a girl and boy, respectively. These, I was told, are beacons of a bright future, hope and, most important, peace for children around the world.

Never forgotten

Nothing about the city of Lodz, which lies about 130km southwest of Poland’s capital Warsaw, is easy on the senses. Its bleak, dreary countenance is totally devoid of charm, not even the almost de facto cobblestone squares the rest of the country’s towns and cities are blessed with. Even the name Lodz’s pronunciation is an unlikely “woodge”, which means ‘boat’ in Polish.

Having earned the moniker of ‘Poland’s Manchester’, thanks to its prowess as a textile industry powerhouse in the 19th century, Lodz often falls off the ‘must-see’ list on a typical Polish trip itinerary. But not mine. Lodz has a rather dark secret tucked away within its grimy folds.

Often referred to as ‘Little Auschwitz’, Lodz was once home to a Nazi-run concentration camp solely for children aged between 6 and 16 years. Perhaps the only one of its kind in Europe during World War II, the camp on Przemyslowa Street was set up during the German occupation of Poland and held as many as 3,000 children on average on any day.

Today, on the edge of the city’s Szare Szeregi Park lies the beautiful Children’s Martyrdom Monument, also called the Monument of the Broken Heart. Unveiled in 1971, it is dedicated to Polish children who either perished or were killed while imprisoned in the camp.

I found myself at this spot on a blisteringly cold December morning, staring bleary eyed at the monument, which is shaped in the likeness of a heart broken down the middle. A figure of a small child gloomily peeking through the vertical crack gives it solemn gravitas. A plaque beside it reads: “You were stripped of your life, today we only give you memory”.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Published on November 13, 2020

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