56. Just a bit of wood.

By Peter Fraenkel

On my coffee table stands a gently curved bowl of Vietnamese origin. Once it was gold plated – or at least gold painted – but most of the gold has worn off and now a silver-grey undercoat shows through.

In this bowl I collect diverse objects: A horse shoe found in a French barn; a piece of broken pottery from a beach at Dar-es-Salaam; some trilobite fossils picked up in an English quarry; and a cast-iron fragment found, shortly after the war,  in bombed-out Berlin.  Once it was part of the railing that surrounded the palais of the crown-prince.

There is, however, one bit of wood, merely half the size of my fist, that no one would look at twice. Nor could anyone identify it … nobody but I who found it.  That was in Russia, some 50 kilometers from St. Petersburg, but found at that site it was obvious what it had once been.

We had been on a guided tour of the palace of Petrodvorets – Peterhof – a magnificent palace built for Peter the Great to outshine that of the “Sun king” Louis XIV’s Versailles.

Perhaps it’s the site that o’ertrumps Versailles: the palace stands at the crest of a hill which descends in giant steps down to the sea  – eight such steps, and from each fountains shoot water up into the air.  Gold-encrusted statues of nymphs and Greek gods line the cascade.

Flights of stairs descend on either side of the cascade. Carved wooden railings, painted white – surround the stairways.  They would help any visitor with vertigo to make his way down.

At the base – the Gulf of Finland. Waves lap against the shore. It is here, in shallow waters, that I discovered, floating, this unspectacular piece of wood.  It had the same curve and exactly the same carved ribbings as all the railings around the palace gardens. Why had it ended up in the sea?

During the war Hitler’s invading armies tried to seize the city then called Leningrad but failed.  A long siege followed. Inhabitants starved to death but the city held out. However, the Peterhof palace complex, some miles from the city, fell to them and remained in German hands from 1941 until 1944.  Then, when German armies faced defeat, they burnt it down before fleeing west.

Why this senseless destruction?  Perhaps the Nazis could not bear the thought that these “Slav sub-humans” owned a palace complex grander than anything on German soil.

When the Red Army took back Petrodvorets Stalin ordered immediate reconstruction – a surprising decision since a million Russian homes had been destroyed and entire cities needed rebuilding.  But Stalin had learnt, during the war, that an appeal to patriotism had a greater response than any to a political ideology.

Before reconstruction could commence rubble had to be cleared and much of this was simply bulldozed into the sea.  Among the rubble was this fragment of the balustrade. It will have been washed by saltwater for many years before I pulled it out of the sea.

Unspectacular. No one would look at it twice – but look at it closely: Much European history lies in that fragment of wood.