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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
Michael Palin explores a New Europe
Michael Palin
Michael Palin meets ordinary and extraordinary people on his travels
In his latest television series Michael Palin has travelled throughout Eastern Europe to explore how the region and its people have developed since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost two decades ago.

New Europe, as the title suggests, is about the vigour and vitality of that half of Europe which has, for most of my lifetime been seen as grey, secretive and unwelcoming.

I am happy to report that almost everywhere we went in the 20 countries of our journey, there was evidence that people were pleased to see us, anxious to talk to us and full of stories to tell.

Michael Palin's New Europe
Sundays, 2100BST, BBC One
Begins 16 September

These ranged from older people who had lived through scarcely believable suffering, like Prague-born Lisa Mikova, to those who have only read about the old divided Europe in books, like Anya Mamenko in Ukraine, a 21-year-old who in perfect English justified the non-removal of a huge statue of Lenin in her home city of Yalta with the wise words "You can't tear a page out of history".

Freedom to talk

Tearing pages out reminds me of how close we were to history.

I could talk about almost anything to almost anyone
The classic photograph of the Nazi book-burning in Berlin was taken a few yards away from where, a few months ago, I sat sipping coffee and having a civilised chat with a local author about the difference between the English and German sense of humour.

His basic thesis was that Germans laughed from a position of authority at those below them, and the British laughed from below at those above them.

The fact that I could talk about almost anything to almost anyone is something that recent European history keeps telling us is not to be taken for granted.

Lisa Mikova
Lisa Mikova survived both Auschwitz and the Dresden bombing

When Lisa Mikova, an immaculately dressed and extraordinarily energetic 86-year old, was the same age as Ukrainian Lydia her life could not have been more different.

In 1939 the Nazis arrived in Prague, and being Jewish, Lisa suddenly found herself excluded from her school and banned from swimming pools, theatres and cinemas.

Forced out of her family home, she was sent to Terezin, a 'model' camp north of Prague in which the Nazis used to make propaganda films to hoodwink the Red Cross.

From there she was sent to Auschwitz before being moved in cattle trucks to an aircraft factory in Dresden.

When the infamous Allied bombing raid of February 1945 hit Dresden she and her fellow workers were locked inside their factory.

"We were so happy when we saw the English planes," she told me.

Lisa has now joined with a group of fellow-survivors to talk to the younger generation about what she saw and experienced.

Soviet times

"We are the last generation they can ask," she says.

This sense of change and loss and re-adjustment was a constant theme.

The more I talked to people in Eastern Europe the more I realised how historical enmities were manipulated on both sides

I met very few who talked with real anger about the Soviet times. And a number who had very surreal memories.

Mira Staleva in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, remembered being a Young Pioneer and having to learn to strip down Kalashnikov rifles at school.

"You go in the classroom and there are 30 Kalashnikovs on the desks."

It was inculcated into her that she must always be ready. She was never told what for but it was the happiest time of her life.

"When someone is trying to force you to do something, you find different ways of escape."

Tanks and Transvestites

Transvestite rocker Azis
Azis (centre) represented Bulgaria in the Eurovision Song Contest
Bulgaria's hugely popular transvestite, gypsy, turbo-rock star Azis was also a Young Pioneer, but he told me he always wanted to wear the girls uniform.

The more I talked to people in Eastern Europe the more I realised how historical enmities were manipulated on both sides.

In eastern Germany, just on the Polish border, I was given a lesson in how to drive a Russian T-55 tank, at a school run by two brothers.

One of them, Axel Heyse, was a middle-aged, rather dashing man, who was funny and friendly and very easy to talk to.

I realised that for much of my life he was vilified as "the enemy", and the tank he was teaching me to drive was, I was continuously told, a threat to my entire way of life.

Now, as I grated my way through the gears, we just laughed together.

Michael Palin on a TU-55 tank
Taking a lesson in how to drive a Soviet-built T-55 tank

It is difficult to forget the past because so many of the worst excesses are, rather admirably, documented and in some places like The House Of Terror in Budapest, unflinchingly displayed.

In East Germany the extensive files kept by the Stasi (the secret police) are available for anyone to see, and even those that the Stasi shredded when they knew their number was up are being patiently re-assembled.

Rich and poor

There seems no vindictiveness in all this. It comes from the feeling that the ideological, totalitarian regimes were wrong, and the more we can know and see about how and why they were wrong, the better.

The new free economies have their own problems

I talked more about the past to people because no-one is really sure what the future holds.

Things are changing so fast. Romanians and Bulgarians found themselves full members of the European Union as we were filming.

Most think this will transform their countries. And, most importantly, it will win them back some international respect.

But the new free economies have their own problems.

The rich are getting very rich and the poor are generally worse off than before.

Without the protective subsidies small farmers in places like Moldova can no longer make any money and more and more of the adults have to find work abroad.

We filmed a very moving play performed by children in a Moldovan village showing how the young girls who are left behind by parents desperate to earn money abroad are highly vulnerable to sex-traffickers.

And the sex-traffickers are usually people not just from their own country but from their own village.

It will take a generation or more before the cruel history of much of Eastern and Central Europe works its way through the system, but things move much faster when people talk to each other.

Michael Palin's New Europe is on Sundays at 2100BST on BBC One from 16 September.


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