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Monday, June 30, 2014

Learning from the Past

Earlier this year, I took an 11-day trip to central Europe. It was a whirlwind of activity, as the group visited Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague.

I enjoyed visiting these cities and their wealth of history. One of the things that struck me was how old these cities are. In Prague, for example, our guide noted that the 'new old town' grew up near the hilltop castle in the 14th century. It wasn't uncommon to visit churches, castles and palaces that were hundreds of years old.

This blog isn't a typical travelog, no mere recounting of the beautiful old European cities we visited. Visiting these countries also really brought home the horrors of World War II. Until this trip, I had only studied World War II in school and watched a variety of television programs about the war and the Holocaust. Warsaw, for example, was 85 percent destroyed by Allied and Russian bombing during the war. Very little of the original city survives. This trip made the war seem much more relevant. Although my father was a U.S. sailor fighting both the Germans and the Japanese during World War II, I was born after the war and until this trip had no first-hand knowledge of its atrocities.

In several of the cities on the tour, we visited monuments and buildings related to the Holocaust. Our Warsaw hotel was in the area of the former Jewish ghetto. We visited monuments to those slaughtered in the Holocaust and we stopped by the soon-to-be-opened Museum of the History of Jews in Poland. In Budapest, we visited the local Holocaust museum, gazing in horror at the list of names inscribed on walls near the exit. We walked through the old Jewish quarter in Prague. We saw evidence of the worst of humanity.

We visited the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, looking in quiet horror at a room filled with human hair from just some of the victims of the Holocaust. There were displays filled with eyeglasses, cookware, hair and shaving brushes, shoes, toys and suitcases taken from those sent to the death camps. We saw an early model of a crematorium, as well as the 'standing room' where those who had committed some infraction of camp rules were forced to stand with three other people in a room the size of a phone booth. After each night of standing in the cell, inmates were forced to do another day of hard labor until they died. In the 'starvation room,' prisoners were locked away until they died of starvation.

Rows of bunks remain in many of the buildings at Birkenau.

We also saw evidence of some of the best of humanity. We visited a Hungarian memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who risked his life to save countless Jewish residents of Warsaw. The Raoul Wallenberg memorial park in the courtyard behind the synagogue holds the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, in memory of the at least 400,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by the Nazis. The memorial is a 'tree of life,' a metallic weeping willow with each leaf engraved with the name of one of the 5,000 victims of the Holocaust buried nearby.

Budapest's Tree of Life, behind the Great Synagogue.

Schindler's factory in Krakow, Poland, still stands.
We stopped by the factory where Oskar Schindler employed Jewish workers in Krakow, Poland, sparing some 1,200 of them from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. The building still has the original gates, and front windows contain black-and-white photographs of many of the factory workers. The apartment where Wallenberg lived during the war was just a few doors from my hotel. We walked through the former Jewish quarters of some of the major cities of Europe, wondering what life had been like for the residents before and during the Nazi reign of terror.

Original gates to Oskar Schindler's factory in Krakow, Poland

In Budapest, we visited the great synagogue on Dohany Street (the largest in Europe) and the adjacent Hungarian Jewish Museum. The synagogue was used as a base for German Radio and as a stable during World War II. It has been beautifully restored and once again serves as a house of worship.

Several in our group were Jewish, and I wondered how painful this trip must have been for them. It was sobering for all of us, even those like me who are not Jewish. Coming face to face with such evil, even nearly 70 years later, was almost too much to bear.

I have friends who are Jewish, a friend who is Muslim, and many who are Christian. Are not we more alike, regardless of our religious beliefs, than different?

Still we hear of other holocausts occurring in the world: in Iraq (against the Kurds) in the 1980s, in Bosnia from 1992-1995, and in Rwanda in 1994. Nothing has reached the magnitude of the World War II Holocaust, but I have to wonder, Have we not learned anything from the horrors of World War II?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Simple Pleasures

With a milestone birthday rapidly approaching, I realized that I need to pay more attention to life's simple pleasures.

So this morning, I took my cup of tea and my morning newspaper and sat outside at a little-used table near a large pine tree in my yard. The winds were calm and the temperature very pleasant. I used to sit outside and read the paper, but I got out of the habit for some reason. Today was a perfect day to start this simple activity again.

Yesterday I went hiking at Ghost Ranch, in northern New Mexico's beautiful red rock country. Although it was quite windy, the crisp blue sky was dotted with puffy white clouds, and the temperature was pleasant in the low 80s. This was another simple pleasure -- hiking and taking photographs -- that I too often dismiss.

Each of us has simple pleasures that brighten our lives. For some, it might be reading a great novel. For others, watching the sun rise and gradually brighten and warm the sleeping Earth. For me, other simple pleasures include:

  • Spending a few extra minutes in bed
  • Taking an afternoon nap
  • Baking cookies from scratch
  • Making a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup for my daughter
  • Fresh, juicy blackberries and strawberries
  • Doing a random act of kindness for a stranger
  • Listening to my favorite music
  • Driving with the sun roof open
  • Taking a road trip by myself
  • Going for a walk in a new place
  • Listening to rain hit the skylights in my house (a rare pleasure here in the desert)
  • Smelling the air after a rain
  • Taking a great photograph
  • Warm clothes straight from the dryer
  • The smell of clothes dried on a line outside
  • Watching my dogs roll in the grass, or joyously run through the yard
  • The taste of a fresh, juicy peach
  • The smell of a home-cooked (not microwaved) meal
  • Fresh cinnamon rolls
These are just a few of the simple, inexpensive things I enjoy. The older I get, the more time seems to rush by. And the more important it is, for each of us, to find and enjoy our own simple pleasures.