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.
|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.|
|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?