I’ve always known that when we travel, if we are paying attention, we can explore a deeper truth about humanity, history, and even how geography helps us get to the bottom of this truth. On the Overseas Adventure Travel trip to Central Europe, Jewels of the Bohemia, I saw both the best and the worst parts of humanity portrayed in a single country and region. The dichotomy of history unexpectedly intersected and revealed itself to me in this part of Europe, and so did some deeper truths.
I’ve been to both Prague and Budapest before, anchor cities on this trip. I was impressed how much of the sadness of World War Two history had been preserved. Granted, what I saw were memorials, but they were a recognition of events to preserve it, while I’ve experienced that some countries have wiped the slate clean. In Budapest at the Great Synagogue (also known as the Dohany Synagogue) the Tree of Life memorial to the Holocaust in the old Jewish ghetto was stirring. It was a unique rendition of a weeping willow tree for the branches, and the roots of the tree were an upside-down Menorah. It’s located in a courtyard across from the synagogue in Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, was created by Irma Varga, and is known as the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs in honor of the 400,000 Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Raoul Wallenberg himself saved thousands of Jewish lives in 1944, and there is a memorial to him as well. The synagogue itself was built in the 1850’s and restored in the 1990s. Its unique in that there is a cemetery adjacent to the synagogue, something that is not typically a part of Jewish tradition. To me, the very best and the very worst of humanity were being remembered.
I concluded that Budapest wins the prize for unique renditions of Holocaust memorials. The synagogue is still an active synagogue, with the majority of Hungary’s 80,000 strong Jewish population residing in Budapest. It’s also open for tourists to view for approximately 17 Euro when services are not in session and it’s not the Sabbath.
Another memorial to the Holocaust is right on the banks of the Danube, where about 6000 children, most of them Jewish, were forced to jump into the Danube, then were shot by the Fascist group the Arrow Cross. Some sixty pair of artistically conceived children’s shoes from that period created in iron line the banks of the Danube and were installed near the Parliament building in 2005. There are three plaques on the ground as well to remind visitors in English, Hungarian and Hebrew, that this was the spot where the atrocity occurred. This was even more meaningful for me, since I know someone who survived having to jump into the Danube and was allowed to swim away. She told me she lived in a cupboard for three years. That might have been before the Danube incident, which occurred in 1944-45 just before the war ended.
The Budapest Holocaust memorial that came as a complete surprise, is located in central Budapest, and was erected by the people. I could find very little about it online, but we were told it was erected in protest to the government, but which has allowed it to remain with photos of family members, suitcases (in memory of the suitcases that went to the concentration camps with them), and memorial candles. Indeed, some of what we saw in that memorial also memorialized those who died of Covid, and criticized how the government handled the pandemic.
In many part of Europe, including on this Central Europe trip, I saw small squares in the ground in front of buildings. They are remembrances of Holocaust victims who either lived in or worked in these buildings and include the deportation dates taken from Nazi records. People are still establishing these where they can in honor of loved ones who perished or are still alive. It’s a living testament to the goodness of mankind that they can pay to erect such a tiny memorial for a single family or human being. Yet with enough of these scattered all over Europe as they are, it again serves as a reminder of the enormity of the atrocity and the largesse of human hearts to remember. When posted on social media, people responded having seen them in Rome, Venice, Berlin, Ljubljana, The Netherlands, and Germany, among other locations. A friend of mine just had it done for family of his that had lived in Berlin, some of whom had survived, some of whom did not. I saw the one pictured below in Prague.
Sites such as these, in addition to others which give us a glimpse into the people and historical facts and timelines of which we might not be aware, are part of why we travel. I always go out of my way when I travel to visit sites that memorialize genocide in any country. I love the museums and famous cathedrals as well. But when I am confronted with both the good and the bad in history, it gives my travel a much deeper meaning; and I understand a deeper truth about the people and the culture than I would have otherwise. That perspective alone, and seeing these memorials which weren’t available to me last time I was there, was worth the return trip to Budapest and other parts of Central Europe.