Holocaust Remembrance Day

Seeing as yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to post about my experience traveling to Auschwitz in Krakow, Poland this past summer, in addition to meeting a Holocaust survivor in Budapest just a few short days after. I already wrote about this a few months ago in my blog, but seeing as this important day is designated to remember the atrocities that occurred years ago, I thought it would be appropriate to repost some of my experiences.

When my tour group arrived at Auschwitz, the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

Throughout our tour, we saw hundreds of suitcases, personal belongings, and family treasures that countless people were stripped of. And as we concluded the tour with a viewing of the gas chamber and crematorium, we saw where many of these people were stripped of their lives. It is crucial that we do not forget about this devastating time in history so that such atrocities do not repeat themselves. Genocide has occurred all throughout the world, and with such unspeakable acts of horror continuing to this day, we must speak on behalf of those who lost their lives and advocate for those still alive today before it is too late.

A few days after touring Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my tour group arrived in Budapest, Hungary, where we walked through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue. After walking through the beautiful Synagogue, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.

There are countless stories of heroic Holocaust survivors, but we must listen to them and pass these stories on before there is no one left to share such experiences.

Last Day In Budapest and Night 1 In Vienna, Austria

Before leaving Budapest, we stopped off at Nagy Vasarcsarnok, also known as the Central Market Hall. On the first floor, you can find all kinds of foods, snacks, treats, vegetables, meats, and of course, paprika, the most important spice in Budapest. Clearly Budapest knows its target market too, because the entire second floor is dedicated to tourists, seeing as it’s filled with souvenir shops. Throughout our trip in Budapest, our tour guide told us that Vienna likes to brag about having the best strudel known to man. She mentioned that in Budapest, you can find all kinds of strudel that Vienna can’t even compare to. We had to put the strudel tasting to the test before heading to Vienna, so when we came across a strudel shop in the market, we naturally bought as many different flavors as possible. We bought an apricot-curd cheese strudel, a pumpkin-poppy seed one, a sour cherry-apple one, and a cabbage one too. As surprising as it was, the cabbage strudel was delicious and far exceeded our expectations. Vienna was going to have tough competition in this strudel taste-test.

Upon leaving Budapest, we passed a memorial for the 1956 Revolution, which remembers the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that played a big role in the Soviet Union’s downfall years later.

Before arriving to our hotel in Vienna, Austria, we passed the Vienna Parliament Building. There is a statue of Pallas Athena in the front of the Parliament House, which is the goddess of wisdom. The running joke is that the only wisdom on the property is just the statue and not the people inside.

When we stopped off at our hotel, we had some downtime to settle into our hotel and change, before our evening excursion. Our excursion was a viewing of the “City of Music” show which featured the classical masterpieces of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss, two of Vienna’s most famous citizens. Mozart was a child prodigy who blossomed into one of history’s greatest composers and Strauss, also known as the Waltz King, composed the Blue Danube, which is the world’s most famous waltz.

Our group sat in the very first row of a small theatre, and to be quite honest, my sister and I thought we would end up falling asleep right in front of the orchestra. However, the music was incredible, and there were opera singers and dancers accompanying each song. There was something special about being in Vienna and hearing the beautiful sounds of Mozart and Strauss. And while I thought maybe the free champagne we received was what made it special, I have to say, listening to such intricate music and knowing that it had originated where we were sitting really made the experience that much more incredible. (But the free champagne definitely helped too!)

Day Two In Budapest, Hungary

Today was our last day in Budapest, and we had the entire morning to do as we pleased. During the Holocaust, countless Hungarian Jews were taken to the Danube River and were forced to strip naked before being shot into the River. Most of the time, the Jews were told to take their shoes off since shoes were a great commodity during the war, but if their shoes were worn out, they would likely be killed still wearing them. In many cases, the Arrow Cross would remove the shoelaces and tie the victims’ hands together, and in such instances, only one person would be shot, causing the other to drown. During the winter of 1944-1945, the Danube River was known as the “Jewish Cemetery,” because even if you weren’t shot, you’d likely die from the freezing cold water.

In 2005, a memorial was installed on the Pest bank of the Danube River, with three plaques in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew reading, “To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.” “On the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, not far from the Hungarian Parliament building, sit sixty pairs of old-fashioned shoes, the type people wore in the 1940s. There are women’s shoes, there are men’s shoes and there are children’s shoes. They sit at the edge of the water, scattered and abandoned, as though their owners had just stepped out of them and left them there” (http://www.yadvashem.org). There’s not much I could say to describe The Shoes On The Danube Promenade Memorial, but as you can imagine, it was completely silent as everyone reflected on the tragedies that occurred right where we were standing. In my previous post, I mentioned that there was a plaque by the Dohány Street Syngagogue which commemorated all of the gentile heroes who helped save Hungarian Jews from being killed in the Holocaust. One of those heroes was Raoul Wallenberg, a man who saved over 100,000 Hungarian Jews. This is only part of his story:

“In 1944, the United States established The War Refugee Board (WRB), an organization created with the mission of saving Jews from Nazi persecution. The WRB soon realized that serious attempts were being made from the Swedish side to rescue the Jewish population in Hungary. The WRB’s representative in Stockholm called a committee with prominent Swedish Jews to discuss suitable persons to lead a mission in Budapest for an extensive rescue operation. […] The committee approved Wallenberg and by the end of June 1944, he was appointed first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest with the mission to start a rescue operation for the Jews.

By the time Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944, the Germans, under the leadership of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, had already deported more than 400,000 Jewish men, women and children from Hungary. They had been deported on 148 freight trains between May 14 and July 8.

Only about 230,000 Jews, out of a population that once numbered close to three-quarters of a million, were now left.

Wallenberg’s first task was to design a Swedish protective pass to help the Jews against the Germans and their Hungarian allies. At the start, Wallenberg was only given permission to issue 1,500 of his passes. Quickly, though, he managed to negotiate another 1,000, and through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian foreign ministry he eventually managed to raise the quota to 4,500 protective passes.

It was at this point that Wallenberg started to build “Swedish houses” – some 30 houses in the Pest part of the city where Jews could seek refuge. A Swedish flag hung in front of each door and Wallenberg declared the houses Swedish territory. The population of the “Swedish houses” soon rose to 15,000. Other neutral legations in Budapest started to follow Wallenberg’s example, issuing their own protective passes, and a number of diplomats from other countries were even inspired to open their own “protective houses” for Jewish refugees.

Toward the end of 1944, Wallenberg moved over the Danube river from Buda to Pest where the two Jewish ghettos were situated. Even the once minimal level of law that existed on this side was now gone. Simultaneously, Wallenberg’s department at the Swedish legation grew constantly and finally kept 340 persons “employed.” Another 700 people also lived in their building.

Wallenberg searched desperately for suitable people to bribe, and found a very powerful ally in Pa’l Szalay, a high-ranking officer in the police force and an Arrow Cross member. (After the war, Szalay was the only Arrow Cross member that wasn’t executed. He was set free in recognition for his cooperation with Wallenberg.)

In the second week of January 1945, Wallenberg discovered that Eichmann planned a total massacre in Budapest’s largest ghetto The only one who could stop it was general August Schmidthuber, commander-in-chief for the German troops in Hungary.

Wallenberg’s ally Szalay was sent to deliver a note to Schmidthuber explaining how Wallenberg would en sure that the general be held personally responsible for the massacre if it proceeded and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. The massacre was stopped at the last-minute thanks to Wallenberg’s action.

Two days later, the Russians arrived and found 97,000 Jews alive in Budapest’s two Jewish ghettos. In total 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary. According to Per Anger, Wallenberg’s friend and colleague, Wallenberg must be honored with saving at least 100,00 Jews” (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org).

Night 2 In Budapest, Hungary

The official state holiday in Budapest was originally Constitution Day, but since it was changed seven times in the past few years, the new official state holiday is Saint Stephen’s Day and the “Day of the New Bread.” During this holiday, the city puts on a beautiful half-hour fireworks show on the bank of the Danube River. People gather on both sides, on Buda and Pest to watch the display, as they all celebrate together. Luckily for us, we had a river boat cruise set up that evening, so we had first row seats to the fireworks show.

We began our cruise early, seeing as dinner and drinks were provided for everyone on our tour group, and dinner consisted of traditional Hungarian food. Between Hungarian Goulash, with chunks of beef, potatoes, vegetables, and the Hungarian specialty, paprika, Chicken Paprikash, which is chicken in a creamy, paprika sauce, and Nokedli, or dumplings usually served alongside stews and meats, we couldn’t have asked for better Hungarian cuisine! From where our boat was, we had an incredible view of the surrounding city, especially the Parliament House.

The Parliament House was built between 1885-1904. During the World War II, local citizens removed the windows of the building, put them in sandbags and hid them in the caves of surrounding buildings. They returned the windows once the war ended, and thanks to these people, these beautiful windows were saved.

At 9:00pm, the show began, and fireworks were being lit left and right. The city put on an incredible show, and it was truly the perfect way to celebrate our last night in Budapest.

Day 1 In Budapest, Hungary Continuation

If you’ve been keeping up with my adventures traveling abroad, you’ll notice that I last left off in the early afternoon on my first day in Budapest, Hungary. In the previous post, we had just taken a tour of the Jewish Museum, located in the same building where Theodor Herzl was born, which is currently next to the Dohány Street Synagogue. I split this day up into three separate blog posts because there was so much to talk about, but this post will be appropriate timing-wise with January 27th having been the 70th Anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

As we exited the Jewish Museum, we came across an old brick wall memorial, symbolic with the one that kept the Budaptest Jews with pieces of original bricks from the Ghetto Wall in Budapest. While following the outside train, we walked through a Peace Garden, dedicated to those who lost their lives in Budapest. Pictures along the walls show the dead bodies that were found in the same area, upon being discovered by the Russians during the liberation. Near the garden there was a memorial plaque for the Warsaw Uprising, and a unique piece of artwork. It represented the beginning of the Holocaust with the Jewish people holding onto their belongings, and as the artwork progresses (from left to right), you notice that the people in the sculpture become emaciated and their belongings quickly disappear.

One of the most notable pieces of artwork outside is a large stained glass piece in the middle of a courtyard. The red throughout the glass shows the flames of the crematoriums in the Holocaust, while the blue shows hope for the future. Close by to the stained glass is a memorial commemorating all of the gentile heroes who helped save Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust. Near these memorials and the Jewish Museum is a Heroes Temple which serves as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who put their lives on the line during World War I.

As we neared the exit of the outdoor courtyard, we spotted the Weeping Willow Memorial. You’ll notice that there are no roots on the tree, because they say that the roots were taken out during the Holocaust, but the branches symbolize the start of a new future. And each branch contains the name of a Hungarian Jewish family murdered during this time. If you look at the tree upside-down, it is in the shape of a Menorah, symbolizing hope and positivity.

Upon leaving the Jewish Quarter, we made our way over to the Holocaust Memorial Center, which is actually a renovated synagogue from the 1920s that currently serves as a memorial and museum for the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Upon first entering the courtyard of the Museum, you’ll notice six large columns; each column represents 100,000 Hungarian Jews, which represent the 600,000 Hungarian Jews, and the total of six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. The walls surrounding the Museum are filled with names of the Hungarian Jews who died during the Holocaust, but there is still an ample amount of space remaining since there are many Jews whose stories and outcomes we still don’t know of. For this reason, people continue to look into these missing Holocaust victims, and hopefully one day soon, we will know what happened to them.

The building itself is slanted downwards, showing that nothing will ever be straight again. But there are trees on top of the building, showing hope for the future. The entrance of the Museum is flat, but as you walk through, it is slanted downwards to show the worsening of the situation as the Holocaust progressed. Upon first entering the Museum, there are lines along the wall representing everyone from the Holocaust, but as you walk through the Museum, the lines progressively end, representing everyone who was killed during this time.

There are enclosed artifacts from some of the Hungarian Jews throughout the entrance of the Museum, as well as pictures of the Dohány Street Synagogue, filled with suitcases and belongings. The Germans began running out of places to store the belongings of the Jews, so they filled the Synagogue with the personal effects taken from the Jews in the area. There are numerous videos in the beginning part of the Museum that show Jewish weddings from the 30s, but as the footage of the weddings continues, you can notice that everyone in attendance had to wear Yellow Stars, which is from some of the last weddings before deportation started.

As you continue walking through the Museum, you’ll hear the sound of people marching, which continues for quite some time. You’ll also see video footage of people marching to Auschwitz because there was no railroad in Budapest. (Remember, in a previous post, I mentioned that Hungary was the last country to be occupied so by this time, there was no set plan on how to exterminate the Hungarian-Jews so the Nazis had to improvise. This led the Jews to have to walk to the concentration camps).

Near the end of the Museum, there is disturbing footage of people right before they entered the gas chambers. No one knows who filmed the footage, but it’s the only existing one of the Jewish people upon entering the gas chambers. Walking past this video, the sound of a heartbeat beats above you in the hallway leading to the exit, and right before you reach the end of the hallway, the sound stops and the room is completely silent. And at this point, there are very few lines left, compared to the countless lines (representing the Jewish lives) in the beginning of the Museum.

There is a beautiful Synagogue connected to the exit of the Museum, which shows that the Jewish religion is still existent and strong. The back of the Synagogue is filled with glass memorials, commemorating just some of the many Jews who perished in the Holocaust. After having learned even more about the Holocaust throughout our time in the Museum, it was inspiring to leave off on a note of optimism, seeing this beautifully renovated synagogue dedicated to those who lost their lives years ago.

Day 1 In Budapest, Hungary Continued

After our morning tour of the city, we had an afternoon tour based on the Jewish heritage of Budapest and our first stop was to the Dohány Street Synagogue. The synagogue is named after its location, Dohány Street, which translates to tobacco street since there used to be a lot of tobacco production in the area. This was by far the most beautiful synagogue I had ever seen, and it’s actually the largest Jewish Temple in Europe, and the second largest in the world, falling short of Temple Emanu-El in New York by one inch.

During the Holocaust, all of the prayer books in the temple were destroyed by 25 Torah scrolls were saved by two priests who took them one night. The priests put the Torah scrolls into plastic bags, buried them in their garden, and returned them to the temple after the war. Thanks to these two priests, holy scriptures were saved and a major part of the temple had been restored after a terrible time in history.

Hungary was actually the last country to be occupied in World War II, and by the time this happened, the rest of the world had already been informed what was going on. Because the details of the Holocaust were known to the rest of the world, there was no time for strategic planning or paperwork to be completed on how to exterminate the Hungarian Jews, so the Jewish residents of Hungary were forced to walk to the concentration camp.

Outside of the temple, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.

After walking through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue and meeting Lucy, we walked to a Jewish Museum next door which was built over an apartment building where Theodore Herzl, the visionary behind modern Zionism and the reinstitution of a Jewish homeland was born. One of the first artifacts we came across was a bench where the Rabbi would sit to perform a Brit Milah, or circumcision on newborns, which is customary in the Jewish religion. The two seats on the bench are for the Rabbi and for the prophet, Elijah. One of the ways that the Nazis would know if a male was Jewish during the Holocaust was to see if he was circumcised. So even if you had paperwork stating that you’re not Jewish, the Nazis would force you to pull your pants down, and if they saw that you were in fact circumcised, they would kill you on the spot. For this reason, many parents in Budapest are afraid to circumcise their children out of fear of what might happen in the future.

We then came across a scroll that shows a dying man with a Rabbi because it is said that you cannot die until you complete your studies, so the angel of death cannot get to the sick person because he is still learning in the picture. Years ago, the mafia in the area stole everything from the museum, with hopes of profiting from the sales of these ancient artifacts. No one in Budapest could figure out who the thief was until the members of the mafia were caught trying to sell the artifacts. The only item they didn’t take was the Menorah pictured below because it was too heavy.

I hate to split up this one day into yet another blog post, but there was so much rich history that we learned about in Budapest, so the remainder of the city’s Jewish heritage tour will have to be continued!

Day 1 In Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, originally two separate cities, Buda being on the west bank of the Danube River, and Pest being on the east bank, were both united as one single city 150 years ago.

With that history lesson now out of the way, our first sight on our tour of Budapest was the Budapest Metro Station, built by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the civil engineer and architect most famously known for building the Eiffel Tower. Budapest’s metro system is the second oldest in the world, falling a few years short of London’s metro system. As we drove further into the city, we came across the Ministry of Defense, which you’ll notice on the left hand side of the picture has bullet holes in the walls. The bullet holes are from World War Two, which have been left as a reminder of the past, which the country does not wish to forget. When then passed a memorial plaque honoring Angelo Rotta, who was responsible for saving several thousand lives during the Holocaust. “Monsignor Rotta, along with his assistant, Father Gennaro Verolino, issued more than 15,000 safe conduct certificates to the Jews of Budapest, putting them under the direct protection of the Vatican neutrality. They also set up numerous safe houses throughout Budapest” (http://www.budapestvacationservice.com/holocaust_heroes_2.html).

We stopped at a scenic route, which allowed us to see the entire city from a raised walkway, and as you can see below, the view was incredible. In what seems like the beginning of history (around the time of the 13th century), the Tatars occupied Hungary and attacked the country. They left after two years, but the King was convinced they would so he built a fortress around his castle and spent his time waiting to counter the next attack, but it never happened. Budda then became the capital of Hungary and the castle was reformed into a beautiful gothic renaissance palace. The Ottomans eventually came and used it as ammunitions storage, but it later exploded. The Austrians later arrived and built a baroque palace on top of the original palace, thanks to Maria Theresa, the Queen of Hungary at the time. During World War Two, Nazi officers used the palace, and it was destroyed by the end of the war, but the outside was later restored, and the inside was modernized. The back half of the Vajdahunyad Castle is currently Hungary’s National Library, home to every single book published in the country.

Vajdahunyad Castle is located in the City Park, and is also known for its City Park Ice Rink, which was the first artificial skating rink in Europe, started in 1905. “The lake in front of Vajdahunyad Castle is used for boating in the summer and is transformed into Europe’s largest outdoor ice-skating rink in the winter” (http://visitbudapest.travel).

After driving through the city, we spotted the Chain Bridge, which is the oldest and most famous bridge in Budapest with two lions on each side guarding it. Supervised by Scottish architect Adam Clarke, rumor has it that the lions only spoke Hungarian so their tongues were cut off by those who built it. It is said that if a faithful husband walks on the bridge, the lions will talk again. Since the lions have yet to speak ever since the initial construction of the bridge, the running joke is that there are no faithful husbands around.

As we neared the end of the city tour, we stopped at Heroes’ Square, one of the most visited spots in all of Budapest. At the center of Heroes’ Square stands the Millennium Monument, which commemorates the 1000-year old history of the Magyars, or Hungarian tribes. “The column is topped with a statue of the archangel Gabriel. Behind the column is a semicircular colonnade with statues of famous men who made their mark on Hungarian history. Statues atop the colonnades symbolize War, Peace, Work and Welfare, and Knowledge and Glory. Around the base of the monument are a number of equestrian statues honoring the seven chieftains of the Hungarian tribes who, led by Árpád, conquered the area now known as Hungary” (http://www.aviewoncities.com).

This concluded our morning tour of Budapest, but the afternoon tour was even more fascinating and will be posted separately since we saw so much in just one day!

Passing By Slovakia to Get to Budapest

As our time in Poland had come to an end, it was time for us to embark on our next journey to Budapest, Hungary. The bus ride took over six hours, so we made a few pit stops along the way. Our first stop was to the oldest Roman Catholic church in the upper Orava region (consisting of northern Slovakia and part of southern Poland). Orawka, built in the mid-1600s and featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is covered in beauty every which way you turn. The paintings, sculptures, and the history behind this church were beyond impressive to gaze at. And when I didn’t even think it was possible, upon seeing the breathtaking scenic route outside of the church is when an even bigger impression was made on us.

While passing through the remaining parts of Poland, we came across an array of magnificent houses which we were told are owned by farmers. The farmers want to make their property as enticing as possible so that their children will stay at home and help them with the farm, as opposed to moving out and working elsewhere. As the bus ride progressed, we had to say “do widzenia” (goodbye in Polish) to Poland, and hello to the Donovaly Ski Resort in Slovakia, where we stopped for lunch along the way. Both the inside and outside of the restaurant we ate at made for great pictures, so when all the patrons were finished eating, they had to compete with one another to take pictures in all of the prime locations.

It was already evening time when we arrived to our hotel in Budapest, so after dinner, we took a walk around the city. We came across an incredibly elegant coffee shop (where of course we had to take some picture), and then spotted the Budapest Opera House. Franz Joseph I (Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary) built an opera house in Vienna but his wife Elisabeth, more commonly known as “Sissi” insisted that he build one in Hungary as well because of her love and fondness for Hungary. Franz Joseph agreed but only under the condition that it couldn’t be bigger than the opera house in Vienna. When the newly built opera house opened in the late 1800’s, he attended an opera but left during intermission because the outside of the building was more beautiful than the one in Vienna, and he never returned.

We concluded the night by walking through the city, which led us to an area filled with local food carts alongside a music festival where a guitarist was playing the guitar behind his head. We then spotted the Budapest Eye and found a hangout park where locals were enjoying the company of one another, sitting, listening to music, and drinking. It really brought my attention to how lively this city is, and I couldn’t wait for our tour to begin in the morning.