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.

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

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!