Day 1 In Bratislava, Slovakia

Today we had the opportunity to leave Vienna for the day to see Bratislava, which is the capital of Slovakia. It was only two hours by bus from where we were staying in Vienna, so we took advantage of the opportunity.

Upon arriving, one of the first things we noticed was the fact that there is a lot of graffiti art all around the city. It turns out that the city actually designates open walls for locals to graffiti because they want people to express their artistic abilities without being punished for doing so. Therefore, graffiti art is legal in Bratislava, which was definitely unique to hear. We also noticed various columns built throughout the city. During the 17th century, the black plague swept through the city, so these columns were built with the Virgin Mary on top of them for the locals to pray to.

Bratislava is known as the coronation city and the city of the Habsburg monarchy since the 17th Century also consisted of the Turks taking over Budapest and Hungary. For this reason, coronations would take place here, including the coronation of Maria Theresa (who has been mentioned in prior posts). Throughout the city, you can see pictured crowns on the ground, which shows the coronation route.

There used to be a Jewish synagogue where we began our tour (pictured below), but it was taken down in 1967 because a new bridge had to be built for transportation purposes, and was completed in 1972. As we continued walking, we came across a memorial commemorating the Slovakian Jews who were taken to the concentration camps and to Poland since Poland was the closest country to transport them to. The word “Remember” is written on the bottom of the memorial.

As we continued walking, we came across fortification walls from the 13th century. We then spotted a building currently owned by the city that used to be a pharmacy back in the day. On the wall, there is a sign in German, Slovak, and Hungarian which is proof that the Slovaks could speak three languages during the Habsburg monarchy.

Nearby on the Royal Street, we saw a house where the noble Keglević family used to reside. Their daughter wanted to learn how to play the piano, so Beethoven actually came to their palace and taught her how to play.

Moving along, we passed by “Bird Fountain.” Red wine came out of the fountain during coronations, so all of the locals would come to drink from the fountain for free. After they finished drinking, the locals were said to have sung like birds, hence the name Bird Fountain.

Shortly after, we stopped at a building where Mozart played for Maria Theresa when he was only six years old. Following his performance, everyone in attendance clapped, and in his excitement, Mozart jumped on Maria Theresa and hugged her. Those in attendance immediately stopped clapping in shock because Maria Theresa’s own children didn’t even hug her in public, but much to everyone’s surprise, she hugged Mozart back.

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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!