My recent absence from this blog is due to a tour of Central Europe. My wife and I visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Over the years we have visited most or lived in a few European nations. Inevitably, I return with a heightened sense of both our own national stories and those of the European world. This time, I was impressed by the history of all three of the places we visited. In particular, all had a very long history with signs of civilization starting just before the advent of the Common Era. All had a long record of being under the thumb of one occupier or another; the latest being the Soviets. I found that the last liberation process has left the people with an optimistic outlook, even as life is still hard and the memories of the last 60 years or so cannot be easily washed away.
Now a few days after returning home, I am trying to recall the vivid images from the trip. The major cities visited, Prague, Bratislava, and, particularly, Budapest, are all filled with grand vestiges of past; wide streets, monumental-scale structures, and great cultural centers. I was surprised by the number of UNESCO world heritage sites we visited. Budapest, which was heavily damaged during WWII, has largely been rebuilt, but not modernized. The central areas have been restored mostly to their original character, but only the structures tell me that I am in a different world from home. Watching the people at work and in their homes, I sense a remarkable similarity with their peers in the US. The dress is indistinguishable. They are hardworking and busy living the same materialistic life we do.
One important difference struck me: the horrors of their recent occupation, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. As we often do when traveling, my wife and I visit synagogues and other signs of Jewish life. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, we found synagogues that have been turned into places to visit, but little or no Jews. The large Jewish quarters are abandoned. My wife remarked along the way that Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews has been largely successful in these place. Budapest is a somewhat different story. The Jewish population that once numbered almost a million, before the Holocaust, has dwindled to perhaps 50,000, but had regained a presence in Hungary. There are number of working synagogues, including the largest in all of Europe, and signs of Jewish life seen as we walked through city streets.
Hungarians are slowly accepting responsibility for their role in Hitler’s Final Solution. We visited a very moving memorial in Budapest along the Danube. It was simply a row of bronze shoes embedded in the wall that line the river, recalling the slaughter of many Jews that were forced to remove their shoes before being shot and pushed into the Danube. The perpetrators were not the occupying Nazis, but a group of ultra-fascist Hungarians who, legend has it, outdid their Nazi counterparts in cruelty.
We visited other place where the cruelty of our species was palpably present. The first was the Czech village of Lidice which as obliterated in response to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi regent of the region. All the men and many children– were shot and the rest deported to labor camps. Every structure was demolished, and bulldozers ran over them until no remnants of habitation remained. The memorial is striking in the absence of structure. There is nothing there except a simply memorial and the rest is just the fields where the town once existed. The emptiness is overcoming, as is the simplicity of the shoes along the Danube. Later, we visited a Soviet forced-labor camp where both criminals and political prisoners were sent to work in uranium mines. The brutality was present even as we saw only lifeless structures. I can’t imagine the feelings of the older Czechs and others who celebrated the coming of their liberators from the Nazis, only to find themselves once again living under a terribly repressive regime. Real freedom came only about 25 years ago.
Maybe it takes a terrible tragedy to wake up to the harsh reality of modernity. Like much of the rest of Europe, these countries have some form of a social democracy. The government is very much present in daily life; health services and education are free to all comers. Most provide a decent pension. Maternity leave is very generous, allowing working mothers several years at home, until their children enter the school system, starting with kindergarten. Family units are much tighter with many more children living at home with their parents. It is very hard to absorb a culture as a visitor with only a short immersion, but I did feel more care present than here at home. The institutions of government certainly express that. Their cities are places of living history where both the high and low points of the past are evident.
Having been visited all too often by the ravages of war, these countries and others are attempting to work together under the aegis of the EU–a very difficult context given the very different origins and history of all the member states. I heard grousing about this and that, but I believe most think the present system is better than the old one that was kept in place by power, domination, and war. I thought a lot about our recent efforts to find a diplomatic solution to our differences with Iran. The alternative expressed by those who oppose entering into a treaty is basically war, an all-too-easy solution for those who have never had their homeland destroyed and occupied. A few moments spent in Lidice would quickly dispel such a notion. A trip through the European monuments, dead and alive, to the realities of war might turn the minds of our politicians away from the deadly technological weapons that they think will solve all our problems. It is increasingly clear that this is a terribly mistakenly vision. War at a distance relieves responsibility for its actuality. That’s the message that lingers as I resettle into my routines, blotting out memories of many glasses of real beer, beautiful cities, medieval villages, love of craftsmanship, and others.