Archive for the 'eastern europe' category

Austria and Jews

Jul 22 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

More from journals:

But I have still not touched on the Jewish question of Austria. I am trying to organize how I perceived each country's view of WWII, the Holocaust. I do not mean to be glib, or dismissive. But each was different, and these are just my shorthand, my perception. Poland was filled with guilt. Auschwitz / Birkenau is a national monument. There is a National Museum of the History of Jews in Poland, albeit heavily financed by American Jews. Remembering is paramount. Here is where the Nazis killed Jews.

Hungary, which lost the same order of magnitude as Poland, was less public, national but still there. There are memories and memorials and indeed, the Budapest ghetto was never liquidated and more Jews survived. The list of Righteous is longer, and even though Raul Wallenberg was Swedish, he worked here. He is honored here. But Hungary seemed more obsessed with the Soviet Union. Did I use the word strident before? Very well, I use it again. The "House of Horror" was dramatically in your fucking face about what the Soviets did.

But Austria, Austria struck me as a set of whinging self-pitying European fops. When historically they step away from the damn Hapsburgs, the message was "we were victims of the Nazis, too". No mention of 400,000 people enthusiastically welcoming Adolf Hitler, who never used the word "Austria", giving up their identity to his greater Aryan vision. No mention of Kurt Waldheim, no mention of ongoing anti-semiticism,

The only museum about Jews and the Holocaust was private, nearly empty, and  entirely Jewish/Israel funded. But it is clean and marble and modern. The doors are blast doors, and likely designed by Israelis with an eye to security. There is an archeological site in the basement, a synagogue from the middle ages.

Someone said that the outdoor memorial (a block of books with their spines inward) was in the movie The Woman in Gold and that the Helen Mirren character had the same response to it as he did "meh".

The emptiness of it all was what hit me. The emptiness of current people, the emptiness of what happened. The emptiness of Jews in this part of the world.

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First Day in Prague

Jul 17 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

From my journal.

Today was the first day in prague. We did the toursit thing in the morning  - the churches and palaces, all started building in the 13th century and continually improved thereafter. One point of note is that Mucha (he of JOB cigarette and Sarah Bernhardt posters) did one of the cathedral stained glass  (but painted in this case) windows that was quite lovely, and not out of place.

In the afternoon, I went to three places: The Museum of Communism, the Mucha Museum and the Jerusalem synagogue. All have me thinking.

The museum of communism was the antithesis of the one in Budapest. The latter was a bombastic shout at the world, but with modern aesthetic values, designed to emotionally convey an important message. It was modern and clean and well lit with effective technology and music and intelligible signage written by someone who could write. You may not agree with the emotions of the survivors, but you do acknowledge them.

The one in Prague was a shabby afterthought that could have come from the communist era. It was slightly faded posters in many languages. There was no tech, but artifacts grouped in to simple stories for school children. I felt little emotion, in myself or from the ones telling the story. The bathrooms were old and grungy, and even the fat old ladies collecting tickets could have been left over from some regime.

Time for dinner... more later....

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Jews in Prague

Jul 17 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

More from journal

The Czech Republic had the best organized Jewish Tourist Thing going. There is a jewish quarter, filled with synagogues. Although, the guide did say that they were mostly empty, as there are now at most 2-3000 jews living here (half in Prague, the rest elsewhere). I saw more Hassidim here than anywhere else, including Poland.

The experience in the one we saw yesterday, Weds was, at best, unpleasant. It was filled with people, noisy people, clapping people, pushing people, taking photographs people. It was part of the tour of the Jewish quarter that I did not enjoy. I found the tour of that area to be the least affecting, the least moving, to me. Perhaps because it was hot, the crowds were large and very pushy. There were two large and beautiful Moorish-style, but not Sephardic, synagogues, complete with gorgeous deep colors and gold leaf and vaulted cathedralesque ceilings. One was built late 1800s the other early 1900s. That they survived the Nazis is either a miracle, if one believes in such, or quirks of history.

There were two things that did move me. One was on the tour. And it was crowded, noisy and filled with disrespectful people. But what it was transcended that. I dislike the word transcend, but there is nothing else that describes what I felt. This synagogues-museums was nearly empty and the walls painted white. The rooms were small, and covered in script. Black names, with two dates, birth and deportation. No one is quite sure of date of death for these people, but the Nazis with the help of the locals, of course, were meticulous in the deportation records. Yellow place names. Red family names. I saw the name of my sister's husband's family and broke down. Here were walls covered with script. The names of the 100,000 Czech Jews who are no more. And yet in the middle of this list were <slightly odd name>. Olga <slightly odd name. Leo <slightly odd name>.  I could not stop crying and went outside.

While I was here, the World Jewish  Something Or Other announced that the worldwide population of Jews has finally reached the level it was pre-holocaust. I hope that whoever carries the genes of Leo and Olga know this.

The other place was the 2nd Moorish Temple, the Jerusalem Temple. I saw it on Tuesday, by chance, walking around after other things. It was, as many other places, nearly empty. The synagogue was beautiful, inside and out. It was hushed and keeping its secrets to itself. Upstairs there was a exhibit. Two actually, but I had only time to see one. It was the history of Jews post-1945. The communists were not good to the Jews. That  the Jews at the time were surprised by this is amazing.  More subtle and insidious than the Nazis, there are undoubtably more than the  current 2-3000 Jewish Czechs who moved, assimilated and were lost. But to see a newsreel made in the late 40s about the old age homes and orphanages for concentration camp survivors, and than  to read how the Communists shut these down for "imperialist" and "capitalist" tendencies shows that nothing changes.


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banality of evil, exhaustion of tourista

Jul 16 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

A friend, to whom I sent parts of my journal, wrote back to me and said: What do you mean when you say "overwhelmed by the banality of what happened"?  I do not understand what you are trying to say.
Let me try and explain.
It was a reference to Hannah Arendt's comments at Adolf Eichmann's trial about the banality of evil. It is hard to judge how engaged anyone here is in history. I am perceiving people and places and the history presented by various entities through both their lens and my own position and prejudices.
Or, as we would say, if we were in physics, everything is in a moving and non-fixed frame of reference.
On one hand, the collective pain and scars of WWII and subsequent Soviet domination of the area are very real. The Museum of Terror, in just its name, let alone its contents, is a good example. The museum did not shy away from the fact that they were collaborators with the Nazis. On the other, somehow, such people were not "real Hungarians".
What happened to the Jews in Poland and in Hungary was banal, in the sense that, step  by step, every day it  became normal, acceptable, and just the way things were. To kill people, to take their homes, to send them off to live in ghettos and then camps, and finally to not live at all, was woven into the fabric of every day life. There is memory of it now, and, everyone's ancestors were heros and members of the resistance. Except the ones who weren't, and they weren't part of us.

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Thoughts about mountains and roads while driving through europe

Jul 15 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

Miscellaneous thoughts from my journal.

The mountains: some people say that people either love mountains or oceans. I love both, because what I love, what speaks to me in a way I cannot describe is the water with both. Mountain streams, rivers, waterfalls  are as beautiful and compelling to me as the ocean, if not more so. So far these mountains are at a distance. We are getting there. The drive is much stop and go. This is, after all, MittleEuropa, and has been settled for centuries, if not millenia (plural). The roads are narrow, and congested. Single lane highways as the major thoroughfares between northern and southern Poland. One of Eisenhower's geniuses was the Interstate Highway system. In my experience my European friends and colleagues fail to appreciate what they mean. Yes, they are hideously ugly to travel on. Yes, speed come at a cost. For all that they are a scar, they are hairline scars, finely etched over a much larger body.  What they have done is given a unity within America, that the EU is still struggling with. Yes, Europe has a magnificent train system, but we are in a bus, not on trains as we go across five, six countries of Europe. Here is a question: absent highways and the car, would America have split into multiple countries? Or is the post-civil war Federal inertia enough to hang it together. Do the people of America perceive something that they can see and visit and therefore feel differently? It is impossible to know except by going and asking.

We are now more into countryside, but still long chains of trucks and cars and busses on the narrow highway. Small farms, villages line the sides of the road. Some are what would be called picturesque, but I mostly find them an ugly conglomeration of bright primary colored signs, and ersatz something or other. It would be good to drive through the forest.

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One of the last thoughts on leaving Hungary

Jul 15 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

More from journal

One of the last site-seeing things I did late yesterday afternoon was visit The Shoes.

On the bank of the Danube, greenish-grey as are most urban rivers, there is one last Holocaust memorial. A number of Jews, prior to concentration camps, had been lined up on the banks, shot, and pushed in.

The memorial are shoes, cast in bronze, on the edge of the stone embankments. They are a 100 meters from the beautiful parliament building.  They are sad and alone and filled with visitor's stones.

When we took a boat ride down the Danube, the shoes were not mentioned.

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Jul 13 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

From my journals, not edited:

I've started to write this several times, without much success. Partly, I am very tired, tired of traveling, tired of packing and unpacking. I hesitate to say that they had it right 100 years ago. Traveling more slowly, with enormous trunks of clothes, was it easier? But 100 years ago, I would not be traveling - it was limited to a stratum of society to which I would not have belonged. Sometimes  I wonder whether I would have ever fit into society. It is romantic to think not, but I suspect most women were sufficiently socialized to accept the roles that were available to them.

Vienna  was larger in many ways than either Krakow or even Budapest. The buildings felt larger, the characters felt larger, the life being lived was louder and larger. Krakow was very touristy, but in Vienna there was a glimpse of life being lived. Yet, of course, Americans, when they think at all, think of Austria being dead. And in ways it was - the glory was in the past. It was not clear that a young and vibrant community was building anything.

[Which brings up a side-thought - are there young and vibrant communities building things anywhere? Or am I an old fart who does not see the accomplishments of youth?  Is anyone building a city the way Vienna was built? Or do you have to be a Hapsburg? Do most youth of any point in time indulge themselves, and see themselves as the tortured and misunderstood geniuses of their city?]

The concert, as was true of the concert in Warsaw, was saccharine. I did not share this view with anyone but Ann. But the Mozart and Strauss they played could have been supermarket music. The group was accomplished, the dancing and singing diverting. But the choice was to appeal to a base denominator of taste.

I enjoyed the House of Music more. This is a museum of sound, and was quite different from anything else I saw or did so far on this trip. The third floor was the science of sound, some about hearing, some about production, they even explained Fourier transforms. The fourth floor was a museum of the greats, starting with Haydn, but Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and then Strauss, Mahler and lesser lights.

I learned some about the history of these men (they were mostly schmucks, each in their own schmucky way, and nothing was said about women, except as wives and mistresses, and nothing about anyone who was not a white protestant male). This in turn raises the ongoing discussion about the life of the artist vs. the art that they create.

I have always preferred to not know the life. I'd also rather not know the name. Should the art be appreciated for itself? Yes, I believe in the purest form. But within even the context of that purity, there is room for more, defensibly arguing for the setting, the history, the story behind. In one simple, outside the art argument - one can find what one loves better with such guideposts. While not being prejudiced in advance, one has the potential to discover new and different and grow beyond the old. But there is so much, that having the guideposts helps. Could guideposts be on content? (say piano rather than electric guitar) Could one remove the cult of the person ?

The more powerful defense is that context enriches the art. That understanding the influences, the teachers, even the patrons clarifies what the artist was trying to accomplish. The change in Haydn's music from the time in the employ of the Esterhazy's to the London symphonies is a reflection of who was footing the bill and their tastes. Knowing what was going on when Haydn started composing, what each of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert heard, makes the novelty, the genius of their work stand more starkly forth.  Finally, knowing that all of the guys started out relatively poor (except maybe Mozart) and worked their way to fame and greatness is not just inspiring to musicians but to all of us.

Yet, at what point does knowing context tip over into the cult of the person? This happens all the time in science. Why should it matter what beer Einstein drank? Or  where Francis Crick summered? Does where Marie Curie lived matter? One could argue yes, to understand what she gave up to devote herself to science. But Einstein's beer? This cult is more obvious in artists, especially today's pop artists. It was true of Mozart and Haydn, and others. Does it matter if the artist is dead or alive? Alive they have a chance to earn a living as an artist, always a precarious proposition.

But me, my experience, what did learning about Haydn's parrot (who could allegedly say "Papa Haydn") and seeing his handwriting, and the houses where he lived matter to my perception? I learned more of the "why" behind his invention of the string quartet (those were the players available to him when he started writing). And of course, I appreciated the long work, hard work to get where he was. I cannot answer for now. No answer popped out.

As we drive through the countryside, there are huge windfarms. 100s and 100s of modern windmills with red and white striped (for Austria?) tips. I understand how the folks on Martha's Vinyard, etc object to the offshore farms, but I think they are wrong. We live with wires and buildings and all sorts of structural detritus of human existence, and windfarms are just one more. But one that might make a difference in the long run.

More on the Jews of Austria later.

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Bratislava and the sadness of their Jewish Museum

Jul 13 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

From Journals (edited for grammar only)
Bratislava, in the center, is another medieval European town. I've seen many now, and while interesting, this has nothing in particular to recommend it. Cute, and much cheaper than Vienna or Budapest. But, the pastry is nowhere near as good.
The Jewish community, the issues of WWII are as much an afterthought here as they were in Austria. More on that tomorrow. We have a long ride to Prague during which I will write
The Jewish museum is Bratislava was  more depressing than Vienna. Vienna's museum was new, and marble and airy and could have been built by paranoid Israelis. Bratislava's was in an old building, with no technology (a good thing), but sad and shabby and artifacts with little information in dusty glass cases.  There were three Torah scrolls, under glass. It made me sad to see that they were not used, but there is only one synagogue in Bratislava, of older people. Jews do not seem to be part of Slovakia.
There is small documentation of the holocaust in Bratislava. But the region (whatever country it was then) welcomed Hitler, and the Catholic Church was instrumental in the process of depriving Jews of their property, their rights and finally their lives. Czechslovokia did not recognize Israel after 1968, and the few Jews that had returned after WWII left for Israel when they could. The old historic synagogue in Bratislava was torn down in the late 60s to build a highway and road into the old town. There was a holocaust memorial at the edge of the old town, but it was not marked and had no legend. There is small plaque to Raul Wallenberg, but it is on a busy road, and hard to see.
The town center of Bratislava was the small wandering streets filled with cafes, but probably fewer tourists than Krakow. I walked quite a bit, but I am getting to the point where old town centers, with histories of centuries blur together in my head.

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Buda and Pest

Jul 10 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

I found Buda and Pest to be charming. People compared them to Paris, and I see the similarities, but both Hungarian cities are much cleaner and the people seemed kinder. But, as tourists, on a tour, etc, there wasn't a lot of interaction with natives, others than those in the tourist business who are paid to be charming.

The architecture is variable and less early oppressive social realism than in Warsaw. Less bombing, less open areas in need of reconstruction, except on the fringes of the city. There was both classical gothic as well as more ornate later curlique, wedding cake excesses and quite a bit of clean art deco. This variation is in buildings, decoration on buildings and the iron rails that adorn everything. If one has to have iron bars on the windows, the variation and craftsmanship is impressive. I didn't get a lot of pictures of buildings, but Elizabeth did, so I'll have them eventually when I get her terabytes of information.

The public baths here was superb. It was not a tourist place, and I went with another woman on the trip, Janet, and we went very early (7:30). I wish there was something like this within driving distance of where I live... I would certainly join and go once a week. The building was an old 19th century, purpose built with hotel for, one assumes, the wealthy. The ceramic tiles, vaulted, skylight ceilings and general blue and cream color scheme was restful beyond lollygagging around in several temperatures of water. We spent 2.5 hours there but I easily could have spent the whole day with a book.

The only museum we did here was called House of Terror. But it could have been called "Museum of Hungarian History from 1940 through 2000'. Somebody referred to it as strident, and that is precise. There were about 3-4 rooms on the Nazis, and mostly about the Hungarian collaborators. The fact that the while they were essentially horrible people, much was made of the fact they too were killed by  Germans. This was followed by many many rooms on the immediate post-1945 history, and how the collaborators who survived just changed their uniforms from Arrowcross to Communist. The truth that there are evil human beings who delight in power over others is a point that has been forcefully over and over in the week of travel we have had.

But the majority of the museum, the stridency of the house is saved for the communists, soviet and otherwise.

[we are passing by the huge depressing soviet /socialist architecture blocks, like Cabrini Green or the miserable towers that were built in US cities. They are being rennovated, but marvelously painted in various color schemes. Some are rainbows, some are, for example, shades of green. Many people live in these blocks, of course many do. They are fucking enormous. No one seems to like them, but they are functional housing units]

There were films of people confronting their jailers, their oppressors, made in what seems to be immediately post-liberation (as they term it). Many of the perpetrators deny anything and everything. One justified, on film, lying because "the other person lied first, so why can't I?"

[just drove by roman remains - some serious archeological  sites. They actually seem preserved, and not destroyed, which seems to be much of the fate of this part of the world]

One woman seems demented and smiles like an idiot while other women accuse her of horrible things. This opens other problems. One of the women on the trip is the child of two holocaust survivors. Her father was a dentist, who befriended someone in one of the minor work camps. When the liquidation order came, the friend just opened the gate and told them to leave. They lived in the forests of Poland, outside Krakow  for two years, until Russian liberators came. Anyway, she showed me a recent article about how a Nazi guard, with well documented torture and deaths on his hands was acquitted  because of dementia. I don't know. I just don't know.

There was much made of the heroic Catholic Church who resisted terror and oppression at every turn, especially in the 1950s Hungarian uprising. My memories of history I learned are of a different church, that turned Jews over to the Nazis. Yet, Budapest's Jewish ghetto was the only one not liquidated, and many Jews did survive WWII, although many here is a relative concept. 400,000 did go to Auschwitz and Birkeneau.

The House of Terror is clearly cathartic for some set of Hungarians. It is relatively new, but much thought went into its construction. I am sure that the generation that grew up under the Soviet regime, that watched family and friends murdered after the uprising, cared passionately that their story not be forgotten That generation is passing from the earth, as are the survivors of the much of mid-20th century atrocity. The young people here are now so thoroughly post-socialist that it has become distant history to them.

We also visited the main synagogue, which is near downtown Pest. It is the second largest in the world (after the Manhattan monstrosity). But it is ornate and looks more like a Catholic cathedral than anything else, which, in fact, was the point when it was built. It has more gold leaf than many other things, the list of which I have forgotten. It is active ,and there is a community of Jews, numbering in the 1000s, and services every Saturday.

What was best about the synagogue, was the courtyard/garden. Raul Wallenberg's grave/tomb is there, weighed down by thousands and thousands of pebbles. Lists of over 100 names of Righteous People are on monuments surrounding his grave (not sure if his body is actually there - I seem to remember that the Soviets murdered him an he was never found). There is a beautiful silver tree sculpture, that is suggestive of an upside down menorah, with the leaves inscribed with the names of Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.


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Krakow and Schindler's Factory

Jul 10 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

Krakow, the small parts of it that I saw, is a tourist place, like other medieval city centers.  It reminded me of Tallinn, Riga, Ronne. The food was interesting, and I had 20 kinds of pierogis over the 3 days we were here.

Schindler's factory is now a museum of "Krakow during  WWII".  Actually, there is a good deal about the lead-up to the war and some about the communists and post-war. The Poles I have met, guides and the like, for whom I hold suspicions of pandering to Americans, seem to despise the Soviets, along with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Every guide we had took time to point out the sad state of affairs in the 19th Century when Poland did not exist as a nation and was divided amongst other hungry, rapacious entities. I suppose it is not different from the American pre-occupation with the Civil War. It is a bit sad to me to watch the Vietnam War era fade into the category of history-we-didn't-live, much the way I looked  at the Korean War and WWII. But today's children will have other atrocities to look back on.

One of the perspectives I got on the issues of the early-mid 20th century came from  visiting the Old Synagogue, the first synagogue in Krakow, that now exists as a museum and concert space. The main exhibit was an introduction to Judaism. But there was another, special exhibit on the cultural and civic changes that occurred in Krakow from about 1850s through to about 1930s. These were led by wealthy Jews, who built schools, and infrastructure, and cultural institutions. Jews were 30-40% of the population of greater Krakow, and seemed to be integrated into civic life, and were councilmen and leaders at nearly every level. The exhibit would have you believe that they were accepted. The pictures show at least this leadership looking assimilated, having discarded the orthodox garb that others in the area still maintained.

Of course these people did not leave Poland in the late 1800's, as did my peasant ancestors. These people, as did many of the professional and owning class Germans, could probably not believe that anything would change this way of life and send them off to Concentration Camps. Indeed, if you asked me whether I thought that in ten years someone would be systematically trying to kill all the Jews of America, I would laugh. I would say that yes, I believe it is possible, because my mother was absolutely paranoid about Nazis and saw them behind every pillar and that the potential is always there. But I would also say that I think this is only my culturally transmitted paranoia, and not realistic. I am sure that Jews thought this could not happen in the land of Beethoven and Bach, let alone Chopin and Copernicus. The ones who left were the poor, illiterate and often from small Jewish villages that no longer exist.

Back to Schindler's factory: There was little about Schindler, and mostly about Krakow. It was the best museum so far. While there was still the obsession with detail and preserving and presenting every single piece of paper, there seemed to be more organizing principles and context than the museums in Warsaw. Within each room, there was  more of a story into which the details were embedded. There was still a lot of computer based displays, of which 10-20% were not functional. There was a rather boring movie with interviews of people who worked in Schindler's factory. Which brings me to the next point: boring real history vs. the somewhat fictionalized account of Spielberg (who is quite revered in Krakow - where ever he went, people mention that "Spielberg was here").

I have not read the book about Schindler that moved Spielberg to make the movie in the first place. If this bears further thought, I ought to read it. In the museum there were two rooms (of 20-ish) that were about Schindler - his office and an anteroom. The information pointed out that Schindler never had a list, and that the scene in the movie of typing the list was fiction.

What, then, is the value of the movie? Absent the movie, not 1 in a million Americans, Europeans, Jews would know of him. Yet now , the museum was packed, as in can't move shuffle forward, get on the airplane lines.

[we just crossed border into Slovakia. Listening to music from the Tatra Mountains. Hopefully this is a non-difficult crossing, so says our guide. The music is not so great. Or perhaps an acquired taste - accordions and violins and a relentless snare-bass-line].

The museum gets upwards of 1000 visitors a day and has a limit on the number of tickets it sells. People are learning. This is probably a drop in the bucket, as it were, for people who have seen the movie, and believe that it is true. Much of the movie is, but parts of it are not. The little girl in the red coat was actually a real person, and after the movie wrote a book about it. The ending, with people walking over the hill into Israel infuriated my father. We had an argument about the role of visual art. Is it better to give many people a little history, even if its tweaked at the edges to making it art, to make it more palatable? The 30 min movie in the museum talking about Schindler was not going to change, move, or upset anyone. Much of it was interviews, and edited ones at that. But the movie changed people. It had speeches that changed people. It was not living history.

What I am left with, right now, leaving Poland, is a sense of the overwhelming banality of the what happened. How did this happen? The image is of the bored Nazi Officer, casually standing by while people suffered. The people of Poland don't want to forget what happened. It feels that it is still real for them. For me, here and there, now and then, I reached something, something reached in to me, and and felt very strongly about what happened.

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