I’m standing on the banks of the Danube River looking over a pair of shoes. They are not mine; they do not belong to anyone. The old fashioned boots made out of iron are a memorial to the Jewish citizens of Budapest whose lives were ended by Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II. They were shot here, and the river carried away their bodies, and they stopped belonging to this world all together. It’s the first time I have more than a minute to myself on this trip, a guided tour of the major cities of Bohemia with a rowdy group of Insight Vacations travelers, and I’d love to cry, but can’t seem to muster up the tears. The memorial is painful, but also beautiful and what I’m beginning to notice about this city is that it does a tremendous job of creating monuments that hold a presence of their own. You aren’t just mourning Budapest’s Jews, you are meeting them.
As far as European history goes, Budapest pulled the short straw. The city was eyed by partners of the Nazi regime during World War II when the Hungarian Nazis, or Arrow Cross Party, held their headquarters at 60 Andrassy Boulevard, known to all within as the “House of Loyalty.” It held offices upstairs for the brightest minds in their organization, and downstairs the building contained a cellar of torture chambers and holding cells. Between 1945 and 1956, that same building became the offices of the AVO, the branch of Communism otherwise known as the Hungarian Secret Police, and its predecessor the AVH. The building at 60 Andrassy now hosts Terror Haza, or the House of Terror, a museum that tells the story of those eras in gut-wrenching detail. But just miles from the museum, Viktor Orbán won his second four-year term and his conservative — often anti-semitic — Fidesz Party is in power again. Another large organization represented in Hungary’s National Assembly, the Jobbik, is thought by many to be a modern day extension of the same Arrow Cross Party that asked Jews to remove their shoes and then shot them on the banks of the river. 700 miles away, flyers are being passed out in the Ukraine, encouraging local Jews to “register.” The validity of the source behind those flyers has not been confirmed, but the intentions need no explanation.
If I thought that fascism and genocide in Europe were historical events far removed from modern civilization and politics, I needed only spend a week in Eastern Europe to see that this is business as usual, and the situation is much more complex than the good guys vs. the bad guys.
Earlier in the week, after loading up on potato dumplings and taking photos of Prague’s 604-year-old astronomical clock, a sobering discovering tore me from vacationland and back to reality. “Hands off Ukraine Putin,” the banner read. It was large, in red lettering, and hung from the top of the Church of the Most Holy Saviour, which sits firmly at the foot of Charles Bridge, a major tourist attraction. Circling around the church, I stopped for a moment to take a photo of a small memorial. Tall candles lit up poster board featuring the faces and names of those who had passed on in Ukraine.
“How did they die?” I asked (foolishly in English) awaiting a response from a local bending down to light a candle, who could not understand me, and possibly didn’t care to. It was such a small effort, some store-bought candles and cut out photos. But in the context of crowds of visitors, mostly American, saddled down with shopping bags of glass bottles and jewelry amidst photography flashing, this simple token screamed of pain and longing for a place and time that may not even exist anymore.
After hearing stories of defenestration at Prague Castle, we passed the grand Strahov Stadium on our way to a leisurely dinner, once the largest stadium in the world with a capacity of 250,000, and a crowning achievement of athletic prowess. Now, it is nearly abandoned, a lump of stone utilized by local teams. Outside, children were playing with a soccer ball in the parking lot of the massive structure; a shadow of what could have been.
The longing in Vienna was of a different kind completely. This loud, fast tangle of a city, the Austrian hub of music, art and history. Austria entered into the EU in ‘95 along with Finland and Sweden, and became a Euro country in 2002. In this city, one main boulevard, Ringstrasse, circles the entire main center of town so that you can never get lost or bored. Vienna is defiant in its ideals and successes. It’s one of a small handful of places where being a violinist seems like an actual valid career option. It’s a city that has reclaimed its palaces for the people, where royals used to summer but now you can find joggers running alongside dogs in the impeccably well-maintained gardens. Students lounge on the grass in green, green parks. Political buildings turn into museums. It’s no longer the “Red Wien” the world knew from 1918 to 1934.
It’s a similar strength in Budapest that led my Hungarian tour guide, Erika, to proclaim as we rode a boat down the Danube, that Hungary prefers to be called a Central European country. “To say Eastern European,” she told me, “reminds us of communism.” But I’d never describe Budapest as defiant, at least not in the way that Vienna sings to you. Budapest has a quiet strength that sneaks up on you slowly.
Back at the Terror House I wandered through halls of interactive information. The plight of the peasants, the lives of clergymen, and everything between plays out for visitors in flashy exhibits. You can walk through a locker of WWII-era closets, or fill out your own “blue card”. The gift shop features a whole shelf devoted to Ronald Reagan. Ten minutes away there’s a statue dedicated to Dutch directly behind Parliament. It’s a strange, but not bad looking monument, and he shares the same block as a statue of Imre Nagy, the beloved Hungarian politician who took over following the 1956 revolution, and who was executed as a traitor by the Soviets. The monument is larger than life and yet still subtle; if you don’t turn your head while walking toward Freedom Square, you might miss him fondly overlooking the Parliament he didn’t get a chance to lead. There’s a sadness to this situation, but there’s something else, too. This is the same feeling you might have at the very last exhibit at Terror Haza, where you come face to face with the names, photos and slight biographical info of Arrow Cross and AVO sympathizers and commanders. This, too, is not particularly cutting edge as far as exhibits go. It’s just a hallway and some wallet-sized photographs, but it captures the attention in a way that the torture cellar could not. Who were these people? I wondered about their lives, their families, their nightmares. The ones who were alive, did they know about this display? Did they have any remorse for the role they played in the loss of life? Were they ever able to heal?
If you continue to follow Andrassy past the Terror House, you’ll soon end up at Heroes Square. It’s a monument in a busy intersection that many Hungarians pass multiple times a day, but to me it felt the cotton candy. The multicolored lights of the Budapest sign were the gateway to delicious exuberant meals at Gundel, the only restaurant where I’ve actually seen real white glove service. Right behind that, the turquoise mosaic tile roof of the elephant house at the Budapest Zoo. Directly across the street is the stone entranceway to one of the most popular bath houses in the city. This set of activities, back-to-back, feels like a carnival. Something sickly sweet, but warm and inviting. Heroes Square itself has just a fascinating history, with references to natural springs, the Habsburg family and the public reburial of Imre Nagy, that I easily could have spent my entire trip there. Of course, 58 years ago it reflected a different kind of patronage when a statue of Joseph Stalin was featured center-stage.
“They told us that he was the greatest,” Erika told me. “And we believed it.” They stopped believing in October of 1956, when the statue was sawed off by its legs during the revolution. It’s a more modern square now, with many political traces removed. This monument, along with the Hospital Under the Rock, and Monuments Park and the Eternal Flame represent hardships gone, but not forgotten. This is Budapest telling her own story.
I finished my trip officially while sharing a meal of langos at the Great Market Hall with a photographer, a fashion writer and a South African journalist. Following the sensory overload of dripping meats and pungent cheeses, we met with the rest of the Insight group and washed down the night at a quaint pub just around the corner from the Sofitel, taking a shot for each day of the journey. The night was over, and with it the trip. But I’ve always had trouble saying goodbye when I feel that there’s more to learn. So before catching a transfer to the airport, I put on my running shoes and jogged past the Chain Bridge, along the waterfront searching for the iron shoes.
Last month, news emerged that depending on your location, Google Maps would show you a different boundary for the Ukraine/Russia border. Finding the news while visiting a formerly occupied city, I couldn’t help but feel like there was one major theme prevalent throughout my adventures in Bohemia: identity. Every city I visited had temporarily been taken over and swallowed up, lost large numbers of its original citizens to migration or death. Some attracted new inhabitants, others remain underpopulated. In different ways, they emerged from behind the iron curtain to create their own boundaries.
During the very last minutes of my trip, I shared a quiet moment with Budapest on the banks of the Danube: Just a city explaining her backstory to a traveler. When you visit a city, you become part of its history, both the battles and triumphs. You meet locals and guides who lived the story. Some destinations have a strong path to share with you. Others are still working out their growing pains