Budapest

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Hungary's Statue of Liberty

Hungary's Miss Liberty

WE’VE HEARD FOR YEARS that the closest (though still distant) linguistic cousin to Finnish and Estonian (the languages of my parents) is Hungarian, but the latter is the most incomprehensible language written with Roman characters that we’ve encountered yet (but wait till we get to the Czech Republic). A guide explained that the Westward-moving Magyars encountered the Finns and Estonians in the Urals along their way and that they all “influenced” one another during their common stay there. I suppose that’s why I’ve also heard that it takes computerized analysis to detect the linguistic connection. If anything, the impression we take away from Hungarian culture and design is a vague sense of Turkish influence.

(Click on any photo to enlarge it, by the way)

Headstone Propeller

Headstone Propeller

We reach Budapest from Krakow through the terrain of the High Tatras mountains along the Polish-Slovakian border. We stop for a mandatory bus driver’s rest stop at a rustic Polish Catholic church near the border. Like every other cemetery we have seen, this one is decked with flowers and other memorial tokens. We wonder if there has been a special memorial day recently, but no—it’s like this all the time. Some of the grave markers are quite imaginative; a pilot’s headstone sports a propeller.

In Slovakia

In Slovakia

Slovakia, once melded with the Czechs into Czechoslovakia, decided to dissolve their union at the end of 2002. Why did they disengage? A friend working in the Czech Republic tells us he once asked a Czech the question. “Beats me,” said the Czech, “Seems stupid.” Hmm. “Can you tell me what’s different about the Slovaks?” asks my friend. “Nothing,” says the Czech. Another try: “Who are some famous Slovaks?” my friend asks. “There are no famous Slovaks!” answers the Czech. We’re beginning to understand why Slovakia walked away. ‘Nuff said.

Boar's Head at a Slovakian Restaurant

Boar's Head Hospitality

It’s ski country in these mountains; we see slopes, lifts, and chalets. It’s a long drive, so we make a planned lunch stop at a traditional restaurant of relatively recent, though still traditional, log construction. A great hearth decorates the center of the hall, and game trophies and farming implements decorate the walls. Among the expected deer heads are a snarling fox, an eagle with wings spread, and a smiling, though appropriately ugly, wild boar. It would be nice to have some of that critter’s meat in a savory sauce, but they’re not serving that today. Our son gets a smartphone photo emailed to him, though.

Buda

Buda...

BUDAPEST IS A SPA. There are more thermal springs here than New York City has potholes. Health insurance pays for treatment at the thermal baths, some of which are housed in palatial buildings. Taking the waters will cure common complaints and “many other diseases.” “Other,” I take it, means conditions “other” than the ones you have.

Pest

...Pest

And, as most know, this is a two-faced city—a combination of Buda (the high ground named, they say, after Attila the Hun’s brother) and flat Pest, joined by the several bridges that span the curving Danube in the middle (it’s anything but blue, by the way).

Mathias Church in Buda's Castle District

Mathias Church

Our hotel is perched above the banks of the Danube on the Buda side of the city, in the Castle District, near Mathias church and the Fisherman’s Bastion—an oddly-named citadel of walls and towers from which, apparently, local fisherman helped stage a successful defense of Buda against the Turks. From here, the views of the Danube and of Pest are wonderful indeed. Only the view from a panoramic high point further down river on the Buda side affords a more comprehensive view—as it takes in the Castle District as well.

The Fishermen's Bastion in Buda

Fishermen's Bastion

There are also little Pests—GNATS—small clouds of them—outside the hotel window, outside the double-decker tour bus, on a Budapest street corner, in the village on the Danube. They are tiny, like no-see-ums, and their swirling clouds are ominous, but they are utterly benign—wee wimpies lacking the power and, happily, the inclination to annoy. If they dare touch you, they are the merest, glancing presence on your cheek.

A Building in Pest

Building in Pest

We undertake most of our sightseeing in Pest. Imagine a city where every other building is the Ansonia or the Apthorp (you have to be a New Yorker). Some small fraction have been restored to past glory—the way they looked before the 20th century invasions of the German and home-grown Nazis, the Soviets, and the Communist police state. The rest await investment, and opportunities—whether for prosperity or bankruptcy—abound.

The Parliament building, largest in Europe, is a gorgeous roll-up of a spiky Gothic cathedral, the Taj Mahal, London’s Parliament, and Versailles.

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

Interior of Budapest Opera

Budapest Opera Interior

The Opera can match gilded putti and frescoes with Europe’s best. And check out the 19h-century climate-control system that supplied heat in winter and cool air (passed over ice blocks) in summer through a circular vent under every seat.

Air Conditioning at the BBudapest Opera

Climate Control

Budapest Chain Bridge

Chain Bridge

The Chain Bridge (Budapest’s elegant Brooklyn Bridge) crosses the Danube from flat Pest to high Buda, where a tunnel meets it to provide passage through a hill to the outlying portions of the city beyond.

View of Pest from the Castle District Funicular

From the Funicular

Pedestrians who cross the bridge can ride a funicular tram up the steep hill to the aforementioned Castle District, to Buda Palace (now a museum), the restored Mathias Church, the Fishermen’s Bastion, and our hotel. We find few finer views of Budapest than the vista from our hotel window.

Budapest's Great Synagogue

Great Synagogue

BUDAPEST’S GREAT SYNAGOGUE looks much like a Roman Catholic church, but for the designs on its walls and the differences in what would be a church’s altar. No wonder—its architects were known for designing churches. This is the world’s second largest synagogue, after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, and holds 6,000 on high holy days. For those well-attended services, women sit in the two levels of galleries on each side. While the synagogue is neither Orthodox nor Reform (an American Judaism), services altogether follow the Orthodox form, though customs do not.

Synagogue Museum Display

Synagogue Museum

The synagogue occupies the site of a house where Hungarian journalist and Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl lived. Adjacent to the synagogue is a small museum holding precious artifacts of Hungarian Jewry and their worship—and a sober exhibit chronicling the Hungarian Holocaust.

Nazis at the Fishermen's Bastion

Fishermen's Bastion Occupied

As Hungary, with its Arrow Cross Nazi-wannabe party, voluntarily allied itself with Nazi Germany, it was not an occupied country until late in the war, and its Jewish population was not torn away to the death camps until 1944, when the Nazi extermination machine was its most efficient. The delay meant that towards the end of the war, a large proportion of death-camp victims were Hungarian, but it also meant that many Hungarian Jews escaped annihilation, as the Nazis fled in retreat before they could finish their murderous work. In all, some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered—about one out of every ten European Jewish victims. Beside those loaded on trains to die in the camps, many were shot by Hungarians and thrown into the Danube or into mass graves.

Budapest Synagogue's Tree of Life

Tree of Life

In the garden outside the synagogue and museum is a memorial cemetery (no one actually is buried there) and a Tree of Life—a stainless-steel sculpture in the form of a weeping willow tree.

Leaf in Synagogue Tree of Life

Leaf, Tree of Life

Its leaves bear the names of the dead.

HUNGARY’S NATIONAL MUSEUM concentrates a deep draught of Hungarian history and artistry for the visitor. Once an empire, then junior partner in another with Austria, Hungary was dismembered after World War I. “We wuz robbed” remains a national refrain today, but no one seriously expects a remedy now. It’s a pity that no photography allowed here.

The Ottomans occupied Budapest in 1541. No help came to Hungary from the rest of Europe until alarm spread at the prospect of further Turkish expansion and a European army arrived to drive out the Ottomans in 1686. The Austrians, in particular, felt entitled to stay and squat on Hungarian territory they helped liberate.

Military, official and private costume, as well as decorative motifs and classical music all carry a dose of Turkish Orientalism. What is most striking, however, is the richness of Hungarian graphic design—from pre-20th century official proclamations and certificates to theater posters and political propaganda and commercial advertisements from the 20th century. The vividness, composition and color palette are pleasing and communicative. We wonder to what extent Hungarians may have been represented in the American and British advertising industries…

Restored New York Cafe

New York Cafe

Among foreign real estate investments in Budapest, the Italian Boscolo Hotel group’s restoration of a baroque building downtown is an obvious success. They have restored a fabulous ground-floor interior occupied by a restaurant they call the New York Cafe. Several anti-cherubic devil figurines hold up the exterior sidewalk lights. The former dance academy across Budapest’s “Champs D’Elysee” from the Opera House unfortunately exemplifies failure. An investment group ran into financial and regulatory trouble obstructing their efforts to restore this lovely building, which has good bones but a deteriorating facade.

Budapests's Terror House

Terror House

A GRIM DEPICTION OF LIFE AND DEATH in Hungary under foreign and home-grown Fascists and Communists forms the substance of the House of Terror at 60 Andrássy Blvd—the headquarters, successively, of the Hungarian Nazis and the Hungarian Communist secret police, with their Berlin and Moscow advisers. In the atrium just beyond the museum entrance sits a menacing Soviet tank in a shallow pool of reflective water. A display of photographs and names of Hungarian victims lines the high walls around it.

Soviet Tank and Names of Victims

Soviet Tank, Victims' Names

The winding galleries trace the story of Hungarian alliance with Nazi Germany; the indigenous Arrow Cross fascist party; the German occupation and extermination of Jews; the police state of control and terror created by the Soviet and Hungarian Communists; the failed 1956 uprising crushed by the Russians and their tanks; and ultimate political liberation, beginning in 1989.

Some criticize the Museum for emphasizing the communist police state more than Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust. The latter, however, is presented straightforwardly and without equivocation, though there is, to be sure, a difference in the volume of the respective displays.

Gallows at Terror House

Basement Gallows

Why make this museum a destination over Parliament or the thermal baths? “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). In any case, there was no room left on the Parliament tour, which our fellow tour members say became its own vexation, due to crowds, delays, and lack of a good English guide…

The cells in the basement of 60 Andrássy Boulevard are, if anything, less sanitized than those at Auschwitz, having been disinfected but otherwise appearing as they would have when in use. There’s a narrow, standing-room-only isolation cell lit by an always-on light. Here’s a torture chamber, with bludgeons and other instruments, a water tub, chains, and an interrogation light. Here’s a room with a gallows, darkly illuminating the videotaped testimony of a former guard or prisoner about the execution procedure followed there. All these represented the realities of life under a totalitarian regime.

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial

Wallenberg Memorial outside Synagogue

Each cell, large or small, bears names, photographs and descriptions of its known occupants. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved many Jewish lives through his issuance of Swedish passports, is one, memorialized on the wall of a medium-sized cell. The Russians declared not many years ago that he was, in fact, executed in their Gulag. A memorial cell holds several symbolic gallows and the names and photographs of young people executed here.

Flag of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

1956 Flag

A larger room in the basement tells the story of the crushed 1956 rebellion, which, despite its tragic failure, brought some reforms and spurred the exodus of 200,000 Hungarians. At one end stands the flag of the revolution—a Hungarian flag of the era with its Communist insignia cut out—a flag with a hole in the middle.

What seems the largest room in the museum’s upper floors chronicles Communist attempts to ban, co-opt, and destroy religion in Hungary. 65% or so Roman Catholic at the beginning of this period, Hungary also held a sizable (23%), indigenous Reformed Evangelical population. Brutal towards all, the Hungarian Communists feared repercussions from their treatment of the Reformed Christians less than Catholics or Lutherans, because the Reformed believers lacked international ties and advocates. Many churches and religious leaders were pressured or forced to sign “agreements” ceding rights and property of churches to the state.

One exhibit in the museum defines the word “turncoat,” showing, in an old film, a Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross member taking off that party’s uniform and changing into a Hungarian Communist Party uniform: s/he simply “turned coats.” Many revised their affiliation overnight.

The head of the political police, the ÁVH, kept his office in this dreaded building. His organization turned Hungarians against one another: parents against children, children against parents, neighbor against neighbor. One of every three Hungarian families is said to have been suffered loss through internments, disappearances, and deaths. Not a few “troublemakers” were tortured or beaten to death here and in the nearby prison. Not even the police themselves, nor yet their head, were safe from this brutality. Even Gábor Péter, head of the political police, and Jewish, was denounced and jailed in 1953, and executed in a purge of party leaders of Jewish origin instigated by Josef Stalin in Russia and exported to its socialist satellites.

THIS BUILDING BEARS WITNESS to the human damage wreaked through the damnable drives of men to control the lives of others—exercising as much deceit and brutality as opportunity affords. One must respect the Hungarian people for enduring what they have suffered, and one must take seriously the persistent obsession of ruling powers to control and suppress their populations. Technology available now tor closely monitoring and facilitating control over a population is immensely more suited to the job than that available to the repressive regimes of the 20th century. Some of the same technology also offers more openness and transparency, making it more difficult for despots and brutes to hide. Despite anyone’s inclination to believe otherwise, human nature has not changed. All the capacity and drive to oppress, and far more of the technology to facilitate it, await crisis and opportunistic ambition.

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Krakow

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Entrance to Krakow's Old Town

Entrance to Krakow's Old Town

WE HAVEN’T CONSULTED the list of “1000 Places to See before you Die,” but I’m guessing Krakow makes the cut. Its stately, medieval charm is possibly the biggest surprise of our Central European tour. One could argue that when Krakow’s most prominent citizen, Karol Cardinal Wotyla (later Pope John Paul II) was tapped for promotion, it took no less than Rome to lure him out of this city.

We board and disembark our tour coach just outside the medieval gates and preserved stretch of city wall just outside the Old Town, where most traffic is forbidden during business hours. Our hotel, inside a classic building on Florianska Street near the market square, offers rooms with what seem like 18-foot ceilings, old-fashioned silhouette portraits, and tastefully-coordinating modern furniture. Every hotel on this tour (all of them excellent and strategically placed) is quietbeyond a New Yorker’s comprehension. But even the double-window dampening can’t keep out the celebratory whoops: Krakow’s soccer team has won the national championship!

Old Town Square

Fountain in Old Town Square

The huge market square, ringed with Old World churches, shops, cafes, and restaurants, has its own districts, offering art, outdoor eating, flowers, lace and other handicrafts. The covered bazaar near the center houses an array of shops selling amber, lace, dolls, ceramics, bright scarves and much more.

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's in Old Town

Through the day, a trumpeter sounds the hour successively in four directions from windows near the top of one of St. Mary’s Church’s two high steeples. He plays a distinctive Krakow fanfare, as a similar trumpeter plays a Prague trademark riff from a tower in the Bohemian capital.

The Altar at St. Mary's

St. Mary's Altar

The baroque interior of this church is the most opulent this traveler had seen ever seenso far. It will take St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the Prague Castle to surpass it. The altar at St Mary’s, incorporating over 200 carved figures, is a singular marvel.

Levitator in Old Town

I have no idea!

Gray, rainy days give way to sun, and the whole world seems to turn out in Old Town Square, providing carriage drivers and some unusual entertainers an audience. Painted mimes stand rock-still, imitating statues, and startle particularly gullible tourists who pose with them when they suddenly show signs of life. One performer, dressed in faded desert garb, draws and confounds a crowd. He appears to sit on thin air, holding only a staff that touches the ground. puzzled onlookers assume it has something to do with his seemingly effortless stability.

 
On the way to Wawel

On the way to Wawel

WE APPROACH WAWEL CASTLE (the Ws are all Vs here, Mr. Wagner), some distance from the Old Town, traversing winding streets that juxtapose venerable churches, fountains, and saintly figures on a substrate of centuries-old cobblestones.

 
Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

This former royal residence holds its own among Europe’s greatest. Its dazzling royal apartments encircle a huge interior courtyard—a town square of its own. Sorry, no photo-taking allowed inside, but a few shots are to be found on the web, and, of course, in books at the gift shop.

Wawel Castle Courtyard

Wawel Castle Courtyard

 
Eagle Room, Wawel Castle

Eagle Room, Wawel Castle

 
A Building in Kazimierz

In Kazimierz

KRAKOW’S JEWISH QUARTER is named Kazimierz, after King Kasimirz the Great (1333-1370), who invited Jews, expelled from other kingdoms, to Poland. From here and elsewhere in Krakow, 600 years later, the occupying Nazis herded the city’s 65,000 Jews into a ghetto in Lublin, in the East of Poland, or to another in Podgórze, across the river from Krakow. From these ghettos they packed them in trains to nearby murder camps—Auschwitz and Plaszów. Only a few thousand survived and today, only 200 or so Jews live in Krakow.

Old Synagogue, Kazimierz

Old Synagogue, Kazimierz

The Kazimirz district offers virtually unlimited opportunity for building renovation and business development.  

Oskar Schindler’s factory (used by Stephen Spielberg in filming Schindler’s List) lies in an industrial area blocks away.

Helena Rubenstein House & Hotel

Rubenstein House

As we are touring the quarter, I wonder how we can snag tickets for a Klezmer music concert this weekend. Then someone appears, handing out flyers for a performance that night. I ask where tickets are sold, and he points to the lobby of the building behind us. At the Helena Rubenstein House (the cosmetic queen lived in the neighborhood, as did film director Roman Polanski), we do indeed find tickets for a concert at the Galicia Jewish Museum, not far from the Old Synagogue—featuring a brilliant young trio playing among the Holocaust exhibits.

Klezmer Concerts in Krakow

Klezmer Flyer

This award-winning ensemble call themselves Di Galitzyaner Klezmorim http://www.klezmorim.pl/rameng.html. They perform for an audience of about twenty, including six from our tour group; it should have been two thousand. We recognize half the music from New York performers and recordings. The soulful clarinettist, tall even before climbing into her spike heels, is too young to have studied with Argentine clarinettist Giora Feidman in Israel, but her energetic, tenderly sensitive playing say that she grew up listening to his recordings. Her amazing accordionist husband sounds four-handed, and the bassist turns his hollow instrument into a percussion section without warning.

Entrance to the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Mine Entrance

 THE ENTRANCE TO THE CELEBRATED WIELICZKA SALT MINE lies inside an unassuming building a short drive from Krakow. Immense chamber after chamber of rock salt has been excavated from its depths since at least the 11th century. Only a few years ago did it become uneconomic to exploit further. Today, only tourists and employees traverse the mine’s many numbered tunnels and ride its narrow, double-decker elevators. The smooth-worn rock salt of the tunnel walls is translucent gray, and the new deposits leached out by dripping water resemble upside-down snow, but the salt sold in the souvenir shops on the surface is pink. 
 
A Passage in the Salt Mine

Salt Mine Passage

The marvels below decks begin with endless tunnels, widening into chambers of varying sizes, holding and displaying figures of miners, horses, and mining machinery (all of it wooden, as are all the old and modern bracing and walkways). With little warning, tunnels open into immense caverns, subterranean pools and canals, vertical shafts, and various memorials, shrines, and placements of whimsical figures of trolls, gods and kings.

Kinga's Subterranean Chapel

Kinga's Chapel

We enter two chapels during our two-hour exploration. One of them, Kinga’s Chapel, is immense—and intricately decorated by three highly talented miners with salt reliefs of Biblical scenes, Leonardo’s Last Supper, and many large figures.
 
Last Supper carving in Kinga's Chapel

Last Supper Carving

 
Chandelier carved from rock salt

Kinga Chandelier

Our guide shows us that if one places a camera, with flash and timer turned on, on a small tile just under the central chandelier, carved entirely out of salt crystals, the result is a brilliant image of its wagon-wheel form. From the chapel, we continue our descent to the lowest level currently offered to visitors, about 450 feet below the surface. One long descent down a wooden stairway towards the warm glow below needs only the appropriate soundtrack and the smell of brimstone to simulate a descent into Dante’s Inferno.
 
 
Descending in the Salt Mine

Salt Mine Descent

This salt mine is a gold mine. Centuries ago, about a third of Poland’s income came from sale of the salt excavated here. Today, its expanses bring new revenue from tourism and space rentals for concerts and parties. Restaurants serve meals, church services bring worshipers, and the mine attracts throngs of explorers armed with cameras instead of pickaxes.

Auschwitz

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Auschwitz Gate

Auschwitz Gate: "Work Will Make You Free"

WHAT CAN ONE POSSIBLY ADD to all that has been said about Auschwitz?

Children at Auschwitz

Children at Auschwitz

A visitor can say, at least, “I went there, hoping to understand what it was like.” A visit now, of course, is entirely unlike the experience of anyone who was there when Auschwitz I operated as a death camp and Auschwitz II/Birkenau was a concentration (slower death) camp. The sounds are quieted and the smells are disinfected away; the bodies and souls both of the oppressed and their oppressors have gone to their rest (or otherwise); the bewilderment, tension, and agony are dissipated, and a calm pervades the scene where a too-human death machine devoured the bodies and souls of men and women every day in a dozen different ways.

A Gas Chamber

A Nazi Gas Chamber

Xyklon B Port

Zyklon B Port

At one end of the death camp are a gas chamber and crematorium not completely destroyed by the retreating and war-crimes-evidence-obliterating Nazis; the death wall where prisoners were executed by shooting; the gallows; the barracks where they died from starvation and disease; the camp where they were worked to death; the sickening variety of subterranean cells where men were crammed together in varying densities to starve; the medical experiment wards, and more. The camp’s operators and enforcers were dead men too—defiled and gutted creatures who siphoned up brutality from a place lower than they ever could drag the bodies and souls of their victims.

A Reconstructed Crematorium

A Reconstructed Nazi Crematorium

Through the exhibits housed in the camp’s preserved buildings, one is led through a recounting of the horrors, in photographs, maps, objects—but also the spaces themselves. On these floors, the devils stomped and the doomed stumbled and expired; along these paths, the newly dead were carried off by the soon-to-follow.
Who they Killed

Who was Murdered at Auschwitz

Wire-Rimmed Spectacles

Plundered Spectacles

THE WORST—the most jolting sight, rests behind glass in the single spot where photography is absolutely forbidden. Rests, I say, but screams. In billows before us lies the shorn hair of 40,000 persons—most of it the long tresses of women and girls. This is the sum of what remains of their murdered bodies. This is why it is too sacred to photograph: this is an open mass grave, and these locks are the corpses. But something is still more shocking: The Nazis coveted their victims’ hair and robbed them of it because, first, it was useful to them—for manufacturing carpeting, uniforms, and pillows (a sample carpet remnant sits in a display nearby). Second, our guide whispers, “It was cheaper than the hair of sheep.” If there were no hell, it would have to be created to hold this depraved calculation.

ProsthetiDevicesc

Stolen Crutches

Here are thousands of children’s shoes; thousands of shaving brushes; a thousand tangled wire-rimmed spectacles; the crutches, braces and prosthetic limbs of the handicapped; suitcases bearing their owners’ names—all plunder for the eager Nazis, who even kept a census of inmates’ false teeth, to facilitate recovery of the gold from their corpses. One wonders why they waited.
The Thessaloniki Ghetto

Greek Jews Readied for Auschwitz

Today’s walk through Auschwitz is necessarily a journey of the imagination—of the mind, the heart, and the stomach—sparked by the buildings, the collected facts and bridging inferences, and the ghosts all of it conjures up. One can take it in as superficially or as deeply as one may be inclined. A recent article suggests that Auschwitz is becoming a Nazi Disneyland. Some of its younger visitors might resemble Magic Kingdom patrons, but the place itself has not succumbed to theme park superficiality.

Gate of Auschwitz II / Birkenau

Gate at Birkenau

Auschwitz I, the (immediate) death camp, seems unexpectedly small. For a New Yorker, its footprint suggests the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, while Auschwitz II / Birkenau, the concentration camp a short ride away, suggests the vastness of the New York Botanical Garden. There, the gate opens to swallow a train whole. With purposeful deception, the tracks continue as far as the eye can see but, in fact, they come to a dead end not far out of sight.

Birkenau Tracks

Birkenau Tracks

THE MUSEUMS at these Nazi death camps face financial difficulty. Some say, “Let them go; why keep them going; let’s all move on.” God forbid. Duly appreciated or not, these sites are much too important to everyone ever to abandon.

What’s so important? Some say, “We need to learn, and remember and never, ever repeat what was done here. Never again!” Yes—that must be the uncompromising stand against the unspeakable barbarism.

Birkenau Barracks

Barracks at Birkenau

But no education, however determined, can suffice to fulfill that oath. The Bible itself points ahead to atrocities fully as bad as this. Why accept that anything like this ever should be done again? We never can entertain accepting that boiling over of hell, but its extinction cannot be hoped for short of profound, widespread personal transformation.

Auschwitz and its sister death camps must be maintained for the same reason that Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, belongs on more than Jewish calendars. They bear testimony to the largely unacknowledged truth about human nature. They are not just  memorials for the victims, nor are they anti-monuments to the inhumanity of a relatively few monstrous men; they are reminders of the realities of humanity. The Holocaust testifies that what lies within me is as depraved as what drove those monsters. Auschwitz is what happens when people have their way with other people.

The Road of Death

There is one remedy—a very costly one. If I want it, it will cost me everything—but not what it cost God, and far less than I receive in return. ”Our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Romans 6:6. Paul’s rarely-preached declaration of the promise at the heart of Messiah’s sacrifice underscores that Jesus laid down His life not only to forgive our sins, but to knock the wind out of our old selves—our ruined human nature. If I will not embrace the death of the enemy within my own person, my capacity to emulate the worst brutes of the past is restrained by little more than lack of opportunity, lack of imagination, lack of pressure, and cowardice.

The anger I feel at the thought of 40,000 prison shearings to steal “cheap” raw materials can’t be directed at anyone fruitfully, but it can add conviction to my decision to share Jesus’ death sentence with Him. He was crucified because men wouldn’t tolerate the truth about themselves—or tolerate the One who embodies truth and won’t go away. Unwilling to pass sentence on personal and corporate sin, they did what fallen human nature drives men to do—they killed Him. But behind it all, it was God who delivered Him to death, so that He could nail everything wicked about me to Jesus’ cross with Him. Yes, it’s a profoundly supernatural remedy—and one that education and self-improvement, as important as they truly are, can’t duplicate. Co-crucifixion with Messiah is my charter of liberty—and the only real one.

AUSCHWITZ IS WHAT HAPPENS when people insist on having their own way with other people. Only Calvary trumps Auschwitz.

Suitcases of Auschwitz Victims

Warsaw

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Stalin's *****

Stalin's "Gift" to Warsaw

FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2011 – On the road from Warsaw to Auschwitz.

President Obama is expected in Warsaw shortly. Yesterday’s evidence was a few stretches of police tape, pre-deployed caches of barriers and a military helicopter buzzing the Old Town. Other tour members found their restaurant patronized by a platoon of Polish and American Secret Service advance men. It turns out that the President is to dine there tonight: a good choice for its controllable isolation.

Warsaw Old Town Restaurant

A Restaurant in Warsaw's Old Town

Warsaw still reels from the devastation of World War II and the oppression and neglect of the “Communist Period.” What the Nazis hadn’t already destroyed they razed in their retreat. Hitler ordered Warsaw destroyed in retribution for its Polish uprising as the Russians pressed towards the city. What the Germans did not destroy escaped only because time failed. Warsaw lost half its 1.2 million inhabitants in World War II. Half the dead were Jews, who had made up a third of the prewar population.Warsaw today presents something approximating the mix of old and new that one might expect of a 700-year old city—but much of that impression is false. The Old Town has been carefully restored to look old, and escapes a Disneyland look partly through skilled art and partly through crepitude accelerated by poor construction. Photographs, paintings, architectural plans, and preserved artifacts were exploited to render the restored exteriors as faithfully as possible. Poland received no reparations from Germany for its rebuilding.

Warsaw Old Town Square

Warsaw Old Town Square Panorama

Communist Period period construction seems to deteriorate at a rate well beyond its age. Warsaw’s most prominent example is the Palace of Culture and Science—Stalin’s Gift the city (the locals use a different, vulgar word), designed by the same architect who built seven similar socialist temples in Moscow. This blackened, patched hulk, now 55 years old, appears much older.

Notebooki Serwis

Hmmm... Wonder what they do in this shop?

Only a single building, a church, survived in what had been Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto. The Nazis turned that sector to rubble after they herded its survivors—Jews who had not met death by plague, starvation, and brutality in the ghetto—to their death camps. Warsaw today holds a hundred churches—only two of them Protestant—and two synagogues. One of two Jewish Cemeteries, adjacent to the former ghetto, survives, not far from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial and the new Jewish Museum being constructed behind it (due to open in 2011—but we’d guess more likely next year).

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery

Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery, as crowded with the deceased as the ghetto had been crowded with the briefly living, easily could absorb days of exploration. A shaded jumble of ancient and current headstones, some plain and some richly decorated, ends abruptly at an unmarked little field—a mass grave.

A Mass Grave in Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

A Mass Grave in Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery

Our hotel, the Polonia Palace, sits on Jerusalem Street in the Centrum, a busy transportation, shopping, and hotel hub in the New Town. A warren of underground concourses—something like Rockefeller Center underground, with twice the people, half the breadth, and none of the polish— keeps vehicles and pedestrian limbs apart. Stalin’s tower sits nearby, next to one of the city’s many pleasant parks. A collection of eye-catching skyscrapers rises along this main drag.

Warsaw New Town Scyscrapers

Warsaw New Town Scyscrapers

A visitor constantly is drawn to think of the massacre, oppression, and devastation this soil, this city, this nation suffered during the War and its Communist aftermath. King Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370) actively recruited Jews to Poland when other nations were expelling them—believing that their presence would promote Polish prosperity. The Jews themselves prospered and multiplied (not to discount their ups and downs with the Poles). Like Israel in ancient Egypt, prospering until “a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” rose to enslave them, Poland’s Jews enjoyed relative freedom and opportunity until the barbarian Nazis attacked Poland and virtually exterminated them, with 3 million other Poles. Even through the fields and forests along the highway from Warsaw to Krakow, one wonders what that terrain saw as Nazi tanks, trucks, and staff cars fanned out from these lanes to terrorize and decimate local populations in their Eastward drive.