Saturday, July 22, 2017

Budapest and Krakow

Budapest, Hungary:

Budapest will always stand out in my memory for the wonderful people I met, more than anything else! My hostel roommate Kaytie and I both arrived in town the same night, and we instantly connected, on a profound level. We also made friends with Sean (American) and Harry (Australian). We spent hours just chatting, and laughing until I could hardly breathe.

Another memorable thing about Budapest is the food! Oh my goodness, Hungarians know how to cook.

Beef goulash, with goulash soup

Chicken paprikash
Hungarians have a distinct and long-lived ethnic identity. They descend from the Magyar people, who have been living in Hungary since the 9th century. Their history is also unique in that they have hardly been independent in centuries - they were ruled by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and the Soviets, with only fleeting moments of independence until the last few decades. Budapest is unique in that it originally was two cities, not one - Buda was on one side of the Danube river, and Pest was on the other. About 150 years ago, the two cities were connected by bridges and unified into one. This facilitated its role as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Buda (left) and Pest (right)
Yes, I did sometimes learn things on free walking tours!

Beautiful church - this style of roof became very popular in this region of Europe after it was put on this church

I call this one "sunbather"

Mid-run selfie, with the statue representing liberty
Budapest has a storied past, but it also feels quite modern. Hipster culture is notable. Every corner you go around, there is a well-decorated restaurant with a quirky theme and a creative menu, or a public art display, or a ruin bar. Ruin bars are perhaps the hardest to describe, coolest concept for a bar that I've ever seen. Basically, someone took an abandoned warehouse, and filled it with the most random and somewhat dilapidated pieces of furniture and decoration. If it's weird, it's going in the bar. They're open all day and much of the night. Kaytie and I went to Szimpla, the original and most famous ruin bar, but there are many others in the city as well. Below is the one photo I got that didn't turn out too grainy - if you want a better idea of the absurd wonderfulness that is Szimpla, look at these Google image results. Whilst at the bar, we sampled pálinka, the traditional Hungarian spirit. It was supposed to be fruit flavored, but it literally tasted like drinking nail polish remover - this stuff is strong.

Some things in Budapest are a lovely mix of old and new, most famously the bathhouses. Budapest is situated among many natural hot springs, and it also has a Turkish heritage, so of course bathhouses are a central aspect  of social life, even today. I chose to visit one of the oldest and most beautiful bathhouses. Upon arriving, I left my things in a locker, changed, and walked out to soak with a few hundred friends.

I can't write about Budapest without writing about the tangible effects of World War II. This beautiful museum was absolutely destroyed, and had to be rebuilt.

Then there's the Shoes on the Danube memorial. In 1944-45, the militia lined Jewish families along the Danube and opened fire, allowing the bodies of the murdered to fall into the river. In 2005, an artist commemorated these Holocaust victims by sculpting 60 pairs of shoes, one for each year that had passed since the massacre. The shoes are clearly from 40's-era fashion, and there are shoes belonging to men, women, and children. It was chilling to stand beside the shoes. Some of them have an untied lace, or a tongue sticking up to one side, forcing you to consider just how alive these victims were, and how their tragic deaths caught them right in the middle of their vibrant and ordinary lives. Seeing this memorial was just the beginning of a couple heavy weeks for me, as I continued seeing the effects of WWII on Eastern and Central Europe.

Krakow, Poland:

I know that I've said this about a few of the places that I went, but truly, Krakow is like a fairy tale come to life. The streets were so charming, and I truly enjoyed walking around.

I like to call this one "Juxtaposition: Which is the Anachronism?"

Pope selfie! Pope John Paul II was from Krakow
One of my favorite things about Krakow was the Wawel castle. Inside they serve Wawel chocolate, which I think is well-known throughout Poland. I was feeling particularly homesick this day, so maybe that was a factor in really needing something comforting, but I think this hot chocolate was among the best I've ever had. It was so thick that you had to eat it with a spoon, and it came with little chunks of hazelnut inside and a generous whipped cream topping. Delightful. Also within the large castle complex is the Wawel cathedral, where most of Poland's kings and other dignitaries have been buried for centuries. I didn't feel that I was classy enough to be inside, but it was kind of cool to see such famous dead people that I had never heard of. Best of all, though, was the dragon cave under the castle! There are several myths, which you can read here if you're curious, but all relate to the idea that a dragon once lived in this cave and had to be conquered.

Wawel Cathedral
The dragon cave

A dragon statue outside the mouth of the cave that breathes real fire on the hour
As charming as it was, Krakow was also a really difficult part of the trip. Part of the reason I chose to go to Krakow was to engage with the Holocaust in a meaningful way, since Poland was one of the countries which suffered the most during WWII. While in town, it seemed nothing could go smoothly. For example, I was still trying to get over a cold, and I had been unknowingly using gluten-containing cough drops for about a while at this point, meaning that I had recurrent stomach cramps so sharp I could hardly breathe. I got really lost the first day, and spent way too much time walking and trying to figure out the public transportation system. In a weird way I appreciated the setbacks I experienced, because compared to all of the human suffering I was drinking in, my own issues seemed completely trivial. My own slight taste of physical pain and confusion reminded me of the unfathomable pain of others.

My first day in town, I went to the Schindler's Factory. Yes, the Schindler from Schindler's List - the one who saved Jews by hiring them for his factory. I had a difficult time finding the factory, because it is off in an industrial part of town (which makes sense, obviously). When I got there, the line was enormous - a good thing, because it means lots of people are observing and remembering, but also tough because it was a really cold day to spend a few hours to stand waiting outside. Again, makes you think about how terrible it must have been to endure a death camp during the winter, with far less adequate clothing.

Pots produced by Schindler's factory

Schindler's office
Schindler's office is still preserved and is pretty close to its original state, but the rest of the factory has been transformed into an experiential journey to Poland, circa 1930's and 1940's. There are photos, videos, songs, and letters from the era with firsthand accounts of the hope and optimism people had felt after WWI, the initial disbelief and subsequent horror when Hitler rose to power and took Poland, and the struggle of occupancy and war. The museum led you through the exhibits, so that you felt as if you were there. They actually built a mini-ghetto, so that you could see what it was like behind those tombstone-shaped walls, in cramped quarters. I was struck by how alive, how near, how human these memories felt - there were aspects of these memories that felt so like my own, like building a career and falling in and out of love and cherishing family and friends. And yet, all of these shocking, horrifying, unimaginable things upturned that normalcy completely.

The following day, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was obviously a very somber experience, but also something that everyone should do. I had learned about concentration camps from a young age, but I don't think I ever fully comprehended the scale of them. Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually a complex of several camps which were built in phases, to accommodate more and more prisoners over time. We actually had to take a bus between the camps because they are so large and spread-out. The sheer quantity of humans who were subjected to the horrors within becomes readily apparent when you walk through the museum and see the enormous heaps of belongings found on the site: eyeglasses, combs, mirrors, toothbrushes, luggage, shoes. We passed through the housing sheds, peering into the wooden slatted bunks where multiple people would sleep, and imagining the pooled human waste and scampering rats which were present when far too many prisoners were forced to share the rudimentary huts. We huddled into the crematorium, where ovens could burn a few hundred bodies in a single day. We walked along the old railroad tracks, where masses teemed out after long journeys in stock cars and were sorted into two lines: those who would be gassed immediately, and those who would be forced to work.

Camp entrance
Chemical showers

Tracks of arrival

Bunk house
Perhaps the most nauseating piece of the experience was passing through a room with an enormous display case piled with literal metric tons of human hair, which time had turned a uniform color and texture. No photos or spoken words are allowed when passing through the space, out of respect for the deceased. I felt as though a heavy weight were pressing against my chest. You might wonder, why save the hair? You see, the goal of the camps was not only to exterminate, but also to profit. The Nazis wove human hair into cloth fabric, mixed human ashes into fertilizer, and extracted metal from human teeth. The valuables of the Jews, gypsies, Communists, Socialists, homosexuals, disabled, and other undesirables transported to the camp were ransacked and redistributed. The Nazis found even the items prisoners had tucked away in concealed compartments in hopes of keeping just one thing out of the Reich's grasp. Aryan children played with the toys that Jewish children brought to the camps. It was not only the military and war effort which gained financially, but also the broader business sector. Many companies found cheap labor by producing their goods in camps. Other companies found a market for their products by supplying the camps. All throughout Auschwitz there are shallow pools of water because the insurance company which underwrote the camp understood that there was a high fire risk with so many people crammed into a small space, and mandated that such pools be installed. Carrying insurance - what is better proof of a full-blown business enterprise? It's hard to comprehend the calculated, ruthless brutality, the way in which evil built such a well-oiled, efficient machine. As I wrapped up my time in Poland, I was left thinking about the ways in which we are all complicit in systems of evil. We may not live in the Third Reich, but the world is still a messed up place. A very real question, and one that should not be brushed off lightly, is how we engage with this reality, and whether we are doing our part to try to make things better.
Insurance pools
The cans which contained the poison used in the chemical showers

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