Friday, June 12, 2015

Listening to stories and legends in Prague

We have been visiting Prague with our Road Scholars group for several days. These trips feature excellent local experts who tell the group an overview of the history and culture of the area. Since Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are neighbours, I expected similarities. They each trace their histories to the introduction of Christianity to their country along with the feudal system of land ownership and governance about 1000 years ago. In this system both the church and the royal rulers own all the land. In 1918, the land that had been ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Church were broken into countries with their own individual languages/cultural grouping. Hungary lost a lot of land and looked at the pre-1914 period as their golden days. The Poles and Czechs had their own counties again until WW2. Hungary allied itself with the Nazis. In 1938, Neville (peace in our time) Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, Poland was invaded in 1939 and WW2 began. We heard about being under Nazi occupation from 3 points of view.  Hungary was an ally of Hiltler and their buildings came through the war relatively unscathed if I don't count the all the people sent to death factories.  Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazis. Poland was heavily bombed.  After the war the Soviets set up a Communist system wherein the state owns everything under a repressive regime. Since the early 1990s, each county is free to be a democracy, have a free market economy and is part of EU.

Due to the influence of the ruling Austro-Hungarian empire, that ruled all 3 countries, the bigger and more decorated the building, the better. Where are the stories of kindness in all this?  Over and over, in dangerous and miserable conditions, some brave people risked ther lives for their neighbours. I have heard stories of pluck and good luck. The buildings are pretty, but many of the people are beautiful and brave.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Beautiful Budapest

On this city tour of central Euope, we are visiting cities whose governments sided with the Allies during WWII (Warsaw and Cracow) and those who sided with the Axis (Budapest).  Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to WWI and lost control of these lands to Romania, Poland, Slovakia and others after that war.  They never got over their loss to this day. The beautiful buildings date back to their prosperous days in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their system of government was feudalism and the aristocracy was doing well off the work of the peasants in the countryside.

Now, in 2015, the majority live in cities, with public buildings that are very impressive, huge and elaborately decorated. Their current government is very slow at developing a modern economy. You contrast the tired, poorly dressed people who trudge past these beauties on their way to work and home. What would happen if they invested in people and let go of  maintaining the gorgeous buildings?  Focusing on beauty without the kindness of supporting growth in ordinary people can harm any society.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Witnessing Auschwich on a sunny June day

Along with 6000 other people in guided groups, we visited Auschwich Birkenhau concentration camp today. We lined up for our appointment along side groups of people speaking many languages, Polish, German, Italian, French, Mandarin, and English.  The ages ranged from early teens to seniors. Each group was assigned a guide who spoke their language. The guide told us how the camp worked and described the daily life and death of the prisoners. As we filed through the barracks, toilets (10 seconds only twice daily) the work areas, the gas chambers and crematoria, the guide told us how the Nazis managed the prisoners with humiliation and cruelty. This camp held Polish political prisoners, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Roma, gays and the mentally ill but the vast majority were Jews like me.

The area of these facilities was vast. The Nazis got rid of the majority of Poles on the surrounding farms and took over the housing the the towns for themselves according to the guide.

When we returned to Cracow, the evening program was dinner in a Jewish style restaurant accompanied by Jewish style Klezmer music in an area where Jews lived for 900 years before the Holocaust. There are only few Jews now in Cracow.  The restaurant was in a former synagogue and ritual bath. The furniture in the hall were family dining room sets, probably taken from the apartments of the former Jewish inhabitants complete with lace tablecloths. I could not stay and walked back to the hotel in the warm June night.

I lost my way and went into a restaurant. The waitress looked at my map, told us that we still had a long way to go and called us a cab. When it arrived, she came out to make sure the cabbie understood us,  I appreciated her kindness so much then.