Remembering World War II in Europe

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Tank treads embedded in concrete at a World War II memorial in Warsaw, Poland.

Here in Europe, the memory of World War II is living, breathing, complicated beast. It was less than 100 years ago, and people remember it through stories, monuments, and plaques scattered throughout the cities of the continent. And it’s not remembered in the episodic way we in the U.S. remember the war, which for most of us distills down to we got attacked at Pearl Harbor, we beat Hitler and the Nazis (the Russians would like to have a word with you)*, and we nuked Japan. No, here in Europe it’s remembered by which of your relatives died, how much of your city was leveled, what survived, and how you remember who and what didn’t.

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World War II displays in Moscow’s Museum of Great Patriotic War (a.k.a. World War II).

While it’s hard for me to estimate the exact number of World War II monuments, we’ve seen one in almost every place we’ve visited since we hit Russia. That includes Siberia, where there’s a Soviet monument in Ulan-Ude to the Buryats who fought in the war; to Latvia, where you can find plaques commemorating where the bombs fell and where Jewish refugees were sheltered scattered throughout the city streets; to Hungary, where towering monuments occupy city parks and the bank of the Danube River. There are places where we didn’t see World War II monuments, but in these cases we could have missed them or they could have been removed – the Soviets would have raised them in former Eastern Bloc states, and they might have fallen with the Communist governments.

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A plaque memorializing those killed by the Nazis (I think) in Prague, Czech Republic.

The language of the monuments and plaques also varies by location; it either memorializes the loss of lives of buildings in the war generally, or it memorializes specifically the war against the Nazis. In Estonia where an estimated 1 in 4 peopled died, pamphlets tell how Estonians first fought the Soviet Union, then the Nazis to retain their independence. In Latvia and Warsaw, many of the placards say “here refugees were sheltered,” or “here bombs fell.” And then there are the scattered memorials in Bialowieza, which read (in Russian and Polish), “Here the Nazis committed terrible atrocities.”

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A plaque in the sidewalk in Riga, Latvia, commemorating a hiding place for Jews.
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Memorial to a massacre in the forest, near Bialowieza National Park.

But behind the monuments and the public face of remembrance, there’s a more complicated cultural and personal remembrance that doesn’t conform to the public memorialization. In Austria, this manifests as darkly self-critical humor scattered through the sightseeing pamphlets at hostels: “This location memorializes the terrible acts we committed. Oops, we meant the Nazis, we Austrians were just victims who were invaded.” With the fall of communism in Poland, there are whispers now that some of the murders in the forests of Bialowieza were committed by Soviet soldiers and blamed on the Nazis as a cover-up.

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Two visitors stop in front of the “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary.

But this conflict of public and private remembrance is most evident in Budapest, where that recently-built “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” has sparked protests that the Hungarian government is ‘washing over history’ for political expedience*. An independent, home-made monument has sprouted up in front of the official memorial with personal memorabilia from victims killed by the Arrow Cross: photos, letters, ID cards, and books. It’s a reminder visitors that like the Austrians, many in Hungary welcomed the Nazis, and many murders and atrocities were committed by Hungarian hands.

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Memorabilia and decorations on the homemade protest monument in Budapest, Hungary. The monument asserts that Hungary’s “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” whitewashes history by failing to acknolwedge that many native Hungarians committed atrocities as part of the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross Party.
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Two tourists look at both the homemade monument and the “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary.

Only a mile away from Budapest’s new monument, another World War II memorial sits on the bank of the Danube. Dozens of pairs of shoes, cast in bronze, are rooted into the concrete to memorialize those who were shot at the riverbank in 1944 and 1945. With the war drawing to a close and resources scarce, victims were told to remove their shoes before they were shot and their bodies tumbled into the river below. There are rumpled boots and loafers. There are fine, high-heeled pumps. There are children’s shoes.

Plaques embedded in the ground at each end state: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45.”

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A child-sized pair of bronze shoes stand amid flowers at the memorial to the victims shot on its banks in World War II.

Side notes:

* Russia took the most World War II casualties of any country by number of deaths, and they were actually the ones to take Berlin on the ground at war’s end.

**The Hungarian government of the last decade has been controlled most by Fidesz, a nationalist right-leaning party that disagrees with Germany’s policy of allowing increased immigration. The memorial cleverly furthers both of its goals by (1) de-associating guilt from itself by failing to mention the atrocities linked to the also nationalist, right-wing party of the Arrow Cross and (2) associating the crimes committed with Germany, not specifically the Nazis, which stirs up subconscious anti-German sentiment.

Bialowieza Forest

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A plaque at the entrance to Bialowieza National Forest.

Bialowieza, the last old-growth forest in Europe, is the real reason we’re in Poland. About a month ago, when we were deciding between visiting Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bialowieza, we heard that the Polish government had green-lighted some logging in the forest. We figured, ‘Well, time to see it before it’s gone.” It’s not like Chernobyl is going anywhere soon.

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A tree on one of the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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Moss and lichens growing on a low roof in town.

We caught a train from Warsaw to Hajnowka, and a bus from there to Bialowieza, the eponymous town on the park’s east side. From here, we ended up doing two hikes: one along the Nordic tracks on the East side of the town, and the Bialowieza National Park Nature Tour for Scientists. The former winds confusingly through state forest (where the logging is taking place), while the latter takes you into the actual national park and requires a hefty 550 zloty fee (~$161 USD) for the guide. Overall, both hikes were nice, with two caveats: an absolute boatload of mosquitos, and a fairly ‘touristy’ feel to the National Park hike—you’re walking a well-worn path, occasionally past another tour group. It’s not like hiking open and free in the wilderness.

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Resident wildlife.
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Logging in the state forest, along the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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A logged clearing in the state forest.
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Untouched fallen trees in the National Park.

That said, the park does have an impressive array of mosses and fungi. Because they don’t remove dead and fallen trees, there’s plenty of material to support the growth of saprophytes, in turn hosting tiny insects and insect predators like spiders. You might catch glimpses of animals from afar, so bring the camera with the nice zoom lens. And you may even see wild boar if the population has recovered by the time you arrive—we saw none, because most were wiped out by swine flu a couple of years ago. Our guide reported that summer, you could smell the rotting boar carcasses every time you got near the forest. But that’s the course of nature for you.

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The trail of an animal through the morning dew in a field near the forest.
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Late afternoon in the fields.

A few tips for when you go:

  • You could easily stay in Hajnowka and hike from there if you’re not so interested in the national park. The town was adorable and untouristy, and we found their tourism information center to be super helpful – they’re open 9-5 Monday-Saturday, and 9-1 Sunday.
  • We stayed at Dwor Na Otulinie in Bialowieza and loved it because it’s on the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest. The hosts are lovely folks and they’ve got a mini-kitchen downstairs to prepare meals for yourself.
  • We tried a handful of restaurants in the town and found Bar Biesiada Jolanta Żłobin to be hands-down the best for cheap food, even compared to the ‘supposed best’ Bar Leśna Dziupla. It’s partly because they have amazing pierogi (though I suppose you could order something else), partly because they have these delicious sodas under the brand Vilnele, and partly because the cook/barman/waiter at Biesiada looks a bit like an overweight Harrison Ford. He speaks almost no English, so arm yourself with Google Translate.
  • There are mosquitos. Not just mosquitos, singular at a time, but whole swarms of them that will relentlessly follow you as you hike. Try early on to make peace with the fact that you’re going to lose some blood.

Some more photos of Bialowieza:

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Bar Biesiada’s counter, where they also sell fried jelly donuts.
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A brown puffball grows in the grass.
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This is a woodpecker, but you probably couldn’t tell because we didn’t bring a DSLR with us.
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King of the hill: insects climb on a mushroom in the National Park.
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Mushrooms on a log.
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A monument to those killed in the forest during the World War.
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Yellow coral fungi on the forest floor.
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Little snails, probably the most common animals you’ll see in the forest.
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This is what a hazelnut looks like.
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An orb weaver (Agriope); our guide was excited about this because she had never seen them in this part of the park before.
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Another snail, snailing along.
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And sunset.