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.

Hungary Hike

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Cornfields in Pilisborosjenő.

In our brief time in Budapest, I’ve somehow found a nearby hike and gotten us on a bus to an area nearby where we can supposedly pick up the trail. We’re dropped off by the side of the road, where the whirlwind from passing cars buffets us every few seconds as we hike up to the trailhead. Then it’s through the woods, into the village of Pilisborosjenő, and up the hill to the summit Nagy-Kevély. It’s a gorgeous, hot day at the end of summer and we’re not letting it go to waste.

Want to do the hike yourself? Budapest Hikers have some details on their website about the Pilisborosjenő hike, including some instructions on how to get there by bus that are slightly different from ours. Our hike is delineated on the map below and started at Bus Stop Solymár, téglagyári bekötőút:

What did we find on our hike during this beautiful summer day? Well…

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Cars and trucks pass us at high speeds near the trail entrance.
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Snails wait out the heat of the day.
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A beetle struggles to stay upright. There were dozens of these beetles along the trail, all struggling to walk or on their backs with their feet in the air. I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s the season’s end or some kind of chemical/disease exposure.
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Strange squat sentinels sit along the trail. What are they for?
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An interesting seed hanging from a vine.
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Ants excitedly scuttle around a sticky puddle on the surface of a mushroom.
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Probably a wild Pink (Dianthus)
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Wild Chicory flowers; the plant can be used as coffee substitute, and is also where your endives and radicchio come from.
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Wild Barberis (barberries) growing from a bush.
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The Camel Rocks, a climb-able limestone/sandstone formation.
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An odd tuft growing on a wild rosebush. I’m guessing it’s some kind of parasite. Oh, I’m right; it’s a wasp larva home.
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A European Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis), now reddish-brown at the end of mating season.
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A shallow cave in the cliff.
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A view from near the top of the hill.
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A stamp near the top of the hike! BYO stamp pad, though.
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Stoytcho at the summit.
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Another wildflower, possibly a variety of Spotted Knapweed (Centauria maculosa).
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Hmm, I don’t think so.
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A European Green Lizard, still green for mating season.

European Capital Hop: Budapest

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The Hungarian Parliament Building behind the silhouette of Rákóczi Ferenc lovasszobra, a national hero who led the uprising against the Hapsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire.

Over the next three weeks we’ll be European capital-hopping, where we have a few days in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague before ending up in Linz, Austria for the 2017 Ars Electronica Festival.  Like Riga, we have little time to get to know each city, but hopefully it’s enough to get a feel for what makes it unique.

First up: Budapest, capital of Hungary and the fusion of two prior towns – Buda, and Pest. Stretched across the Danube, the city is a mix of beautiful architecture, verdant parks, and busy car-filled roads. The most beautiful time for photography is dusk, when the city lights up its most iconic buildings.

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The Hungarian Parliament Building, as viewed from utilitsa Alkotmany.
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The moon rises over the southern wing of the Hungarian Parliament Building.
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Visitors pause to read signage at the the impromptu protest memorial in front of the German Occupation Memorial. The protest memorial accuses the government of rewriting history to make Hungary seem like victims rather than supporters of the Nazis.
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Memorabilia laid out at the protest monument, which argues that many Hungarians participated willingly in the murder of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals during World War II.
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St. Steven’s Basilica at night.
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Moonrise over Buda, on the other side of the Danube.
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The stairwell leading up to our hostel.
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Graffiti drawn on the side of an ornate building.
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A sad robot.
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Possibly some kind of revenge.
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A team  of students participates in a scavenger hunt across the city.
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Protesters occupy the edge of Varosliget, where the city has proposed to remove green space and replace it with a museum.
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A stuffed animal watches over a donations box for the protestors.

 

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A man pedals a Ferrari boat around the pond in Varosliget.
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A typical day at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths in Varosliget Park. They were nowhere near as warm or relaxing as a Japanese onsen.
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Men play cards on a patio at Szechenyi Baths.
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A tour group wanders by a bronze statue in downtown Pest.
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Lunch – lemonade, chicken with spaetzle, and strawberry soup.
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The bank of the Danube.
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A plant grows from a discarded bucket, washed ashore from the Danube.
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Budapest Central Market Hall.