Behind the Iron Curtain (in 2015)

Please click the photos to enlarge and please have a look at the video clip at the end

I do know its been nearly 26 years since this ugly curtain was drawn, but still there is some odd nostalgia to venture behind it, observe the interesting languages, food and diversity, discover the great cities and cringe at the stomach-turning history. Once you’ve seen Auschwitz, realized the terror of the communist cold war on the East European people, the modern day slavery inflicted on nations such as Hungary and slept in the Plitvicka (there should be a upside down caret on that ‘c’ but I have no idea how to type that!) where as recently as 20 years ago the Serbs and Croats were still fighting a fierce civil war, you realize that the human race is evil, really evil. Chris de Burhg says it: ‘I fail to see the wisdom of a war’.

I decided to acknowledge and see this history for myself, and Heleen and I planned our trip. Before you stop reading because ‘you’re not in the mood for a somber dark blog post’, let me entice you with the confirmation that what we have seen and how these former grey dark places have lifted themselves and created wonderful new destinations with breath-taking tourist destinations is the real wow of what we’ve discovered. I believe everyone should visit Eastern Europe.

Prague
Prague

Prague is a majestic old grand city and is often called the Paris of the east. Indeed it is a beautiful city, with a buzz of activity, street music, restored vintage cars as sight seeing opportunities and the exceptional architecture to challenge millions of camera lenses, mobile phones and even tablets; the most awful of tourist camera equipment available! We took a city tour in a 1929 Praga 10 seater car that proved to be an excellent choice. Feeling like the queen (and having to concentrate not to lift the hand in her familiar wave to the crowds) we were entertained through the streets of Prague including the old town, the bridges and the castle hill. We hooked up with friends from South Africa who nowadays stay in Prague and imagined ourselves rubbing shoulders for breakfast with the likes of Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka in the famous restaurant Louvre where both these gentlemen used to ‘hang out’.

The Prague bridge and castle
The Prague bridge and castle

But Prague was still very west and I urged to go deeper and, with a lunch stop over in beautiful Kutna Hora and a fabulous one-night stopover in the rural Czech town Házovice we headed to Krakow, Poland.

On our way, though, was Auschwitz.

This is the most horrific place I have ever seen. I cannot even try to write something about it. What strikes me about this history, and then the more recent war areas we’ve traveled through, is that it’s not ancient. It’s not Vlad the Impaler in the dark ages, or Atilla the Hun. It’s in our day and age. Some of the people involved and responsible for inconceivable atrocities are still living amongst us. In Auschwitz itself, the number varies on how many people were actually murdered there. Polish governments itself reduced their official number down from the originally broadcasted 4m to what seems to be the official number now of around 1.1 million. It’s much less, but by no means any less atrocious. Think about the numbers: 1.1 million people in 5 years. That’s 220,000 people per year being murdered or even more exasperating 603 innocent people per day. These were not soldiers shooting back, these were merely people different from the oppressing Nazi’s! It is incomprehensible! Nonetheless, in my view, and despite its horror, Auschwitz should be visited for the sake of improving the future.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz

Krakow is one funky, beautiful and definitely worthwhile city to visit. During the rule of King Krakus, very much as in the times of Lord Farquart (remember him?) I presume, the farmers in the vicinity of Wawel Hill got so fed-up with the weekly sacrifice of a cow to the local dragon that they ‘poisoned’ him by feeding him a cow skin filled with smoldering sulfur! With the dragon’s rule up in flames, Krakus built his castle in Wawel Hill and voila, Krakow was founded. Or at least, that’s according to some legends.

As with most of Europe, history is filled with violence, war en terror. Krakow is no exception. Krakow as city was spared during WW2, mostly because it served as a major Nazi base and formed the capital of this region. Soon after they, the Nazis decided that they will rid Krakow of all Jews and decided they were not willing to live near the Jews. Initially many Jews were deported, but then the Krakow Ghetto was established. Walled in as part of the city, this was where all Jews had to live in horrendous conditions. To visit the Jewish Ghetto Square and reflect on what happened was a truly thought provoking experience. I think I am loosing all respect in the human race. On the square is a memorial consisting of monumental chairs to signify the habit of the Nazis to enter Jewish apartments and throwing all the furniture out of the window. I immediately remembered why I couldn’t finish watching the film, The Pianist. I simply stopped watching the film when a crippled man in a wheel chair was unceremoniously thrown from the building! But there are always heroes as well, and part of our battery driven 8-seater golf cart tour was a quick visit to the factory of Oscar Schindler.

However, strolling the streets of the magnificent Kazimierz or Jewish Quarters, as well as the Old Town and its magnificent Rynek Glówny, Europe’s largest medieval square (which was grotesquely named Adolf Hitler Platz during the War) gave me new hope. Despite the past and the deliberate destruction of culture and beliefs by a psychotic group, the evidence is there that the people of Krakow have built a funky, modern and stylish city with medieval architecture well intact but complimented with modern cafés, bars and restaurants. It is a pleasure to wander through this fascinating city. A visit to Krakow should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Banskà Stiavnica
Banskà Stiavnica

En route to Budapest and further south, we ventured off the beaten track through the incredibly scenic Štiavnica Mountains and explored the World heritage town Banská Štiavnica in the middle of an ancient caldera (collapsed volcano). I was here much more for the political fascinating (though sometimes truly mind blowing) history, architecture and ‘feel’ than for archeology though. And that ‘feel’ we fortunately did get. In Banská we had the privilege to see the real ‘old world charm’ of the East Block. I am struggling to accurately put in words what I mean when referring to this as charm though, as I have no doubt whatsoever that living under the communist regimes up to the end 80’s was no pleasure. Life was hard, mundane and without any luxury while architecture was unimaginative, square, grey and cold. But for me, now that life has changed for the locals, to wander through towns and apartment blocks in this town I could feel that ghastly reminisce of how isolated and living with eye-patches people were forced to live. Even in 2015 we were stared at strolling down the streets. I could see the curiosity in the eyes of an old man, wearing a vest as shirt, when we passed him, cheerfully and excited chatting in Afrikaans. I wondered if he has ever heard of a country called South Africa. But I more wandered what this man has seen in his approximate 80 years.

Adding to the sheer enjoyment was the limited English and even German understanding in restaurants and shops. Struggling to communicate in an odd manner adds to the enjoyment of travel, as it enhances that feeling of exploring, discovering and achieving, which are the essentials of great traveling.

Budapest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Budapest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

There have been many conflicts in Budapest, which as a single city is actually quite new. Originally founded by Celts before the Romans ruled Budapest it is a city with a long and intriguing history. Its name stems from the two Bulgarian fortresses Buda and Pest situated on each side of the Danube River and which only merged as recent as 1870 into one city.

My first visit to Budapest was in January 1994, just five years after the Iron Curtain was lifted. I remember so well how fascinated I was with this absolutely stunning city with its distinctive ‘behind the curtain’ feel to it. I remember Katie Surek (our land lady at that time) complimenting us on our nice clothes (jeans, sweaters and sneakers) and charging us just 8 US dollars per night for accommodation. I remember exactly that feeling of being the only foreigner in the city, everybody staring at us while having magnificent coffee and cake in the classy Gerbeaud Coffee House on Vörösmarty Ter, or strolling the Vaci Utca, Andràssy Utca and the Hösòk Ter (Heroes Square). Said Katie, ‘people came with buses to the city to window-shop when the first Nike store opened in Vaci Utca. The West has arrived and Hungarians could express their individuality by being one self, by working for yourself and achieving for yourself!’

In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945. Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.).
In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945.
Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.).

Now, 21 years later, the spectacular city is proof that these capitalistic, ideals and motivation paid off handsomely. Budapest has become a trendy vibrating place with cafes, bars and restaurants galore, while still maintaining that old character and heritage. Budapest now seem to be a happy place as opposed to those dark, dark years of communist rule and modern day ‘slavery’.

The Budapest bridge and castle at night
The Budapest bridge and castle at night

At 60 Andrassy Utca is the Terror Museum, which was unfortunately closed on the Monday I was there. They do however have an excellent display outside saying just enough to make sure I will go back and visit the museum on an open day. One such is the story of one Andràs Toma, the Hungarian soldier who was captured and put in a labour camp in 1944 by the Russian Red Army. Toma was captured on January 11, near Auschwitz and was taken to Boksitogorsk, or as the Russians call it Бокситогорск near St. Petersburgh. Toma picked up some illness and was transferred to another camp, Bistrjag (pronounced Bistrjag), some 1,000km further east and in 1947 transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnisch. Psychiatric patients were not labour camp prisoners and therefore András’ records were deleted. He was declared dead in 1954 and thus was ‘lost’. A linguist recognized his accent as being Hungarian and not Russian and his case was followed up. He was brought back to Hungary in 2000 after spending 54 years in a Russian Psychiatric hospital and with DNA tests he was reunited with his family. Since his military service was continuous, the Hungarian government paid him out all his back pay. Andràs Toma (who became Tamas) was probably the last WW2 POW to be returned home. Life’s a journey, they say.

The Terror Museum in Budapest
The Terror Museum in Budapest
Photos of victims who never returned
Photos of victims who never returned

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

‘My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

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