Confronting the darkness

Tuesday was the museum day.

I’d dedicated this day to exploring the WWII and Soviet-era history of Budapest. I decided on a route that would take me to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Terror House, and the Old Synagogue and Holocaust Memorial Garden. It was not going to be a day of sunshine and happiness, that was for certain.

I took the metro to the Kossuth Lajos tér stop, which is the stop for the Hungarian Parliament building. Striding up the stairs and out into the murky morning, I was immediately slapped in the face by both the sheer, brunt wind from the river and the magnificently soaring Parliament building. It is intimidating up close. Rather like seeing the British Houses of Parliament for the first time as well. They’re smug and grand and beautiful, of course.

My purpose for this walk was to visit the Shoes on the Danube sculpture right on the river. I walked south along the main street and eventually went down to the riverfront. The wind took bites out of me as much as it could, ripping at my scarf and thin jacket. It is not a far walk until I reach the sculpture of 60 iron shoes in the 1940s style. It is meant to commemorate Hungarian Jews who were marched to the riverfront by the Arrow Cross regime (Nazi group), told to take off their shoes, and were shot so they fell into the river and were carried away.

I stood near one pair that was close to my size and looked out at the churning grey-blue mass of the river. The only noise was the crunch of gravel under feet and the cars on the road nearby, but that was almost drowned out by the magnitude of the memorial. 60 pairs.

It’s a heavy sight on a heavy day.

I needed a break before going to the Holocaust Museum. I walked back into Pest and stopped at the bookstore Bestsellers for a reset on my mind.

I spent time in the southern part of Pest, easily locating the Holocaust Museum. It was quiet, not very busy, and another page to add to the growing history I had of the Holocaust and WWII. Having been previously to Terezin in the Czech Republic, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Houston Holocaust Center, and to the small Jewish history museum in Shanghai, I wanted to hear about the Hungarian side of the war. The war was so far reaching, that even a visit to the Nanjing massacre museum in Nanjing, China, and to Hiroshima in Japan couldn’t seem to encompass everything. There was always more to learn, another perspective. Another story. Another sadness.

These are difficult places to visit, but they are vital to my education about something which, the more I learn, the less I can comprehend the magnitude of what hatred and indifference can cause.

I stood in the Killing Fields of Cambodia not long ago and thought the same thing. When my students ask if this still happens, as a teacher, it hurts to answer, “yes.” That’s why, amidst the darkness, you must look at the light. The heroes. The people who did something. Then, you look at what you have inside you and ask what you can do with those gifts and talents. What difference can you make? It’s essential to know that you can and that you can teach others to do the same.

The museum was deliberately dark with bright, focused lights. There are no punches pulled here. It’s clear that there is an acknowledgement of their part in the war and in sending Jews, gypsies, and others to their deaths. Most were transported to Auschwitz within a six-week period of time. The videos and photographs leave nothing open to the imagination. It is there, in your face, and you can’t avoid the past.

The very layout of the museum is even more thought-provoking than a simple timeline. It is organized by the things that were taken away from the Jews. First, their personal freedoms and property. You weren’t a citizen of Hungary any longer. Then, you take their humanity. Humiliation, wearing of the Star of David, and being shoved into a ghetto. You are allowed no privacy. Nothing that makes you you. Your name doesn’t matter; it’s a number. Finally, they take your life. That is all you have left; all else has been stripped away and burned.

It was powerful. It screamed “guilty!” It made you worry about what’s going on right now, that entire groups of people are being shot down and stolen from their families … for what? We make a noise for certain things, but not others. Is there not humanity and purpose in everyone’s life?

When I walk back out into the dull light of the cloudy day, I look around the courtyard of the museum and wonder at the lives in the buildings flanking the outside walls. Did people hide here? Did neighbors turn against neighbors?

Who knows what stories these darkened windows hold?

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