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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Danube of two tales

It was the best of times, it was the Wurst…

Someone drew my attention recently to an article about the Chicago Dyke March. It appears that women with rainbow Star of David flags were excluded from the march in an enforcement of “anti-Zionist” conformity. The women said they always carried the flags because they were proud to be both Jewish and lesbian. They were experiencing anti-Semitism.

I can imagine how these women felt. I once carried an American flag in a Canadian Pride parade. Everyone was carrying the flag of the country they’d immigrated from, but mine was booed. It sucks to be held responsible for the actions of a government one may not even support.

On our travels through Europe, I’ve been partly on a quest to see its Jewish history. Not because my own heritage is Jewish—it isn’t—but because the history of the Jews, and how various countries have handled it, tells us a lot about a place. Jews, and anti-Semitism, have been part of this continent for many centuries. When I was at Europe’s largest centre of Jewish studies, I had colleagues from many of the countries we’ve visited this year: Poland, France, Italy, Hungary. These last two cities, both on the River Danube, have provided interesting contrasts.


Austria-Hungary was once an empire, and we’ve been traveling through it for a while now (it encompassed both Slovenia and Trieste). If Columbus was following us around through the first half of the summer, from Madrid to Genoa, Maria Theresa’s been following us since. The Hapsburg empress was born 300 years ago in Vienna, and they’re making quite a big deal out of it there. 

Statue of Maria Theresa at Museums quarter, Vienna
But in the twentieth century it all went wrong. First the Austro-Hungarian empire lost World War I, and then, in World War II, these countries were on the wrong side also. Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in the bloodless Anschluss. Hungary was invaded and occupied. Jews from both countries were deported to Auschwitz and killed. You might think this was inevitable once any country fell to Nazism, but it wasn’t; look up Bulgaria, a country almost unknown to Westerners, to see how tens of thousands of Jews could be saved when that was what their fellow citizens really wanted.

Vienna, a city of cafés and waltzes, had the first Jewish museum in the world. It still has one, but the Jewish history here seemed largely hidden to me. The mediaeval synagogue exists only in ruins beneath a current Jewish museum. Vienna was the home both of influential Jewish figures, like Sigmund Freud, and vicious anti-Semitism. The fact that the Anschluss happened without resistance from Austria made Austria part of Nazi Germany, rather than a victim of it. Yet after the war, many Austrians who had been only too willing to collaborate with the Nazis were pardoned, or received only light sentences for their war crimes. As recently as 1986-92, Austria elected a president, Kurt Waldheim, who’d been in the Wehrmacht in Yugoslavia and Greece. 

I found the conscience of Austria in one of Vienna’s great museums, the Albertina. Once guest apartments of the Hapsburgs, the Albertina now has a marvelous permanent collection (Monet to Picasso), but it was among the newly acquired works that I discovered a powerful series by an artist called Csaba Nemes—who was born in Hungary. Nemes drew what happened to many Austrians who were the real victims of Nazism.
The woman on the left is Rosa Grossmann, a communist resistance fighter who jumped from a 4th floor rather than betray her fellow combatants under torture. The man on the right is Rudolf R., who was arrested by the Gestapo for homosexuality and committed suicide.
Budapest is the capital of Nemes’s native Hungary. If the Jewish community in Vienna seemed hidden, exhibiting its museum mostly to fellow Jews, in Budapest it is very much on display. One of the major sights in Budapest is the Great Synagogue.



This is the largest Jewish house of worship in Europe, and the largest anywhere in the world outside New York City. It was built next to the house where Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, was born. During the ghetto period of World War II, many Jews died of hunger and cold right in the grounds of the Dohány Street Synagogue, and are buried there. There’s also a memorial to Nicholas Winton, and plaques naming the hundreds of Jews he personally saved from the Nazis.

But Hungary has also had its struggle with different versions of its history. In Budapest there is a memorial, constructed only in 2013, that depicts Hungary as an angel during World War II. The eagle, representing Nazi Germany, is snatching the life away from Hungary. 


 Our guide on this walking tour, who proudly told us she was born in “free Hungary” (i.e., post-communist), showed us that a string of protest signs has become a permanent part of this memorial. In many languages, people voice their disagreement with the image of Hungary as an angel. It is a powerful display. 
Perhaps unconsciously echoing a cry often used at protests, the guide said, “This is what democracy looks like. Both points of view are here.” 

Then she took us a short distance away, where the last remaining Soviet memorial in Budapest stands. Here is another partially true, but deeply misleading narrative: that the Soviets saved Hungary from the Nazis.
 Elsewhere in Hungary, symbols such as the red star and (here) hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union are banned. Just opposite this monument is the U.S. embassy.

And facing the opposite direction from both these Cold War superpowers is a statue of Imre Nagy, whose communist (but not Soviet-backed) government was brought down by Soviet invasion in 1956. The failure of this Hungarian revolution led to Nagy’s execution for treason. 
His statue looks towards the magnificent Parliament, the largest building in Hungary. It is symbolic of Hungary being its own country, now democratic, and not beholden to the Soviets or anyone else.

Before we crossed from the Pest side of the Danube to the Buda side, our guide showed us one more memorial. This haunting collection of sculpted shoes, at the edge of the river, honors Hungarian Jews who were shot there. Not by Germans, but by the Arrow Cross Party—Hungarian Nazis. Worse, these Jews were taken from safe houses in Pest, where they had been protected by the Swedish embassy.
I have more to write about our travels in Austria and Hungary, but I’ll leave it for another post. I’m still thinking about Vienna, Budapest, and the way history gets told in different strands of narrative. A Soviet monument that is left in place because it’s an important part of history. A Hungarian artist calling Austria to account for its own crimes. A contemporary sculpture and the protest that goes with it.

Nazi Germany was defeated more than seventy years ago, and Russia is no longer Soviet. But we are still dealing with what is really evil, and what democracy looks like.

This post is in memory of Heather Heyer, 32, killed on Saturday by a white supremacist terrorist in Virginia. She was a legal assistant, Bernie Sanders supporter, and civil rights champion. Her Facebook cover photo read: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Blessed be Heather Heyer, who died nobly while standing up for the truth: we are stronger when we are united by love and respect, weaker when we view "the other" with suspicion, fear, and hatred; racism is a poisonous plant that must be uprooted. Groove and Pop

J. E. Knowles said...

Amen to that!