I haven’t posted a Monday travel reflection in a while, but today I’m thinking I’d love to go back to the city of Budapest for another wander. Hungary is still a country I admit to knowing very little about – culture, history, food, people. But I truly loved spending a few days walking the streets of its capital city and getting just a tiny glimpse of some of those things.
One thing I’ve learned about myself through travel is that I make sense of a place by walking it. And walking helps me connect with its history too. Imagining those who have walked before, gaining insight into their lives and experiences, never fails to inspire, challenge, move and teach me.
What did I love about Budapest?
The Hungarian Parliament building on the Pest side of the Danube is stunning …
… as is the Castle on the Buda side.
Linking the two sides of the city are a number of bridges, including the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
There are beautiful churches …
… as well the lovingly restored Dohány Street Synagogue.
Nationalistic pride is on display in different ways from the military memorial at Heroes Square,
to the reliquary supposedly holding St Stephen’s right hand in the Basilica.
I’m a bibliophile, and Budapest had one of the best and most beautiful bookcafes I have ever been to, the Alexandra Bookcafe, although sadly it has apparently recently closed.
What did I learn from Budapest?
What you can’t miss wandering the streets of this city are the memorials everywhere. Testaments to not just life, but death and brutality. Those who were “disappeared” under the Soviet regime.
Those who were deliberately and publicly exterminated en masse.
Jews have a long history in Hungary, and made up almost a quarter of the population at the beginning of World War II. Up to three quarters of these people did not survive the war.
I’ve been to a number of Holocaust Museums around the world, but found Budapest’s one of the most moving, with its honest accounts of the harrowing story and lists of thousands upon thousands of names.
It is housed in a renovated synagogue, and at the back of the prayer hall there are ‘ghost seats’ for the members of the congregation who did not return.
In the Jewish cemetery, Imre Varga’s weeping willow statue bearing the family names of murdered Jews is hauntingly beautiful.
For me personally, perhaps most affecting was the memorial called “Shoes on the Danube River” which marks the spot where 3,500 people were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militia.
I’ve been similarly moved by piles of shoes at Auschwitz in Poland and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There is something simply profound in imagining the lives of those who once walked in a pair that has been left behind.
How does that speak into how I think about where my shoes will be walking this day?
I recently saw, and loved, the movie of my favourite book. One of the things I love about The Book Thief is that it caused me to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in 1930s Germany. I’m pretty sure when I was 10 years old I had not developed a capacity to critique my country or its government. What would it be like to grow up thinking Nazism was normal, and to then experience the realities and questions of that first hand?
While The Book Thief is set in Munich, a city which I have briefly visited, it was visiting Berlin that raised those same kinds of questions for me. I loved Berlin, and particularly the many layers of history. As I walked the streets of Berlin I often found myself wondering, what would it have been like to grow up here in the 1940s, or the 1980s, or even the 1700s?
Berlin is a good place to reflect on what it means to be human and to remember the ways that humans often treat (and mistreat) one another. I would love to return and spend more time in its museums and at its memorials.
What did I love about Berlin?
The Museums. Berlin has hundreds, so it was hard to choose which to visit. This list includes just some of my favourites.
Pergamon Museum. One of five museums on Museum Island, the ancient treasures here are amazing. In particular it was a thrill to see the huge altar from the Turkish city of Pergamum, and the Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon, which the Israelites would have seen when taken into exile in the 6th century BCE.
Jewish Museum. At the start of the 20th century, Berlin had one of the largest populations of Jews in the world. This museum celebrates their history and contribution to German society. It also has the Holocaust Tower, a dark and empty silo which is incredibly moving in its sense of emptiness and loss.
Topography of Terror. Built on the site of the former SS headquarters, this place is brutal in its frankness and brave in its honesty.
DDR Museum. This fascinating museum in the former East provides a glimpse of what life was like in the GDR. From state arranged holidays to collective potty training, these were the realities for people my age who grew up here in the 1980s.
Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. On Bernauer Straße is a preserved section of the Berlin wall including the border strip and watchtower. The Documentation Centre’s tower provides a good view of this, as well as exhibits about the wall’s history including those who died trying to cross it.
I also loved the many moving Memorials. Again, these are just a few that particularly struck me.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews. Opened in 2005, this has been somewhat controversial. There are exhibits underground, but above ground it consists of thousands of concrete slabs of varying sizes and heights, through which people wander and remember. I’m not sure any memorial could adequately convey what needs to be conveyed here, and so in some ways I like that it is minimalist and unconventional. But I didn’t find it as poignant as many of the other memorials.
Book Burning Memorial. Set into the ground of the public square, Bebelplatz, this appears at first glance to be a simple glass window. Looking down into it, however, you see rows and rows of empty bookshelves – enough to hold the 20,000 books that were burned here in 1933.
Neue Wache Memorial to the victims of tyranny. The sculpture “Mother with her dead son,” in a shaft of light from the circular opening in the dome above, stands inside a former guardhouse that now serves as a war memorial. The contrast between walking down the busy main street with the usual noise of life and crowds, to stepping inside here where you could here a pin drop, was very affecting.
Gleis 17. Berlin-Grunewald station today is a normal, everyday, suburban train station. But from 1941 to 1945, train after train left here packed full with people bound for concentration camps from which they would never return. Platform 17, no longer used, is a memorial to those who left from here, with dates, numbers of people, and destinations engraved along the length of the track. It is profoundly moving.
What did I learn from Berlin?
I think it is easy to grow up in a country that was on the “winning” side of the World Wars and simplistically imagine that we are so very different from “them,” or that it couldn’t happen here. Berlin reminded me of our common humanity, and particularly the challenges the church faces to respond to our all too common inhumanity.
Berliners have done a remarkable job of acknowledging their past history, including its mistakes and trials. I think we can all, whether as individuals or as nations, learn from that. It is a powerful thing to simply say sorry. No excuses, no justifications, no mitigations. Moving forward and embracing forgiveness are predicated on this. I love that the rebuilt dome of the Reichstag is made of glass, to symbolise openness and transparency.
I also appreciated the acknowledgement that some things don’t deserve remembrance. The site of Hitler’s bunker is an unadorned patch of car park and grass. Nothing to see there, and I think that too is a powerful message to send.
At the Holocaust Memorial I was struck by children playing, and even a couple kissing, in the shadows between the blocks. A great reminder that life goes on, that “joy comes in the morning,” and that acknowledging the past doesn’t mean self-flagellation for the future, but living to the full today.
And finally, in Berlin I saw and experienced hope. On Bernauer Straße since the 1890s stood a church building, ironically called the Church of Reconciliation. When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, the church found its building stranded in the no-man’s land between the two parts of the city, inaccessible to everyone but the border guards, and it was eventually destroyed. After the Wall fell, the church wanted to find a way to both commemorate its past and look to its future. In 2000, the Chapel of Reconciliation was completed, just across the road from the Berlin Wall Memorial. It stands there today as an amazing symbol of perseverance and faithfulness. As the parish said in a 1985 speech when the old building was destroyed, “We can do something … we know that symbols have a silent power which can make the ‘impossible’ possible.”