by Robert I. Evans
There’s nothing like a trip outside of the United States to get different perspectives on life across the globe! With that as our approach last month, my wife and I took a riverboat along the Danube River in Eastern Europe with plans to roam around castles, listen to Mozart music, and discover cities that rivaled the architectural beauty of Paris.
Unfortunately, we learned that anti-Semitism is very much alive in 2012 and today’s Eastern Europeans can still emulate anti-Semitic attitudes that characterized pre-World War II Europe.
Starting in Prague’s Jewish Ghetto before making our way to the Danube, we marveled at how the city’s Jewish section has remained largely intact, although not as a Jewish “address.” Jews were expelled multiple times from here but the names of Holocaust victims are highlighted at the Pinkas Synagogue; at least semblances of Jewish life remain, if not an actual community to support it.
Our visit to nearby Terezin shocked us. Originally created as a fortified town in honor of Empress Maria Theresa in the late 18th century, Terezin provided Hitler with a ready-made concentration camp. The area is best known because of a Red Cross site visit during WWII, where the Reich staged soccer games, concerts, and other activities reflecting “normal” life. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of interred occupants at Terezinstadt were shipped to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
Within the memorial sections of the site, children’s drawings ripped our hearts out, these simple first-hand testimonies of the dehumanizing conditions and their hopeless fates. We felt chills as we toured a “hidden synagogue,” where Jews tried to uphold our sacred traditions even in the worst of conditions. The cramped, darkened space sent a harsh message about the conditions of our ancestors, almost too sad to be believed.
Even as we “heard the cries of our ancestors” in those cramped Terezin quarters; we were utterly shocked to witness the ballyhoo of a wedding on the grounds. In an area of so much suffering, historically recognized for the noxious role it played in our people’s extermination, an obviously non-Jewish couple chose to celebrate one of the happiest days of their life at what is now consider a “government venue” that hosts many communal events. How insensitive!
In Austria’s Salzburg, famous for “The Sound of Music,” we heard the defense that “Austria was Hitler’s first victim and that Austria was neutral.” While we knew that Hitler was Austrian, and that Germans marched in and overran the country, we expected more modern-day compassion rather than historical defensiveness. Because our daughter-in-law’s mother was born in a displacement camp outside Salzburg after World War II, we questioned our 30-year old guide about the non-Jewish farmer who hid her brothers. Our guide guardedly asked if we were Jewish, and then expressed surprise that anyone would have saved a Jewish family in those times!
As we moved through Eastern Europe, our eyes and ears opened wider, especially when we went to Vienna’s Jewish Quarter. Today nothing but edifices remains, a scant, touristy shadow of the formerly robust community. No synagogues, no kosher butchers, no schools … and very few Jews. We wandered the streets containing high-end apartment buildings where in the 1930s the most sophisticated, educated Jews lived, creating an intelligent culture full of revolutionary thinkers and artists. Three times, Vienna’s Jews were wiped out. Today there is almost nothing left of this formerly brilliant community. It brought chills to us.
But Budapest presented even more significant contrasts about what is today, and what once was. The Jewish Ghetto was barely more than a tourist destination, and at the Dohanny Synagogue, the second largest active synagogue building in the world, we were struck by the graves in the synagogue’s courtyard that the Nazis forced Jews to dig. We had received alerts about anti-Semitism in Budapest today but we had been unprepared for what we felt. That big, beautiful complex that could house so many worshippers; today, it is almost always empty.
Our middle-aged Jewish guide at the synagogue was afraid to talk about difficulties facing Jews today. Coincidentally, a 97-year old Nazi who killed 16,000 Jews at the end of WWII and has been living openly – thanks to the help of other Hungarians – was outed while we were in Budapest and is only under house arrest. What about those who hid him after the war ended and their complicity?
We have visited other countries in Eastern Europe and Russia but our thoughts returned to lessons we need to remember: man’s inhumanity to others has all-too-often focused on Jews. How easily we live today in the U.S.! We take our lives and safety for granted and forget to remember our jeopardy as Jews … even in the best of times and in the best of places.
May we all understand and be reminded of our place in history, even in the 21st century and in America.
Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp; EHL Consulting Group Blog: biggiver.wordpress.com