Shadows of war

I am not a good student of history but during my travels I learn more about the world and its past horrors. Hungary has its own share of sadness and this is evident in every corner of the capital city.

One of the most poignant memorials to World War Two and the price that Hungarian Jews payed is a series of 60 pairs of bronze cast shoes along the bank of the Danube. From formal work brogues to tiny children’s shoes, they stretch out along the river.

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Conceived by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer the installation commemorates the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest.

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They were ordered to take off their shoes, line up and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were washed away.

Later on we visit the Jewish Ghetto area of Budapest and see another memorial to Jewish families who perished.

Next to the Central Synagogue (Nagy Zsinagóga) is the Weeping Willow Memorial in the Synagogue’s garden of remembrance.

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Designed by Imre Varga, each of the weeping willow’s leaves bears the names of some of the 600,000 Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

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Made of silver and stainless steel it echoes the shape of an upside down Menorah – the seven armed candelabra that is the symbol of Judaism.

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It seems that the legacy, controversy and misrepresentations of the truth of what happened to the Hungarian Jews, lives on, with protesters decrying a new memorial that is currently being built.

The Freedom Square monument will pay tribute to “all Hungarian victims with the erection of the monument commemorating the tragic German occupation and the memorial year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust,” according to the Hungarian Government Information Center.

However Jewish organizations and historians say the new memorial absolves Hungarians of their active role in carrying out the deportations of Jews to Nazi death camps.

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Protestors have set up their own shrines to lost loves ones, with personal items such as photographs, shoes and clothes, in front of the new memorial site. These are constantly removed only for them to be rebuilt.

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Some 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust, almost all after the German occupation began on March 19, 1944.

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Haunting faces and abandoned cases

Once inside the imposing brick buildings that seem so innocent from the outside there are several devastatingly simple displays.

One room is completely empty except for a glazed section that runs from one end to the other.  Behind the glass, from floor to ceiling, is an immense mountain of human hair.

Another room houses piles upon piles of suitcases, taken from the prisoners. Many are marked with the star of David, others poignantly say “mit kinder”.

Mounds of spectacles gaze blankly out at you from another while endless shoes are a silent testimony to the thousands of people who, once incarcerated, never walked out of the death camps.

Another of the buildings contains a corridor lined with endless black and white photographs of prisoners. All in the regulation striped uniform, all with roughly shaven heads.

The women seem particularly to have been callously treated, their hair, once a crowning glory now stripped to degrade and humiliate them.

It is a gallery of despair, where every pair of eyes is a mute plea for mercy that never came.

The horror of Auschwitz is not immediately tangible when you walk through the gates, it was not the instant cloying weight, the punch to the stomach that I thought it would be.

It gradually builds, with each room, each exhibit, each photograph.

By the time you end up in the gas chamber, the ultimate symbol of evil, it feels difficult to breathe, your eyes have taken in too much but not really comprehended. It is only later that you cry.

Inhumanity and revisionists.

As you pass under the infamous metal archway that serves as the hideously iconic entrance to Auschwitz 1 you begin to notice the barbed wire that winds its way around the perimeter and the watch towers that are positioned about the camp.

The lines of brick buildings are neatly spaced and perfectly preserved. Taken out of context they would give no hint of the inhumanity that they represent.

The site for the camp had originally served as Austrian army and later Polish army artillery barracks so the brick buildings are solid looking and done with some care.

The first prisoners arrived in May 1940 but by March 1941 nearly 11,000 people were imprisoned there, most of them Poles.

On September 3, 1941, an experiment was carried out on Russian POWs and Polish inmates when they were gathered in the basement of Block 11 – known to the prisoners as the death block – and gassed with Zyklon B.

Following this first extermination a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed and operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed before it was deemed not efficient enough. The Nazi’s then constructed Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau with its four huge gas chambers.

The majority—probably about 90%—of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This means around a million people. The majority, more than nine out of every ten, were Jews.

The gas chamber in Auschwitz 1 was destroyed but later reconstructed after the war and it was here that the feeling of dread was palpable.

The low ceiling room is blackened and claustrophic with holes in the roof where the Zyklon B was dropped into the room. The crematorium, with its reinstated ovens is a place where it still feels hard to breathe.

There is an going debate about the authenticity of Auschwitz 1’s chamber and crematorium by so called “historic revisionists” ie Holocaust deniers. These same people deny the existence of any gas chambers at all in any of the camps.