I haven’t written in a few weeks because it has taken me awhile to reflect on all I have learned and experienced in the past month regarding the Holocaust. The task of trying to summarize what I've seen, read, and heard, and share about it respectfully and appropriately, has been daunting. It’s hard to put everything into words, but this is my best effort.
The Hungarian Holocaust
One afternoon while my parents were visiting last month was spent learning about Jewish history in Budapest and particularly learning about the Holocaust. We first reflected on the Holocaust memorial shoes along the Danube, in memory of the Jewish victims shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. We then made our way to the Jewish district and to the Dohány Street Synagogue (or The Great Synagogue). It is the second largest synagogue in the world and my first time ever visiting one.
The Synagogue has a clear Catholic influence, as the Jews who built it were looking to be accepted by their Catholic neighbors, show respect for Christianity, and blend in. However all hope of acceptance and co-habitation was lost with the beginning of the 20th century. Due to a variety of factors, including deep anti-Semitism and resentment towards Jews, Hungary’s history of defeat and desire to regain territory, and Hungary’s complicity with the Nazis and their goal of Jewish extermination, Hungarian Jews in particular suffered during the Holocaust and nearly 600,000 lives were lost (1).
Prior to deportations to Auschwitz, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter surrounding the Great Synagogue was walled up and became a ghetto. Many Jews lost their lives here due to poor conditions, starvation, and disease before they even made it to Auschwitz. Unlike most synagogues, the Great Synagogue has a cemetery and memorial marking the mass grave of over 2,000 Jews who died in the ghetto. A bit past the cemetery there is a Holocaust Memorial Garden with a large, metal weeping willow with the names of victims etched on the leaves. There are additional artistic monuments as well as a symbolic grave honoring the handful of Gentiles who risked their lives to save their persecuted neighbors. One such hero is Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who used his position to save over 60,000 Jews during the war.
My parents made it over the pond at the end October and after a stop in London, flew to Budapest to spend fall break with me. We spent the first part of the week in Croatia and the last part in Budapest. It was a blessing to have them here and to explore Croatia for the first time, but also to give them a glimpse into my world in Budapest. Traveling over break, plus an awareness of how quickly my semester abroad is flying by, has also led me to confront my increasingly splintered heart and the difficulty that comes with loving too many places too deeply.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
At the Budapest airport we picked up a car and headed to Zagreb, Croatia (with a stop at the lovely Lake Balaton along the way). We walked around Zagreb that night and the next day drove to Plitvice Lakes National Park, and as Rick Steves describes it, “a European Niagara Falls, diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon" (1). Despite the overcast, chilly day, and some flooding, it was a blast to discover the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice, often being able to get up close to the water on the park’s series of boardwalks.
When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatian Serbs rebelled and within a few months held roughly one third of the country. The fighting resulted in nearly a half-million internally displaced people (IDPs), with Croats fleeing Serb-held territory and Serbs fleeing Croatian territory. On the way to and from Plitvice, we drove through numerous small, agrarian villages that still bear the wounds of the war, even two decades later. Several of the homes and buildings had bullet holes in them and many were abandoned, overgrown with grass and with gaping openings where doors and roofs used to be. Although I only got a very brief glimpse, the villages in Croatia reminded me of our experience in Bosnia earlier this semester – with a similar level of development and scars from the war still apparent. In addition to the natural splendor of Croatia, I’m glad I was able to see this side of the country and its history too.
Every week on the Calvin College Hungary Semester looks a bit different; days are filled with spontaneity and weekends are often spent traveling. Since most of the students in our group are taking different classes and we are placed at various service-learning locations, all of us have different schedules too. Nevertheless I want to give you a glimpse into life here in Budapest and the routine I have found myself in.
9-10 AM – I join YWAM Budapest for their weekly base worship. Since I’m often out of town on Sundays, I love being able to visit YWAM, talk with the folks there, and have some time to worship and reflect before the week begins.
10:15 AM – I alternate every other week either meeting with my supervisor at my service-learning placement, Református Missziói Központ (RMK – Reformed Mission Center, an outreach to immigrants and refugees in Hungary), or meeting with two students from our partner university, Károli Gáspár, who want to improve their English.
3-4 PM – I meet with Luna, a young lady from RMK, to go over her English homework and practice conversing in English. Luna is from Bangladesh, but has lived all over the world. She's sassy and fun and i'm loving getting to know her!
5:20-6:50 PM – The History of Civilizations class I’m taking at our other partner university, Corvinus, meets. Corvinus is located along the Danube in the southern part of Pest and I love leaving class and seeing a gorgeous view of the Liberty Bridge and Gellert Hill at sunset.