Reflections on Auschwitz

It was a beautiful day at Auschwitz, and it didn’t make sense.

Not a lot of things made sense that day – not the blue sky or the gently warming sun, not the pleasant red brick of the buildings or the green grass or anything about Auschwitz, really. The existence of the place is beyond comprehension, but there it stands, just outside Krakow, Poland. If there’s one thing I understand after studying the Holocaust here, it’s that I cannot possibly understand the Holocaust. Yet there we all were, touring and trying to make sense of it all.

Auschwitz is a museum now, standing as a testament to the Nazi horrors that happened within its barbed-wire walls.  We were given headsets to better hear the voice of our guide, and she led us through the entrance gate and its wrought-iron lie: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Makes You Free.

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We walked through barracks that have been converted to multi-floor museum rooms, displaying things like Nazi documents, prisoner uniforms, and maps of Europe showing the far reaches of the continent from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz. We saw photos taken illegally of people who had just arrived on rail cars to the nearby extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.  One photo shows a line of young children, just after the selection process. I realized with a jolt that they are walking toward the gas chamber. “On the way to death,” the caption reads.

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Part of the museum is devoted to displaying the masses of items stolen from the prisoners by the Nazis. The Jews deported to Auschwitz didn’t know where they were going to, and were encouraged to bring their suitcases; now hundreds of those trunks are stacked to the ceiling behind glass display cases. Some have the owner’s name painted on: Klara, Franz, Margaret, Sara. I wondered what they were like, these forgotten people, lost in the commas of seven-digit casualty statistics.

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The masses of stolen items are breathtaking. There is the famous room of shoes, each of its walls a display case stretching as far as you can see, with mountains of deteriorating shoes behind its glass. Elsewhere is a pile of eyeglasses, some pairs gut-wrenchingly small – toddler-sized.  Another huge display holds two tons of hair, shaved from the heads of the prisoners to make cloth and pillows for German soldiers. Standing in that room, I could not cry, but a  heaviness pressed on me and it was suddenly hard to breathe. I couldn’t look away.

At the conclusion of the first part of our tour, before we took the bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we stepped into a small gas chamber. Sunlight streamed in from holes in the ceiling through which poison gas canisters had once been thrown. The walls were concrete, and somebody had left flowers on the floor. We stepped out, boarded the bus, and nobody spoke for half an hour. I guess sometimes there are no words.

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At Birkenau I walked the very train platform where hordes of prisoners were dropped off and sorted into two groups: those who would live, and those who would die. The expansive, 600-barrack camp was half-destroyed by fleeing Nazis who tried to burn the evidence of their crimes at the end of the war. But we could see the rubble of the giant, destroyed crematoria, looking eerie in the afternoon sun. “A million bodies were burned here,” our guide reminded us. “You are walking on the ashes of thousands of people.”

Visiting Auschwitz was difficult. It was heartbreaking, disturbing, and confusing. There are decades between me and the things that happened there, and it was hard to escape the detachment I felt from everything. The weather was nice, the air was calm. I wondered if I should have been crying, if there was something wrong with me for feeling almost numb to the place. But my friend James said it well when he pointed out, “It’s not about what I felt. It’s about what happened to them.” I didn’t go to Auschwitz to feel something; I went to see and learn and try to understand; to connect, in some distant, terribly incomplete way, with the people who suffered there; to give the victims my respect by acknowledging their suffering. As my professor Peggy put it, “We’re witnesses now.”

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The Darker Side

History has never felt so real.

For our Eastern European culture class, we read a memoir called Castles Burning, written by Magda Denes, who was a Jewish child in occupied Budapest in 1944. Her family survived Nazi roundups by hiding in attics and safe havens, on streets that, today, are just a few metro stops from where I live. After four months hiding in a basement, Magda’s family emerged to find their city a smoldering ruin. The Budapest that I now call home barely existed after the war.

Learning about the Holocaust in the past, I could always think about it having happened in Other Places. But here I am, and here it was. Last week on a tour of the city’s Jewish Quarter we visited a tiny courtyard, tucked behind a synagogue, where over 2,000 Jews are buried. Most remain unidentified. They are the casualties of Budapest ghetto, which was active during the last three months of the war. A mass grave, hidden in the middle of the city.

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In America, war is fought in distant lands, and the Holocaust filters in through books and imported museum artifacts. Here, the memories are real and tangible: in bullet holes on the sides of buildings; in the preserved stones of the ghetto wall; in long-lost names etched on memorial plaques.

Across from the Parliament, near the river’s edge, sits a small memorial called Shoes on the Danube. Sixty pairs of iron shoes, cast in the style of the 1940’s, sit on the sidewalk, pointing toward the water. High-heeled shoes, children’s shoes, work shoes so real you feel you could step into them and walk away. The memorial is for the hundreds of people who were arrested in 1944 by the occupying Nazis and marched to the Danube. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and they were shot into the water. One of them was Magda Denes’ brother.

Photo credit: Nikodem Nijaki

Budapest is full of beauty to reveal, but beneath the postcard panoramas simmer the memories of a dark history. That history is becoming more of a reality the longer I’m here, though I’ve barely scratched its surface. Tomorrow, our group leaves for Poland. We will see castles, cathedrals, and the beautiful city of Krakow. But then we will tour Auschwitz concentration camp, a place that till now has only seemed like a nightmarish story. I’m nervous, but I will try my best to grasp something it’s impossible to grasp, to understand what I know is beyond comprehension. It’s a privilege to be able to learn about these things right where they happened, where the past is ever-present.

Hajra, Budapest!

“Öt, négy, három, kettő, egy!” With shouts and cheers, the 29th Budapest Half Marathon began.

The 12,000 runners and I made up a huge, churning body of people waiting to start. Races cultivate a sort of kinship among their participants, as we’re all there to fight toward the same goal. Even at the start during the 10-minute wait until our wave could begin, I felt a surging fondness for the runners around me. For the first time I didn’t feel like a foreigner  here – as I joined the countdown in Hungarian, I felt like a true part of this place.

My adrenaline was rushing as, together, we surged forward, and all around me spectators clapped and whistled. This is why I love racing, I thought, as at last I crossed the start line.

Budapest is a fantastic city to race in. Where else can you gaze at copper-domed palaces and stone-spired churches, run in the shadow of nation’s parliament, and cross Europe’s second-longest river–twice!–on 150-year-old bridges that survived WWII?

The first time I ran a half marathon, my end time was everything to me. But today, I picked a pace that was comfortable and decided not to worry about time, but simply enjoy the sights and experience. And I did. I waved at by-standers, smiled for cameras, high-fived dancing cheerleaders, and pounded the air to the music playing - especially even when it was “Gangnam Style.” Along the way locals played music for us: from percussion bands to a bagpiper to a lone man beating a keg with sticks. All around, spectators cheered, “Hajra! Hajra!” All of Budapest seemed to have come out in support.

Twelve thousand is an unbelievable number of runners. We moved not as individuals but as herds, rushing tides of legs and pumping arms. It’s hard to pass one person without running into three others. But as you dart and dodge your way through the melee, you see racers of all shapes and sizes: old, bent men; lithe, tiny women; a few people in wheelchairs; even a father pushing twins in a double stroller. A pair of guys wore cloth viking hats with “Czech Republic” emblazoned on them, representing one of the 54 countries from which people came to run.

I was tempted, only once, to yell “U-S-A! U-S-A!” However, I refrained.

Most of our route was along the Danube, so there was no shade. The sun beat down; the heat was 80 degrees Fahrenheit. But every few kilometers was a refreshment station where race attendants handed out drinks. Hundreds of already-used plastic cups crunched underfoot as I gratefully downed water and Gatorade.

(Note that “downed” here means “sloshed in the general direction of my mouth but mostly up my nose and down my shirt.”)

Signs by the road informed the runners how far we had gone (in kilometers, of course!) When I saw that I only had 5 kilometers to go, I realized I was feeling pretty good – and that was a bad thing. In my half marathon last year, I felt like I was going to drop dead by this point. “I don’t feel nearly enough like going into cardiac arrest right now. That means I need to go faster.” So I did.

Fellow runners will know that when you’re approaching the finish, nothing takes longer to appear than the actual finish line. The walls of spectators and sea of runners ahead seems to go on forever. “I feel like I might die,” I thought. “But I better run faster till I’m sure.”

The finish line finally appeared, and as I finally crossed I put my arms up and cheered. I didn’t fall over, and I didn’t die. All around me runners were finishing, and we gasped, clutched our sides, and grinned. The crowd of finishers smelled like B.O. and triumph.

It was a great day, all in all. My pace was faster than 10 minutes per mile, which is what I’d been hoping for. I guess it works out to just enjoy the run and let the finish take care of itself. Hajra, Budapest!

Can you find me??

all photos courtesy of http://www.budapestmarathon.com/en/halfmarathon/pictures/

note: I can’t find a direct definition for “hajra” (google translate seems to think it means “hair”), but a few sources have described it as being equivalent to “Hooray!” “Bring it on!” or “Tally-ho!” So there you have it.

Here I am!

Wow, guys.

It’s been two weeks since I moved to a big, strange city with nineteen classmates, but it already feels like ages. The city feels like home now; the classmates are now my friends. Soon school will start – two classes at nearby universities, two led by our Calvin professor – and I’ll be just another student studying in Budapest. The surreality has passed, and it’s finally real to me: this is where I live now.

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After we arrived at the Budapest airport, a shuttle took us to our new home. Our dorm is an old, four-story Kollegium with chipping paint and wood floors. A four-digit code grants us entry through the front gate, and a long sidewalk leads to the lobby where a security guard sits 24/7. We were told the rules of the dorm: no alcohol inside, no loud noise after ten. Give your room key to the guard before you leave.

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My room is actually a sort-of apartment: eight girls live in one space which is like three connected rooms, and another two live next door. The ten of us share two bathrooms, and the kitchen for all 20 Calvin students is just down the hall. When we arrived, I quickly filled all my shelves with books and clothes, plugged in my laptop (with a European adapter!) and settled into my gloriously long bed. Being in the big room is great because I get to hang out with the maximum amount of cool girls in one place!

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Our first full day here we dove into the city for one of the biggest Hungarian celebrations of the year commemorating St. Stephen, the king who brought Christianity to Hungary in the year 1000. (We tried asking Hungarians for more details about the holiday, but they didn’t seem to know much about the history—perhaps they’re not so different from Americans in this regard…) We watched a procession where the shriveled dead hand of St. Stephen was presented in an ornate box in front of the Basilica (!?!), climbed what felt like a thousand steps up Gellert Hill to enjoy a beautiful panorama of the city,  and enjoyed fireworks in a downtown park.

What else have we done? There’s so much to talk about! Our first weekend was spent in Keszthely, a cute tourist town by Lake Balaton, just thirty miles from Budapest. We’re nearly done with our three-week-long crash course in the baffling Hungarian language (more on that later!) We enjoyed a concert of Hungarian and Transylvanian folk music in Europe’s largest synagogue. We’ve explored the city, visiting the basilica, bridges, churches, and countless cafés. By now we know where all the best grocery stores and bakeries are near our dorm, which trams to take to get across the river, and which post offices have English-speaking clerks. We’ve spent nights out and nights in, had awkward and successful encounters with locals, been yelled at in subway stations, and bought countless gyros and pastries. I feel like I’m beginning to know this city, yet there is still infinitely more to discover. But I love it here, and I’m ready to dive into the next four months. I promise there are many more details to come about this fantastic place!

Leavin’ on a jet plane

The week before leaving I was so busy last-minute shopping, planning, and packing that I barely had time to stop and think about what was happening. My mind was a swarm of half-remembered checklists and suitcase-space calculations. Is nine shirts too many? How do I pack for two seasons? Should I bring my teddy bear? Why do all my socks have holes in them? SHOOT WHERE’S MY PASSPORT?! Friday morning I checked it all a million times, and decided that I had everything I needed.

(I didn’t. I forgot toothpaste.)

Before leaving Vassar I hugged my cat and gave my mom a preliminary goodbye, as she would be meeting me in a few days at the airport to drive my car back home. I spent my last weekend in Grand Rapids, enjoying time with some good friends and, in between, having a few hardcore panic sessions in my car. But by the time I got to Gerald Ford Airport Sunday afternoon, I was calm and ready. I met with the Calvin folks, joined in a group prayer, hugged my mom, and set off.

We flew from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis, and from there at 10pm we boarded a huge, 8-seat-wide plane to Amsterdam. During that flight I had a delicious warm pasta dinner, failed to get any sleep, and watched Die Hard 5 on the seatback screen. The Delta-provided earbuds were so bad that the movie’s explosions sounded like quaint popping sounds.  Sadly they didn’t offer Die Hard 2, but that might be because the movie features a number of airplanes exploding.

I had squeezed Rachael’s hand to commemorate our takeoff from American soil, and later I celebrated our landing on European soil by vomiting spectacularly into a barf bag, much to the chagrin of the Dutch family sitting next to me. I was feeling pretty rough, and after we got off the flight I was so pale, shaky and dead-looking that the laid-back guy at Amsterdam Customs looked at my passport photo and said “Is this you?” I smiled weakly at him and tried not to pass out.

Another three-hour layover later, we finally boarded the tiny plane for our final flight. The attendant spoke to us in Hungarian, English, and French. This confirmed my suspicions that everyone in Europe is multi-lingual and way smarter than me. Two hours later we began descending toward Budapest, and I gazed excitedly out the window as my new home grew closer. The Danube was the only thing I recognized in a sea of strange buildings, roads, and block-like apartment buildings. A city cemetery seemed to stretch for miles.

We finally reached the runway. The plane wheels hit the pavement, and soon we came to a stop. “Üdvözöljük Magyarországon,” said the flight attendant. “Welcome to Hungary.”

Why?

“Why are you going to Hungary?” If you’ve talked to me about my trip, you probably asked me that question. And I probably mumbled a generic answer: It’s a good program. I’ve always wanted go to to Europe. It’s open to students of any major. It just sounds really, really cool.

In reality, I don’t have a definite answer for why I’m going. But here I am, about to embark on this grand, mysterious adventure on another continent, to live in a country where only 20% of people speak my language. My general thoughts about the trip haven’t gone much past “This is going to be awesome.”

The hope for an awesome semester abroad has been keeping me going all summer. But as the trip date approached, nervousness settled in. I’m not going back to Calvin. I’m not going to see my best friends. I’m not going to be there when my new niece is born. I will be completely lost in this big, strange city. Excitement faded into anxiety, and my adventurous, dive-in nature melted into pessimistic over-thinking. What am I doing? This is crazy. It was hard to hold back tears as I said a dozen heartfelt goodbyes.

At one point during preparations my mom said offhand to me, “I think you’re going to be the one in our family who just lives in a foreign country her whole life.” I brushed off her comment. I don’t want to move to Hungary, I said. I’m too much of a homebody to leave my country for good. But that’s the Me of today saying that. Who knows if I’ll still feel that way in four months? In fact, who knows who I’ll be in four months?

I’m going to have a good time in Hungary. I will see beautiful sights and meet great people and go to cool places. But I will also have my eyes opened to ways of thinking that are different from mine. I’ll spend a significant portion of every week tutoring kids in ESL and I’ll learn about the darker parts of Central European history. Separated from the place and people I’m comfortable with, I will get a chance to re-define myself in new terms, to discover what’s truly important to me, in a new place where I’ll live much more independently than I have before.

I’ve spent so much time looking forward to the fun things that I’ve forgotten to realize that I won’t be the same Laura when I come back. In a small way or a big way, I will be changed. There are new passions, new perspectives, new ways of life to discover here. Perhaps I will fall in love with this place in ways I never thought possible. Perhaps I really will move here someday. How do I know what the future holds?

This is all pretty vague, because I still don’t know why I’m really going to Hungary or what’s in store for me there. But God knows, and I believe he will be working in me through everything. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the great Potter’s wheel can spin anywhere, and it will most certainly be spinning in Budapest, Hungary.

A post of introduction

I could not think of a title for this blog.

It took me a while to even come to terms with the idea of blogging, to be honest. Partly because I sort of hate the word “blogging.” But I don’t often think I have a whole lot to say, and when I do, the words come out in murmurs and directionless rambles that don’t sound nearly as good as they do in my head. I suppose that through careful writing I can make myself look smarter. I do know a lot of big words, after all. But when trying to think of a smart-sounding, deep and meaningful title for the blog that will chronicle the sure-to-be-amazing experiences of my next four months and beyond, I was stumped. My cool friends all have cool-sounding blogs with titles like “Searching for a Great Perhaps” or “The World Spins Madly On” or “Introverted Girl in an Extroverted World,” but all I could come up with for mine were dumb puns. But I think that’s okay.

I am an aficionado of many things silly and serious, and I’m not going to try and trick you into expecting deep and meaningful thoughts in all my posts. As I travel and write, my main emotions will probably just be “Excited” and “Whoah,” and you can expect a lot of exclamation points at the end of my sentences. Of course, some serious reflection will be mixed in when I can make sense of my thoughts.

Underneath my blog title is a quote from my favorite poem by T. S. Eliot: “Let us go, then, you and I…” I figured an Eliot quote would counteract the “Hungary Like the Wolf” joke and raise the sophistication level of my blog from the negative range to at least neutral. But I also think the words fit with what I’m about to do. In the poem, called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator tries to describe all the cool things he wants to do, but he gets distracted and never does any of them. He is paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and fear. Like J. Alfred, it’s easy for us to avoid doing anything in life. I tend to fall into a pattern of people and places and experiences I’m comfortable with, and I become too passive to try anything new. Living in Hungary is going to provide a nice roundhouse kick to all my normalcy and force me out of that cozy niche I’ve found. It’s scary, but absolutely thrilling.

I promise I won’t quote much more poetry at you, but I honestly can’t wait to share all my experiences with anyone who will listen and read through my rants. Let us go then. Let’s do this! I’m ready.