Words and Photos by Elaine Chernov
I remember the exact moment when I reached the end of the idealized “Eurotrip” version of Europe and was entering into the more sobering part of my travels. I had just taken the S-bahn to a hostel in East Berlin, where I met my host, who showed me to the elevator.
“It only stops on the fourth and seventh floors,” he told me.
“I blame the Soviets for this,” I said with a laugh.
It didn’t occur to me until later that this was first time since I was 5 years old that I’d stepped into a Soviet landscape. My parents fled the USSR in 1989; I spent a sunny childhood—literally and figuratively—in Los Angeles. Though I remembered very little of my homeland,
I’d been well-versed my entire life in Communism and its terrors, thanks to my family.
East Berlin, therefore, was the perfect place for me to actualize the nightmares of my family’s past. Not only did it stand in contrast with the grandiose architecture of Western Europe, but you could also literally walk from What if World War II didn’t happen to Well, it did in a matter of minutes. I took a leisurely stroll through Unter den Linden, Berlin’s reconstructed Neoclassical Royal Bouvelard, which stretches from the Brandenburg Gate to the magnificent Museum Island. From there, I walked the entire length of Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly known as Stalinallee.
The ignorant utilitarianism of this grand boulevard quickly became overwhelming. Giant cement blocks—built as quickly and cheaply as possible—passed as buildings, standing high as to maximize their imposing stature. And to maximize their capacity. Numbers, not people, as my mother would say. This was high-Stalinist architecture personified: Bigger, cheaper, faster. Though I had grown up halfway around the world and had spent most of my adult life trying to unlearn it, it had become a familiar, yet uncomfortable, part of me.
I felt the same while walking through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. This was the first stop on the Tour de Holocaust—I should note here that I’m half-Jewish. The memorial covers an entire city block and features more than two-thousand concrete stelae that oscillate and wobble. It was a strange isolation as I walked through them. With only room for one person at a time, I paused at every corner, not knowing who—if anyone—would be around it. It felt a bit like watching The Pianist.
Peter Eisenman, the architect who designed the monument, purposely made it devoid of any symbolism, saying very little about it publicly. One thing he has mentioned is being inspired by some of the old Jewish quarters around Eastern Europe. I drew this connection, too, when I next paid a visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.
In Josefov, Prague’s old Jewish quarter, the cemetery had been in use since the beginning of the 15th Century. When the city refused to give the Jews any more land, they began adding more and more dirt, creating up to 12 layers of burials in some spots. One hundred thousand graves are in this tiny plot, with tombstones literally butting shoulders. It’s a truly sacred place.
Unlike many of the other cities I visited, Prague’s old Jewish quarter is filled with authentic old Jewish heritage and charm. As nice as this sounds, the reason for the preservation is appalling: Hilter intended to use it to create an “Exotic Museum to the Extinct Race.”
But people don’t come to Prague to be depressed! They come to party, to drink Pilsner, to enjoy the post-Communist economy with their Western Dollars! So, that evening, over a beer with a sweet, local Jewish girl named Dominicka, I struggled to find the best way to ask how her family had survived. “My grandfather was one of the children saved by Nicholas Winton,” she said. Even as I was trying to drown the past in a pint, I was talking to the grandchild of one of the 669 children rescued from Czechoslovakia by the British humanitarian. Running from the past wasn’t working.
This wasn’t the only time during the trip I’d met a fellow Jew. It happened over Sukkot—a week-long holy festival—while in Budapest. There I shared a hostel with an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem. He invited me out for a traditional Sukkot lunch where I met a handful of Jews from around the world. They all spoke to each other in Hebrew, only making small talk with me in broken English. Our conversations ended with them saying how much they enjoy Budapest and, even though they are just passing through, that it still feels like home.
How could these Jews feel at home when nearly one-half million Hungarian Jews were murdered here less than a decade ago? My shock quelled when I learned that Jewish tombstones had been found in Hungary dating back to the 3rd Century—a full six centuries before Hungarians ever settled there. Unlike the rest of Europe, they had reason to feel at home.
It’s no wonder, then, that Budapest boasts one of the largest synagogues in the world, the Dohány Street Synagogue, a unique Moorish Revival building with some strangely Christian attributes. Adjacent to the synagogue is the birthplace of Theodore Herzl, the father of political Zionism and the State of Israel. There’s also a cemetery for the people of the Jewish Ghetto who died during the occupation, as well as the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs—a beautiful, steel weeping willow that doubles as an upside-down menorah whose leaves are printed with the names of Holocaust victims.
I didn’t just mourn the past in Budapest, though. I also looked intently to the future; which is why I bought a 500 Forint (roughly US $2.50) balcony ticket to the opera. The Hungarian State Opera is one of the most stunning buildings in the city. Its interior alone is easily worth the price of admission. After a lovely performance of Simon Boccanegra, the audience erupted in a bizarrely in-sync slow clap that gradually got faster while staying in-sync. Similar ovations took place after each performer. I leaned over to the young Hungarian girl who made small talk with me during intermission and asked why everyone was clapping like that. “It’s left over from Communism,” she said. “It’s how everyone was taught to clap—all together, as one—whenever politicians spoke, to show their support. It stuck, especially with a lot of the old people.”
Though there’s only one official Soviet monument left in Budapest—the rest have been safely stowed away and are available for viewing in Memento Park—there are still some relics of the past that have proven difficult for Hungarians to shake. Despite receiving the universal health care that their high taxes provide, doctors and nurses regularly take bribes. I spoke with a woman in her forties that didn’t bribe the hospital when she delivered her first child, learned her lesson, and brought envelopes of cash when she was ready to have her second.
Nevertheless, Budapest is a gorgeous city that managed to survive the war and the Soviet occupation that followed. Another city I visited—Kraków, Poland—had similar fortunes. The Germans spared its destruction because it was to become part of German territory. Kraków has a beautiful central square, a hilltop with a castle, and an old Jewish Quarter that has become the trendy part of town. While nearly all of Poland is now ethnic Poles, it’s suddenly hip to be Hebrew. From what I gathered, finding out that one of your grandparents used to have a Jewish last name is the street cred equivalent of touring with Skrillex.
Kraków is also home to Oskar Schindler’s factory, now a museum, as well as part of the old Ghetto wall, which, in a bizarre example of foreshadowing, is shaped like a row of traditional, round Jewish tombstones. In 1942, some of the residents were deported to nearby labor camps, some were killed in the streets, and most were sent to Auschwitz.
I visited the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camps the following day. Neither words nor pictures can do what I saw justice. I will say, however, that everyone should visit and pay their respects at some point in their lives. The systematic and efficient genocide that happened there is unimaginable. I spent several days and sleepless nights afterwards, though, trying to imagine it. It took 20 minutes to murder 2,000 people in the gas chambers. There were four gas chambers running at a time.
Unlike Kraków, Warsaw was almost completely destroyed by the war. Everything there is reconstructed, but the most beautiful place I visited was the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery. It’s one of the largest in Europe, sprawling 83 acres. It’s a bit like going on a hike in the city, but amongst the overgrown trees are countless tombstones. It’s been in use since the early 18th Century, but its post-war abandonment has left it in a very slow-paced state of rehabilitation thanks to private organizations and donors from around the world. It also contains mass graves from the Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
I had very little luck finding much else in Warsaw left from the thriving Jewish culture that once was. It wasn’t just the Holocaust that left no trace; Stalin similarly erased religion from the Soviet bloc’s story, including my family. Most of what I know about my people comes from movies or mere chance. My dad married a non-Jew. My grandmother only spoke Yiddish in private. Later, my dad told me I had a great, great grandfather who was a rabbi. But all of that seemed to end completely with my generation.
The entire trip left me with a very heavy heart. I found it hard to enjoy cheap drinks while contemplating how the Jewish tradition had been systematically wiped out from my family. Undeterred, I did leave inspired to learn about my history, with my eyes more open and with a more honest view of who I am today—a Jew trying to remember, a Russian trying to forget, an American trying to reach the next destination on her endless itinerary.