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A matter of perception

I wasn’t born a Catholic, but I may as well have been. I was baptised into the faith of my father (and mother) and have grown up with the institution that is Roman Catholicism. I’ve had my lapses. I’ve had my doubts. And I have points on papal doctrine with which I simply don’t agree. I remind myself constantly that the RC church is a man-made institution, made by men and moulded to their liking.

When I was at school, the exploration of other religions was not discouraged – it was simply never mooted as a possibility. And back then, apart from the occasional Protestant (he who kicked with the left foot), my interaction with other faiths was minimal to the point of being non-existent.

IMG_2955 (800x600)My fascination with the Holocaust began when I  read the Diary of Anne Frank. It was there that I first came across the Star of David. I bought one for my travel bracelet when I was in Budapest back in 2003. And I felt quite guilty wearing it for a while – as I’m not Jewish and have no inclination to join that faith, I questioned my entitlement to wear one. I wondered, too,  if non-Christians suffered similar angst when deciding whether or not to wear a cross and chain. And then I figured that in this day and age, where brand logos trump most iconic religious symbols, mine might be one of a minority of minds through which this thought has passed.

IMG_2951In Terezín last week, seeing the Star of David standing in the shadow of a large cross gave me pause for thought. The Star of David had context. It stood as if an angel, guarding the 2386 graves of the National Cemetery. Thousands more are buried in mass graves; all in all, the remains of some 10 000 people lie there. When I went to find out why these two symbols might be practically cohabiting, I discovered that the cemetery was created after the War had ended. Victims exhumed from other graves were moved there: from mass graves at the forced labour camp at Litoměřice; from shared graves in Lovosice, from the communal cemetery in Terezín. Victims of a typhoid epidemic were also included.

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Some of the stones were marked with names, numbers, and lifespans; others had simply numbers. Row after row after row of them, each one a stark reminder of the inevitability of death and the randomness of its call.

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As if the town’s dead hadn’t suffered enough, in mid-April 2008, 327 bronze markers were stolen from the Jewish cemetery in Terezín;  700 more were stolen the next week. My first reaction when I read this: what depths people sink to. My second: what ends people are driven to. It’s all a matter of perception.

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2013 Grateful 39

I’d never given much thought to the difference between a concentration camp and an extermination camp until I visited Terezín, about 60km outside Prague, last weekend. It’s a fortress town, surrounded by walls, consisting of large barracks buildings dating back to the late eighteenth century. If ever a town was built to be a prison, this was it. Easy to guard, close to the railway, and it already had a police prison in the Small Fortress.

IMG_2962 (800x598)The grand plan was to isolate all Jews from the general population, concentrate them in a few places, and then send them eastwards to be terminated. Terezín fit the bill beautifully. The first lot of 324 Jews arrived from Prague on 24 November 1941. Their job was to prepare the town for the onslaught that was to follow. So many Jews arrived that on 16 February 1942, the original inhabitants were given till 30 June to leave.

In the years that followed, over 150 000 Jews would pass through the town of Terezín. Only 3600 would survive to bear witness to what went on there. There’s a fascinating article that tells of how many Jews voluntarily moved there, thinking the town was a gift from Hitler himself.

During the Second World War, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS, suggested this magnificent site for a city and spa to be called Theresienstadt and to be owned and governed by Jews. It would be protected exclusively by Czech police, with no SS troops nearby. This utopia would even have its own currency depicting Moses carrying the Ten Commandments. The Czech Jewish community, eager to inhabit their new city, worked beside the Germans to construct and prepare Theresienstadt. German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, declared this glorious region to be a gift to the Jews in recognition of their enormous contributions to Eastern European societies and in preparation for the life awaiting them in Palestine.

Yet the horror of what was happening soon became clear. At the Small Fortress, I watched a short propaganda movie that showed how easy it is to believe what we want to believe. The figures it gives are horrendous. 19 000 + shipped out, 3 survived. 1000 shipped, 1 survived.

IMG_3020 (598x800)The Small Fortress is quite the spectacle. Originally built at the end of the eighteenth century, it reminded me a lot of the fort at Komárom, except for the purpose to which it was put. From day one of its existence it was a prison. Franz Ferdinand’s assassin spent time inside its walls. As the Nazi’s kicked into gear, prison space was at a premium. The Gestapo moved in, in 1940, and by the time the war ended, some 32 000 prisoners would have graced it with their presence, including 5000 women.  For most, it was a temporary stop, but for some 2600, it was the end. Disease, living conditions and torture put paid to any hope they might have had of surviving.

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Well-mapped for tourists, everything is spelled out in stark detail. The numbered exhibitions clearly state, in concise English, what went on. The execution grounds, the bullet-ridden walls, the gallows from which three people were hanged – all testify to man’s inhumanity to man.

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I have the good fortune to live in a spacious apartment. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get my head around what it must have been like to share the same space with so many others. Numbers were etched into wooden bunk beds where people considered themselves fortunate to live, because to be alive was what mattered. Rows of hand basins in the ‘model barbershop’ were there to show how much the authorities valued hygiene.

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After a while, I  found myself thinking back to Auschwitz and to Dachau and to the remnants of the horrors I’d seen there. In comparison, Terezín was small potatoes. It wasn’t even a labour camp as such – it was, in effect, a Gestapo prison – a holding ground – which makes the inscription Arbeit macht frei a little unusual.

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STOP RIGHT THERE! Has it really come to this? Have I become so inured to atrocities that I find myself weighing the numbers and from my privileged vantage point coming out with thoughts like ‘small potatoes’? Sweet Mother of Divine Jesus, deliver me, and please tell me that it is just my way of coping with what I was seeing and hearing and reading and imagining.

I tell you, there’s nothing quite like a cold hard lump of steel to shake my reality. This statue, and others in the grounds, said far more than numbers ever could. And while numbers might have that initial grenade-type effect, it’s images like these that really hit home. May we be damned for eternity if we EVER allow something like this to happen again.

This week, I am grateful for those monuments to the past that serve as constant reminders of the fragility of human life, our propensity to abuse our power, and our reluctance to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice. Let them continue to remind us of our responsibilities as human beings.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

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Shifting geographical loyalties

Since I first left Ireland back in 1990, I’ve had two homes. ‘Home’ is wherever I happened to be living at a given moment in time; ‘home home’ is Ireland. (This double-word definition is something I use a lot – if you’re sick, you’ll recover, but if you’re sick sick, then the prognosis is a little more serious. If you’re broke, then you’re struggling to find the money for a pint at the weekend; if you’re broke broke, then it’s Raman noodles and water.)

Being Irish is a constant in my life – my North Star. It is the lens through which I see the world. It is the calibrating factor I use to measure my experiences, the people I meet, everything that happens to me. For years, I compared every city I lived in or visited to Ireland, or Dublin, or the village I come from. But this has changed.

Relocating

On a trip to Moldova back in 2011, I noticed for the first time that I am no longer comparing places to Ireland, but to Hungary – and not just to Hungary, but specifically to Budapest. While I might enjoy occasional bursts of intelligence, at times my dimwittedness surprises even me! It never dawned on me that in comparing, say, Dublin and Budapest, I was dealing in apples and oranges.

Yes, both are capital cities, but apart from literature, religion, and the virtues of their respective national cohort of mothers, it was a little like, well, comparing East and West, back in the days when the divide was more than a line on a map.

Revisiting

This change in geographical loyalty was driven home again last week when I spent a few days in Prague.

When I first visited Prague back in 2001, it compared very favourably to Dublin. Georgian Dublin was no match for the spires of Prague; the narrow streets of Smithfield were no match for Prague’s Old Town; gentrified Dublin was no match for Prague’s more cosmopolitan style. I was impressed. Very impressed.

Yet since living more on than off in Budapest, I now see Prague through a different lens.  On paper, the two cities look fairly alike. In fact, if you picked up a map of both and laid them side by side, it’s quite interesting to see just how similar they are. They’re both divided by a river (Danube/Vltava). Both have an island in the middle (Margaret Island/Slovanský Island). Both have castle districts on the posher side (although Prague has an actual ‘castle’ castle in its district). The food is not dissimilar, the currency is just as foreign, and to my uncultured taste buds, beer is beer.

Re-evaluating

And yet the two cities are as different as any two cities can be. Scratch the surface and there’s little to compare. To my mind, Budapest is by far the better of the two. No question. I came to this conclusion in the metro of all places.

IMG_2862 (600x800)I’ve heard people visiting Budapest complain that the metro stairs are way too fast to be safe. I think the 2.1 minutes it takes to rise from the bowels of Széll Kálmán tér a little long so I didn’t understand their concerns. But in Prague, I felt myself age each time I took the metro. Its escalators are so slow in comparison. I reckon your average Prague commuter would gain about 10 minutes a day if they had the same commute in Budapest. But I’d doubt they’d be concerned. The city seems to lack that sense of urgency that can pervade Budapest at times. Perhaps it’s because everyone there is, literally, on holiday.

The one thing missing in Prague that you find in abundance in Budapest are locals. Prague seems to be overrun by tourists. Perhaps it’s because the streets are narrower that they seem more obvious, all squashed in together like bunioned feet into tight-fitting shoes.  Mind you, and perhaps as a direct result of this influx of foreign masses, Prague has a fashion sense that Budapest lacks. With a notable absence of second-hand clothes shops, your average woman looks like she’s dressed to go somewhere. Mind you, if said woman is not local, then perhaps I’m back to apples and oranges again.

Reconciling

The city’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, is on record as having said: Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws. And yet for all its style, Prague simply doesn’t do it for me in the way that Budapest does.

Admittedly, Budapest will never be in my blood the way Prague ran through Kafka’s veins. That said, it’s very much in my head and my heart. I’m well past my sell-by date when it comes to having kids and I can’t see myself settling down and living happily ever after with someone whose mother tongue I barely understand, let alone speak fluently: my paranoia that his great-Aunt Dóra would spend family get-togethers talking incessantly about me would kill the relationship before our first pig roast. Anyway, as the blood bank doesn’t want my blood, the whole Budapest-in-blood issue has been nixed. But head and heart are another matter entirely.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 April 2013

 

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So … I might have been wrong

For years I’ve been rather mean to the city of Prague. Not because of anything it did to me or because of anything bad that happened while I was there. Yet since I’ve lived more on than off in Budapest, I’ve come to regard Prague as falling short in the beauty stakes in comparison. I’m mad about Budapest. Yes, she can be a cranky cow at times, and she has her drab and dreary days, but for the most part, she’s consistently stunning. Prague, on the other hand, didn’t leave any lasting memories with me other than the Charles Bridge and the difficulty in finding local spots with local people. She didn’t leave much of an impression. And all these years, I’ve been doing her a huge injustice.

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Given a clear sky on a cold night, she looks rather well. I’d even go so far as to say that there were a couple of ‘wow’ moments.

IMG_2855 (600x800)I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong (not from any heightened sense of fairness, mind you – I’d simply prefer not to give anyone else the satisfaction of pointing it out to me). So let this be a public confession. To everyone I advised to skip Prague in favour of Budapest, I stand my ground. While the competition might have gotten a little tougher, Budapest still gets my vote. To those to whom I offered Vienna, Bratislava, and Berlin as better alternatives, my apologies. I stand corrected.

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The one drawback about the city is still the number of tourists. Even at 8pm on a freezing night in March, the old town was packed to capacity. The eggshells on Charles Bridge were cracking under the weight of the footfall. Walking a straight line was practically impossible. At least this time though, the stag parties were notable by their absence. Back in 2002, Prague might just have been at the peak of its attraction and I’d say she’s relieved that the boys have moved on.

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There’s more to the Czech Republic than Prague

When I think Czech Republic, I think Prague. I did spend a couple of days in Kralupy once but that hardly qualifies as having seen the Czech countryside. Last weekend, I was in Valtice – a gorgeous Baroque town of about 4000 permanent residents and another 4000 cyclists [slight exaggeration for effect] who pass through on the weekends cyling the well-pedalled path between there and Lednice.

Valtice lies in the South Moravian region about 265 km south-east of Prague. Its claim to fame, in the history books, is as the seat of princes of Liechtenstain in the eighteenth century.   The castle is connected to the neighbouring manor of Lednice by a 7km avenue lined with lime trees. Alas, when the Habsburg empire collapsed, the princes lost their seats and when the Communists arrived, the castle was confiscated. Oh to have the power and take what you will – Like it? Want it? Seize it. Wonder how long it would take for the novelty to wear off?

It is a beautiful building and life here must have been nothing short of perfect. But to have it all and then to have it all taken from you – that has to hurt. To have been born into such riches and then lose them has to be difficult. It’s a little ironic to think that while our royals are thin on the ground these days, some of our monied nobels have of late found themselves in similar circumstances – having had it all and then lost it. I wonder what it is like to downsize from a multi-million-dollar home in the hills to a semi-detached in suburbia.

The Town Hall, like many of its kind, is quite a wonder. Built in Neo-renaissance style, it dates from 1887. Such a small town and yet such an imposing building. I’ve seen a lot of this in Hungary, too. Massive, ornate, impressive buildings built to house the town’s ruling class, symbols of power and wealth and perhaps, respect. Laughable that, when I think of the amount of respect I have for today’s rulers. Not enough to house them in a matchbox. How the tide has turned.

The town square is home to one of the first  Plague Columns built in Moravia. It dates back to 1680 and was built in thanks for the ending of the plague. The Virgin Mary (seen as the vanquisher of evil) stands atop, and on the bottom are four cardinal statues. I did have a fleeting thought as to what a modern-day equivalent would look like, were we to manage to banish the plagues afflicting our society – anti-Semitism, nationalism, racism…

The town centre of Valtice has been declared a national heritage site and has as its focal point, the parish church of the Annunciation of Mary which dates back to the seventeenth century. The lobby (if one can call it that) was open and then the entrance gated so you could see in but not get in. Another sad reflection of our times. Churches, once the refuge of sinners and sanctuaries for those in search of solitude and divine inspiration are now locked up and seen only through gridded gates. Perhaps if they divested themselves of their riches and once again became simple places of worship, there would be no need to lock them up.

Suitably chastened by my reflections, I went in search of  libation. This region is famous for its wines. And finding no-one in the wineshop who could speak English, I stood back and watched a local stock up for a party. Then I mimed my way through ‘Could I have one of everything he bought?’ and went away happy with my six bottles of vino just waiting to be discovered. Forget the ashtrays and the miniature plates – wine is the best souvenir you can bring home.

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Do you recognise this church?

I spotted this church down a side street as I hit upon downtown Valtice. I have trawled the Internet looking for some information and have failed to find anything. If you’re from the Czech Republic and know it, or know anyone who might know of it, perhaps you’d let me know. Am dead curious to know more about it. It has an amazing tiled roof  – something I’ve not seen before.

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Stealing sins in the Czech Republic

IMG_4104Oh Lord, give me such signs in every foreign country I visit and I will be happier (if that’s possible), and more relaxed, and less intimidated. I came across this sign in a  church in the Czech Republic a couple of weeks ago . Oddly enough, it was posted on the confessional box. You’re on camera! Steal and the police will come and take you away… but steal what? My sins?

I was in Kralupy, on the Vitava River for the 2009 European Scout Academy. About 130 of us descended on the town of 18,000 for five days – Tuesday to Sunday. Some came and went over the course of the event, others were there for the duration. Hard work this scouting (I kid you not).  We had full days of workshops and meetings (both formal and informal). It’s reallly something to see people from so many different backgrounds and cultures being brought together by a shared interest. And their ability to flit from one language to the other is mindboggling. The highlight for me was the International night when each country represented has its own table of food and drink and flags and books and whatnots. Everyone (but me, as I don’t have one…I’m a civilian volunteer, of sorts) was in uniform and only too keen to tell you something about where they’d come from. (As an aside: Israel is in the European Scout Region…so it’s not just me who has difficulty with ye olde geography?!) And again, Slovenia (see an earlier post) was the winner for me, although it wasn’t a competition. Those lads are really proud of where they’re from.

Anyway, despite that fact that a rather charming young fellah from Denmark suggested I might be a little too old to go on the planned pub crawl on the night off (can you imagine?), it was a lovely few days. I pointed out that a 60-strong crawl would be more like a hop… and a little hop at that. And sure enough, they managed two stops. Am I glad I stayed home? You bet.

Although only 15 miles North of Prague, I simply arrived and departed from there. I never quite got around to visiting the city again. I’ve IMG_4145been before and having recently discovered that the world’s travellers either prefer Budapest or Prague, my preference is pretty obvious. I did come across this other sign on a post office on my journey between train stations (Prague has six, and I tried three before I found my train to BP!) Comforting to know you have to leave your gun outside! And also this very evocative statue that would, in fairness, rival many of my favourites in Budapest.

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I delayed a little too long looking at this one and very nearly didn’t make my train. But it is something. To think that such heated emotion can be captured in such a cold material… maybe in my next life, I’ll give it a go.